I acknowledge the traditional custodians and original inhabitants of the land I currently record on, the Chumash, and pay respect to their elders past and present.
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Welcome back to Art History for All! I’m Allyson Healey.
Questions of appropriation loom large in our current moment. You’ve probably seen a lot of essays pop up in recent years on the subject, critiquing white people wearing Native American headdresses, or wearing their hair in cornrows, or non-Asians wearing kimono or qipao. There have also been defenses written of some of these things, claiming an overreach of political correctness or picking out individual examples of Native Americans or Black people or Asians who have said they do not care about such things. But appropriation doesn’t just happen at festivals or award shows or in music videos: it happens in art, too.
My geographical coordinate randomizer led me back to Australia for this episode, and in searching for an artwork to look at, I came across a print in the Art Gallery of New South Wales by Margaret Preston entitled Aboriginal Glyph. It’s easy to discover after learning a bit more about Preston that she was white. So what leads a white woman to produce a print and call it “Aboriginal”? This is a perfect opportunity, especially given recent and ongoing protests, but not exclusively because of them, to examine some of the more nuanced and low-key ways in which appropriation negatively impacts the people and cultures being appropriated from.
A description of Margaret Preston’s Aboriginal Glyph. Color stencil, gouache with gouache hand coloring on thin black card, circa 1958, an irregular sheet approximately 34 by 28.5 cm.
An irregular black border lines the top, bottom, and left edges of the sheet. On a red ground is an abstract pattern of black, white, and yellow forms. Most notable are two plantlike forms—straight vertical black stems with lobe-like leaves along their length, one on the left with yellow leaves on both sides of the stem, and one on the right with white leaves on only the right side of the stem. The left side of the white-leaved stem is paired with a thick white line, both of them curving at the bottom, eventually aligning with a concave yellow arc beneath. A white arch curves over the yellow-leaved plant, its right end running into a yellow arch that forms the top of a nested series of serpentine lines and shapes, in which the white-leaved plant is contained. The yellow arch swings down and then up again to the left behind the yellow-leaved plant, and another thick black line nests beneath it on the left, with three small S-shaped yellow squiggles seeming to flow down its length. Preston’s signature rests at the leftmost tail end of the white curve that abuts the white-leaved plant, her name written out in cursive, possibly in pen or pencil. The colors are distinct and unblended, but rough around the edges, as though applied with a sponge or a dry brush.
Margaret MacPherson was born in Port Adelaide, South Australia, in 1875, to Scottish parents. Beginning in childhood, she trained in the arts, at first china painting and then fine arts, both in a rather traditional Western mode. MacPherson made multiple trips to Europe beginning in 1903, and it was during these trips that she was able to experience European modernist movements such as post-Impressionism, as well as art from other places in the world, such as Japanese ukiyo-e prints. She seems to have been particularly interested in art’s decorative potential, noting at one point that, quote, “a picture that is meant to fill a certain space should decorate that space.” End quote. In fact, while visiting the French region of Brittany in 1913, she wrote to fellow Australian artist Norman Carter, quote: “I am very interested to hear of your decorative work – it is the only thing worth aiming at for this our century. It’s really the keynote of everything – I’m trying all I know to reduce my still-life to decorations and find it fear-fully difficult…” End quote.
After World War I, she moved back to Australia and married William Preston, a businessman whose success, a number of sources note, gave Margaret the financial security to pursue her artistic career in earnest. It was in the 1920s that Preston began to champion modern art and Australia’s role, or lack thereof, in it, writing a number of essays for various publications on the subject. Preston and her husband lived in Sydney in the ‘20s, where she was able to exhibit and sell her works at galleries in the city, and in 1929 she became “the first woman and modernist to be invited by the Art Gallery of NSW to contribute a self portrait to the collection.” In the early 1930s, the couple moved to Berowra, a much more rural place about 40 km north of Sydney. It was here that Preston began to engage with Australia’s natural landscape, as well as with Aboriginal art and its deep connection to that landscape. These explorations led Preston to champion a quote-unquote “national art of Australia,” which she believed should be grounded in Aboriginal forms and influences. An article Preston wrote for the magazine Art in Australia in 1925 foreshadows her dedication to this idea of a national art of Australia:
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“In wishing to rid myself of the mannerisms of a country other than my own I have gone to the art of a people who had never seen or known anything different from themselves, and were accustomed always to use the same symbols to express themselves. These are the Australian aboriginals, and it is only from the art of such people in any land that a national art can spring. Later come the individual or individuals who with conscious knowledge (education) use these symbols that are their heritage, and thus a great national art is founded. It is not from book-learning or professional lore which is at the disposal of intellectuals that new life can be drawn. It is on the primitive natural forms that we must depend….
Would France be now at the head of all nations in art if her artists and craftsmen had not given her fresh stimulus from…the art of her native colonies, and not only her own colonies, but by borrowing freely from the colonies of other countries?
Java has been drained to provide fresh ideas for the craftsmen of the great nations. The indigenous art of Cochin China [Vietnam] has given modern sculpture in France a new life. Germany has a national peasant craft… but even with such an asset, the art papers of Germany are full of illustrations of the native crafts of Central Africa, showing the need of fresh stimulus and a return to simple symbols. In the beginning was the rough idol crudely carved from wood by the [people] of the Upper Nile centuries ago, and in the end the limpid, smooth, perfect sculpture of the Greeks. So why be scornful of our own heritage?”
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Preston’s whole article has a lot to unpack, but just in these few paragraphs we can see some key issues that are directly relevant to Aboriginal Glyph: first, Preston felt the need to “rid herself” of European art, and the only way she felt she could do that was by turning to Aboriginal Australian art. Second, she believes that pulling from quote-unquote “primitive” indigenous forms is the only way to revitalize art and create a national style—and not only pulling, but in some cases, “draining” indigenous art in order to create art that is truly great.
Now, there is a gap of several decades between this article and the print we’re considering in this episode, so we can’t necessarily say Preston’s opinions remained exactly the same up through the 1950s, but the following quote from 1953 suggests a common thread remained in her ideas through the years: quote, “It has been said that modern art is international. But as long as human nature remains human every country has its national traits… It is important for a great nation to make a cultural stand… My wish is to see a combined attempt by our artists to give us an art that no other country in the world can produce.” End quote.
Preston is sometimes hailed as the first white Australian to champion Aboriginal Australian art, but as we can see from these quotes, her promotion of Aboriginal Australian art seems to have been driven largely by a nationalist impulse. Her interest was in promoting the culture and art of the settler colonial state of Australia, not necessarily in breaking down the dominance of European colonization and its subjugation of Aboriginal culture and art.
You may remember that in episode 13 of Art History for All, I covered a work by Albert Namatjira, an Aboriginal Australian artist who trained and worked in Western-style watercolor painting. Namatjira, born in 1902, lived and worked around the same time as Preston, and some of what I discussed back in episode 13 helps us understand the situation of indigenous Australians like Namatjira in the first half of the twentieth century. The land on which Aboriginal Australians lived was legally claimed by white settlers; Aboriginal people’s traditional activities, even survival activities such as hunting and gathering, were limited and criminalized. Namatjira himself, you may remember, was one of many Aboriginal Australians who was brought up within a Christian mission, never fully assimilating into the Western Arrernte way of life. Yet, at the same time that Aboriginal Australians were being segregated from white society and their activities limited, white Australians seized upon Aboriginal art and motifs as commodities. In an article on what she calls “Aboriginal mass culture,” Laura Fisher pinpoints the height of this commodification of Aboriginal art between the 1930s and 1960s—precisely the period during which Preston moved to Berowra and began focusing her work on the Australian landscape. Fisher describes the manifestation of “Aboriginal mass culture” in the following way:
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“In the years following the Second World War, Britain’s place as the foundation of Australian nationalism was in decline, which created a market for a specifically Australian aesthetic, particularly among the increasingly affluent suburban social class. The creators of this aesthetic embraced a range of modernist idioms, and modern stylistic trends were widely adopted within Australian commercial design, the decorative arts and domestic furnishings. Many non-indigenous artists, designers, and craftspeople were inspired by the primitivist practice of European modern artists and drew on the increasing number of museum displays and anthropological publications dedicated to Aboriginal history and society in their search for uniquely Australian visual material. They appropriated shapes, patterns, and color schemes from Aboriginal material and performative culture— rock art, carvings, boomerangs and body painting for instance. Insignia, logos, graphic design, fabrics, pottery, flooring and other architectural features, souvenirs and all forms of domestic paraphernalia were Aboriginalised [sic] at this time…. This was attributable in part to the growth of the Australian tourism sector in the post-Second World War period. The 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, for example, was a significant driver of the tourist market for Aboriginalia, as was the emergence of ‘the outback’ as a signature Australian holiday destination for both inbound tourists and coastal dwelling Australians.”
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Fisher specifically mentions “primitivism,” a late nineteenth and early twentieth century artistic trend that Preston was no doubt exposed to during her many visits to modern art exhibits in Europe. Primitivism essentially refers to the fascination that many European artists of this period had with art from so-called “primitive” cultures, including indigenous cultures such as Aboriginal Australian groups and native Africans. As Charles Cramer and Kim Grant point out in an overview of Primitivism for digital art history resource Smarthistory, primitivism is contradictory in that, quote, “the primitive is admired and even seen as a model, but at the same time it is presumed to be inferior because it is not fully developed.” End quote. Well-known modernists who indulged in primitivism include Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Rousseau, just to name a few. Primitivism often presumes the people and cultures from which it draws to be naïve, yet pure—living in a state of blissful ignorance about the problems particular to industrialized, intellectual nations. To the European observer this bliss is both enviable and pitiable, and it serves as partial justification for colonialist endeavors. It also serves as justification for cultural appropriation, which is precisely what happened with the boom in quote-unquote “Aboriginalia” in mid-twentieth century Australia.
Appropriation is at its core a fairly neutral term. I’m even going to consult Merriam Webster for this one: to appropriate is, quote, “to take exclusive possession of… to set apart for or assign to a particular purpose or use… to take or make use of without authority or right.” End quote. There is a whole genre of art called “appropriation art” that is based on this core idea—taking things that are not art, that were not intended to be art, and making them art. Marcel Duchamp did it with a urinal and a bicycle wheel on a stool, among others; Andy Warhol did it with Brillo boxes and Campbell’s soup cans. There’s no real controversy (at least not now) about that type of appropriation. People might say “that’s not art,” but nobody has grounds to claim that that sort of appropriation is harmful. Cultural appropriation, on the other hand, while it can be neutral or positive in some contexts, takes a harmful form so often that the entire concept is largely perceived as negative. Sometimes cultural appropriation is clearly harmful or disrespectful, such as when a white woman wears a Native American headdress to a festival. That example is frequently trotted out, but it’s because it happens much more frequently than it should, and it’s born out of a deep ignorance of the significance of an object like a headdress in Native American cultures. Sometimes, though, cultural appropriation cannot be clearly classified as good or bad. Connie Wang, a writer for Refinery29 and longtime commentator on cultural appropriation, wrote about some of the nuance and gray areas in discussing the phenomenon in a 2018 article, which I highly recommend you read. But here’s a couple excerpts:
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“When I started writing about cultural appropriation 10 years ago, it felt important to stress how these small annoyances laddered up to a pervasive grievance…. The articles that I and legions of other fed-up writers of color were producing felt something like a new way to address an old sin. I was committed to explaining how invisible legacies of colonialism show up in our lives and what we wear….
What began as a discussion of a phenomenon—the use of another culture’s symbols without permission, which is neither a good thing or a bad thing, just a thing that happens—has revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of why racism persists. The most vitriolic on the left suggest that any cultural swapping is tantamount to acts of visual racism; that using symbols without permission is always bad, and those that do it should be condemned without mercy. The most sanctimonious on the right believe that cultural appropriation is a meaningless phrase that willfully ignores intent; that people should have the right to celebrate what they find beautiful without criticism or abuse. In its proliferation, the term cultural appropriation has become charged….
The point is that it is not black and white. There is no neat answer, especially one that fits into a tweet or an Instagram post. What there is are two convenient responses: shutting it all down if anything feels remotely wrong, or doubling-down on the idea that ‘every culture appropriates’ and blatantly ignoring how culture-swapping can be used to reinforce imbalanced power dynamics, strengthening dominant cultures and keeping marginalized ones in their place.”
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As with so many things in art and life, instances of cultural appropriation cannot be easily divided into “good” and “bad.” We cannot unequivocally look at Preston’s Aboriginal Glyph and say that it appropriates Aboriginal culture, therefore it is bad. I, who am not an indigenous Australian, certainly have no authority to say so. Making a value judgment about an artwork or artist, especially one based in a different historical context than one’s own, is probably best avoided unless there are clear moral lines crossed, such as Gauguin quote-unquote “marrying” a thirteen-year-old Tahitian girl who he repeatedly painted nude.
It’s most useful, when trying to understand issues like this, to turn to those whom they affect the most for their opinion. Hetti Perkins, an Eastern Arrernte and Kalkatungu writer and curator, commented on Preston’s work in 2005 on the occasion of an exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW with a fairly balanced critique: quote, “Part of the problem with Preston borrowing images, [she says]… is that the artist didn’t understand the narrative vital to indigenous art. ‘The narrative [in Preston’s work] isn’t clear for an indigenous person…. It’s like speaking in a French accent without speaking French. The accent is there, the intonation is there, but the meaning is not….’ Preston’s attempts to engage with indigenous art… were prescient and beautiful from a non-indigenous point of view. ‘But I think there’s still a long way to go,’ Perkins says. ‘It’s yet to be done successfully by a non-indigenous artist.” End quote. Gary Lee, a Larrakia artist, said that, quote, “What a lot of Aboriginal curators and artists don’t particularly like about Preston is the way she’s held up as somebody who promoted Aboriginal art…. They talked about her promoting aboriginal art imagery almost like she promoted Aboriginal art itself.” End quote. Bundjalung art curator Djon Mundine specifically pointed out the insensitivity of Preston using sacred imagery indiscriminately, showing, quote, “an interest but an ignorance.” End quote. Mundine effectively sums up his assessment of Preston’s work by saying, quote, “The works present a veneer of Aboriginality… the veneer of someone who is still like a tourist in their own country.” End quote.
But how does this pertain specifically to Aboriginal Glyph? It’s one work of many Preston made in her lifetime, and one work of many that incorporated Aboriginally-influenced motifs. If we go by Hetti Perkins’s assessment of Preston’s body of work, it probably isn’t decipherable in terms of symbolism, which means it’s largely an aesthetic exercise. This is somewhat ironic, as the very title, Aboriginal Glyph, implies that this is a readable pictograph of some kind. The fact that this is a print, a medium that has a long history of commercialization due to its low overhead and easy reproducibility, makes it easy to align with the quote-unquote “Aboriginalia” craze that peaked around the time of its production. Aboriginal Glyph could very well be Preston’s contribution to that trend.
I will admit I was somewhat restricted in researching this episode due to not being able to access any physical libraries—perhaps there is a key point about Preston I am missing, and if so, please do let me know! We may never really resolve how to consider works like Aboriginal Glyph, but continuing to talk about the things that make such artworks problematic is valuable in itself. Listening to marginalized groups when they say something is appropriative, and thoughtfully changing our behaviors based on what we hear from them, is valuable in itself. All that dialogue and listening is so key to the evolution, not just of art and art history, but of society as a whole.
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Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Art History for All. You can find a transcript of this podcast, as well as a link to the image and citations, at arthistoryforall.com. Go ahead and subscribe to Art History for All wherever you like to listen to podcasts, follow us on Twitter and Instagram at arthistory4all, with the number 4, and if you really enjoyed the podcast, please consider leaving us a tip on Ko-Fi, at ko-fi.com/arthistoryforall. This podcast was produced and narrated by Allyson Healey, and the theme was composed by Bruce Healey. Credits for other music can be found in the episode description or at the end of the transcript. Main episodes premiere on the last Monday of every month, and bonus episodes will appear in your feed occasionally. Thanks so much for listening, and remember to look closely—you never know what you might see.
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Additional Music Credits:
Talking Drums with Guitar and Bass Mix by Bruce Healey
Pride by Kevin MacLeod
Beauty Flow by Kevin MacLeod