From BLAK WAVE: ‘Answering A Question With A Question’ by Steaphan Paton

To celebrate NAIDOC Week (5-12 July 2015), we’re thrilled to publish Steaphan Paton’s full text from 2014’s Blak Wave publication online. The landmark publication features eighteen pieces exploring the future of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and artists though rich, strong, diverse and inspiring responses.

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The provocation for this piece of writing was presented to me as a question: ‘How do you rebel?’

This question doesn’t sit well with me and leads me to answer it with another question: ‘Who’s asking?’

Context is the most important factor in any proposition or question. So asking a young Aboriginal artist how they rebel presumes they are aware that they are rebelling. The question is loaded and fails to acknowledge context and privilege, which paves the way to conflict.

The question also presumes the artist is rebelling against a certain norm, most likely the Western tradition of art, or Western perceptions of the Aboriginal tradition of art. It projects the young Aboriginal artist’s work as some form of radicalism that the artist may not be aware of. It ignores that most Aboriginal art is political because of the nature of national politics and its relationship to Aboriginal Peoples. Aboriginal people are born politicised. I see my work as a form of storytelling that is not radical but is relevant. It is resistant but not rebellious.

I’m reminded of a continual conversation I have with ‘white’ Australians who ask, ‘How Aboriginal are you?’ This too is the kind of question I don’t really want to answer, because the person asking it has his or her own understanding of what I am, and therefore expects a certain response. Any meaningful understanding would result in a better question: ‘What tribe are you from?’ But admittedly, I didn’t start this part of the conversation with ‘I’m Gunai’. I was the one who said I was Aboriginal. If I knew that ‘white’ Australians were familiar with the names of Aboriginal Nations then I would have started the conversation differently.

So here we are in a stand off. No one is asking the right questions and no one is giving the right answers. The result is a conversation that appears to be about radicalism, rebellion and freedom fighters when it is really about living: living people, living culture and lived responses to a constant attack.

So to establish context and understanding I have a statement to ‘white’ Australians:

We Aboriginal Peoples are a group of many Nations; we are all different, different to each other and different to you. We celebrate our differences and delight in our similarities. Our cultures are different to yours, our thinking is different and it always will be. Even our ‘modern’ art is different. However one thing is collectively certain. We were all born here and are all Australians.