Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (2008) has got us all thinking. One movie thatclaims to have everything: a budget of over $150 million; stars;history; love; cattle and the Stolen Generations. But what about pointof view?  Kylie Boltin investigates some alternatives.
14 Dec 2008 - 2:01 PM  UPDATED 7 Nov 2012 - 12:30 AM

I value that Indigenous people are represented in Luhrmann’s film as an integral part of Australia’s history. This is a recognition that our story as a nation cannot be told without an Indigenous perspective, but I have concerns about that very representation and the film’s appropriation of Indigenous culture and history. I don’t believe that one should use the 'Stolen Generations’ as a framing device, which is what Australia does, while steadfastly revealing its inability to move beyond 'sanctioned’ representations of Indigenous people as traditional, magical and/or childlike. The voiceover of Nullah is a ruse. This is a story told from the outside looking in.

It’s a stark contrast to the current exhibition at Art Gallery of New South Wales, Half Light: Portraits from Black Australia curated by Hetti Perkins and Jonathan Jones, Curators of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art. In this first major survey of the work of Indigenous artists engaging with the photographic medium and the portrait, Vernon Ah Kee, Tony Albert, Brook Andrew, Richard Bell, Mervyn Bishop, Brenda L Croft, Destiny Deacon, Genevieve Grieves, Dianne Jones, Peter Yanada McKenzie, r e a, Ricky Maynard, Michael Riley, Darren Siwes and Christian Bumbarra Thompson offer alternatives to the fixed version of Indigeneity propagated in Australia. The works that make up the exhibition are both masterful and bold.

In Grieves’ Picturing the Old People (2005), a five-panelled, award winning video and sound installation,the artist uses the opportunities afforded by digital technology to undermine the constructed representation of Aboriginal people as established by studio photographers of the 19th century. Grieves intelligently uses a contemporary eye to re-write these ethnographic images, destabilising the static poses found in the archive. Jonathan Jones writes in the exhibition catalogue, the work triggers 'questions of frontier relationships from a Koori perspective." Says Grieves, 'my work finds different ways to explore Aboriginal history and bring that to a wider audience."

What this shows us are flaws in historical representation of Indigenous people. With the artists exhibited in this show revealing how far we should have travelled by now, how can we endorse anything less?

The Art Gallery of New South Wales hosts the exhibition, Half Light: Portraits from Black Australia from 21 November 2008 - 22 February 2009.

See for floor talks and related events. Admission is FREE.