Friday, 20 January 2012

The elephant in the room....

Its taken me some time to work up the courage to write this, for reasons which will soon become apparent. Seeing as no-one is following this blog, I think I'm fairly safe to proceed without fear of the ruckus that might be caused by someone with a higher profile.
I left an artists talk at Campbelltown Arts Centre the other day in a fury. Why? Partly because the continuous assertion that the audience was a part of an amorphous "you people" who had stolen a continent and created a  beuracratic social welfare system was wearing thin. More unpleasant though, was the impossibility of raising any critique of thisor any other assertion. Richard Bell, the artist (sorry, that should be 'art star') in question, responded to one elderly woman's polite and pertinent question, and her relating the experiences of her Aboriginal granddaughter, with an explosion: "What the fuck are you talking about, woman?" I wish I had noted the surname of Madeline, the film maker also on the panel, who actually created the documentary film which was part of Bell's contribution to the Edge of Elsewhere exhibition. (Which he says he chose to 'point to his activism'). Madeline made some worthwhile and disturbing points about the standard of living and access to dental care still experienced by Aboriginal people. She might have had a lot more to say and I think it would have been enlightening for we in the audience to hear it. It is easy to be complacent and insulated from the reality of life for the majority of Australia's first people.
But we were busy listening to Richard Bell tell us how he can name his family and that is all he need do to prove his Aboriginality. He seems to have forgotten all those Aboriginal people who lost their family history when they were taken from their mothers.
It hardly seems neccessary, or helpful, to assert that I am not a racist. It's a cliche usually followed by a racist comment. But you know, when I listen to the lyrics of Archie Roach or Kev Carmody I feel moved; I feel responsible, not for the wrongs of the past and present, but for the creation of a better future. Their art makes me want to make a difference.
I try to perpetuate this awareness through my work and in my children - the truths of the theft of land, culture, language and family. The complexity of generations of trauma. Our part in the present and future. This is a legacy passed to me by father, whose school years were captained by the Dodson brothers, Mick and Patrick: their election based not on a compensatory gesture, but on their notable leadership skills and the genuine affection of their fellow students.
But when I listened to Richard Bell I felt shunned, it all seemed too fraught, too 'hot' to touch.
In my children's school I recently joined the Reconciliation Action Plan Committee', on request of the executive teacher who, incidentally, is Aboriginal.
That teacher seems to have no problem with my being white, or whatever I am: not Aboriginal. Richard Bell does. Richard Bell had a problem with every not-Aboriginal in the audience that day. "You People Got a Continent For Free" he said to us, we of Vietnamese, Maori, Cambodian, Irish, Samoan, Thai, English, Cornish, Indian, Chinese, Korean, Welsh and every other descent. We who were born here and we who came here to escape prejudice and repression. It sounded like a line from his very valuable, highly sought after, paintings. But without (what I always assumed to be) irony. There was a racist in the room that day. But no-one dared say who it was.

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