Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Twin cultures

To many people, Australian culture means things like going to the beach, surfing, barbecues, sport, physical activity and sheep-farming - in other words, modern-day pursuits enjoyed by 'settlers'.

But references to aboriginal beliefs and traditions are now so frequent in Australia that any true idea of Australian culture has to include both aborigines and settlers.

Everywhere you go in Australia there's fantastic aboriginal art, particularly paintings. There're constant reminders of aboriginal respect for the land and its flora and fauna, and how they should be protected and cherished rather than owned and exploited.

There're regular mentions of the customary aboriginal lifestyle with its slower pace and quiet sensitivity, in sharp contrast to the contemporary yen for consumerism, materialism, hyperactivity and worldly success.

Aboriginal values, which existed many years before the settlers muscled in and imposed their own values, are in many ways more intelligent and more sensible and a positive alternative to the frantic hedonism and go-getting we usually think of as the Australian dream.

Many Australians still regard the aboriginal worldview as totally irrelevant and just a tourist curiosity, but it seems to be growing in influence all the time and actively challenging the limitations of the prevailing culture.

Modern-day Australian culture is not even particularly unique but borrows heavily from Britain and America. Britons were keen beachgoers and sports-lovers long before the Aussies.

And as for that great Aussie symbol, the boomerang, it's actually an aboriginal hunting weapon, used to knock animals out of trees or disable them. Right there you have an emblem that goes way beyond the usual sun and sand image.

Alongside the bikinis, thongs and surfboards, there's a much older and maybe richer way of life.

Painting: Awelye by Minnie Pwerle


  1. Nick holidays aside, do you think you could live in Australia?

  2. Grannymar - Definitely! If I had discovered Oz when I was much younger and before Jenny popped up, I might very well have moved there. Though the colossal temperatures would take a bit of getting used to.

  3. Nick, have you changed your hairstyle or bodily adornments since being impacted by the aborigines?

  4. Very interesting, Nick, the aboriginals were deleted from consciousness for so many many years and not just in Oz. Interesting that you would have moved there, I have Oz friends who would never go back (tho they do visit), too misogynistic a culture they say and extremely racist and neocon.
    though that weather has huge appeal....

  5. Aboriginal cultures should be venerated by us so called civilised folks. We are so far removed from the correct ways to live it scares me.

  6. Hulla - Sure, my body is painted in garish and exotic colours and my hair is as wild as the jungle. Apart from that, I'm much the same.

    www - Oz does have a reputation for right-wing views but whether they are more extreme than in Britain I don't know. They have a lot of women politicians and ethnic minorities (particularly Asian) are very prevalent.

    On the other hand, racist attacks are widespread in Britain and so are misogynist workplaces.

    Muddy - We like to think we're so civilised but the seedy, degenerate underbelly of British society is pretty scary.

  7. Unfortunately the great white culture did not bring fortune to the Aboriginal folk: alcohol and drugs do not agree with them, physically speaking. I personally think excessive drinking is a problem throughout Australia (like Ireland although probably less drink driving here in Oz) but among Aboriginal people it has disastrous consequences. It's difficult for them to stay in their own slow paced worlds when towns and cities are imposed on them and they are stuck in between city and their natural / traditional homes, the nature itself. There are lots of problems, domestic abuse, child sex abuse, and overall violence amongst the communities. In many places it's not at all that romantic unfortunately, aboriginal culture does not have the influence not is it inspiring the lives of the majority. I personally think the civilization (and I use that term loosely, I mean more like colonization) has a way of destroying wherever the hands of the civilized reached and grabbed. We aren't really living in harmony with the Aboriginal folk, although their artwork might be providing inspiration for our guests in our dining rooms. There are clusters where the communities where the the settler-turned-Australians and Aboriginals living together but majority of them are isolated and the white folk do not really want to associate with them. There is racism in Australia but I think multi-cultural living is slowly changing it for the better.
    There is a strange misogynistic character to the culture I have to say, there is that rough, sexist, ragged bloke thing which I really dislike as well as the women who are trying to hard to attract the attention of the blokes (assholes more like) and putting themselves in unbelievable clothes and situations. There isn't that much self-respect and confidence amongst the women because of womanising ways of the men.
    Despite all this, I love my adopted country and there is so much good stuff happening I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. Well, perhaps Canada (no, too cold), or Spain (no too crowded), or Norway (now that's a thought... nope a bit too cold). I lived and stayed in many countries, there's no place like Oz for me.

    PS: Nick, all hope is not lost, I can see Jenny already becoming addicted to Oz and wanting to come back!

    PPS: word of the day priestsa, weird.

  8. GayƩ - Oh yes, I've read quite a few articles about the sad decline of aboriginal communities once they're exposed to modern phenomena like drugs and alcohol. Many of them simply don't have the strength to maintain their traditional values and rise above the soul-sapping aspects of today's culture.

    And if the wider society regards aboriginal culture as primitive and persistently ignores and undermines it, then it's even harder to maintain it. Only if there's a willingness to listen and learn can their different type of wisdom be understood and appreciated. Well, that's how I see it anyway.

    I think the misogynist situation you describe is very similar to what you find in the UK - the arrogant guys and the tarted-up women competing for their attention. Decades of feminism have only had a very limited impact.

  9. There is an aboriginal museum in Utrecht that I keep meaning to go to - you've reminded me to put it back on the list.

  10. Conor - Yes, you should have a look, I bet it's really interesting.

  11. Gaye's pretty much put it in a nutshell although I don't think 'blokeyness' is mysogenistic, if anything, the women of Australia, particularly the young, are more 'male' in their behavior. It's important to remember that mateship is a male preoccupation. Like any country, there are the good, the bad, the ugly, and the fantastic. We are no more mysogenistic than Britain or Ireland or the US frankly.

    The aboriginal situation here is dire. Especially for rural communities but I believe it is being slowly addressed. For years aboriginals have been a forgotten community yet now are beginning to rise above through intervention and improvements in education. Don't want to say much more. Like I said, Gaye's covered most.

  12. I saw some great aboriginal cave art in Kakadu - also had the locals aborigines begging me to buy them beer - nice legacy left by the invaders along with smallpox

  13. How wonderful that you were there! I've always wanted to visit Australia and am particularly drawn to the Aboriginal culture. The sound of the didjeridu seems to speak to something I can't quite access, perhaps an ancient cell memory or something.

    Do you have pictures?

  14. I read backwards to catch up on missed posts so I see that you do indeed have pictures and they're wonderful!

  15. Baino - That's the impression I get too, that sexism is no worse in Oz than in many other countries. And it definitely seemed that awareness of aboriginal culture was a lot stronger than the last time we were there in 2005.

    Quicky - Had to check where Kakadu is! As you say, the taste for beer is now widespread. And illnesses brought in by the settlers did indeed have a devastating effect on non-immune aborigines.

    Heart - The didgeridoo is a fascinating instrument. Did you know it's traditionally made from living eucalyptus trees hollowed out by termites? And it's said to be the world's oldest wind instrument, played for around 1500 years?

    I must try and post some of the pics Jenny took on our travels.

  16. We have a few bits of aboriginal art given to us by Australian relatives and I fell in love with it immediately. I find Native American art intriguing as well, especially woodcraft.

    My paternal grandfather (through adoption) is of Native North American descent, and I have always been amazed at how dismissive he is of his culture - almost as though he is ashamed of it.

  17. FG - A pity your grandfather is so ashamed of his own culture - presumably because he's been taught to be by people with more 'up to date' values.