Saluting the dot-spangled banner:  Aboriginal Culture, National Identity and the Australian Republic

By Philip Batty

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The closing ceremonies of the Atlanta Olympics were watched by a fifth of the world’s population. At the very end of this global spectacle, just before the billion or so viewers had time to switch to another channel, Australia was given a brief TV spot to invite the world to Sydney for the next Olympic Games in the year 2000.

This was arguably the most expensive piece of air-time on the planet at that moment; filling it with a slick bit of advertising would of course be a routine matter for the average transnational corporation — they speak the lingua franca of consumerism — but how does one go about representing a ‘nation’ in a short television message that encapsulates what might be called a ‘unique national essence’ and communicates in a language that is broadly comprehensible to a global audience?

What the world saw of ‘Australia’ in that brief moment of planetary exposure were the signs not of the progressive modern state’ (as seen at the festivities surrounding the Melbourne Olympics in 1956), nor was it exactly a fragmented assortment of disparate elements trying to look ‘post modern’ (indeed, this was supposed to be a representation of a very un-post modern idea; the nation state), rather, it was an odd mixture of both; a kind of work in progress.

Gone were the stockmen, the circles of stumbling sheep, the show ponies, the wood-chopping, the prize bulls, the tractors, the wheat harvesters, and the brand new Holden cars fresh off the production line. Instead, the organisers chose to represent ‘Australia’, through a pageant of the ‘indigenous’, heavily laced with the associated signs of the, primordial’ and the ‘natural’.

Rising up in the centre of what looked like a mass of flames (long- red streamers blown upwards by hidden fans), a group of painted Aboriginal musicians blew into their amplified didgeridoos, while all around them danced an odd assemblage of female performers dressed in knee-length, see-through dresses.

Other actors disguised as sulphur-crested cockatoos and a troop of cyclists carrying blow-up plastic kangaroos on their backs (decorated with the dots and lines of Australian Aboriginal art), also appeared. Towards the end of the performance, as if in an awkward glance back to the days when Australia was secure in its modernity, (and Aboriginal culture represented nothing more than a curious footnote in the pages of national advancement), a plastic replica of the billowing sails of the Sydney opera house rose up in the background.

Edward Said famously proposed, that a culture, a self, a national identity, is always produced in relation to its ‘others’. He insisted that ‘… the development and maintenance of every culture requires the existence of another different and competing alter ego. The construction of identity … whether of Orient or Occident, France or Britain … involves establishing opposites and ‘others’ whose actuality is always subject to the continuous interpretation and reinterpretation of their differences from ‘us’..’ (Said 1995:332) In this article, I will complicate Said’s proposition a little and make the following suggestion:

The ‘Aboriginal’ is of course one of the most enduring ‘others’ against which white Australia has sought to construct itself (in various guises), over the past two hundred years or so (see Hodge and Mishra 1990) but this has never been a strictly internal relationship between the white colonialist and the indigenous population, rather, it has always been mediated, to a lesser or greater extent, by external representations of the Aboriginal, produced or constructed primarily in Europe, and more recently in North America. These changing representations are continuously imported into Australia — willingly or unwillingly — where they act to delineate internal Aboriginal/white relations. In other words, the construction of ‘Australia’ within the global arena is, to a certain extent, predicated — in both overt and hidden ways — on external constructions of the indigenous inhabitants of this ‘far-flung island-continent’, which in turn, tends to set the parameters, in both positive and negative ways, of white Australia’s relationship with its indigenous other, and therefore its sense of itself.

Following a lead provided by Toby Miller, we will see that the kind of representations of Australia — as seen on the world stage at Atlanta — do indeed have their origins in the colonial empires of the West. Miller proposes that in the past, Aboriginal Australia provided Europe with a ‘photographic negative’ of itself, and that the ‘essence of the north’, hidden and disfigured by the disease of the modern, could be rediscovered by examining the ‘realities of the Antipodean primordial’. This ‘projection back to Eden was integral to the longing of the modern to know itself through a differentiation from the ‘primitive’… the use of Aboriginal life to illustrate the teleological notion endorsing advanced industrial societies also contained its share of melancholic nostalgia for simplicity…’ (Miller 1995: 7,12).1

Miller supports these notions by producing an impressive list of European thinkers from the 1820s through to the 1960s who utilised, in one form or another, Aboriginal knowledges of social and religious organisation in their work, including George Hegel, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, Frederick Engels, Caetano Mosca, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, Ruth Benedict, Talcott Parsons, Claude Levi-Strauss and Clifford Geertz, to name but a few. Indeed, Miller provokes us with the suggestion that: ‘… Aborigines have been the most important Australian exporters of social theory and cultural production to the northern hemisphere over the past century.’

A very clear indication of this propensity of the industrialised West to seek its ‘essence’ in the pristine and apparently primitive social world of the Australian Aboriginal, and at the same time, use it to undergird the project of the modern, can be found in Freud’s influential work Totem and Taboo, first published in 1919. Although Freud never travelled to central Australia, he had few inhibitions about basing much of his psycho-speculations in Totem and Taboo on the ethnographic classic, The Native Tribes of Central Australia, written by the pioneering anthropologists, Spencer and Gillen, and published in 1899.2

The thoroughness of this piece of ethnography, which provides an extraordinarily detailed account of the Arrente and their religious beliefs, can be largely attributed to the fact that Gillen lived for many years in Alice Springs as the town’s postman and was therefore able to devote an unusually large amount of time to the object of his research. Thanks to Gillen’s apparent neglect of his official duties, Freud was able to introduce his book with a profoundly modernist construction of those distant inhabitants of the antipodes:

‘Primitive man is known to us by the stages of development through which he has passed.. through our knowledge of his art, his religion, and his attitude towards life … We can therefore judge the so-called savage races; their psychic life assumes a peculiar interest for us, for we can recognise in their psychic life the well-preserved, early stage of our own development… I am choosing for this comparison those tribes which have been described by ethnologists as being the most backward and wretched: the aborigines of the youngest continent, namely Australia …’ (Freud 1938:15-16)

I don’t think that there can be any doubt that these modernist, European-inspired representations of the ‘savage races’ of Australia provided some of the necessary ideological armature required to justify the dispossession, and in certain locations, the deliberate extermination of Aboriginal people during much of the colonial era. Such representations, of course, also sustained the myth that Aborigines were a relic of human evolution and should therefore be considered a ‘dying race’ whose descendants must be ‘assimilated’ into mainstream Australia as quickly as possible, which in turn, deeply informed government policy on Aboriginal until quite recently.

Interestingly, John Hartley (2), has argued that the treatment of Aboriginal people was not simply a matter of pure racism, but that this brutal activity also had the effect of clearly differentiating white colonists from the ‘mother country’, thus helping to generate a new form of national identity. As a result, the sign ‘Australians’ would be taken to mean not the primitive inhabitants of the primordial antipodes, as constructed in the modernist intellectual tradition, but ‘white inhabitants’ — intrepid pioneers, hardworking pastoralists, industrious miners, assiduous metal manufacturers, bronzed surfers, etc.

So how did, we get from the ‘dying race’, or ‘the most backward and wretched’ race on earth, or the ‘evolutionary relic’ to the performance at the Atlanta Olympics? How did Aboriginal culture become so transformed that it can now be represented, on the global stage, as symbolising a kind of essential Australian’s? Indeed, we now find signs of the ‘indigenous’ in any number of nationalist representational strategies — the ‘national carrier’, QANTAS, for instance, recently covered two of its jumbo jets in a montage of ‘indigenous’ designs and Aboriginal artists are regularly presented at international events as purveyors of a uniquely ‘Australian’ art. Ironically, a recent design for Australia Post corporate uniforms was awash with the dots and circles of central Australian Aboriginal iconography.

To fully explore the meaning and ramifications of these rather remarkable transformations would of course be a complex task, beyond the main purpose of this short article. The issue here is that Australia’s desire to know itself through Aboriginal culture, produces not only the more obvious banalities described above, but a whole range of other sociocultural, political, and economic articulations. One example would be the decision by the Australian High Court to recognise native title under the ‘Mabo Judgement’, an event that has generated immense political and sociocultural consequences that even the current Prime Minister, with all the resources of the Attorney-General’s Department, is apparently unable to completely disentangle.

I would argue that the High Court decision was made, to a large extent, to mitigate against Australia’s international embarrassment at the continuing decrepitude of Aboriginal living conditions, to assuage the morally vexatious reality that until recently, Australia treated its indigenous people more like animals than human beings, and importantly, to elide the fact that the indigenous population remains deeply dependent upon, and directly subject to the machinations of the Australian state.

In other words, through the Mabo decision, Australia continues to seek a sense of identity through yet another reinvention of Aboriginal culture, but this time it is constituted not as a problem to be eradicated, or assimilated — but as a site of national redemption, where Australia can reaffirm its most cherished beliefs about itself; that is, as a fair-minded, just, and compassionate global citizen. Whether the Mabo decision, or the general shift — over the past twenty-five years — in the relationship between white Australia and its ‘indigenous other’ will result in any tangible benefits to the actual referents of these representational manoeuvres — the Aboriginal people — is of course, a very different question.

As Australia moves to cut the last apron strings that still bind it to the ‘mother country’, and heads down the road to Republicanism, these complex intersections between external and internal constructions of the antipodean indigenous, that constantly worry away at white Australia’s knowledge of itself, will not only dominate the articulation of this movement, but will become increasingly visible, the closer we come to the establishment of the Republic of Australia

Philip Batty
This article was first published in Art Link Vol. 17 No.3 in 1997. It is reproduced here with the permission of the author.


1. Cited in Miller, T, “Exporting Truth From Aboriginal Australia”, in Media Information Australia No. 76 — May 1995.

2. Spencer. B, Gillen F.J; The Native Tribes of Central Australia, Dover Publications, New York 1968.


Freud, S, Totem and Taboo, Pelican Books, Harmondsworth 1938.

Hodge B, Mishra V, The Dark Side of the Dream, Allen & Unwin, North Sydney 1991.

Said, E, Orientalisim, Penguin Books, Melbourne 1995.


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