Love, magic, and the art of resistance
There is a wealth of Indigenous art dealing with issues of sex, sexuality, health and HIV. And a radical forthcoming exhibition, Love Magic will take up the theme of Aboriginal erotica. Maurice O'Riordan explores the art of resistance
"Whether a painting, a photograph, a film, a novel, play, radioshow we are the most employed artists in the country, and that we are still resistence fighters, just without the physical conflict."
-Anita Heiss, Indigenous Portfolio Australian Society of Authors.1
THE FIRST POINT that needs to be recognised in relation to Aboriginal art that deals with HIV/AIDS and general sexual health is its diversity and proliferation. This article barely scratches the surface of the vast body of relevant visual art and its underlying themes of cultural/spiritual integrity and self-determination. The groundbreaking exhibition Don't Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age Of AIDS (National Gallery of Australia, 1994) would not have been complete without the inclusion of Aboriginal art. Fortunately, this inclusion went beyond tokenism in bringing together the work of such artists as Rea, Harry Wedge, Marrynula Munungurr and the culturally transcendental and empowering icon of Condoman, born out of an Aboriginal Health Workers workshop in Townsville in 1987. Critical appreciation of this exhibition, however (apart from its accompanying book of the same name) tended to ignore the achievements andconcerns of these Aboriginal artists, a fact which now makes the realisation of an equally large-scale national exhibition of Indigenous Australian AIDS-related art even more compelling. Although not HIV/AIDS-specific, a forthcoming exhibition at Sydney's S.H.Ervin Gallery, Love Magic: Aboriginal Erotica, in January 1999, will no doubt reclaim someground in critical perceptions of Aboriginal sexual health.
That art can play such a vital and central role in raising awareness of HIV/AIDS and the promotion of health (including sexual health) is something which sits very comfortably in an Aboriginal context, given that Aboriginal art generally reflects a more profound cultural, spiritual and social integration - more profoundly holistic, that is, than art's role in a compartmentalised Western culture. HIV/AIDS, which reportedly "now rivals the greatest epidemics of history"2 (if an epidemic can be called 'great'), continues to mobilise a whole era of cultural-activist artists who bring new meaning and added imperative to art's capacity to heal and, indirectly, save lives. As a primary motivation, this unites artists of all cultural backgrounds, but it is in the development of the must appropriate and powerful forms of visual communication that Aboriginal art comes to the fore. Condoman is a good example here because, although he was created with an Indigenous audience in mind, his cult-status popularity virtually turned him into a national icon of safe sex awareness for all Australians, particularly youth. His appeal may partly stem from an association with the comic book hero Phantom, but the fact remains that an Aboriginal/black male character, wearing the colours of the Aboriginal flag, spread the message of safe sex and male responsibility for condom use with a phenomenally greater impact than campaigns such as The Grim Reaper. Interestingly, a comic-style image produced by the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services Council in 1986, Why Wanda Said No in Broome, actually featured the Phantom in a narrative which also employed humour, sexiness and local language to impart its message of safe sex and dispel the myth of HIV/AIDS as a 'gay disease' exclusive to Sydney.
This comic appeared in the First Indigenous-themed National AIDS Bulletin (NAB) issue, Aborigines and AIDS (Vol. 3, Number 3, April 1989). The cover for this issue carried a lull-colour reproduction of Andrew Spencer Tjapaltjarri's acrylic painting AIDS threatens Aboriginal Life, 1987. Significantly, this painting drew upon Spencer's own distinctive Central Desert (Walpiri) ancestral iconography to literally drive home the threat of HIV and its potential transmission within and between desert communities. In this issue it was stated that no HIV-positive Aboriginal people had been identified in Central Australia. One wonders how accurate this statement was, bearing in mind both a reluctance to front up for HIV testing and the dearth of relevant statistics - still very much the case for Aboriginal communities today. The striking and enigmatic cover image for this current NAB issue, Spirit, is by Central Australian (Luritja/Waramunga) artist. Robert Ambrose Cole, who died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1994. Not only does Cole's Spirit testify to the power of art in speaking beyond the grave. His untimely death at the age of 35 (only three years after his first solo exhibition) reminds us that HIV/AIDS has also taken its tragic toll on the Aboriginal arts community.
Before painting AIDS Threatens Aboriginal Life, Andrew Spencer Tjapaltjarri had tackled the issue of petrol sniffing in the same way with strong results. It's no surprise, then, that such a culturally adaptive approach to primary health promotion was also instigated in surrounding communities, largely under the umbrella of the Alice Springs-based Healthy Aboriginal Life Team (1985-87, 1987-91) and the Visual AIDS project (1989). Twenty-three of these paintings, including eleven by Spencer and two by his wife, Bertha Nakamarra, were eventually assembled as an exhibition. Jukurrpa Wankaru Juku ('Keeping the Dreaming Alive' in Walpiri language). which covered a broad range of health and lifestyle issues including HIV/AIDS. Toured by the Australian Exhibitions Touring Agency in 1993, these paintings made a powerful and unequivocal statement of cultural depth, beauty and pride. Notably, Spencer's painting on the 1989 NAB cover appeared in this exhibition under a slightly different title, New Ways Threaten Aboriginal Life. Although the accompanying text highlighted the HIV/AIDS content. Of the narrative, AIDS was more clearly interpreted as yet another sign of the encroachment of colonial and contemporary cultures into the domain of traditional Aboriginal life."3
Colonisation is, needless to say, a common and continuing legacy for all Aboriginal people, regardless of the degree to which their basic human right to maintain and practice cultural traditions fits the government of the day's 'bill'. Certainly, a good deal of Aboriginal art specifically produced for HIV/AIDS preventative education and sexual health outcomes is also about affirming broader cultural and spiritual values in the face of 'third world' health conditions and constant negative stereotyping, which seems to be on the increase. Zane Saunders' Untitled painting, 1993, featured in Don't Leave Me This Way, centres on an embracing couple (one with condom in hand) amidst a lush, sensual environment brimming with the colours and wild - life (birds, fish, two-headed snake, butterfly and insects) of his tropical north Queensland home. All affirms life and culture, except for a death-like mask, its eyes closed to the painting's message of safe sex and regeneration. In this vein, Ngukkur artist (Marra/Alawa) Eddie Blitner's painting Blue Bell, 1997, is included for its wonderfully dynamic and graceful homage to family and fertility - in this case to the artist's great grandmother (the central figure), blessed by the mimi spirit children of her own progeny and with her husband above (now deceased) in the harmonised, totemic form of a snake. Blitner will be one of the artists shown at the forthcoming Love Magic exhibition.
The parallels of resisting colonisation and HIV infection are more overt in a subversive comic-style narrative drawing, HIV/AIDS Survival!, 1991, by Kathy Kum-Sing and Ross Carnsew, reproduced in the Nunga project (South Australia) information booklet, Aborigine Must Be Free, Let's Control HIV. Here the threat of HIV is synonymous with the initial invasion of the First Fleet. The opening vignette shows one of the crew shouting to Captain Phillip: "Disease Number 200,543 since arrival sir!" as a rowboat named HIV lands ashore with its crew and Union Jack. An Aboriginal family stands by alternately musing: "HIV/AIDS, did it come by ship too?" and "Does it matter!" Explanations of the origin of HIV have ranged from biochemical warfare theories to the utterly racist notion that 'third world' African 'blacks' engage in sex with baboons. From an Aboriginal perspective, as this comic narrates, HIV/AIDS is just one more in a long and devastating line of introduced diseases since colonisation and against which the Aboriginal flag, here bearing the word 'Survival', flies with courage and defiance.
Aboriginal art curator Ken Watson's essay in the catalogue to a recent NAIDOC Week exhibition, Djalarinji - something that belongs to us, takes the opportunity of its showing at the Manly Art Gallery and Museum to impart some of the lesser known indigenous Eora and Darug histories belying Sydney Harbour's hedonist veneer. Watson explains: "An outbreak of smallpox in April 1789 killed so many of the Eora and Darug people that it becomes necessary to view this era in relation to the Sydney Aboriginal Community as before and after the smallpox epidemic."4 Oenpelli artist Mangudji's bark paintingman Man With Leprosy, c.1958, records the impact of another disease, borne mostly by Aboriginal populations across the northern Australian tropics. Though leprosy, or Hansen's disease (how that name sticks!) is the least communicable of communicable diseases, Aboriginal lepers were quarantined in offshore 'lock' hospitals and leprosariums from 1870 to as late as 1985.
It was the Feachem Report (Evaluation of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy 1993-94 to 1995-96) which first singled out Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, along with gay men, as a priority group for Commonwealth HIV/AIDS funding. This report included the acrylic painting Pikatjarra Story which, like Andrew Spencer's work, tells its narrative of safe sex and the risks of alcohol-affected sexual behaviour through Central Desert iconography. Its description reveals the incorporation of HIV into local language (in Areyonga, NT) as 'pika', and the fact that seven women artists worked together on the painting. Collaboration and collective ownership are often an implicit feature of Aboriginal.art, fuelling the ideal that the process of making art can be as empowering (perhaps more) as the 'finished' work. Such was the motivation behind the gleaming new mural adjoining Redfern train station, Say KNOw to Drugs - For the Next Generation. 'The Mob' project who designed and painted this striking mural also comprised seven artists - all intravenous drug users from Redfern's Koori community - working under the direction of Sydney/Wollombi-based Koori artist Karla Dickens. This mural reinforces the Feachem Report's focus on HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C as sexually transmissible infections with a 'Use Condoms' slogan in a circle depicting a syringe, tap, spoons and, radically, a prominent black penis (albeit appearing flaccid and arrow- like). Too radical, perhaps, as this section alone of the mural has since been defaced.
Although depictions of genitalia (human, spirit and animal) do not generally suffer censorship in Aboriginal art, varying degrees of colonisation/christianisation have made these problematic for some communities. Problematic, too, given this context, is the issue and acknowledgment of homosexuality, whether gay-identifying or not, and it is precisely Indigenous gay and sista girl (transgender) communities who essentially belong to both of the Feachem Report's priority groups. Admittedly, most HIV/AIDS/sexual health-related Indigenous art (that I have seen, anyway) is aimed at a general/heterosexual audience. However, the ambiguous gender of coupling figures in the work of Zane Saunder's Untitled, 1993, or Marrynula Munugurr's Untitled - The AIDS Story, 1993, for instance, do leave their safe-sex narratives open to interpretation. Canberra-based Ngarrindjeri artist Rex Murray's cover image for the Anwemekenhe I ('Us Mob' in Arrernte language) Report shares this gender-ambiguity, or rather transgenderism (crossing genders), as indeed this report came out of the historic First National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Gay Men and Transgender Sexual Health Conference in Hamilton Downs, NT, late 1994. At the end of Anwemekenhe II, July1998, Rex donated a more elaborate painted version of his initial pen and ink cover image to AFAO, where it is now displayed. This painting clearly evokes the primary modes of HIV transmission through blood and semen with a stirring beauty, vitality and unifying sense of mortality.
When the Aboriginal flag was held aloft in the first 'official' Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander float at the 1988 Mardi Gras parade, some Aboriginal spokespeople were quick to attack what they saw as an inappropriate hijacking of 'their' national symbol. A couple of years before this Bicentennial parade, Larrakia artist Gary Lee had designed his own version of the flag, replacing the sun with a love heart and offering it as a symbol of Indigenous gay pride and cultural respect. Lee's cover image for The National Gay and Transgender Project Consultation Report and Sexual Health Strategy is even more direct in its symbolism and empowerment of Aboriginal male homosexuality. Four stylised black penises converge head on, so to speak, in a strikingly simple yet loaded allusion to men's business. The original design, published in the previous NAB, is in colour (clockwise from top - black, brown, white and yellow penises). Lee's design also partly draws upon a relationship with cultures of the Asia-Pacific.
Everyone's Business, (1993) is the title of Arone Raymond Meeks' sepia lithographic print - a terribly moving and confronting work expressing the sad business of his lover's AIDS-related death. As much as it is a portrait of despair and loss - our common human frailty which does makes HIV/ AIDS everyone's business - it resists absolute immersion in grief, just as it resists a broader silence around gay love and sex. Though disease (AIDS) has claimed the body in a manner reminiscent of Mangudji's Man With Leprosy, death belongs, in a wholly Aboriginal sense, to the serpent. Life and the spirit go on. *
MAURICE O'RIORDAN is a Sydney-based freelance arts writer.
I. Heiss, Anita, Indigenous Artists React to Racism, cover story City Hub, July 23, 1998, pp.7-8.
2. Altman, Lawrence, AIDS: the scourge of 30 million worldwide', Sydney Morning Herald, June 25, 1998, p, I 1.
3. Jukurrpa Wankaru Juku catalogue, 1993, Australia Exhibitions Touring Agency Ltd (AETA), p, 17.
4. Watson, Ken, Untitled essay in Djalarinji catalogue, Sydney 1998.
ANWERNEKENHE II: Us Mob'
AMONG, WITHIN AND BETWEEN
FOR ALL AUSTRALIANS?
VAST DISTANCES...VAST DIFFERENCES
BOYS TO MEN
For more information on HIV/AIDS and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people contact the Australian Federation of AIDS Organizations