By Elise Ciegelski
Towering earth toned burial carvings covered with intricate patterns loomed behind the annoyed security guard attempting to stop the photo-happy tourists. Yet as I glanced behind me, people were contentedly snapping pictures of the peaceful looking landscapes on the wall in the preceding gallery. Here, in the Australian section of the NSW Art Gallery I observed a simple juxtaposition of the deep rift that has been troubling this country since the start of colonization: the non-correlating worlds of Aboriginals and White Australians.
One gallery hearkened green European countryside, and the other one spoke of brown land and native creatures. There seemed to be little common ground between the artwork that came from the same time period and described the same country. Or was there? Literally speaking, yes! They shared the same land, but I would like to believe that despite the differences in ideologies and lifestyles, more intertwining bridges can be made. The histories and culture of Aboriginals and White Australians have been coinciding side by side like these two galleries for quite some time now. But what good is acknowledgment and respect if a mental segregation still exists? The two halls were literally side by side, almost one room – but not.
I’m not suggesting that intermixing early white and black Australian art in one room would make everything better, but I would be curious to see if that would even be allowed before a more significant societal breakdown of the “us-them” phenomenon occurred. Obviously the Australian government has been attempting to deal with some of this complex issue, but it needs to start at the level of the individual, not the institution. A genuine openness to learn and love not simply coexist needs to permeate the white mindset. Of course there is difference and distinction on both sides, but that does not justify parallel universes, no matter how knowledgeable of the other.
As I left the museum, I noticed on one side of the building flew the Australian flag, and on the other the Aboriginal – indeed a noble statement of recognition. But I couldn’t help wonder if those two flags could ever possibly be one?