Photography and an Australian indigenous spirituality

‘Contemporary Australian Indigenous Photography’, lecture at the Kluge-Ruhe Collection, University of Virginia, USA, 2004.

Recently there has been a flowering of Australian indigenous photography, mostly by urban Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Before the 1980s there were very few active indigenous photographers—Mervyn Bishop is virtually the only example. During the course of the eighties, as Bishop’s own career came to be recognised[1], a few other indigenous photographers also came to prominence: most spectacularly Tracey Moffatt, but also Michael Riley, Brenda Croft and Ricky Maynard.[2] But in the 1990s there was a veritable explosion.[3] There was also a general change in the style of indigenous art photography: away from a relatively straightforward documentary style, and towards a more postmodern, theoretically savvy, ‘art school’ style.[4]

This explosion parallels similar explosions of urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander creativity in painting, film and theatre. But more importantly it also parallels a growth in indigenous history telling, much of which relied on archival photographs.[5] As well, this explosion accompanied a ratcheting up of the pitch of popular debate about indigenous issues that happened in the late eighties and early nineties about our ethical responsibility to the history and memory of race relations in Australia. Media debates and court cases about land rights, the British legal doctrine of terra nullius and the stolen generation planted a specific array of images in our collective visual consciousness: barefooted kids in orphanages, Aboriginal ‘murderers’ in chains, and anthropological portraits.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, given the legal framework in which the debates took place and the media imagery which accompanied it, that contemporary urban indigenous photography is characterised by two things: a wordiness, a play or struggle with the weight of words — both English and indigenous; and the re-use of old photographs — both historical documents and family snapshots.

Virtually all indigenous photographers have, at some time or other, re-used old photographs: Leah King-Smith, Brook Andrew, Rea[6], Julie Gough, Fiona Foley and the painter Gordon Bennett have all directly copied and re-used archival museum and gallery photographs; Fiona Foley, the early Tracey Moffatt[7] and Darren Siwes have renegotiated their relationship to these ‘received’ images by some kind of performative response in the present; Brenda Croft, Destiny Deacon and Gordon Bennett have directly re-used family snapshots in their work; and received styles or retro atmospheres have also been evoked latterly by Tracey Moffatt, Destiny Deacon and Brenda Croft.

This is not unique to indigenous photography. Old photographs, both personal and historic, and retro atmospheres, both oppressive and kitsch, haunt contemporary photography globally. In particular migrant artists have used old photographs to talk about their dislocation from the past and their, at least partial, alienation from a present which still marginalises their heritage. Many settled white artists also re-use old photographs in the 1980s to talk about general issues of post colonialism in Australia and elsewhere. But then, today everybody is dislocated from their past. It is part of our general millennial condition in which we have been cast adrift by the multitude of twentieth century geopolitical diasporas, and muffled by mediating technologies which make historical consciousness and collective memory vicarious experiences.[8]

Indigenous photography is a more politically intense instance of this general phenomenon. Certainly few peoples have been so brutally dislocated from their past as Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. And they have long used photography both symbolically and forensically to find their past. Many indigenous narratives of historical discovery start with family snapshots. And several Australian museums now take a proactive role in using their collections to re-forge individual historical connections. For instance the South Australian Museum’s Aboriginal Community and Family History Unit helps Aboriginal people learn more about their families and communities using photographs originally taken by Norman Tindale and Joseph Birdsell and held in the Museum’s Anthropology Archives. [9]

Coming to terms with history: Lorraine Hunter catalogues photographs at the Berendt Museum, Picture Megan Lewis, The Australian, 14/7/99 p44.

However the irony is that unlike a white person using family snaps as aide memoires at a family reunion, or historical images as forensic genealogical clues, indigenous seekers after their family history are often using anthropological photographs that were not made to document individuals, but to identify anthropological types; and not as systematic social records, but as fragmented scientific specimens. They were originally taken not to confirm historical presence, but to file away an archival record in order to posthumously confirm the historical extinction of the original. It is this bitter irony that makes the symbolic use of old photographs in urban indigenous art, and the forensic use of old photographs by Aboriginal people of the stolen generation, more prevalent than migrant or mainstream uses of old photographs.

In the late eighties and early nineties Gordon Bennett was making paintings such as Tryptych, 1989, one section of which, titled Requiem, superimposed the geometric lines of three perspectival pyramids ‘shooting’ towards an image of Trucanini derived from the well know C.A. Woolley photograph of 1866. The image was made spectral and degraded by a process which looks like multiple photocopying. But to Gordon Bennett even perspective itself is political

[P]erspective may be seen as symbolic of a certain kind of power structure relating to a particular European world view … Aborigines caught in this system of representation remain ‘frozen’ as objects within the mapped territory of a European perceptual grid.[10]

Lately anthropological portraits has been held up by indigenous artists as not only the theoretical paradigm of colonial attempts at genocide, but also as acts of violence technically akin to, and instrumentally part of, that very process of that attempted genocide.

Thus Rea used archival photographs of aboriginal domestic servants to talk about her own grandmother’s life. And Fiona Gough domesticates and passifies the residual power of archival photographs by engulfing them in granny’s fluffy slippers.

The photographs used by urban indigenous photographers are not monuments, because they do not commemorate a historical closure on the past. In a way they are anti-monuments, images of unquiet ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves. Their re-use attempts to capture a feeling of active dialogue with the past, a two way corridor through time, almost a voodoo quality, or a sense of New Age channelling. Brenda Croft in her Barthesian meditation on nineteenth century colonial Aboriginal photographs “Laying Ghosts To Rest”, comes closest to articulating this feeling. She allows herself the indulgence of retroactively investing the agency of political resistance in the portraits when she says:

Images like these have haunted me since I was a small child and … [and] were instrumental in guiding me to use the tools of photography in my work. … The haunted faces of our ancestors challenge and remind us to commemorate them and acknowledge their existence, to help lay them, finally, to rest. [11]

Leah King-Smith. Untitled (4/17), Cibachrome photograph, 1.2m x 1.2m. 1991

One of the first indigenous photographers to receive unexpected international success with a series that re-used old photographs was Leah King-Smith. Her exhibition Patterns of Connection, 1992, travelled nationally and internationally. In her large deeply coloured ‘photo-compositions’ anthropological  photographs were liberated from the State Library of Victoria to be superimposed as spectral presences on indigenous landscapes. In the catalogue the process was described as allowing:

Aboriginal people [to] flow into the land, into space reclaimed for them by the photographer … From the flaring of velvety colours and forms, translucent ghosts appear within a numinous world.[12]

Clare Williamson describes how King-Smith pictorially, rather than rhetorically, invests her original images with the same ability Brenda Croft feels to project the past into the present.

It is instructive to examine King-Smith’s imagery alongside the historical images which are her sources. These small black and white photograph’s ‘contain’ their aboriginal subjects as objects which can be held in the hand, collected, stored and viewed at will. Their placement of the figure within a fabricated European (or a constructed ‘native’ one), and set well back from the picture plane, creates a gulf between viewer and subject, and an inequitable relationship in favour of the viewer. King-Smith reverses the order. Large colour saturated images ‘impress’ the viewer. The figures are brought right to the picture plane, seemingly extending beyond the frame and checking our gaze with theirs.[13]

Brook Andrew invests the bodies of his nineteenth century subjects—who he releases from the closet of the past by copying their images from the archive of the nineteenth century postcard photographer Charles Kerry—not only with a libidinous body image inscribed within the terms of a contemporary ‘queer’ masculinity, but also with defiant Barbara Krugeresque slogans such as Sexy and Dangerous, 1996, I Split Your Gaze, 1997 and Ngajuu Ngaay Nginduugirr, [I see you], 1998. These works attempt to reverse the relationship of subject and object in the nineteenth century colonial portrait around the axis of the trajectory of the gaze, and to make the contemporary viewer the subject of a defiant, politically updated gaze returned from history itself.

Brook Andrew, Sexy and dangerous, digital phootgraph, 1996

Charles Kerry, sheet of copied photographs, 1880s-1890s, Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Even when the contemporary Aboriginal artist’s body ritualistically and purgatorially takes on colonial subjugation, the historic photograph and, more significantly, the alignment of gazes, is still the vitalising channel of connection. In the work of Brook Andrew the trans-historical objectifying gaze is simply reflected straight back to the present contingent moment to be immediately re-inscribed in a contemporary politico-sexual discourse. However, in contrast, in Fiona Foley’s re-enactments of the colonial photographs of her Badtjala ancestors, Native Blood, 1994, the gaze is stopped dead in its tracks by Foley’s own obdurate, physical body. To the post-colonial theorist Olu Oguibe:

In Foley’s photographs the Other makes herself available, exposes herself, invites our gaze if only to re-enact the original gaze, the original violence perpetrated on her. She does not disrupt this gaze nor does she return it. She recognises that it is impossible to return the invasive gaze, that what purports to be a returned gaze is only a mimicry. Instead Foley forces the gaze to blink, exposes it to itself.[14]

Fiona Foley, Native blood, 1994.

Tosca Studios, Candelo, West Queensland Aboriginal, c1900, Queensland Museum.

In all of these contemporary uses of the colonial photograph the intention of the original historic photographer is evacuated. We find ourselves in his empty shoes, shuttling back and forth along a two way channel formed along the alignment of the two interlocking gazes of sitter and viewer, object and subject, past and present. Certainly, to at least some extent, this sense of channelling pervades all the contemporary uses of old photographs. But the indigenous use of old photographs gives this channeling a different political valency to equivalent uses of old photographs by migrant or long-term settler photographers.

In their book Uncanny Australia Ken Gelder and Jane Jacobs use Australian ghost stories to describe the uncanniness of Australia’s relationship to indigenous spirituality. In postcolonial terms they see hauntings as a productive occurrence:

‘Ghosts’ simply could not function in a climate of sameness, in a country which fantasises about itself as ‘one nation’ or which imagines a utopian future of ‘reconciliation’ in which … all the ghosts have been laid to rest. But neither can they function in a climate of nothing but difference, where the one can never resemble the other, as in a ‘divided’ nation. A structure in which sameness and difference solicit each other, spilling over each other’s boundaries only to return again to their respective places, moving back and forward in an unpredictable, even unruly manner—a structure in which sameness and difference embrace and refuse each other simultaneously. : this is where the ‘ghosts’ which may cause us to ‘smile’ or to ‘worry’ continue to flourish.[15]

Aboriginal ghosts remind Australia that there is unfinished business. Gelder and Jacobs quote Raymond Williams who has made a distinction between the archaic and the residual in the contemporary experience of the past, the ‘residual’ is “still active in the political process”. Anthropological indigenous photographs cannot yet be monuments because they are still left over from the past, residual to history.[16]

The idea of ghosts soliciting the fickle memory of a too self-absorbed, too quickly forgetful later generation also scans across to the role of Anzac ghosts in Australian collective memory. This cross-scan to a twentieth century settler spectral tradition of the Anzac myth is implicitly referred to a series of photographs by Aboriginal photographer Darren Siwes taken from 1999 to 2002, which have also proved to be extraordinarily popular with curators nationally and internationally. By ghosting himself standing implacably in front of various buildings in a series of night photographs taken around Adelaide, he refers to an indigenous haunting, certainly; but in many images he is ghosted standing to attention whilst wearing a generic suit, so he also evokes the feeling of being surveilled by a generalised, truculent Australian masculinity — exactly the same feeling that an Anzac memorial statue gives.

Darren Siwes, Church 1, 2000.

New Agers have often appropriated Aboriginal spirituality for use in their own impromptu spiritual systems, and at the same time contemporary Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and New Agers are occasionally fellow travellers.[17]  Leah King-Smith is perhaps the most explicitly New Age of contemporary Aboriginal artists. She concludes her artist’s statement by asking that: “… people activate their inner sight to view Aboriginal people.”[18]   Her work animistically gives the museum photographs she re-uses a spiritualist function. Many of her fellow Indigenous artists have criticised her for being too generalist, for not knowing the stories of the people whose photographs she used, and not asking the permission of the traditional owners of the land she makes them haunt. But, by referring to Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Anne Marsh describes this as a ‘strategic essentialism’. She says:

There is little doubt, in my mind, that Leah King-Smith is a kind of New Age evangelist and many serious critics will dismiss her work on these grounds. Others will point to the artist’s misplaced desire to represent Aboriginal Australia: to talk for the subaltern, as it were. But I am interested in why the images are so popular and how they tap into a kind of cultural imaginary and use the mythology of photography’s syntax … to conjure the ineffable. …  Leah King-Smith’s figures resonate with a constructed aura: the skin which is shed onto the photographic plate is given an enhanced ethereal quality through the use of mirrors and projections. The ‘mirror with a memory’ comes alive as these ancestral ghosts, already simulacra in their Anglo costumes, seem to drift through the landscape as a seamless version of nineteenth century spirit photography.[19]

This sense of Aboriginal ancestors, re-born as spiritually replete by the demands of their descendents, and liberated by contemporary Aboriginal artists to drift through a numinous landscape, is also present in the work of Michael Riley. In the photographic series Sacrifice, 1993, and Flyblown, 1998, Riley used objects like crucifixes as both literal and allegorical symbols of mission-life oppression. But in a later series, Cloud, 2000, these symbols have taken on a more autonomous spirituality. They have lost some of their grounding in past historical circumstances, but gained access to a New Age style symbolic bricolage. In Brenda Croft’s words:

[The have] shifted from terra firma to other-worldly locations, including the paranormal.[20]

The role of performance is also important to these photographs. In discussing the Bringing Them Home report on the Stolen Generation of 1997, John Frow comments that the report supplements the standard historiographic citation of the past with collaged-in fragments of first-person testimony. He quotes De Certeau who contrasts collage with historiographic citation. Citation allows the past to lend an effect of reality that validates historical knowledge in the present, through citation the present makes the past intelligible, but also separates past from present. Collage on the other hand gives the past direct affectivity and  answerability within the present. In the Stolen Generations inquiry the unmediated, cathartic, performed testimony of witnesses allows the past to report on the present, just as the present is supposedly meant to be soberly reporting on the past.[21] In the debate between the so-called ‘black armband’ and ‘white blindfold’ view of the history of white Australia’s contact with indigenous Australians the ‘admissibility’ of evidence which is not forensically factual, but based in oral history, myth and even the numinous, is one major point of contention. For instance a revisionist article disparagingly quotes the experience of an  anthropologist Dr Bruce Shaw, called as an expert witness in a Native title case: “I … experienced a shift of awareness when reading some of the longer passages [to the court]. At times I felt like those men were speaking through me. That is not to suggest that I have the abilities of a spiritualist medium; it means that I was experiencing the same sort of responses as some of my listeners … when such narratives are recited in court the subjective, which includes the metaphysical and at times the numinous, slips into proceedings.” Quoted in Rod Moran, “Was there a massacre at Bedford Downs?”, Quadrant, November 2002.

Similarly, in their re-use of old photographs, indigenous photographers do not see themselves as citing them, or ‘appropriating’ them in the standard ironic mode of postmodernist quotation, so much as collaging them into the present, using them to demand an answer from the present. They are trying not to so much appropriate them across culture, as collage them across time. They ‘re-perform’ the old photograph in the present in order to generate this sense of temporal collage.

It might be this urgently felt need to re-perform the historic photograph in the present which, for me, gives many of these photographs their overwrought feeling. They seem histrionic, melodramatic, and pictorially overproduced — as though urban aboriginal photographers have to try very hard to ritualistically get in touch with their ancestors. They use an excessive bricolage of special effects verging on the banal to generate a sense of connection. Brenda Croft, for instance, in In My Father’s House, and In My Mother’s Garden, 1998, overlays family snaps of her father, mother and grandmother with repeatedly floating words like ‘bereft’ and ‘weeping’, in multiple layers of Photoshop, in cursive fonts, at different colours, sizes and levels of transparency. Certainly these literally over-wrought surfaces were partially a result of the acute personal grief these works deal with,[22] but this quality also characterizes her later work such as Irrisistable/irresistible, 2000, as well as the work of many other indigenous artists with a more intergenerational yearning for the lost ancestors they never knew.

Brenda L. Croft, Don’t go kissing at the garden gate (Love is blind but the neighbours aint), 1998.

Brenda L. Croft, My mother recognised the man in the little boy, 1998.

In the context of Australia’s fraught race politics, an important aspect of the affectivity of these works for white viewers is the supplementation of the viewer’s own sense of shame—our desire (or otherwise) to say ‘sorry’ for the crimes of our ancestors, which we bring to the image. The imprecatory tone of many of the works I have discussed is best understood in that context. For instance shortly after being elected to office Australia’s new conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, discussed Aboriginal reconciliation and native land tenure with the populist magazine Who Weekly.

Most Australians—now don’t misunderstand this—most Australians grow up not having any contact with Aboriginal people. Now, that’s not their fault but equally they shouldn’t sort of be blamed for something in which they played no part. Aborigines were terribly treated in the nineteenth century, I understand that, and in many cases into the twentieth century. I accept that completely and it ought to be taught in schools and understood. I understand all that, but if you grow up in a neighbourhood where you didn’t have any contact with Aborigines—and that was the lot of most Australians, I mean I didn’t have any contact with Aboriginal kids when I grew up because there weren’t any living in my suburb. In some country areas and a few urban areas there were. And that was it. Now to say to me and to say to my kids and to say of my parents, who never treated them poorly, to say you’re all to blame and you should apologise, it’s something people just can’t get a handle on and they think it’s odd.[23]

This kind of thinking allocated to the indigenous community a deracinated sense of history and an experiential forgetting which inevitably weakened the indigenous stake in Australia’s future. If Howard’s view—that any historical processes affecting the Aboriginal community which were not personally experienced may be discounted in favour of a synchronic assessment of social need—were applied across the board, then all of the structures he holds dear would collapse. The bonds of nationhood, the Westminster system, and the common law all rely on the diachronic transmission of a sense of ownership and responsibility not only directly, person to person, but also indirectly through collective assumptions and investments which are shared and transmitted experientially—narratively and imagistically.

Indeed the Prime Minister’s sense of his own statesmanship is closely interwoven with his mission to keep Anzac memory alive.[24] This also requires an affective remembering where those who come from the past are seemingly brought up to witness the present. For instance Anzac rituals such as the Minute’s Silence or the Dawn Service encourage us to homeopathically re-experience long past historical moments. The sacred phrase ‘Lest We Forget’ warns us against letting the experience of war slip away.

In Australia there has not only not been a social and historical reconciliation between black and white, there has also not been a reconciliation between the two mnemonic traditions. Will they co-exist? Will they merge? Will one extinguish the other? These questions remain stalled in history. This background of fraught race politics and conflicting mnemonic traditions goes at least part way to explaining the over-wrought, imprecatory tone of much contemporary urban Aboriginal art, as well as the curatorial success which has greeted the ghosts it has called forth.

Both the well established Anzac mnemonic tradition, and the emergent indigenous mnemonic tradition, seem to be developing along very similar structural and iconographic lines, both incorporating at various times spectral photographic imagery. In both photography’s special effects, its power to not just reproduce the real, but to conjure apparitions and laminate them to the present, are called upon.

Contemporary indigenous artists have politically deployed the spiritual, spectral magic of photographs of their ancestors on a wide scale. This strategic deployment has a higher valency than standard appropriation because the photographs are being reactivated to call the present to account. But are these precious old photographs, whilst being made politically active in the present, kept in a dialectical relationship to it? After all, photographs of long dead Aborigines are, in fact, merely insubstantial ghosts, they are not the Aborigines themselves. Are contemporary indigenous photographers, such as for instance the sassy and savvy Brook Andrew with his ‘sexy and dangerous’ nineteenth century aboriginal men, hijacking the past for their own strategic politico/aesthetic ends? In their attempts to break through the historical impasse that tragically freezes contemporary Australian political discourse, are they, not unlike a supplicant to a spirit photographer, attempting to collapse time itself, by co-opting the past into a fantasy of presentness that risks being banally synchronic?

Lately the spectral Aborigine has become part of mainstream iconography. For instance a popular book summarising the result of the Royal Commission into the stolen generation superimposes the face of an aboriginal child over the ruins of a mission. And Aborigines are regularly photographed by press photographers holding anthropological portraits as defiant talismans. A recent memorial to Reconciliation was controversial because it asked us to remember aboriginal children removed to missions primarily as happy, cricket playing youngsters. So recently some Indigenous artist have upped the ante and have complicated this convenient trope of haunting.

Fiona Foley, for instance, has recently photographed herself with native Americans not, I think, to promote some banal idea of a pan-global ‘nation’ of First Peoples, but more to overtly and cheekily experiment with a kind of post-colonial drag, to lay authoritative claim to a bricolage not stalled in a perpetual relationship to nineteenth century ancestors and mired historical processes.

Brenda Croft, too, in simply reproducing Kodachrome slides from the 1950s of her father in the series  Man About Town, allows them to maintain their ineffable distance from us in the present. There is plenty of space left for us to fantasise and speculate about his life when he was a young single man, before he met the artist’s mother, before he knew that he had a twin sister, and before he found his mother from whom he had been taken as a baby.

[1] In Dreams: Mervyn Bishop Thirty Years Photography 1969-1990, curated by Tracey Moffatt, Australian Centre for Photography, 1991.

[2]  The first group exhibition of Aboriginal photographers, Naidoc Week Aboriginal and Islander Phototgraphers Exhibition, was held in Sydney in 1986. See an exhibition review by Tracey Moffatt, Photofile, Summer 1986.

[3]  National Gallery of Australia,  Re-take: Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Phootgraphy, 1998-1999.

[4] [Gellatly, 1999 #397]

[5].[Langton, 1983 #333] Catherine De Lorenzo, ‘Delayed Exposure: Contemporary Aboriginal Photography’, Brenda Croft ‘Blak Lik Mi’,  Art In Australia, 1997, 35, 1,

[6]  Look Who’s calling the Kettle Black, 1992.

[7] Some Lads. 1986

[8]. Andreas Huyssen, Twilight  Memories: Marking time in a culture of amnesia, New York and London, Routledge, 1995, , Introduction pp3-9

[9]See also the Berndt Collection in the Western Australian Museum, and the exhibition Portraits of our Elders by the Queensland Museum. Michael Aird, Portraits of our Elders, Brisbane, Queensland Museum, 1993. And[Poignant, 1996 #51]

[10]. Gordon Bennett, ‘Aesthetics and Iconography: an artist’s approach’, Aratjara: Art of the First Australians, Dusseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, 1993,

[11]. Brenda L. Croft, ‘Laying ghosts to rest’, Portraits of Oceania, Judy Annear, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1997, p9, 14

[12] [Phipps, 1992 #401]

[13]. Clare Williamson, ‘Leah King-Smith: Patterns of Connection’, Colonial Post Colonial, Melbourne, Museum of Modern Art at Heide, 1996, p46

[14]. Olu Oguibe, ‘Medium and Memory in the Art of Fiona Foley’, Third Text, 1995-96, Winter 1995-96, , pp58-59

[15]. Ken Gelder and Jane M.Jacobs, Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation, Melbourne University Press, 1998, p42

[16] Raymond Williams Dominant, Residual and Emergent”, Marxism and Literature, Oxford University Press, 1977. Quoted in. Ken Gelder and Jane M.Jacobs, Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation, Melbourne University Press, 1998, p18

[17]. L. R. Hiatt, ‘A New Age for an Old People’, Quadrant, 1997, 16, 337,

[18]. Leah King-Smith, ‘Statement’, Patterns of Connection, Melbourne, Victorian Centre for Photography, 1992,

[19]. Anne Marsh, ‘Leah King-Smith and the Nineteenth century Archive’, History of Photography, 1999, 23, 2, p117

[20] [Croft, 2002 #402]

[21]. John Frow, ‘The Politics of Stolen Time’, Meanjin, 1998, 57,2,

[22]  “For the artists … photography and family histories entwine as the act of making art becomes a way of dealing with grief.” [Gellatly, 1998 #403]

[23]  [John Howard, 1996 #404]

[24]  See for instance: “Keep the Anzac fire alight”, The Australian , 26 April, 2000, p1 and  “Statesmanship forged on a fatal shore”, The Weekend Australian , 29 April-2000 , Pp3.

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