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Satellite Cultures: Images of Colonialism in Australia

By Marinella Nicolson

An abstract black and white photo of a leg and a mirror. Nice Colored Girls, by Tracey Moffat

Satellite Cultures is an exhibition of videos made by both white and Aboriginal Australians that claims to look at the decolonization of images in 'postcolonial' Australia. The exhibition offers a rare chance to see Australian Aboriginal video art and television, but its display in the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City raises important questions about the reappropriation by the first world of images of, and by, indigenous peoples. If aboriginal videos are presented as art objects, divorced from their context and without the participation of their makers, isn't this, in fact, a more subtle form of colonization?

By selecting the videos in this exhibition according to the theme of "processes of decolonization " in video, Satellite Cultures fits the New Museum's commitment to the politics of art. In her support of artists such as Hans Haacke (and by publishing a book on his work), the New Museum's director, Marcia Tucker, has opened a dialogue on the role of museums in showing contemporary art, art in the service of social issues, and the position of art in the larger political and economic context.

On show from December 8, 1989 through February 4, 1990, the exhibition consisted of three programs, the first two falling into categories familiar to a Euro-American audience—video art and television. The third category displayed Australian sensibilities, consisting of works concerned with media and land and a sense of place—issues that are at the center of postcolonial Australian politics.

The selection taken from Nganampa-Anwernekenhe, a program broadcast by the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) based outside Alice Springs, consists of pieces that might be broadly defined as public service announcements and cultural education by elders for a younger Aboriginal audience. Produced by a group of Aboriginal and white Australians, the program is dedicated to maintaining Aboriginal language and culture. Each segment has a wrap-around of graphics and music, a format recognizable to viewers familiar with American or European 1V. But the body of the program is didactic and specifically Aboriginal: an Aboriginal man in the bush talks to the camera about 'bush tucker,' fruits that Aborigines lived on before European colonization; two elderly Aborigines cut wood from the root of a tree to make a boomerang ; and a woman being painted for a ceremony talks about her grandfather's 'fire dreaming,' one of the Aboriginal origin myths.

The public service announcements include an interview with a health worker who explains the function of his clinic and advises viewers about a healthy diet, and a segment on AIDS presented by an Aboriginal rock band who sings "AIDS Is A Killer." Probably most accessible and entertaining for a Western audience is a segment that shows an Aboriginal rock band, Yothu Yindi, that blends an Aboriginal dance with their rock performance—Paul Simon eat your heart out.

The images in these videos fascinate: the format is familiar but the faces and the words are exotic. So their display in a museum setting raises questions about the validity of removing cultural objects from their context and placing them in an art gallery. Like most video art exhibitions, Satellite Cultures is displayed via a number of video monitors built into a wall. Three holes, one for the picture and two for the sound, are the only breaks in the white surface. Almost no information is supplied. In this setting, TV programs that were intended for other settings and purposes are displayed as art objects. How do the displaced videos mediate between Aboriginal and American culture? At best, showing Aboriginal TV programming demonstrates the function that television can perform in providing alternatives to the programming available in the hegemonic structure of mass media. At worst, the unsophisticated look of CAAMA TV juxtaposed in the very fashionable medium in trendy Soho may only confirm racist opinions held by some of the visitors.

The CAAMA TV shows follow the format of television programs in Europe and America making it easy for a Western audience to understand their content and intent: we're speaking the same language. Similarly, Extinct But Going Home is the sadly ironic story of a group of Aborigines who, because they have been labeled extinct by an anthropologist, have lost their rights to their ancestral land. Produced in a conventional documentary format—talking heads, interviews, scenic shots with voice-overs—an Aboriginal story is made easily accessible to a Euro­ American audience.

By contrast, a video by Aborigine videomaker Tracey Moffat, Moodeitj Yorgas, breaks with conventions of video and film language by disl eating the visual image from the sound track. Moodeitj Yorgas (Strong Women), consists of interviews with Aboriginal women who have become successful in the middle-class, white world of urban Australia. A doctor, lawyer, and opera singer, among others, talk about the difficulties they have faced as Aboriginal women and the reasons why they chose the lives that they did. We hear the sound track of their voices but see them smiling, silent, gazing at the camera or laughing with people off-camera. Interspersed are graphics using dancing female silhouettes with a spoken storyline about the times when the missionaries first imposed their ways on Aboriginal people.

My first response to the separation of sound from voice was irritation: what was the point? When I tried to answer the question, irritation gave way to curiosity. Moodeitj Yorgas like avant garde video art—the dislocated sound and visual tracks may be trying to achieve what the surrealists did by juxtaposing two realities that couldn't possibly exist side-by­ side in the world we think we know. Maybe Tracey Moffat is trying to make us question the assumptions we make when we, a Euro-American audience, look at the face of the 'Other.' The graphic sequences resonate with the forms of Western feminist art and its concerns with images of the female body. These may be the intentions of the videomaker.

Or they may not. What if the separated visual and auditory tracks of Moodeitj Yorgas are a formal innovation to overcome eye contact -a situation that Aborigines avoid and find problematic in conventional interview format? What if the graphics are an electronic equivalent to Aboriginal women's performance of 'dreamings' (Aboriginal origin myths) to recount the past -the beginning of life with the white colonials? Without the videomaker to explain her intentions, the question is, do we use an aesthetic or an ethnographic paradigm to look at contemporary video by indigenous peoples? Certainly, exposing the members of hegemonic nation states to the formerly unheard voices of indigenous peoples is a step toward a polyphonic society, but I am not sure that the blank white walls of a museum, in the absence of represent­ atives of the indigenous artists, is the right setting.

Marinella Nicolson is a freelance writer living in New York and is enrolled in the New York University Ethnographic Film Program.