Art. Right Now
While Aboriginal art is commonly associated with traditional dot paintings created in a regional setting, some of the most important, and culturally critical, contemporary Australian art of recent years has come from urban Aboriginal artists.
The lack of appreciation and awareness of urban Aboriginal art has been addressed by prominent Aboriginal artist and activist Richard Bell. In his critical essay Bell’s Theorem he states that:
Aboriginal Art has become a product of the times. A commodity. The result of a sustained marketing strategy, albeit, one that has been loose and uncoordinated. There is no Aboriginal Art Industry. There is, however, an industry that caters for Aboriginal Art (Bell, 2003).
The issues facing non-traditional artists, including lack of recognition, acceptance and acclaim, are of particular concern for Richard Bell. As an urban Aboriginal artist there is a very clear sense of anger and frustration with the association between rural Aboriginal artists and authentic Aboriginality and a corresponding association between urban Aboriginal artists and less authentic and less culturally valuable forms of expression. These kinds of distinctions within the market, in Bells’ opinion, contribute to the perpetration of the ‘Noble Savage’ myth, which still haunts Aboriginal culture, and limits perceptions of what Aboriginal art can be (Bell).
Recent years have seen a rise in the number of both rural and urban based, prominent Aboriginal artists who directly address the impact of colonisation, dispossession and government intervention on their cultural heritage (Caruana, Wally 194). While public concepts of Indigenous art continue to be strongly linked to ideas of spirituality and tradition, new forms of Indigenous cultural expression are gaining popularity and acceptance. This shift in public and industry perceptions is largely due to the work of artists like Bell, Dianne Jones, Gordon Bennett, Fiona Foley and Lin Onus, who have proactively challenged ideals of Aboriginality and the limitations these ideals have imposed.
Aboriginal art, like all contemporary art, is constantly evolving and developing with the work of emerging artists, such as photographer Jones, contributing to this ongoing process and the accompanying conversation. Jones directly addresses and attempts to debunk preconceptions of Aboriginality through her photography and digital artworks, contributing significantly to the established dialogue.
While studying art in Perth, Jones took an art form strongly associated with ‘authentic’ Australian Aboriginal art, dot painting, and turned it on it’s head. Her dot paintings were computer generated inkjet prints in which the word ‘dot’ was repeated in a pattern across the work. This playful reworking of a very traditional medium immediately draws associations between the traditional, and widely accepted forms of Indigenous art, and the far less conventional works of contemporary urban artists. This questioning of established artistic conventions and cultural norms has continued throughout her career.
Imagery plays an influential role in the formation of national identity. When this imagery is dominated by a particular cultural and ethnic perspective it results in the formation of a mythology that does not accurately reflect the culture it informs. Through her art practice Jones examines the relationship between popular imagery and national and personal identity. By questioning the validity of the imagery that has illustrated Australian history and has long been considered representative of Australian culture, Jones gives a voice, and a face, to those who were previously denied a place within the paradigm of Australian art.
Jones creates reproductions of classic Australian paintings in which the original image has been altered and reinterpreted. Images by artists such as Tom Roberts, Eugene von Guerard and Max Dupain have come to be representative of a romanticised Australian history. These well-known and well-loved images have had a significant role in defining Australian national identity, their nationalistic tone reflects a particular viewpoint of Australia’s post-colonial history. This viewpoint is limited and denies the experiences of many Australians, including the history of Jones’ family. In spite of these limitations, these images continue to hold significant cultural value for many Australians. The status of the original paintings Jones reinterprets, as highly valued and iconic works, make them ideal choices for affective reinterpretation.
Jones uses appropriation and reinterpretation to create conversations about issues that are important to her. By placing Aboriginal figures into historical artworks where previously there were none, Jones makes us aware of their absence from Australian art and from Australian history. She tries to make us aware of the lack of diversity in the images that are seen to illustrate Australian history and represent Australian culture. She highlights the absence of certain cultural groups by placing them back into the picture. In doing this she shows us how we can create a new and more accurate history that is inclusive rather than exclusive.
In keeping with the work of established artists, such as Bell, Jones uses humour to approach these highly contentious and emotive issues. Bell’s work can be quite confrontational, while Jones’ clever subversion of established imagery takes a softer approach. She utilises humour to help diffuse some of the tension surrounding these very serious issues. Approaching these issues with humour and theatricality creates an opportunity for the viewer to engage with difficult and disconcerting concepts in a less direct and confronting, but no less substantial, way (Fink, Hannah, 310).
Shearing the Rams provides an example of Jones’ ongoing concern with the lack of accurate Indigenous representation within Australian culture, particularly within iconic nationalistic images. The original oil painting created by Tom Roberts in 1890 celebrated pastoral life and labour, and came to be considered an icon of Australian Impressionism and popular history. Even if the painting itself is not instantly recognisable to the viewer, the sentiment behind it is familiar, it is a sentiment repeated within iconic images of Australia’s post-colonial history. By replacing some of the figures, who are all white men in Roberts’ painting, with male members of her own family, Jones is reasserting their previously unrecognised presence in this part of Australian history. Her family were actively involved in the pastoral industry, but this involvement has not previously been acknowledged or celebrated in any way.
A strong theme in this, and many of Jones’ works, is the broader implication that Australian culture is lacking in accurate and inclusive representations, particularly in regard to the Indigenous population (Bullen, Clotilde, 66). The work of contemporary urban artists such as Jones questions who has informed the dominant cultural narrative, the motives behind its construction, and seeks to provide an alternative, which speaks to their own experiences and beliefs (Bullen, Clotilde, 67).
The value of Indigenous art has long been linked to its relationship with tradition, with the object acting as a reference to Aboriginal culture as it existed prior to colonisation, rather than as a representation of contemporary realities (Caruana, Wally 194). This favouring of historical forms over contemporary practice consigns rural Aboriginal communities to ethnographic stereotypes and urban artists to cultural obscurity. (Witghton, Paul 27) Privileging a particular kind of Aboriginality creates a climate in which more accurate and nuanced views of Australia’s Indigenous population are neither recognised nor embraced (Neale, Margo, Learning to be Proppa).
The work of contemporary Aboriginal photographers like Jones, Destiny Deacon, Fiona Foley, Brenda L. Croft and Ricky Maynard have challenged this history of misrepresentation. Jones uses her art to address culturally sensitive and often uncomfortable issues. By raising these taboo subjects she manages to incite not only discomfort and controversy but also important and constructive debate. Increasing recognition of the valuable contribution of contemporary urban Indigenous artists like Dianne Jones to Australia’s cultural dialogue has led to a greater understanding of the complexity of Australian national identity.
Bell’s Theorem (Aboriginal Art – It’s a White Thing!)
A Little Less Conversation
Artlink, Blak on Blak, Artlink volume 30, Issue number 1, March 2010 (pages 66-69)
Aboriginal Art, New Edition
Thames & Hudson, World of Art
Published by Thames and Hudson, London 2003
Self- Evident: Indigenous Artists and the Photographic Image
One Sun, One Moon
Art Gallery of NSW (pages 310-231)
The Art of Gordon Bennett
Published by: Roseville East, NSW 1996
Neale, Margo 
Learning to be proppa: Aboriginal artists collective ProppaNOW
Artlink, Volume 30, No. 1, 2010
Neale, Margo 
Renegotiating Tradition: Urban Aboriginal Art
Source: The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, edited by; Kleinert, Sylvia
Published by Oxford University Press, 2000
Available via: UNSW Digitool
Urban Art: “That’s not traditional Aboriginal Art”
Chapter 1, “Urban” Indigenous Art: Debates, photography and empowerment
Unpublished (pages 22-39)