Empowering art: reconfiguring narratives of trauma and hope in the Australian national imaginary

Fiona Magowan


Aboriginal art has been the source of much contention between art curators, gallery owners, art critics and Aboriginal artists themselves. Early aesthetic debates about whether so-called traditional works should be considered ethnographic or artistic have led, at times, to conflicts over the rights of Aboriginal people to have their works exhibited according to the criteria applied to other kinds of Western artworks. This article explores how the dilemmas of troubled ethno-histories are critically embodied and reconfigured in texture and colour. It considers the problems that silenced histories pose for those responsible for their display to the public. As Aboriginal images often conceal troubled intercultural encounters it asks how artworks can be used to provide a
counter-polemic to national rhetoric as artists seek to reshape and improve intergenerational futures.
This text is published as a counterpart to the contribution to Disturbing Pasts from the artist Heather Kamarra Shearer.



Aboriginal Australians, contemporary art, conflict, resolution, intercultural, intergenerational, colonialism, racism, dispossession

Full text: Magowan_p.211-223 (PDF, 718 KB)

DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.5456/issn.2050-3679/2014s36fm

Biographical note

Fiona Magowan is Professor of Anthropology at Queen’s University, Belfast. Her publications focus on Indigenous music, performance and Christianity; cultural tourism; religion and ritual; and sex and gender. She has conducted fieldwork in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Queensland and South Australia. Her books include Melodies
of Mourning: Music and Emotion in northern Australia (Oxford, 2007); The Anthropology of Sex (Oxford, Berg 2010, co-authored with H. Donnan); and the co-edited volumes Performing Gender, Place, and Emotion in Music: Global Perspectives (Rochester 2013, with L. Wrazen); Transgressive Sex (Oxford, Berghahn 2009, with H. Donnan); Landscapes of Performance (Aboriginal Studies Press 2005, with K. Neuenfeldt); and Telling Stories (Allen and Unwin 2001, with B. Attwood). She is CI on an ESRC project (The Domestic Moral Economy in the Asia-Pacific, 2011- 15) and was senior researcher on the HERA project Creativity in a World of Movement (2010-12). She has been a former Chair of the Anthropological Association of Ireland, member of the Royal Irish Academy’s National Committee for Social Sciences and Chair of the Music and Gender Study Group of the International Council for Traditional Music.

An earlier version of this material was presented on the occasion of the project conference ‘Disturbing Pasts: Memories, Controversies and Creativity’ (20 -22 November 2012, Museum of Ethnology/Weltmuseum Wien, Vienna).