Victoria’s Secret photographer turns lens on Aboriginal ‘culture’: Nomad Two Worlds project takes Australia by storm

12 10 2009

Donna Karan with Richard Branson - Elder, by Russell James and Clifton Bieundurry.

The Snaparazzi were working up a lather in High Street, Armadale, yesterday at the preview of a project by American fashion photographer Russell James, best known for his work with lingerie label, Victoria’s Secret, and Walmajarri artist Clifton Bieundurry at Metro 5 Gallery. To promote his ‘Nomad Two Worlds’ project, James has recruited such international luminaries as fashion designer, Donna Karan, will.i.am and the Black Eyed Peas, Hugh Jackman and Deborah Lee-Furness. Even the wonderful Fiona Stanley has signed on. Although I haven’t seen the works in the flesh yet, as far as I can gather the artworks consist of massively enlarged digital prints of James’ photographs, taken during his travels in Central Australia, which have been transferred to canvas and then overlaid with Aboriginal imagery hand-painted by Bieundurry.

It’s certainly been a media success – with previews staged at the National Gallery of Victoria and Metro 5, a ‘Mile-High’ gig by the Peas staged on a flight between Perth and Melbourne, and photos of Fergie bedecked in Karl Lagerfeld, posing in front of Nomad Two Worlds banners at the NGV preview hitting the interwebs.

I’m of two minds as to whether media saturation of this type – where stellar superstars lend their names to a project that seeks to promote social and/or cultural justice – is a good or a bad thing. Perhaps a little bit of both. On the one hand, it raises the international profile of Indigenous Australian culture, and given the appalling conditions in which many Aboriginal people live (shame, Australia, shame), this should be a good thing. But on the other hand, the names that hit the headlines and endure from this exercise, not surprisingly, are the superstars. Other than the other artist, Clifton Bieundurry, very few if any Aborigines are mentioned by name either in the media reporting or on the Nomad website. So it becomes an exercise in promoting a ‘culture’, rather than a means of empowering individuals.Image

One thing of which I am sure – when compiling a website that seeks to honour Aboriginal people, at the very least try to get the spelling and grammar right… on one page of the Nomad Two Worlds website picked at random, there is talk of ‘abariginals’, ‘aborginies’ and a ‘Dijeree Doo’. The word ‘aboriginal’ is an adjective. To speak of ‘aboriginals’ is not appropriate, and reads as downright derogatory when included in a phrase: ‘gallery owner Paul Boon along with a few abariginals (sic.) got up on stage and welcomed everyone with a live performance of the Dijeree Doo (sic.) as one of the aborginies (sic.) told a story in native tounge (sic.).’ Dijeree Doo? Didgeri-don’t.

(Images: Donna Karan at Metro 5 Gallery, by Penny Stephens via The Age online; Black Eyed Peas about to join the Mile High Club, via Nomad Two Worlds website)

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2 responses

16 10 2009
sheri howell

Your article hits the very heart of what we, at Nomad Two Worlds, sometimes struggle with…the high visibility of our “friends” that sometimes in the press eclipses the core of the project and it’s message, vs (perhaps), a lack of press interest in what supporters like the wonderful Prof. Stanley, Reconciliation Australia and Mick Dodson, Employment Covenant/Gen One head Malcolm James, the Dept. of Reconciliation and Repatriation, the Koorie Heritage Trust, etc. find to be an extremely positive message and meaningful project overall.

Sadly, the things we do that we love the most, that delve more deeply into the project and it’s cultural collaboration / respect messaging… primarily our community outreach and kids’ educational activities like those held at Redfern Community Center in Sydney and Koorie Heritage Trust in Melbourne…are what get the least amount of interest/press coverage. So we do feel we are blessed to have these “celebrity” friends, who believe in Nomad enough to travel to AU to be there (thank you DK) and who show up in their precious amounts of time off to support us (thank you BEP), to draw attention to a topic that affects Australia’s most ancient culture, and particularly it’s children, so profoundly: loss of cultural identity and marginalization.

I understand your comments in the last paragraph, in relation to correct use and correct spellings. I can only apologize, and say that we, the Nomad Two Worlds team, are a very very (very) small but passionate team who were in the throes of producing seven different events and stretched very (very) thin over the last two weeks. We all do a little bit of everything, always willingly, mostly able, and on this trip pretty much worked from 6:30am until about 3am every day. We had not had time to update the NomadTwoWorlds.com site much since our January launch event, and as we started to compile photos and stories from the AU activities, we asked our photo assistant, who is absolutely graced with the camera but (apparently) not so graced in spelling, to update the blog from his POV. And under his own name, not representing the entire project.

Which obviously didn’t work out so well.

He is young, he is American, and he has given his time to this project every single day with an enormous amount of heart and respect for each and every artist involved and the culture they come from. The nuances of proper use of “Aboriginal” (and agreed, the importance of its proper spelling… although I will say that often, his spelling of more common words like “speach” is equally lacking) is something he is still learning. I think a lot of people, even Australians, are.

Further, I know his (mis)use stemmed from a misunderstanding of something Aunty Sylvia Scott, who did our Welcome to Country in Sydney, said during an interesting conversation about “proper” use of specific terms [paraphrased]: ” ‘Indigenous’. ‘Aboriginal’. Both are fine. Sometimes too much worry is placed on just the words. If the respect is there, you for my culture and mine for yours, then everything will work out just fine. ”

I know the respect is there.

As to lack of other indigenous Australian artists being mentioned, again, we had not updated the site much since the January debut of the project and at that time almost all of the collaborative work was by Bieundurry. The NGV event debuted a lot of new art by a wider variety of artists and styles including Nathan Mundraby, Bruce Wigan, and Edwin Mulligan, whom we flew in for the event and whom will be mentioned / pictured on our website as soon as it’s formally updated.

Thank you for your interest in Nomad Two Worlds and taking the time to explore the project. I am sorry that a momentary lapse in editing an inexperienced, and probably ill-assigned (by us), “blogger” on our part caused what we all consider to be an unfortunate overall assessment of something we all donate an extraordinary amount of time and energy to out of passion, respect, and a true intent to try and make a difference.

Yours very truly,
Sheri Howell
Exec Producer, Nomad Two Worlds

17 10 2009
Meaghan

Dear Sheri,

Thank you for your considered and heartfelt response. I understand that it must be a conundrum – the press is always going to be responsive to the involvement of international stars and the prospect of stringing together a flashy, attention-grabbing headline. This is less a reflection of the priorities of your organisation than it is a sad fact of modern life. Witness: balloon boy. Given the dearth of arts coverage in the media here, the only way to draw attention to an arts-based project is to involve celebrity on one level or another. So you are faced with an unfortunate choice – to stage an exhibition with good intentions at its core that attracts no general press attention at all, and so achieves very little; or to involve media stars who will attract the press scribes and photographers, and achieve high levels of exposure for the project, whilst inevitably eclipsing the people who are the focus of the project. Much better to do the latter than to do nothing at all. And you are to be applauded for committing so much time, effort and money towards a project that seeks to bring reconciliation to life.

As a white Australian woman, writing from an academic ivory tower, I don’t have any right to be indignant on behalf of Aboriginal Australians. And you certainly don’t owe me any apology for the unfortunate misspellings and phrasing used in the blog. The comments from Aunty Sylvia Scott are spot on – actions are far more important than words. Your actions, and those of your partners in the project, speak volumes about your commitment to promoting reconciliation. But although I understand the that your organisation and staff must have been operating under extremely high levels of stress, fatigue and pressure, my point about the blog entry was that, rightly or wrongly, it seemed to embody a division between the noble intentions behind the project, and the way it worked in action. Most of all, by referring to ‘a couple of Aborigines’, without even an acknowledgment of which people they represented, seemed to cast them in the role of cultural embellishments rather than active participants and stakeholders in the celebration.

Unfortunately, it hit my screen at a time where I am particularly preoccupied with these issues. I’m currently writing a paper for a conference at the end of the year looking at issues that threaten the sustainability of the Aboriginal art market. One of the key premises underpinning my research is that as long as it’s pigeonholed as an ‘ancient culture’, or as an ‘ethnographic art’, Aboriginal art and society is placed in a holding pattern. This train of thought was initiated by my discovery about how Sotheby’s defines Aboriginal art. Sotheby’s estimates that between fifty and seventy percent of the Aboriginal art it sells goes to buyers outside Australia. How do those buyers view that art? If you search for the Aboriginal art department on the Sotheby’s website, you won’t find it listed with ‘Australian’ and ‘Contemporary Art’ under the ‘Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture’ category. Aboriginal art falls under the classification ‘Ancient and Ethnographic Arts’, alongside Graeco-Roman antiquities and pre-Columbian art.

By definition, ethnographic art is inanimate, contained in a state of suspended animation. ‘Dead’ art, if you like. Its primary value to collectors is measured by its ‘authenticity’ and connection to a culturally untainted, semi-mythical point of genesis. Whereas a contemporary artwork is understood by the market to be produced by an artist working within a dynamic society, an object has the greatest ethnographic value if it emanates from a static, isolated society. The vitality and vigour of the Aboriginal desert art movement notwithstanding, by classifying Aboriginal art as ‘ethnography’ the message communicated to Sotheby’s collectors is that it is primarily a scientific and cultural curio. This leads to a whole raft of double-standards relative to contemporary western art when it comes to issues of collaboration, authenticity and market practices that I won’t go into here.

So, my response to the blog was based on my belief that equitable standards and levels of respect are due to all artists, everywhere, regardless of ethnic/cultural alliances. And to acknowledge them by name contributes to empowerment. Niceties of spelling and grammar aside, by speaking of ‘Aborigines’ as a group rather than promoting individuals will always risk casting them in the role of the ‘other’, much as Edward Said in ‘Orientalism’ spoke of the problems inherent in the way the West romanticised Middle Eastern culture in the wake of the Napoleonic incursions into Northern Africa in the 18th century.

It’s my job to over-think and over-analyse things. And I certainly don’t intend to diminish your achievements or contribution to the process of reconciliation. More articles dedicated to the cause were published as a direct result of your work than there have been in a very long time. Your project is clearly driven by the best of all intentions, and with a well of passion and commitment to reconciliation at its heart. What good does it really do to have the Black Eyed Peas and Donna Karan in the headlines, rather than promoting the individuals who are the subject of the project? And will my own work ever help anyone? Who knows? One thing is sure – it has to be better than doing nothing – and if more and more of us do a bit, perhaps we really will be able to initiate a change for the best.
Thank you for your response, and thank you for your passion. I’m really looking forward to seeing the exhibition in full when it tours.

Meaghan

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