Aboriginal painted plaque

Aboriginal plaque

Materials:  mulga wood, acrylic paint, varnish
Dimensions:  13 centimeters high
Place acquired:  charity shop, north London, 2007
Place of manufacture:  Australia

There is a strong case to be made for the Australian aborigines of today being the most abused, marginalised and disadvantaged indigenous people on earth. It's all the more remarkable then that aboriginal art has made such a spectacularly successful journey through Australian history, to emerge as the most powerful and recognisable visual identity of modern Australia.

But let’s face it, this little painted wooden plaque is not a very good example. It’s a rather tacky souvenir sold to tourists, probably on a roadside stall somewhere in the interior of the country. It ended up on the shelves of a charity shop in London, where I ignored it on several visits before I realised its significance.

The plaque shows a termite eater, painted in the traditional ‘x-ray’ style associated with the bark paintings of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. In contrast, the ground beneath the creature uses a dot technique reminiscent of the Western Desert pointillist style of painting that emerged in the 1970s. 

But more interesting is the wooden plaque itself. In 1932 a German missionary called Friedrich Albrecht from a Lutheran mission in Hermannsburg, west of Alice Springs, encouraged the aborigines around the mission to try painting religious homilies onto crosscuts of mulga logs, in imitation of the birch log folk paintings of his homeland. He showed them one he had brought from Germany. One man, Albert Namatjira, began to make and sell them to tourists. Namatjira soon progressed to working with watercolours, and he went on to become the first and most famous ‘crossover’ aboriginal artist. He worked in the European tradition of landscape painting, and his popularity in the 1930s, 40s and 50s with white Australians chimed with the assimilationist policies of the time. His work was later belittled by art critics for its suposed ‘chocolate box’ quality. But this reading completely failed to understand the aboriginal spiritual meaning that infused his choice of landscape and how he chose to paint it. Namatjira was the first to show the outside world the power and spiritual sophistication of aboriginal art, and he paved the way for the massive outside interest that followed in the more traditional indigenous styles.

My plaque by an anonymous artist is dated 1999. It has little or no artistic merit, but its use of the crosscut mulga wood can be traced back directly to Albert Namatjira, living on a missionary station in the early 1930s. Namatjira found a way of expressing his Arrernte culture through european art techniques, and it started by him copying a piece of kitsch Bavarian handicraft. It helped to kick-start a dramatic renaissance of aboriginal art, and was one of those strangely productive cultural collisions that colonial histories, even brutal ones like Australia's, occasionally produce.