Roadworks: Automobility and Belonging in Aboriginal Art

Article excerpt

Life is old there

Older than the trees

Younger than the mountains

Growin' like a breeze

Country Roads, take me home

To the place I belong . . .*

Introduction

As a growing corpus of contemporary art reveals, automobility has a strong presence in Aboriginal cultural expression. The manner in which this theme is conveyed and what meanings these works communicate vary considerably across media, style and individual treatment. I would like to suggest that as a collective, these roadworks' might reveal as much about Aboriginal relations to 'Country'2 as any other Aboriginal art of place.

For several decades the concept of Country has played a pivotal role in the public discourse of Australian Aboriginality. It is a term that succinctly communicates the vast network of relationships that binds many Aboriginal people to their ancestry, their kin, their languages and their land in all its sentient creative capacity. In the context of Australian art, Country has been a particularly useful term (along with 'Dreaming') for describing the dominant theme of Aboriginal visual culture. It effectively encompasses a plethora of visual devices, formal properties, modes of representation and material substances as well as the underlying structures, stories and meanings that so many Aboriginal artworks convey.3 In this essay, I intend to explore how Country is represented through Aboriginal arts of automobility via visual analysis of specific paintings by four Aboriginal artists from rural and urban Austraha.

I begin by introducing a variety of works by Aboriginal artists that incorporate automobihty in different ways. I then focus on individual paintings by Christopher Pease (b. 1969), Lin Onus (1948-96) and Revel Cooper (c. 1934-83). Finally, through the work of the artist Ian Abdulla (1947- 201 1), I explore the art of automobihty as an artist's theme, considering the interrelated complexities of automobile subjectivity, Aboriginahty and Country his oeuvre evokes. Before entering into a discussion of the art of Aboriginal automobihty, it is useful to consider the role of Country in Aboriginal art and the experience of automobihty in Aboriginal Austrahan history.

Mapping a Road to Country

In the Austrahan context, country is a word that commonly denotes either rural living or the nation-state. In recent decades, the term Country has also emerged as a key concept in defining and describing Aboriginal relations to land and identity. In its Aboriginal usage, the word Country embraces places, ecologies, kin, Law, beliefs, ways of being, a world view and a system of meaning.4 Although difficult to define in this context,5 as a gloss word Country may stand in for Indigenous language terms that signify specific places, tracts of land and, by association, a vast network of traditions and relationships. In other words, in usage, Country may be both abstract and very particular. In both senses, Country is something to which people belong. Consequently, in a very real way, Country can nourish the individual as well as distinguish and bind collectives of people. In post-Mabo6 Austraha, Country can carry a particular resonance with regard to the recognition and exercise of native-title rights and obligations, and in this allusion to the nation-state the term enfolds aspirations and claims to Indigenous sovereignty.

As an evocative and encompassing term, Country has been used across a variety of projects and programs implemented by individuals as well as public and private sector institutions, from local communities to government departments and universities. In the past decade alone, Country has been created, crossed, cruised, cared for, contested, pierced, painted and spoken.7 The creative arts industry in Australia has become a strong advocate for the use of the word Country as a structural framework for ordering the production, analysis, display and dissemination of contemporary Aboriginal art. …