Anxieties of the self

Nina Miall, Carriageworks


In 1900, a year before Federation, the Australian surveyor and anthropologist R.H. Mathews, a contentious figure in this newly emerging field on account of his lack of academic credentials, published one of the first maps circumscribing the boundaries of a multiplicity of Aboriginal ‘nations’. (1) It was an audacious undertaking, conducted by a white man seeking to define Aboriginal territorial organisation according to non-Aboriginal concepts and with little respect for the notion that boundaries between Indigenous communities are rarely so hard and fast as the seductive contours of a map suggest. That the publication of Mathews’ Map showing boundaries of the several nations of Australia occurred when white Australia had just concluded the fraught negotiations that would result in the union of the six British colonies the following year was also curious. Integral in different ways to the processes of colonisation, both endeavours were contending with the problematic nature of nationhood, negotiating the difficulties inherent in using geography, place and territory to settle questions of identity, belonging and rights.

Today, Mathews’ map of 28 Aboriginal nations occupies an indeterminate place between fact and fiction, its uncertainty encapsulated in David Malouf’s remark, originally made about Federation, that ‘nations and peoples … are likely to be doubtful entities, and the relationship between them will be open to almost continuous question’. (2) While the map has been widely discredited as reductive and deeply flawed, based on colonialist assumptions and pursued with little methodological rigour, the enactment of native title legislation in Australia has, at the same time, reinvigorated interest in Mathews’ work. His research is now routinely cited in native title claims put forward by Aboriginal claimants who adopt Mathews’ formulation of Aboriginal nationhood in the hope of satisfying a western legal system’s concepts of sovereignty and landownership. (3)

A similar recuperation of Mathews’ concept of Aboriginal nations is enacted by Brisbane-based artist Archie Moore in his United Neytions (2014–17) installation, which heralds visitors to The National 2017: New Australian Art at Carriageworks. Appropriating Mathews’ map and further riddling it with ambiguity, Moore has devised flags for each of the 28 ‘imagined nations’, their designs loosely informed by geographical features unique to the areas identified by the anthropologist over a century ago. As Moore explains, these are artworks masquerading as flags; they do not require the status of an Australian national flag or follow strict flag protocol. Rather, the artist’s intention is to expose the flawed foundations that often underpin institutionalised systems of knowledge:

These false flags do not hide their own dualities; they are intended to be ambiguous and contradictory, to raise questions of authenticity and to entail my own fragmented personal identity. (4)

The question of identity, as well as of the role of cultural artefacts such as flags and cultural practices such as appropriation in the constitution of the self, is at the heart of the works in The National 2017 at Carriageworks. Rather than the robust, coherent and discrete notions of Australian identity insisted upon in much of the political rhetoric in circulation today, this exhibition addresses the anxieties, mutabilities and contingencies of identity – how it is asserted, negotiated, escaped from and erased in the postcolonial present. Against the essentialising positions traditionally associated with identity politics, new subjectivities are emerging that, like those expressed by Moore in his United Neytions, register the fractures and fault lines of their historically, socially and culturally constructed perspectives. Rather than distinct entities, these are complex sites of identification, resisting both circumscription and traditional binary definitions (us/them, centre/periphery) in favour of relations founded on fluidity and contingency. This is as true of the collective culture as it is of the individual citizen, as Ian McLean has observed: ‘No culture or individual is single or complete in itself; each is broken and run through with internal differences and repressed histories’. (5) While often born of trauma, these fault lines and contested cultural boundaries also harbour the potential for reinvention, for becoming productive ‘sites of surreptitious crossing’ where new relations, practices and forms of connection may emerge. (6)

With a strong cross-generational and cross-disciplinary focus, the works in this exhibition examine these contemporary dislocations of identity – both individual and collective, real and imagined – and explore how their reverberations are being felt more widely in the shifting of cultural territories. Primary concerns include the recovery of agency that occurs when divergent views, peripheral positions and minor narratives are given expression, and how difference is being refigured through this agency. This process offers further impetus to the processes of decentring and pluralism that are integral to the postcolonial project within Australia, enabling those who have traditionally been marginalised to seek more centred lives. In the work of some of the artists it begins with a return to the abject, which Joan Kirkby has argued represents ‘the first authentic step in the (re)constitution of the self’. (7) For others, the strategies of polyphony, camouflage and re-enactment are effective in destabilising dominant and coherent expressions of selfhood. It is out of this oscillation between positions and perspectives that contemporary Australian artists are weaving the fabric of their individual and collective identities in the 21st century, recognising that there are no longer any stable, undivided positions but rather degrees of hybridity, indigeneity and diaspora that are heavily determined by context. (8)

Finding urgent expression in much of the current discourse on contemporary culture, the debate about cultural appropriation occupies a prominent place in the curatorial preoccupations of The National 2017 at Carriageworks and in the work of a number of exhibiting artists. If cultural objects, artefacts and practices are intrinsic to the expression of identity, it follows that appropriation of these – their unauthorised adoption by other cultures for their own purposes – can be understood in terms of the loss of being. (9) Cultural appropriation has typically been practised from a position of cultural dominance that benefits either symbolically or economically (or, often, both) from the exoticisation of Otherness. But while postmodernism has granted a licence for this practice, ensuring it is now widespread in much western contemporary art, it doesn’t hold the copyright on this. (10) Central to the argument of whether cultural appropriation is exploitative is a consideration of the contexts of domination and privilege that frame the practice, and of the process of centring or decentring subject positions that ensues from it. McLean argues, for example, that the western postmodern subject can afford to lose his/her identity in using culturally appropriated imagery, whereas the situation is very different for colonised or marginalised groups whose subject positions are already decentred. (11) Addressing the Aboriginal context, in particular, Galarrwuy Yunupingu asserts that the appropriation of Aboriginal motifs, so prevalent today in the marketing of a broader Australian identity, is predicated upon the same ‘tactics of assimilation’ that have had a deleterious effect on Indigenous communities since the time of European colonisation. (12)

Navigating various pathways through this fraught debate about cultural boundaries, the artists in The National explore how the construction of composite identities through culturally specific imagery may be a way of creating meaning – of manufacturing a symbolic realm – from within loss, through the activation of what Caribbean writer Wilson Harris has termed the ‘cross-cultural imagination’. (13) While this practice frequently brings cultures into conflict in a manner akin to Mary Louise Pratt’s ‘contact zone’, a space where ‘disparate cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination’, it may also reflect a more nuanced and self-reflexive understanding of the affinities and disaffinities that shape relations between cultures, and how inextricably bound up questions of identification are in the negotiation of cultural territories. (14) The interrogations of identity in The National 2017 arise from an understanding that these contact zones are sites of struggle but also of hybrid possibility and political negotiation, and that encounters with one’s cultural, racial or ethnic other can offer transformative experiences. Twenty-first-century Australia offers a particularly charged context for such encounters, in that the complex interrelations of histories and trajectories that make up its evolving cartography are in the process of being radically remapped. In the structure of Australian cultural identity and the internal divisions that run through it today, McLean perceives what he terms a ‘metaphysical difference’, acknowledging the difficulty inherent in speaking about ‘an other who is in “our” midst, and about an other place that is also “our” place’, and recognising that it is not simply a political relation between centre and periphery but an internal relation in which the self registers rather than attempts to reconcile its own exclusions, limits and contradictions. (15)

These deepening internal fissures are currently finding expression in the ontological concerns of much contemporary performance, dynamically represented in the work of the artists exhibiting in The National 2017 at Carriageworks. Underscoring much of this practice is Fredric Jameson’s assertion that the alienation wrought by late capitalism has resulted in a fragmented consciousness, a ‘schizophrenic’ self characterised by information overload and the absence of an overarching narrative. (16) Against this backdrop, the artists working in a performative mode in The National 2017 are using dramatic and choreographic tools to enact this new pluralism of the self and to explore its uniquely Australian character. Deconstructive strategies such as the staging of alternative scenarios, the embodiment of different perspectives, mimicry, translation, serial identity (or alters) and collaborative authorship serve to erode longstanding archetypes and disrupt major narratives. Instead, through their often non-linear or episodic sequencing, these performance works refract the violent displacements and internal schisms of postcolonial subjectivities, reflecting what Robert Littlewood terms a cultural ‘idiom of distress’. (17) Steven Van Wolputte has discussed this crisis in the representation of the body from an anthropological viewpoint, supporting the contemporary idea of identity as experiential rather than essential:

This contemporary body-self is fragmentary, often incoherent and inconsistent, precisely because it arises from contradictory and paradoxical experiences, social tensions and conflicts that have one thing in common: they are real, that is, experienced. (18)

In focusing less on the abstract, idealised or resolved body and instead on articulating the inconsistent self – hybrid, divided, riven with exclusions – it can be argued that current contemporary Australian performance admits a new vulnerability and authenticity in which the integrity of the individual is challenged, its incoherence now understood not in terms of a lack or deficiency but as an existential characteristic of the human condition. And it is precisely in the expression of these embodied uncertainties that moments of belonging or connection can be found.

If individual identity in the 21st century is uncertain, our collective or national sense of self is no less precarious. Writing on the predicament of Australia’s postcoloniality, Francis Maravillas has diagnosed a deeply ingrained vertigo induced by Australia’s paradoxical location as a western country on the edge of Asia, a disorientation exacerbated by our colonial past as a ‘settler’ nation with the primal sense of unease – of settled unsettledness – that this entails. (19) Maravillas argues that many of the mythic narratives produced by the art of the 20th century presuppose an accepted historical account, what he describes as ‘a seemingly secure footing of “facts” taken as given, rather than ones whose grounds have yet to be found via an unfinished dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians’. (20) As this unfinished dialogue continues into the 21st century, artists are becoming increasingly attuned to the skewed and unsettling realities of Australia’s foundational narratives and committed to unravelling them further. Embracing the vertigo and uncertainty that is symptomatic of Australia’s current entanglement in a particular set of historical, social, geographic and cultural relations, they are creating alternative histories, subjectivities and cartographies that more faithfully communicate the truth of their lived experience but which, at the same time, they understand remain partial, provisional and open to contestation.

The works in The National 2017 at Carriageworks represent some of the most striking examples of this profound shift in orientation and sensibility as 21st-century Australia seeks to reimagine itself and secure its place within an increasingly globalised and interconnected world. It offers a framework in which notions of individual and collective identity are understood as constituted by a constellation of relations, and reflects on how these complex sites of identification shape the hybrid Australian imaginary today. Postcolonial theorist Achille Mbembe has described the multiple temporalities of colonialism as ‘an interlocking of presents, pasts and futures … each age bearing, altering and maintaining the previous ones’. (21) The multiple identities of colonialism are similarly conditioned. Rather than a coherent, singular selfhood, we should be seeking to create an Australia of multi-centred identities that, like Archie Moore’s varied and paradoxical flags, celebrate the ambiguity, difference and uncertainty defining belonging, now and into the future.


(1) As Kevin Blackburn has noted, ‘much of the mapping of Aboriginal societies in the 19th and early 20th centuries … was an integral part of the colonisation process’; see Kevin Blackburn, ‘Mapping Aboriginal nations: the ‘nation’ concept of late-19th century anthropologists in Australia’, Aboriginal History Journal, vol.26, 2002, p.135.

(2) David Malouf, ‘The states of the nation’, in A first place, Random House, Sydney, 2014, p.335.

(3) Blackburn reports: ‘In 1993, Isabel Coe of the Wiradjuri unsuccessfully sought recognition from the High Court of Australia that “the Wiradjuri are a sovereign nation of people”, and demanded compensation for the dispossession of their lands. The case was a landmark one because it was the first time that an Aboriginal community sought legal confirmation of the status as a First Nation’; see Blackburn, op.cit., p.133.

(4) Archie Moore, extract from a paper delivered at the University of Queensland Courting Blakness: Recalibrating Knowledge in the Sandstone University symposium, September 2014.

(5) Ian McLean, White Aborigines: identity politics in Australian art, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998, p.149.

(6) Stuart Hall, ‘Maps of emergency: fault lines and tectonic plates’, in Gilane Tawadros and Sarah Campbell (eds), Fault lines: contemporary African art and shifting landscapes, published on occasion of the exhibition Fault lines at the 50th Venice Biennale 2003, Institute of International Visual Arts, London, and Forum for African Arts, 2013, p.34.

(7) Quoted in McLean, op. cit., p.154.

(8) ibid., p.156.

(9) As long ago as 1976, a UNESCO panel arrived at the conclusion that ‘cultural property is a basic element of a people’s identity’. Many Aboriginals argue this list of (material) cultural property should encompass intellectual property, including folklore and traditional knowledge. In support of these broader claims, the UN Commission of Human Rights asserts that ‘each indigenous community must retain permanent control over all elements of its own heritage’; see Elizabeth Burns Coleman, Aboriginal art, identity and appropriation, Ashgate, Aldershot, UK, 2005, pp.3–4.

(10) McLean discusses how appropriation was ‘liberally used in the syncretic cultures of colonised peoples well before it found a place in western art’; op.cit., p.146.

(11) ibid.

(12) Yunupingu explains: ‘They are using the same old tactics of assimilation, except this time they are trying to assimilate our culture into their world because it is fashionable in their eyes and will make money … Just as our struggle or land is still so strong, so is our fight to maintain and revive our culture, for our land and our culture are indivisible from our lives’; quoted in Coleman, op.cit., p.2.

(13) Wilson Harris, The womb of space: the cross-cultural imagination, Greenwood Press, Westport, US, 1983.

(14) Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial eyes: travel writing and transculturation, 2nd edn, Routledge, London and New York, 2008, p.7.

(15) McLean writes that as a ‘settler’ society, the subject is far from home and the indigenous culture, which might offer shelter, ‘is made abject, the non-identical, and hence destroyed yet preserved (repressed) in the psyche of the nation’; op.cit., pp.149–150.

(16) Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism, Verso, London, 1991.

(17) Quoted in Steven Van Wolputte, ‘Hang on to your self: of bodies, embodiment and selves’, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol.33, October 2004, p.262.

(18) ibid., p.263.

(19) Maravillas argues that the anxiety produced by this contemporary condition of groundlessness plagues any attempt to secure a fixed or rooted sense of belonging on a land that was stolen before it was ‘settled’; see Francis Maravillas, ‘Un/settled geographies: vertigo and the predicament of Australia’s postcoloniality’, in Catriona Elder and Keith Moore (eds), New voices, new visions: challenging Australian identities and legacies, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, 2012, p.21.

(20) Emphasis in original, Maravillas speaks of the trope of the South as ‘a marker of Australia’s postcolonial predicament and its anxious experience of antipodality and decentredness’; ibid., p.19.

(21) Emphasis in original, Achille Mbembe, ‘Introduction: time on the move’, in On the postcolony, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2001, p.16.