I begin this article hesitantly as the subject matter is of a sensitive nature, but none-the-less, a subject that must be approached. I am talking of the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, which historically is filled with division, oppression and conflict.
I could have easily approached the work of Gillian Lavery by looking at her engaging synthesis of drawing and textiles; the line that we draw between craft and fine art in the Western tradition. But these subjects, I acknowledged, seem to avoid the most pertinent questions that Lavery’s work raises: How does a non-indigenous artist approach indigenous art? What constitutes ‘indigenous art’? and the broader question as to whether any of this categorisation is necessary to begin with.
As a point of reference throughout this article I will refer to Bell’s Theorem by Brisbane artist Richard Bell, which is required reading for all artists in Australia: http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/great/art/bell.html
Gillian Lavery’s work departs from Aboriginal basket weaving, a skill that she is accustomed to, which she then translates into a drawn line, or a stitched thread which we can read as a drawn line. This process brings to mind the work of Regina Wilson of the Peppimenarti community near Darwin, whose direct translation of traditional weaving practices onto canvas is well known and celebrated.
This comparison immediately throws questions as to whether Lavery’s work and its similarities to the work of someone like Wilson would categorise it as Aboriginal art: the answer to most people would be a resounding NO. Indigenous art is that art produced by indigenous people and non-indigenous art is any art that is produced by a non-indigenous person (indigenous here, of course refers to the original inhabitants of Australia prior to colonisation, itself a broad generalisation considering the diversity of Australian Aboriginal cultures). Thus, when we broach such a practice we make a categorisation based on the race of the artist, but one that is stiflingly one-sided. Gillian Lavery is an artist, Wilson is an indigenous artist.
Perhaps we should disregard these categories and speak only of the exchange of cultural knowledge. The groundbreaking Bell’s theorum, proclaims
Aboriginal art: it’s a white thing, due to the anthropological, commercial, and institutional domination of indigenous art by non-indigenous institutions.
We thus shouldn’t speak of a category of indigenous art in the first place, but simply art made by indigenous people. A consideration which can be found here: http://www.artcollector.net.au/IsittimewestoppedtalkingaboutAboriginalart
So how do we approach the unique work of Lavery? It is not indigenous art, whilst neither is the art of someone who is indigenous. We do however approach Lavery’s art as a significant voice in a contemporary dialogue. Is this dialogue one of reconciliation? (Here Bell argues that reconciliation is not the term we should be using, as ‘conciliation’ did not occur in the first place). So perhaps what we have here is not an on-going dialogue, but the opening remarks of one. As Bell sees what is deemed as ‘Aboriginal Art’ as a pigeonholing of an artist, Lavery marks the other side of this exchange of cultures: A non-indigenous artist, making Aboriginal inspired art that serves both as a conciliatory gesture and a muddying of what many would want to keep as a black/white demarcation of artistic boundaries