I want you to look closely at these two pictures. I wish I could tell you the names of the artists, but I failed to write them down when we saw them in Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. They are by Australian aboriginal artists daring to tell uncomfortable truths about the effects of European settlement on the lives of Aborigines. They are the same truths that could be said, should be said, about the effects of European settlement on the lives of North and South American Indians.
Sadly, to set the stage I need to begin with the most uncomfortable truth of all. In parts of Australia and South America indigenous peoples were hunted sometimes for sport, and always to clear the land of their inconvenient presence. North American European settlers did some of each, but mostly they forcibly moved Indians out of the way through wars and massacres. None of it could have happened were it not for the seldom challenged assumption that they were less than human, or if human, savages in need of forced assimilation into the invading culture as subordinate members. It’s not a history we like to admit. Bringing it up always engenders defensive objections of one kind or another, and why not? Who wants to admit being in the line of succession of such brutal injustice? I certainly don’t. Well, what’s done is done. It can’t be undone, nor can adequate atonement be made. We can only go forward.
Going forward for them and for us requires that their stories be told in their own voices, and that we hear them as non-defensively as we are able. It brings me to the two paintings I asked you to look at. The painting on the left depicts the Garden of Eden – note the snake and forbidden tree. Adam is black. Eve is white, and not just white but blonde and blue eyed. According to the missionaries that worked to convert the Aborigines, Eve was the one seduced by the snake, the one who took the first bite, the one who seduced Adam, and therefore, the source of evil entering human life. It’s a line of thinking dating at least from the Middle Ages that popularized the idea that but for women and sex, evil would not exist. It’s what made hanging witches so easy to justify, and it’s what the missionaries taught. But there’s more. From the aboriginal point of view it’s not women as such, but Europeans who were, are, and continue to be the source of evil in the lives of aboriginal peoples. And they have a strong case.
Consider the painting on the right. The top panel remembers the simple, basic life of Aborigines before the European invasion. The romantic ideal of Rousseau’s noble savage living in harmonious innocence ignores the struggle to survive, intertribal warfare, and the reality of life as nasty, brutish and short, in Hobbes’ words. Nevertheless, it was their life lived their way without interference from the outside. The second panel shows what Europeans brought to the scene: weapons, booze, destruction of their natural food supply, introduction of unhealthy new foods, and forced appropriation of the land on which they lived. The third depicts how that evolved into alcoholism, loss of human dignity, trashing of the environment, death, and do you see the church in the background?Christianity not as salvation but as a screen for the imposition of European evil on Aborigines.
The final panel offers 21st century hope. The contemporary age isn’t going away. There is no returning to pre-settlement times. But Aborigines can refuse the evils of the modern age while adapting their culture to take advantage of its benefits. They can reclaim the dignity of their heritage, and claim their rightful place as respected bearers of 50,000 or more years of human history in Australia. They can demand that those of European descent know and understand all that has happened, not to impose guilt, but to evoke a new understanding of shared justice to guide the way into the future. It will not be easy. Prejudices are hard to change. It may take generations, but it is the only hope there is for a future in which there is respect for the dignity of every human being.
They are Australian paintings about Australia and its people, but the lessons are universal.