This research paper explores the theme of self-representation in the work of Indigenous creative artists. Alexis Wright and Lin Onus were chosen for the purpose of research since these two creative artists achieved the popularity and acclaim in Australia and overseas, signifying that they both succeeded in creating literature and art on the basis of the indigenous life experience and education and made a contribution to their respective fields. Alexis Wright is a representative of the Waanyi people, a novelist, educator and activist who received numerous awards for her literary work (‘Australian Literature Database’ 2015). Lin Onus was an artist and essayist who was of Koori descend and the first Koori artist to host the world touring exhibition (Grossman 2013, p. ix).
THE WORK BY ALEXIS WRIGHT AND LIN ONUS AS THE SITE OF SELF-REPRESENTATION THAT EXPRESSES DIFFICULT AUSTRALIAN HISTORIES
The Indigenous creative artists who speak from the perspective of their own lives and conceptions also speak on behalf of the Aboriginal people and are their voice on the literary and art scenes. On the one hand, they are challenged to express the difficulties surrounding the Aboriginal culture, race, poverty and isolation (Healy 1988; Grossmann 2003). On the other hand, they can depict a “renewed sense of identity” (Healy 1988, p. 81) and create the view of the Aboriginal people as visible and equal participants of the society. Depending on their creative choices and the strength of their voices, the self-representation of the Aboriginal people can be re-formulated and adapted.
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The research paper is based on the review and critical analysis of the work by Alexis Wright and Lin Onus, their bibliographical accounts and the writings on the Aboriginal literature and art, with the purpose of examining the main themes of self-representation, depicting the Aboriginal history and the role of the Indigenous creative artists. The paper argues that difficult Aboriginal histories are expressed in the creative work of Indigenous artists (Alexis Wright and Lin Onus) and exemplified by the complexities of self-representation, deriving from double identities, double histories, socialization trough language and art and contradictions inherent in the Aboriginal view of self as embedded in place and time.
The Complexities of Self-Representation: Double Identities
Both Alexis Wright and Lin Onus are expressing several aspects of self in their creative work. One aspect is a transformative self-production that characterises a contemporary Australian artist. An active production and representation of self as an artist is possible only with a certain degree of introspection and comparison against the “other” identity, be it a mainstream Australian or an Aboriginal. Formulating their own conceptions derived from unique personal experience, Wright and Onus represent double identities of people who are Aboriginals and mainstream Australians at the same time. For the artists, their creative works account the “true life of their history” (Healy 1988), and to some extent, they also succeed in expressing the difficult Australian histories.
In Wright’s words, by reading and writing, she is “self-defining”, and the Aboriginal people who are her relatives constitute the source of “self-representation”, as was Wright’s grandmother (Wright 2002, p. 11). Therefore, the connection between the novelist’s and the Aboriginal historical self is mediated by her relatives and social contacts in the Aboriginal world. For sure, Wright attempts to position herself toward depicting the politics of life and speaking to correct the ills of the Aboriginal people. In her words, her goal as a novelist is to “speak about the pain of the Aboriginal people” (Wright 2002, p. 12). Yet, she also speaks about her own identity crisis and searches for the connections within the long and complicated history of her land (Wright 2002).
The Complexities of Self-Representation: Double Histories
The Aboriginal creative artists are confronted with a daunting task of speaking about two separate histories, i.e., of the Indigenous people and the Australian settlers. This task requires them to distinguish between the “settled” and the “remote” people (Stockwell and Scott 2000, p. 30) as they have not lived outside the urban areas unlike the Aboriginal people. Nevertheless, it is the distant places of Australia where the Aboriginal people have preserved their long-standing traditions discarded by the mainstream historians. While Wright coins the land names to speak about the Aboriginal land in her novels and Onus paints the non-existent landscapes that are more surreal than realistic, the Aboriginal people have unique names for identifying the regions where they live. In their language, “Murri” stands for Queensland, and they would likely dissociate with the names like Queensland and Wright’s “Carpentaria” (Stockwell and Scott 2000).
Throughout their artistic careers, Wright and Onus have focused on “becoming” Australian, while the Aboriginal tradition compels them to concentrate on “being” (Stockwell and Scott 2000, p. 33). Onus describes the prevalent view of the Aboriginal art as “static” (Onus 2003, p. 92), reflecting the inert self-focus of an Aboriginal artist. When comparing the histories of the Aboriginal and the Western art, Onus finds that the latter developed in co-creating and learning from the masters (Onus 2003, p. 92). Therefore, in Australia, the mixing of the European and Aboriginal art was acceptable, while the Aboriginal art was viewed as outdated (Onus 2003). The artist’s personal preference for mixing images and cross-cultural learning is evident, and he admits it in his biographical accounts. For Onus, this inclination towards co-learning and experimentation ensured the continuity of self within the land’s history. Also, the development of Onus as an artist occurred at the time of the rising of urban Aboriginal art (Grossman 2014). The art by Onus was a much needed voice representing the Aboriginal artists, whom the mainstream art curators found too “primitive” for the modernized Australian galleries (Grossman 2014). Onus was a product of an urban lifestyle with its conveniences of automobiles and air travel that could bring him to far-away exhibits. The artist admitted that the urban-versus-traditional dilemma remained central to his work (Onus 2003, p. 92). The contemporaries of Onus can find the traces of the most advanced technologies and very ancient symbols in his work that illustrate the two histories’ extremes.
While Onus successfully developed his own space for expressing his perspectives on the Australian history and culture, the Aboriginal people have largely resisted what they saw as “imposed” dominant cultures (Molnar and Meadows 2009). The identities of the two people, the integrated Australian and the unsettled Aboriginal, continue to be separate. The typical Australian is seen to be laconic and pragmatic (Wright 2010), while the Aboriginal is viewed as someone concerned with spirituality and self-expression that is linked to the land, the Aboriginal stories, and teachings by the Elders (Bell 2003, p. 170). These double identities and differing histories within the Australian history were explored and expressed by Wright and Onus. Still, it was their personal experience that helped them to assume a middle ground between the two. The success of their creative expression in regard to the differing histories hinged on speaking about the parallels between the two peoples (McIntosh 2012 , p. 125). McIntosh maintains that expressing such parallels constitutes a challenge since accepting the differences (the Aboriginal history speaks of deprivation) means that the power system must be stretched to reach the distant people (McIntosh 2012, p. 125), ensuring sufficient funding for their integration into a single society and history.
The Complexities of Self-Representation: Socialization through Language
The language and art are the means of creative expression where individual and social experience and conceptions are referenced. With unique words, symbols and allusions to common meanings, they are also the media of socialization in society. The Aboriginal peoples’ languages describe their environment, communicate their history and heritage and are the “voice of their land” (Bell 2003, p.170). Similarly, the Aboriginal art conveys the meanings that are common to the Indigenous people. In her biographical accounts, Wright explains the language difficulties facing a post-colonial Aboriginal person. The Aboriginals were compelled to discard their languages in order to facilitate their integration into the Australian society. Also, their traditions required them to keep silence instead of speaking. For example, the Aboriginals are told to listen, imagine and keep a secret about the intrusion to their land (Wright 2002). The Aboriginal law dictates not to even pronounce the name of the dead (Griffith 2014). Stating that the Aboriginal people must be silent, Wright shows just how difficult it is for the Aboriginals to use their language and speak about their traumatic experience. In order to avoid the pitfall of their own culture and act as creative artists, Wright and Onus had to discard the Aboriginal language and forge a path within the mainstream society. The complexities are intensified with the Aboriginal oral tradition of passing on their stories with the help of the language. Writing about a new identity and history required to reshape the role of language as the means of oral expression towards its role in creating a memory and thus history.
The Complexities of Self-Representation: Socialization through Art
Onus found that he changed the way he saw the world after becoming an urban artist: he no longer viewed the landscapes as panoramic (Onus 2003, p. 94). The cross-cultural imperative for creativity required him to visualize completely different images and create from novel perspectives. Therefore, instead of the gum tree that is always noticed by the Aboriginals, Onus started painting modern-looking subjects and symbols, and he worked with a newly developed sense of humour (Onus 2003, p. 94).
Onus was actively promoting the shift in the conventional view of exhibitions towards a more open view of the Aboriginal artist. Onus insisted that the art galleries should exhibit the Aboriginal art, yet he also said that the Aboriginal people could not “engage with, or relate to” the publicly exhibited art (Onus 2003, p. 94). Moreover, the Australian media and art are concentrated in the centre [cities], and an Aboriginal person from the periphery cannot benefit from them (Molnar and Meadows 2000). Onus questions when an Aboriginal person becomes an Australian, implying that the socialization and consequent integration is lengthy and contorted, if at all possible (Onus 2003).
The Contradictions of Self Embedded in Place
The idea that the Aboriginal people are “traditional” is deeply ingrained in the Australian society (Grossman 2003). Grossman emphasises that not only the work but also the identities of the indigenous artists are seen as “traditional” (Grossman 2003, p. 12). When speaking about the Aboriginal people, Wright calls them “the people on the outside of life” and “deprived of a voice” (Wright 2002, p. 11). In Wright’s work, there is an overarching theme of the Aboriginals living on the margins of the society whose rights are oppressed. In her novel “Carpentaria”, Wright illustrates how the identity is shaped by the geographical place. A young Australian man undergoes self-transformations while living at an Aboriginal place (Wright 2010). A similar change in identity is likely to happen to an Aboriginal man who enters the urban place. On arrival, he is viewed as a madman. In the Aboriginal people’s view, “he [Elias] was a very strange man” (Wright 2010, p. 77).
Likewise, Onus was remade by the urban space where he lived, constantly facing the traditional-versus-urban conundrum (Onus 2003, p.92). Yet, in his art, Onus tried to represent a uniquely Aboriginal place left untainted by the colonization (Onus 2003). This proved practically impossible. The subject of unclear directions associated with the feeling of being lost in space and perhaps history surfaces in his paintings. For example, a colonial map is depicted illustrating the scale of the colonial dominance and a rear-view of a rainbow snake in the side mirror of a fast-moving truck implying the fast-moving changes that occur with a simultaneous orientation to the past (Ashcroft 2013).
The Contradictions of Self Embedded in Time
In regard to the importance of time to self, both Wright and Onus show the time as interconnected in the conscience of the Aboriginals. Wright admits that she struggles with writing about trauma (Wright 2002), and she sets her novels in the past, present and future where the traumatic experiences are present. Onus maintains that the Aboriginal stories will ever be the same; it is only the technology and the materials that differ (Onus 2003). The paintings of Onus confirm that the concept of time is central to Indigenous self-representation. His static view of self is illustrated in the zigzag-like images, where the present and the past are fused, and in the images of animals, which are considered influential by the Aboriginal people. Finally, his painting “The Road to Redfern” touches on “remembering the future” and depicts how the past and the present interconnect in producing a hopeful picture of the future (Ashcroft 2013).
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Wright’s most recent novel “The Swan Book” makes the imagined future into the timeframe of interactions between her characters. In this way, she brings attention to the imminent problems of the environment. The Aboriginals are shown as directly confronted with and more conscious of the environmental degradation. Wright explains why the Australian history should encompass the Aboriginals, instead of making them invisible (Healy, 1988, p.84). Moreover, illustrating how the land rights were seen as a privilege alongside the “conferred dominance” (McIntosh, 2012, p. 124) instead of being the right of the Aboriginals, she calls for improving their destiny. The latter proves that the Aboriginal creative artists may not only depict the difficulties of the Australian histories but also promote the inclusion of the marginalized Aboriginal people, thus creating a new “generation of dignity” (Healy, 1988, p. 82). Still, “The Swan Book” remains a scarce instance of success towards embracing diversity. The creative production of the Aboriginal life and the true representation of the Australian histories remain a difficult pursuit. Meanwhile, the destiny of the Aboriginal people is obscured, indefinite and uninteresting.
In the work of Alexis Wright and Lin Onus, there is some indication that the Indigenous creative artists search for a middle way as mediators to express the difficult Australian histories. Yet, Wright and Onus are in a privileged position of the Aboriginals who, while struggling with their double identities, function as part of the mainstream. From this position, they can speak in the artist’s unique language that has links to both the mainstream and the Indigenous histories.
Wright and Onus abandoned their original Aboriginal language and art framework: this was a difficult path that allowed them to pursue the desired careers. Yet, this was not the only requirement for ensuring self-representation. The Aboriginal people cannot socialize into the mainstream art without accessing the centrally located galleries, and when they do, new symbols and meanings are often misunderstood. Since they are located on the periphery of the Australian society, their socialization through a conventional language and art is constrained. As Wright and Onus create in new literary and artistic genres respectively, they depart from the Aboriginal tradition and embark on a process of self-production and representation that is accompanied by numerous complexities.
The work by Wright and Onus expresses the contradictions in regard to the space and time as essential aspects of an Indigenous self. The Aboriginal identity is a product of the Aboriginal place. The differences between the urban and traditional places are drastic, as depicted in the creative artists’ work and bibliographic accounts. Moreover, while there is an attempt to build the parallels between the Aboriginal and the mainstream societies, the encounters between the two places produce a changed identity. For the Aboriginal people, the past and the present are seen as fused, and trauma is present at all times. The future is depicted as also connected, where there is some indication of hope, as in Onus’ “The Road to Redfern”.
The Aboriginal identity depicted by the Indigenous artists in their work shows an overwhelmingly complex process of the Aboriginal peoples’ identity production and representation and illustrates the difficult histories of the Aboriginals in the Australian society.