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Unlearning the White Gaze

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

By Jessica L.

In galleries that I’ve visited I would always take the time to view the works on display. I would read through the little white blocks of texts or listen intently to the guided audio tour trying to immerse myself within the art before me. When it came to looking at Warhol’s mundane stack of Brillo Pads I pondered about mass-consumption. I took photos of Grayson Perry’s intricate quilts to further examine the details. In Marina Abramovic’s In Residence at the Walsh Bay Piers, I locked eyes with a stranger in meditative competitiveness to understand what stillness meant. In all my time passing through these galleries and art spaces I would contemplate deeply with all the artworks and yet I would only glance at the displays of Aboriginal Art.

When I was studying as a Fine Arts student my tutorials and theory classes always reminded us that we needed to be respectful with Aboriginal Art under all circumstances. Reminding us profusely that “Aboriginal symbols or totems are sacred and important, they cannot be used recklessly and only certain clans can use them”. What was instilled in all of us was respect and a stern warning to tread lightly and reverently with Aboriginal art. I ended up hearing these sentiments very often around the campus, in my classes from mainly Non Aboriginal lecturers, Tutors and students.

Yet at the same time amongst fellow students we found ourselves looking at Aboriginal Art in this performative pleasantry. “Yes it is Aboriginal Art, needs to be respected, designed with meticulous dots and lines now let's move on”. Aboriginal Art did not speak to us as profoundly, we did not treat it individually, it did not serve our understanding and it was easy to consume for a bunch of students who just wanted to pass the class. We were told what their art was about. We just didn’t want to understand it.

What is the white gaze?

The white gaze is when we view white culture to be the highest standard that all cultures, experiences and creations should be measured by. When we view oil paintings made by French artists to be “High Art” we respectfully agree and engage with our white gaze. When we see unique styles of basket weavings made by different Aboriginal clans and think “Grecian pottery is more skilful” we are exercising our white gaze. As Malik Pitchford writes “The white gaze serves to limit the cultural expression of Blacks by way of white ethnocentricity.” By placing European art centre stage, it becomes a yardstick to measure all art.

As POC we have adopted the white gaze from the media we consume, the environment we are raised in and the cultural ideas that have been instilled in us as a result of an educational system which exclusively engages with European history, art and culture. The white gaze funnily enough is not limited to the race of the individual, but is rather a consciousness that can be inhabited by anyone. An East Asian person can perceive Aboriginal artwork in the same Eurocentric framework as that of a white person. The internalised value that we have placed in culture is that White experiences, knowledge and culture is superior and that everything else needs to be considered by that measure.

Our Encounters with Aboriginal Art

Aboriginal art under the white gaze can be reduced to just pure abstraction. When we see the painting, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri made by Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, at first glance we are simultaneously overwhelmed and underwhelmed. Our eyes are not willing to be pulled into the direction of the wavy lines crossing the work, the different hues of brown and ochre in amorphous blobs and the tiny dots that disperse throughout the canvas. What we have grown up seeing is the defined and detailed forms of Western paintings, becoming habituated with this type of straightforward visual communication that has rendered us uncomfortable with navigating the things which are more vague and secretive in form.

There is no face that stares at you and beckons you to stare back, there are no distinctive shapes that form trees, mountains or cities. It is not indicative of the modern world of our familiarity but rather a world that has been deemed by white supremacy and colonisation to be primitive, making us subconsciously encounter these works as though they are less worthy of our understanding and engagement.

The critics, curators and the audience can view Aboriginal art in the frame of abstractionism, expressionism or any other artistic movement do so in order to derive a semblance of meaning by imposing on them the theoretical lenses used to characterise European art. There is nothing “wrong” about that but it has a role to play in denying what gets lost is communication between the viewer and the creator as ‘up to interpretation’. The possible avenues for understanding the work in the way it was meant to be received diminishes.

Most of all, this prioritises the personal experience of the viewer to the work, giving creative authority to YOU rather than the artist. For Aboriginal artists their work is reduced to its aesthetics and their meaning is simplified or worse, erased. Experiencing this in a modern gallery is similar to looking at 50,000 year old cave paintings in Walingnya and only hearing the tour guide say, “this is ancient, this is important, this is special” without wanting to ask: “why?”

Whitewashing Black Art

As there are more art spaces dominated by white curators and collectors, the opportunities to present works by Black and Aboriginal creatives are limited by how they appeal to the desires of their audience. Black creatives are required to conform to an expected narrative in order to exhibit their work successfully, which often results in the whitewashing of this work and subsequent erasure of the important histories which led to its creation in the first place.

For Aboriginal creatives it might be fulfilling the aesthetic demand for abstract expressionism paintings that serve as a good and inoffensive accent to a mundane white wall for an office. It doesn’t matter what the intentions of the artist are, what matters is if they fulfil our consumer expectations. The ways in which we disengage with the work is often discreet and unacknowledged. For African American musicians their work is often decontextualised or appropriated to serve the intentions of their audience. It is using Beyonce’s “Formation” as runway music for an all white fashion show. It is a white woman stealing her African American maid’s personal story and turning it into a book and a movie deal starring Emma Stone “with” Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis.

In Australia, Aboriginal aesthetics have been commodified in the international art market. The style can be imitated by non-Aboriginal people and still maintain the supposed “authenticity” of what we presume Aboriginal art to be. It is the appropriation of Aboriginal branding on inauthentic goods sold in Paddy’s Markets for tourism. Basically it is the $20 acrylic painted kangaroo “boomerang” that you buy for your distant relatives. The fakes industry is responding to the demand for works that have the look of Aboriginal Art with little interest in anything more than their tokenistic appreciation or consumable aesthetic.

We Need to Stop Calling Them ‘Dot Paintings’

When we see the Aboriginal ancient rock paintings and meticulous dot paintings we infer very little from them. The aesthetic alone affirms our understanding of what the white gaze has for so long called ‘dot paintings’. Yet we would never label the paint splatters of Jackson Pollock nor the cubism of Picasso or any expression of non-Black or Aboriginal creatives in such reductive ways.

Papunya Tula is the technique involved in dot paintings which originated around the Northern Territory. It was an art movement that started in the forced assimilated settlement of Papunya, where the Pintupi and Luritja people, but also Warlpiri, Kakatja and Anmatyerr groups lived together. This technique is what gave rise to the contemporary aesthetic of Aboriginal art and is what is in demand for the art market. Yet underneath all the meticulous dots and trailing lines is sacred knowledge that takes expertise and awareness to unpack.

This technique works as cultural preservation of stories, rituals and maps for sacred sites for Aboriginal people to communicate within their communities. For us outsiders it is a map that we cannot navigate, something beyond our understanding and excludes for a good reason. Yet just because the meaning is inaccessible to us doesn’t mean we should treat the work in such a shallow and passive manner. It is true that we as outsiders will never be privy to the knowledge and stories of Aboriginal people. Just because we may not know the secrets behind every Papunya Tula painting, that in itself is not a reason to justify our disengagement with the art.

Black and Aboriginal creatives will continue to create works long after the BLM hashtag stops trending. The question we need to be asking ourselves is “will we be consuming it for our own benefit?” or “will we be listening, learning and engaging in a meaningful way?”

Learning to Unlearn

I remember entering a dark room in the MCA several years ago illuminated with four large screens displayed side by side. Each screen displayed different angles of a single event composed of footage from newsreels and other sources. It first displayed a lush green island only to be followed with protestors shouting, police scrambling, fires combusting and riots rising.

What was unfolding before me was the story of an Aboriginal Man who died in police custody and the events that ensued afterwards. I sat in the dark just watching and listening, unable to move and unwilling to turn away my gaze. Watching the chaos unfold as the people screamed at a crime left unresolved committed by the abusive powers of the police. I didn’t understand what was happening in that installation but later I found out that this was about the 2004 Palm Island Riots.

Tall Man by Vernon Ah Kee drew the definitive line in the sand for me that not only could I never understand the experiences of an Aboriginal Person but that the anticipation of drawing a parallel between my world and theirs is the very start of the problem with reproducing the white gaze in our encounters with Aboriginal art. I didn’t realise how lifelong my disinterest in Aboriginal art was. Throughout high school art excursions I always found myself evading their work because I believed that if “you’ve seen them once , you’ve seen them all”. Even in university studying Fine Arts, being constantly exposed to the works of Aboriginal Artists and being educated on them was not enough to instil any profound interest in me. Experiencing Ah Kee’s installation in that darkness woke me up from that constant state of ambivalence.

Although I never had the chance to correct this in school, in our local museums or even during my fine arts degree, I am trying with true humility to lean into my own discomfort and engage. Some amazing artists I’ve found along the way are like Daniel Boyd’s “We Call them Pirates out here”, posters from Redback Graphix in collaboration with Marie McMahon “ You are on Aboriginal Land 1984” and Richard Bell’s “Embassy, 2013”. But there are thousands more out there and with each genuine encounter we begin to unlearn our white gaze.

Start that process of unlearning with these awesome readings:

Aboriginal Creatives

Bold, brilliant Indigenous Australian women's art – in pictures

In Open Cut exhibition, protest art challenges visitors to take action

Art Critiques

Why is Everyone Always Stealing Black Music - Wesley Morris

Beware of the White Gaze - Malik Pitchford

Aboriginal art: is it a white thing?

Fake Aboriginal Art

Fake Aboriginal Art: Ethics and Appropriation

Netflix series After Life, from Ricky Gervais, features 'unethical' piece of 'fake' Aboriginal art

Edited by Tahmina R.

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