Art is vital for history, as monuments, sculptures, paintings and literary works of art are often the only remaining testimony about ancient times. When dealing with modern or contemporary events, a greater amount of non-artistic material is available; yet art is still important as it can reflect the very personal view of an individual upon a particular aspect or event of his time or of the past. In the last thirty years of the twentieth century, many Aboriginal artists worked on the past of their people, and in particular on the oppression they underwent from European settlers for more than two centuries, with some recurrent themes.
The theme of "deaths in custody" is very well represented in contemporary Aboriginal art as we can see from paintings by Trevor Nickolls (b. 1949) or Robert Campbell Junior (1944-93). But let us first deal with the facts: as Howard Morphy sums up, 'Aboriginal people are the most imprisoned segment of the Australian population, and in the 1980s there was an outcry over the number of young Aboriginal men who died in jail.' Actually ninety-nine Aborigines died while imprisoned between 1980 and 1989, and absolutely no explanations were given about the causes of these deaths. In October 1987 the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) was created to investigate upon the deaths. They issued a report in May 1991 which the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC, an indigenous organization established by the Australian government in 1989 'as a means to involve Indigenous people in the processes of government affecting their lives' ) describes as 'the most comprehensive survey of Indigenous law and justice issues and of the underlying causes which bring Aboriginal people into excessive contact with the justice system.' The report included 339 recommendations 'on how the past hurt and current disadvantage of the Aboriginal people [could] be redressed.
[...] [Consulted at http://www.ccs.mq.edu.au/ug/101/lecture13a.pdf (21 November 2005)] ATSIC website, http://svc003.wic001g.server-web.com/, different pages visited (26-27 November 2005) National Gallery of Australia Federation website, http://www.nga.gov.au/federation/ different pages visited (15-20 November 2005) Howard Morphy, Aboriginal Art (London, 1998), p 'ATSIC About ATSIC', ATSIC website, http://svc003.wic001g.server-web.com/about_atsic/default.asp (27 November 2005) 'ATSIC RCIADIC', ATSIC website, http://svc003.wic001g.server- web.com/issues/law_and_justice/rciadic/Default.asp (27 November 2005) paragraph 1 'ATSIC RCIADIC', paragraph 4 Morphy, Aboriginal Art, p 'Deaths in custody', National Gallery of Australia Federation website, http://www.nga.gov.au/federation/Detail.cfm?WorkID=148002 (19 November 2005) Anne Cranny-Francis, 'Transculturation: visual culture as creative critique', Introduction to Visual Culture lecture (11 November 2005), Macquarie University, Sydney. p of 7 (PDF document). [consulted at http://www.ccs.mq.edu.au/ug/101/lecture13a.pdf] 'ATSIC RCIADIC', paragraph 2. Cranny-Francis, ibid. [...]
[...] The painter was inspired by a photo published in a Brisbane newspaper, showing an Aboriginal man imprisoned in a cage. In the background, an image shows another Aborigine hanged against an Aboriginal flag maybe this image is a reference to Campbell's painting. The prisoner seems willing to get out of his cell, probably because he feels that his fate will be the same as the hanged man's. The head of the Department of Critical and Cultural Studies in Macquarie University, Anne Cranny-Francis, states in her Introduction to Visual Culture course that in this picture, the 'confrontation with inequality is literal: [the] inmate stares at the viewer who will often be a member of the colonist community.' What is at stake is the inequality of legal and penal treatment between Aboriginal and White Australians. [...]
[...] The whole painting is covered with small dots and curved lines, which remind the viewer of motifs of traditional Aboriginal craft. There is an Aboriginal flag in the middle of the painting, and its colors are repeated in the background, but there, the red looks more like blood. As Howard Morphy puts it, characteristic feature of Robert Campbell Junior's paintings is the contrast between the bright optimism conveyed by the aesthetics of the paintings and the darkness of the themes they explore.' The central point in this painting seems to be that Aborigines were imprisoned because of minor offences but that their fate was far more tragic than expected. [...]
[...] In his 1987 painting entitled Death in Custody (cf. Appendix Robert Campbell Junior represents, in four scenes that remind the viewer of a comic strip, what tended to become a routine: an Aboriginal man was arrested often because of a minor offence such as drunkenness and imprisoned. He died in custody: the character is shown hanged in his prison cell, but nothing tells whether he committed suicide or if someone killed him. The last of the four scenes represents his funeral. [...]
[...] The theme of "deaths in custody" is very well represented in contemporary Aboriginal art as we can see from paintings by Trevor Nickolls (b. 1949) or Robert Campbell Junior (1944-93). But let us first deal with the facts: as Howard Morphy sums up, 'Aboriginal people are the most imprisoned segment of the Australian population, and in the 1980s there was an outcry over the number of young Aboriginal men who died in jail.' Actually ninety-nine Aborigines died while imprisoned between 1980 and 1989, and absolutely no explanations were given about the causes of these deaths. [...]
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