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Rattling Spears: A History of Indigenous Australian Art

Although this is an comprehensive and fascinating presentation of Indigenous Art forms since 1770, when the first British person, in Captain James Cook came ashore at what is today known as Botany Bay, it is far, far more than that: it is also a history of the tragedy that came upon these highly skilled and organised peoples once white settlement came to their land, now also known as Australia.

This history of Indigenous Art, created in a respectful manner by Ian McLean, details without prejudice, without judgement,  an intriguing look at how the Aboriginal Art form has gone a very long way to becoming the salvation of an ancient race.

When the shamans gathered on the headland on that fateful day, they were probably trying to work out who these people were, where they fitted into the Dreaming and what were they going to do about the nature of them coming ashore. Eventfully, once Cook decided to come ashore, the men filed into formation rattling their spears, to show these people they were not all that welcome. Cook was having none of this, electing to stay, carrying out his plans to investigate what lay in the surrounding areas. Joseph Banks and his team set out on their collecting mission and whilst doing so, stumbled across the largest collection of Aboriginal art in the area.

Much of what was collected during this time is now still housed in the British Museum; what followed on from this initial meeting is writ large in history or so you would think, but it is only in more recent times, when the likes of Albert Namatjira became an household word, a man renowned for his immense talent in recreating the land he loved, the land of his ancestors, in a manner that appealed to the European peoples, the artists, the recorders of Indigenous culture and spiritualism, began to become a little better known.

Prior to this the mission’s and outstations were encouraging mainly the men of the desert regions to continue on with their painting on wood, canvas and cloth. So successful were some of these initiatives, that an excellent and fruitful trade was set up in tourist souvenir art works such as boomerangs and other early versions of ‘tourist tat’, until the quality of the works were questioned and this came to an end.

There was a cultural price to be paid as many of the figures and hieroglyphics being painted where those of sacred figures associated with the Dream Time and Dream Time stories: this had to eventually be reconciled and with great resignation the Elders realised that they either had to move along with the ‘new way’ or watch their traditional art disappear altogether.

Over the years both the women and men of desserts and cities of modern Australia of indigenous decent have created a formidable art form that is only growing stronger; showcasing the immense talent emerging into the modern contemporary art arena worldwide, in paint, sculpture, woven form, design and performance.

Considered by some that indigenous art formed, or forms, the basis for the modern Contemporary Art movement in Australia, is to give to these ancient peoples the true accolades they and their art forms, their story telling and their ancestors deserve, perhaps going a little way towards making amends for the almost complete destruction of this race, this art form, created by white settlement.

Much, much more than a book on Art this is a look at the early history of Australia presented through the medium of Art, in a manner that delivers in stark detail the traumatic and horrific facets of white settlement, the grab for land, the scant regard for human life and the salvation of the remainder of the indigenous population through their art, their sacred record keeping and eventually, their ability to create something special, unique and inspiring from destruction.

Beautifully illustrated with a range of colour plates taken from early pieces such as Man and Rooster c.1900 – West Arnhem Land, Charlie Flannigan’s Richmond Homestead and Oscar, Police Boys Doing Duty (Lynch Law) 1895, to Michael Riley’s Untitled 2000/2005 from the series Cloud, allows you to enjoy the journey through the ages.

There is much to be digested in this work, much to enjoy and much, which in many ways is unpalatable; the work makes for compulsive reading as the manner and style of Mclean’s method of storytelling, which is what he has achieved, draws you in and gives you more than just an a art history lesson, it delivers a lesson on life, making the most of opportunities presented, allowing them to morph into something majestic and wonderful.

Perhaps all this was foretold in the Dreaming; perhaps not but whatever you believe, by the end of this comprehensive work you will be completely impressed.

AuthorIan W. McLean
PublisherREAKTION BOOKS
ISBN9781780235905
Websitehttp:/www.newsouthbooks.com,au
DistributorNew South Books
ReleasedAugust 2015