Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

The Aboriginal Flag as Art

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

The Aboriginal Flag as Art

Article excerpt

Abstract: Is the Aboriginal flag art? And, if it is, what end does that argument serve? Art is not a helpful noun; certainly it is a risky one on which to base an argument. Yet, to fail to read the Aboriginal flag as art or, more precisely, to fail to read it as Indigenous activist art, is to fail to understand the Aboriginal flag and, more broadly, the role of culture in Indigenous activism post colonisation. This reading of the flag, through my research, appeared in every direction, far on the horizon, until I spoke to Indigenous historian Victoria Grieves. Grieves helped me recognise the value and intent of this argument from an Indigenous perspective. The Aboriginal flag is art. The Aboriginal flag's Indigenous and Western art epistemologies are instrumental in shaping its form and semantics. As Aboriginal art, the flag represents a continuum with traditional Aboriginal themes and aesthetic values. In a Western context it is read as a flag and it exists as a mass-produced object. In all its guises the Aboriginal flag has melded itself into many aspects of popular imagination and become one of Australia's significant symbols.

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The understanding of the Aboriginal flag (1) as art outlined in this paper has three thematic foundations: the life of the flag's author, Harold Thomas; Aboriginal cultural practice; and Western art practice and theory. Together, these conditions and criteria frame and inform the Aboriginal flag as art and ensure that the artist's life and philosophy are central to the readers' understanding of the Aboriginal flag. As Aboriginal art, the flag is shown to share many aesthetic formal qualities and themes with traditional, pre-contact Aboriginal art. Western art theory, in the form of the Institutional Definition of Art (discussed later), is described and drawn upon to frame and substantiate an emerging consensus among art professionals that the flag is indeed art. Harold Thomas has consistently and emphatically stated that he conceived the flag as art. His claim is substantiated by Indigenous academic, activist and artist Brenda Croft. The arguments that substantiate the flag as art are neither complicated nor, upon reflection, contentious. They are nevertheless critical in that the acceptance of the flag as art has second and third tier repercussions for our understandings and readings of the flag. The Aboriginal flag is universally accepted as a powerful activist ensign and, as such, the flag, once accepted as art, also has to be accepted at activist art. Accepted as art, the issues of the flag's use, ownership, copyright status and revenues are thrown into a complex terrain that traverses the values of two cultures and two mediums: art and vexillology (the study of flags). The paper concludes with a formal exploration of the Aboriginal flag that substantiates the argument that its design represents the drawn out, considered process of a serious artist.

Genesis and readings

The Aboriginal flag's exact genesis is hard to pinpoint. Harold Thomas and activist, actor and historian Gary Foley agree that they discussed the need to create an Aboriginal flag when they met days or weeks or months before the flag was first flown on National Aborigines Day Observance Committee (NADOC) day on 12 July 1971. Foley, who was based in Sydney at the time, was a frequent visitor to Adelaide, where he was helping to set up Aboriginal medical and legal services, like those that had recently been established in Sydney. During one such visit to Adelaide, after a demonstration in support of Aboriginal fugitive Lionel Brockman, Foley recalls heading back to Thomas' place with some beers to workshop the idea and design of an Aboriginal flag. Thomas describes the creation of the flag as both protracted and instantaneous, as it involved a process of long gestation that took place over weeks, months or years. The need for a symbol of Aboriginal identity was sown in Thomas' mind after attending his first Aboriginal demonstration in 1970 where white supporters outnumbered the barely visible Aboriginal activists (ABC Radio National 2002). …

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