University of Tasmania
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Regarding the savages : visual representation of Tasmanian Aborigines in the 19th century

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posted on 2023-05-27, 12:02 authored by Lehman, GP
Tasmania's unique combination of geography, deep human history and the particular context of British colonial settlement offers a valuable case study of the spread of European philosophy, literary, scientific and artistic traditions through British imperial interests in the South Pacific. During the 1820s, in order to facilitate economic and social development, the colonial government of Van Diemen's Land attempted the effective removal of all 'wild' Aborigines from the island. A limited anthropological record prior to this period produced a blank ethnographic canvas that was slowly populated with figures owing more to the European imagination and earlier encounters with Indigenous people elsewhere in the empire than to the existential character of Tasmanian Aborigines, their culture and history. Aborigines were depicted through a range of tropes dominated by romantic notions of noble savagery, settler experiences of conflict, the desire for peace and prosperity, and ultimately, for Aboriginal absence. By the end of the century, this had resulted in Tasmanian Aborigines being rendered as tragic characters, emblematic of their own demise ‚Äö- a trope that has persisted to the present day ‚Äö- influencing descriptions across art, literature and science. Visual representations of Tasmanian Aborigines from the nineteenth-century have proliferated through historical literature, trade and exhibition. However, changing modes of visual literacy, defined by Barbara Stafford as 'a cultural construct, rising or falling with cultural and scientific assumptions and values of a given period', and a dearth of critical art-historical interest in these representations, have led to a limited ability for most observers to contextualize this visual history, or to understand the complexity of this important aspect of Tasmania's visual history. This problem is significant in its consequences for realizing the full value of a diverse body of objects and images in the archive relating to Australian colonial history and their role in influencing the formation of contemporary social frameworks involving Aboriginal people and attitudes to their treatment in Tasmania. Several authors, including Tim Bonyhady, David Hansen and Penny Edmonds have advanced knowledge on particular artists working in Tasmania, or on specific representational modes. However, there has been no systematic attempt to construct a critical overview on the subject since the work of Brian Plomley half a century ago. Significantly, only one exhibition (and resulting publication) is known to have been dedicated to the representation of Tasmanian Aborigines in art. My unique contribution to this task of analysis is to bring an interdisciplinary approach that crosses boundaries between the philosophy of science and the practices of art history. This, coupled with my cultural knowledge as an Indigenous Tasmanian scholar of the context of the people and environments depicted in this visual record, enables a contribution of new knowledge through deeper and richer analysis and interpretation than has been undertaken to date. In particular, I bring this knowledge to the task of examining tensions between desires to decipher colonial images as cultural products, and to understanding them as agents for provoking meaningful response in viewers. This project is the first significant art-historical study to address a number of key questions examining how Tasmanian Aborigines have been variously characterized across the period of the nineteenth-century, and proposes a number of distinct tropes of representation drawn from earlier encounters with 'savage peoples' by the West. In doing so, it engages critically with an existing body of literature that has yet to be subject to a concerted analytical review. At the same time, this thesis builds on seminal work by the small number of art historians, including Bernard Smith, Nicholas Thomas, and Ian McLean who made early considerations of the representation of Tasmanian Aborigines as a component of larger studies, and who provided a starting point for the context and methodology of this inquiry. This thesis examines a selection of visual records including drawing, painting, sculpture, printing, and photography produced up to the end of the nineteenth-century. By investigating the influence of European ideas through the overlapping traditions of art and science on perceptions of Tasmanian Aborigines and their culture, I identify and problematize major themes emerging from extant literature, and identify limitations in the approaches of earlier contributors. Selected works of key artists are examined in order to analyze how these objects exemplify a range of ideas and values at play in the context of their production. Importantly, older traditions upon which these ideas draw are explored to suggest deeper functions of these representations in promulgating the foundations of Christian empire in a remote antipodean colony. This project's examination of the records of ethnographic illustration from British and French expeditions, through to the work of a number of colonial artists depicting Tasmanian Aborigines, makes an important contribution to critical understandings of the evolution of ideas about European relationships with nature, place and identity in the Antipodes. Importantly, I offer insights into how these ideas were deployed in response to the particularities of British settlement in Tasmania, and the resulting contrasts between British artistic production and earlier French depictions of the island's indigenous people. This reveals significant changes across the period under consideration and points to the role that visual arts played in documenting and explicating practices that many controversially describe as genocidal. By interrogating the social, political, philosophical and aesthetic environment from which the visual record of Tasmania's Indigenous history has emerged, I offer a deeper analysis of the function and influence of key traditions and tropes that have become foundational to contemporary ideas about Aboriginal Tasmania. The results of this investigation reveal that shifting patterns of representation of Tasmanian Aborigines have been informed by a complex history of depiction of indigenous people by Europeans over many centuries prior to the colonization of Australia. These patterns mark significant changes in the deployment of art traditions, scientific and religious ideologies, and colonial policy on the one hand, and changes in how this visual history is read. By describing this process, I seek to enable a more detailed and critical understanding of how and why familiar conceptions of Tasmanian Aborigines have emerged. Identifying avenues for further research, and offering new and richer interpretations of artworks depicting Tasmanian Aborigines creates opportunities for contemporary Tasmanians to reinterpret the past. In doing so, prospects for a new sense of place on the island beckon through re-evaluating the role of visual history in influencing relationships with Tasmanian Aboriginal culture, and deeper understandings of the implications of colonization. These opportunities have potential relevance across a range of Australian and international colonial contexts.


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Copyright 2016 the author

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