Recently you visited the British Museum, in a hurry, on the way to work, to at least glimpse 1-2 of the current exhibitions that you might otherwise regret having missed. You found yourself absurdly rushing around the supposedly ‘timeless’ masterpieces of classical figurative sculpture in the show titled Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art then whizzing upstairs to see Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation a show of Aboriginal Australian art, culture and recent political history.
The first thing you noted about the incongruous juxtaposition of these two exhibitions was the time-frame. While the Greek art reveled in a period of approximately two and a half thousand years during which the aesthetic represented there has endured, the Aboriginal Australian exhibition immediately confronted you with the images, beliefs, and artifacts of a people and a culture that has occupied the same lands for forty to sixty thousand years.
We could go on from this point to somehow attempt to evaluate the relative fortunes of these two cultures, perhaps looking at Greece today, its place among so-called leading nations, its current economic crisis, or simply at the way in which classical Greek art and philosophy endure and influence global humanity, then turn to learn more about the destruction and resilience of the Australian Aboriginal culture. It wouldn’t be an easy line of thought to sustain but it would be tempting to continue down this path. If so, the relative time-scales would surely persist as crucial factors e.g. forcing us to weigh up the contributions of Phidias and Plato in the light of another forty thousand years – but maybe this is just perverse?
As our friend and regular accomplice in this Blog once famously and succinctly stated: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” To examine the facts and figures of modern colonial influence on indigenous peoples is always a profound and appalling experience and one which seems to insist upon being attended too even as it is consistently marginalized and secreted, even while accepting that the modern itself and any nation that refers to itself today as ‘leading’ all appears to have been built upon the most sinister, brutal and mendacious expropriation of lands, properties and goods of other cultures, who are now, all over the world, often reduced to an abject stump of the mighty, vital and resplendent tree that their culture once was, or have already been extinguished from the face of the earth forever.
Despite the relatively guilt-ridden, empathetic and sensitive approach to museology conducted by a 21st Century institution like the British Museum it is hard to not feel the continuing paradox of moving through a historicisng space (setting its objects in the past), articulated by carefully constructed white board and glass vitrines, containing the everyday objects of an other culture held up for your delectation as simultaneously scientific evidence and displays of craftsmanship and design. But the exhibition gets more interesting for you towards its end where the impossibly slow and inadequate battle for the indigenous peoples of Australia to obtain basic human rights (in modern, colonialist terms of course) is documented as a brief political history in old photographs, informative texts and some very different kinds of artifact, such as crudely formed, anxious and urgent signs made to accompany political protests.
A Londoner, whose raison d’etre can easily become mere survival in the city, learns to cut a lot of corners, find a lot of back routes, seek out exceptions to rules etc. that might be denied to a newcomer to the city and also to those rich and privileged enough to inhabit the city without having to duck, dive, strive and try so much not to be forced down and out of the city. One thing you have learned is that The British Museum usually accompanies its exhibitions with a series of film screenings that are much cheaper than visits to the cinema. So, you can get a cinematic fix for just a few pounds if you are willing to roll the dice and absorb whatever fare the curator has seen to be a fit accompaniment to the show, and, in your experience, you’ve witnessed a few disappointments and a few wonderful surprises. To accompany the ‘Indigenous Australia’ show at BM one of the selected films is ‘Ten Canoes’ made in 2006 by Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr
The makers stress the way the film was made in collaboration with the aboriginal people themselves and led by their desires regarding what was to be told, what not, and how the story should unfold. It’s worth watching (you would of course like to say much more) and available on You Tube in several parts.
Story-telling is of course a crucial heart of any culture (Benjamin also wrote a famous essay on the theme), even the heart of the modern culture of the so-called ‘leading nations.’ We often find ourselves beguiled by the ways in which stories are enfolded within stories and can soon realize that we lose our sense of perspective and of reality once we allow the ‘story’ paradigm or filter to direct the way we live and perceive.
But to end this post you just want to paste in a long citation from a review of a book. It’s a piece of journalism and has been rightfully criticized for the clumsy and presumptuous ways in which it appraises its object, even as it criticizes the errant manner in which another author has already done so. Nevertheless, you like the way it uses the journalist’s popular platform to try and translate certain profundities regarding the continuing ‘alterity’ (radical difference) persisting between the temporal framework of so-called ‘leading’ nations and a framework which we might even hesitate to refer to as ‘temporal’ given the untranslatable paradigm known as ‘the dreaming’ of the aboriginal Australians.
From: Wade Davis in Guardian Review (reviewing ‘The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?‘ by Jared Diamond.)
” In truth, as the anthropologist WEH Stanner long appreciated, the visionary realm of the Aborigines represents one of the great experiments in human thought. In place of technological wizardry, they invented a matrix of connectivity, an intricate web of social relations based on more than 100 named kin relationships. If they failed to embrace European notions of progress, it was not because they were savages, as the settlers assumed, but rather because in their intellectual universe, distilled in a devotional philosophy known as the Dreaming, there was no notion of linear progression whatsoever, no idealisation of the possibility or promise of change. There was no concept of past, present, or future. In not one of the hundreds of Aboriginal dialects and languages was there a word for time. The entire purpose of humanity was not to improve anything; it was to engage in the ritual and ceremonial activities deemed to be essential for the maintenance of the world precisely as it was at the moment of creation.
Clearly, had our species as a whole followed the ways of the Aborigines, we would not have put a man on the moon. But, on the other hand, had the Dreaming become a universal devotion, we would not be contemplating today the consequences of climate change and industrial processes that threaten the life supports of the planet.
A lama once remarked that Tibetans do not believe that Americans went to the moon, but they did. Americans may not believe, he added, that Tibetans can achieve enlightenment in one lifetime, but they do.”