Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Warwick Thornton's Mother Courage: A Battle Cry for Aboriginal Art

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Warwick Thornton's Mother Courage: A Battle Cry for Aboriginal Art

Article excerpt

Warwick Thornton's installation Mother Courage, prompted by Brecht's classic drama, addresses the situation of Aboriginal Australians, especially artists, and the politics of their survival. Juxtaposing traditional paintings with contemporary media-based culture, the installation highlights the issue of "authentic" Aboriginal art and displays Aboriginal artists' diversity and agency.

Visitors to dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany encountered a battered van parked in public spaces throughout the city, including the forecourt of an exhibition hall and Kassel's central station. The van, moved daily to different locations as a roving exhibit, was the Australian film director Warwick Thornton's intercultural installation, Mother Courage (2012). The installation was prompted by the modern German classic, Bertolt Brecht's Mutter Courage und Ihre Kinder (Mother Courage and Her Children [1939]). From Kassel, Thornton's Mother Courage moved to Melbourne, where it was exhibited in the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in 2013. The installation is richly textured, complex, and multivalent. Mother Courage addresses the situation of Aboriginal Australians, especially artists, and the politics of their survival. By making Mother Courage an artist and juxtaposing traditional Aboriginal painting with contemporary media-based culture, Thornton highlights the question of what constitutes "authentic" Aboriginal art as well as issues of Aboriginal artists' agency.

This essay, an ekphrastic account of Thornton's installation, contends firstly that, with its rich textuality, the artwork is a highly successful intercultural response to some of the central ideas in Brecht's drama. Thornton's artwork resonates with Brecht's didactic intention in writing epic theatre and transposes key elements into a depiction of the impact of the Intervention on Aboriginal communities in Central Australia. The Northern Territory National Emergency Response is a package of changes to welfare provision, law enforcement, land tenure, and other measures introduced in 2007 by the Australian government. Commonly known as the Intervention, these measures were set in place ostensibly to address allegations of child sexual abuse and neglect in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory faced legislation that, for example, placed severe restrictions on their receipt and use of income with the introduction of the BasicsCard, an income management tool. The card can be used to buy food, clothes, and health and hygiene products at approved businesses and stores, and cannot be used for alcohol, tobacco, or gambling ("About"). The application of these measures was indiscriminate, targeting all Aboriginals regardless of whether they had a record or not. Government employment programmes in remote communities were discontinued, communities were forced to surrender their leasehold titles, and control of these lands was handed over to the government. With no employment and no control of their communities, many moved to cities in the Northern Territory such as Alice Springs. At the same time, increases in power and water charges meant urban living was unsustainable for many, forcing them into homelessness (Browning). The 2012 Stronger Futures legislation extended the Intervention measures for ten years. There have not been any prosecutions for child abuse as a result of the exercise, but homelessness, violence, and youth suicide have increased significantly ("Northern").

Using the figure of an Aboriginal artist forced to leave her community to survive, Thornton addresses the question of what comprises Aboriginal art, traditional painting, or contemporary art. Thornton's installation is a limited edition with two slightly different incarnations; the van that appeared at ACMI is a recreation of the one that appeared in Germany (Hillier). Secondly, the essay teases out the impact of place or context on the installation--external and internal space, as well as change of national context. …

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