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Beyond Assimilation
Aboriginality, Media History and Public Memory

Meaghan Morris

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1. Scott Murray, 'Tracey Moffatt, Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy', Cinema Papers 79 (1990), p.22.



  It is not good to give an academic talk straight after a screening of Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989). I've seen other people do this, and the result is always 'grating', as the director has said of the song at the end of the film – its message 'unwelcome and inappropriate' (1) after the mother's death. Night Cries is a film that moves some people very deeply. I've watched it with people in several countries, some vitally engaged by the racial dimension of Tracey Moffatt's 'rural tragedy', others not; and in both cases a distress verging on speechlessness is a response that women particularly, though not only, express. It's not often, after all, that we see a film exploring a daughter's ambivalence about her mother – let alone her hostility towards a frail, old, pain-racked and helpless mother – without the mother being portrayed as bad, as a bad mother who deserves our anger. Night Cries is not Mommie Dearest (1981). The mother here is not a wicked, selfish woman, or a cruel stepmother: she's been a loving mother; her whiteness is not a fault or a personal crime, and the nation-building history that has forced these women's lives together has also created bonds of love and dependency at the core of their shared existence; even in the beach flashback, when the daughter remembers a childhood crisis of loss and abandonment (and perhaps comes close to remembering an earlier crisis, the loss of her black mother), all that the white mother has done, really, is simply leave the child's field of vision for a moment – something that happens to babies everywhere at some time. Night Cries confronts us directly with this mix of tenderness with a violent feeling which has no special fictional pretext, no narrative justification, to make it OK.  

2. Discussion of Night Cries at Trajectories: Towards a New Internationalist Cultural Studies – An International Symposium sponsored by The Institute of Literature, National Tsing Hua University (Hsinchu), Taipei, Taiwan, July 1992.
  Not everyone finds this wrenching. Some people have a 'so what?' reaction to another glossy, good-looking little film. At a screening of Night Cries in Taipei, where young women wrestling with the relationship between feminism and Confucianism in their lives were (they said later) stricken by the immediacy for them of the mother-daughter relationship in the film, the 'so-what' response was eloquently framed by Fred Chiu, an anthropologist at Hong Kong Baptist University. (2) Expressing a sense of bemusement I recognise, he said that without some sense of the historical and cultural background of Night Cries, one sees only the generic: a maternal melodrama, an arty use of signs of cinematic modernism with a pomo/MTV-dayglo gloss.  


  There are many other ways of responding to Night Cries. I pick these extremes to begin with because both engage directly with crucial aspects of the project of the film. Tracey Moffatt has said that she would like to think:  

3. Cited in Murray, p.22.

  that my film is universal, that it isn't particularly about black Australia and white Australia. It's about a child's being moulded and repressed – she is very sexually repressed. It could be the story of anyone stranded in the middle of the desert having to look after their ageing mother. (3)  

4. Geoff Batchen, 'Complicities', Artful, College of Fine Arts Students Association (October 1990), np.   At the same time, Night Cries has also been called 'an autobiography of a whole generation of Aborigines' (4) – those who, like Moffatt, grew up under the official policy of assimilation pursued so intensely across Australia between the late 1930s and the mid 1960s.  


5. See Anna Haebich, For Their Own Good: Aborigines and Government in the South West of Western Australia 1900-1940 (Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 1992).

6. On the digestive aspect of 'assimilation' in Moffatt's beDevil, see Mary Zournazi, '"The Queen Victoria of Bush Cuisine": Foreign Incorporation and Oral Consumption Within the Nation', Communal/Plural 4 (1994), pp.79-89.

  I think it is important for non-Aboriginal Australians to remember that assimilation was a policy in this period (and thus part of our own distinct historical and cultural inheritance as Australians), and not simply, to borrow Fred Chiu's phrase, a 'generic' effect of any colonising process – an ideology that was vaguely always around. A policy is the outcome of discussions and decisions that could have gone another way; it has precise, practical consequences for people's lives. Those of us who know little of Australian history are beginning to learn that what happened to various Aboriginal people in different regions and under different state governments during the 'assimilation' period varied greatly. (5) Most of us know, however, that all states at various times both encouraged and forced black mothers to give up their children for fostering or adoption by white families; we cannot not know now that the extermination of Aboriginality – culture, identity, kinship – was the aim of assimilation. 'Assimilation' in this context was understood in the bodily sense of the term: it did not mean (as it could have) working for social and economic equality and mutual enrichment between Aboriginal and European peoples, but the swallowing up, the absorption, of the former by the latter. (6)  

7. Coral Edwards and Peter Read, eds, The Lost Children: Thirteen Australians taken from Aboriginal families tell of the struggle to find their natural parents (Sydney: Doubleday, 1989), p.ix.

  Of course, ruthlessly authoritarian forms of social engineering were not imposed by Australian governments on Aboriginal families alone. In my home town in the 1950s, white children, too, were 'taken by the welfare' (we would say, accepting this as a sad but normal thing), and childish bad behaviour was often met with threats that 'the welfare' would get us. State child theft wasn't practised only from the 1930s to the 1960s and it didn't only happen in Australia; the ABC-TV mini-series The Leaving of Liverpool (1992) tells the story of children 'stolen' in Britain, too. But we cannot not know now that its application in Australia to Aboriginal people had a systematically racist, deliberately ethnocidal purpose; and that the 'taking' of Aboriginal children was practised on a horrifically large scale. (7)  


  Only now, however, is some notion of the scale of the trauma and disruption that this policy created beginning to filter through to the white Australians in whose idealised name it was practised. Or, rather than speaking of an 'idea' filtering through, I should say that only recently have we begun to develop a collective capacity to comprehend, to empathise, to imagine that trauma and disruption. This is also a matter of a politics of remembering. It is important to clarify that many (I would guess most) white Australians 'were not 'aware' of what was happening' not because we did not know it was happening (we did) but because we were unable or did not care to understand what we knew; we could not imagine how Aboriginal people felt. So we whites have not 'just found out' about the lost children; rather, we are beginning to remember it differently, to understand and care about what we knew. This 'politics of memory' has been initiated largely by Aboriginal uses of film, television, and music – media work – in the past few years.  

8. Cited by Patricia Mellencamp, 'An Empirical Avant-Garde: Laleen Jayamanne and Tracey Moffatt' in Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video ed. Patrice Petro (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).

  Anyone who reads about Australian films in magazines will know that Tracey Moffatt herself was fostered, voluntarily, by her murri mother; she was raised by an older white woman, but grew up knowing her black mother as well as her white foster mother. However, other aspects of her life are also important to the making of Night Cries. Alongside its universal (child/parent) and Aboriginal (black daughter/white mother) dimensions, Night Cries is also a cultural autobiography of a whole generation of Australians who grew up between the late 1950s and the 1970s 'glued' (as Moffatt says of herself) 'to the television', and with a love of American popular culture ('a diet of very commercial cinema through to avant-garde films') that often divided us from the cultures of all our parents. (8) Out of this aesthetic love, Moffatt studied filmmaking and film history at the Queensland College of the Arts, from which she graduated in 1982. She exhibits as a photographer, and along with her feature film beDevil (1993) she has made several other short films besides Night Cries – some for television, like her work for the SBS series about positive representation, A Change of Face (1988), some for community use, like her film on AIDS for the Aboriginal Medical Service, as well as her experimental Nice Coloured Girls (1987), and a music video for INXS ('The Messenger' [1993]).  


  So if we choose to look at Night Cries as autobiography, we need to respect the place of art and media history in Tracey Moffatt's life, and the place she gives it in the collective experience that her film recalls – and literally stages with its image of the desert 'floor', that shiny stage the daughter walks between the house and that old Australian icon out the back. The film is doubly coded at the formal level of Moffatt's work as an artist, just as it is on the personal and social levels; it is both 'international' and 'Australia-specific' in its aesthetic frame of reference.  

9. Ingrid Periz, 'Night Cries: Cries from the heart', Filmnews August 1990, p.16.

  For film-conscious people, Night Cries is perhaps most easily accessible at first in its internationalism; the opening quotation of Rosalind Russell in Joshua Logan's Picnic (1955) and the dagger titling, which place the film in the 'generic orbit' (9) of the 1940s/'50s Hollywood family melodrama and the woman's film, on the one hand, and horror films on the other (an association reinforced at the beginning by the screaming sounds, recorded during a voodoo ceremony in Haiti in the 1930s). Other details intensify this familiarity: the beautifully minimal decaying railway platform, visible in many Australian towns but also recalling countless Westerns (especially Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time in the West [1968]) along with Ted Kotcheff's Wake in Fright (1971) and Dr George Miller's Mad Max 2 (1981); and the reflective desert floor, which Moffatt borrowed from one of the stage effects of bhutto theatre via Paul Schrader's film Mishima (1985).  



Whether we notice them and can name them or not, these details nudge Night Cries into a broad image economy, a global circuit of cultural reception. At the same time, other images and sounds can make watching the film a memory-saturated experience for anyone who grew up in rural, poor, or simply ordinary Australian houses in the '50s and '60s: the outdoor toilet, the galvanised iron, the creaking and banging screen door, the tin of Golden Syrup on the table, the mother's music box, the washboard, and, for me, the most devastating memory-trigger – the one that really gets me, though it's one of several moments that interrupt and block my own no doubt very complex impulse to identify wholly with the black daughter in this scenario: the mosquito net. Of all the interrupters in the film (such as the close-ups on Marcia Langton's face as she looks 'off' into her own fictive memory space in the shots preceding each flashback), the one that forces me wholly into the last place I want to be, the mother's space, is the scene of her anguish in bed; it brings back stifling childhood memories of being sick, hot and feverish under a mosquito net, struggling with this nightmarish webby thing entangling your limbs and smothering your face.

So it's possible just to say that Night Cries matches its international generic reception markers with a national, historical iconography – global media images, national and local domestic memories. But again there's a third term here, one that mediates the other two and makes the word 'national' more difficult to use (or asks us what we're going to mean by 'national') by recalling another history of black/white relations: a media history, not only of European image-makers representing Aboriginal culture, but also of Aboriginal image-makers and mediators representing European culture, trying to engage in dialogue with it.

I say 'trying' because a dialogue presupposes that both parties equally recognise the other's right to participate. A refusal to do this is at the core, not just of 'colonialism' in general, but of the particular media history recalled by Night Cries. Moffatt's film refers not only to Hollywood films and to 1950s Australian domestic culture but to the work of three cultural mediators of race relations in Australia. One is the white filmmaker, Charles Chauvel, director of Jedda (1955) from which the setting of Night Cries and its two women characters are developed. The other two are Aboriginal mediators: Jimmy Little, the singer we see and hear in the film, and Albert Namatjira, the painter whose work is commemorated in the art direction.


10. Marcia Langton, 'Well, I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the television…' An essay for the Australian Film Commission on the politics and aesthetics of filmmaking by and about Aboriginal people and things (North Sydney: Australian Film Commission, 1993).   These are the stories of mediation on which I want to focus. But first, let me sum up and reframe what I've said by using the theoretical perspective on 'dialogue' provided by Marcia Langton (the daughter in the film) in her essay, 'Well, I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the television...' (10) to recall some themes of critical discussion around Night Cries when it first appeared in Australia.  


11. Batchen, 'Complicities', np.

  I began by asking if Night Cries is a film about something universal, or an autobiography of a generation of Aborigines. It seems easy to say that it's both, and a third thing besides. Yet what disturbs some critics about work like this is that it does lay claim to a power to universalise, an experimental power to venture generalisations about women's relations, even cross-cultural human relations, rather than exclusively stressing the 'radical difference' of black Australian women's experience. This issue has resonances with debates elsewhere around race and culture, especially in the US, and I think that when people in Australia bring those debates directly to bear, without regard for particular (and differing) histories, the playing out in Night Cries of some positive emotions in the social economy of assimilation, even of a certain black-white emotional 'complicity', as one critic (Geoffrey Batchen) aptly and admiringly puts it, is construed as a problem. (11)  

12. Stephen Muecke, Textual Spaces: Aboriginality and Cultural Studies (Sydney: University of NSW Press, 1992); see particularly chapters 7 and 8.

13. Cited in Murray, p.21.

  For others, especially those influenced by the critical avant-garde and documentary aesthetics inspired by social movements in the 1970s, the big cinematic ambition of Night Cries – that beautiful, breath-taking gloss – is also a problem. Truly political films, some still feel in an age of many mediums as well as of multimedia, should be gritty, rough-grained and 'realistic'. And this can link up with a tenacious European belief that authentic Aboriginal cultural production should never be tainted with worldly success or, as Stephen Muecke bluntly puts it, with money. (12) Perhaps it is in response to this sort of censorious feeling, this demand that a poor-looking realism signify true 'Aboriginality', that Moffatt has said, 'Yes, I am Aboriginal, but I have the right to be avant-garde like any white artist'. (13)  

14. Langton, p.31

15. Emile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method [1938] (New York: The Free Press, 1964), p.xliii f.

16. Langton, p.33 (my emphasis)
  This intense opinionation about what Aboriginal artists and performers should and shouldn't do has its own media history, as a viewing of Jedda reminds us. As a form of stereotyping, it falls neatly into one of the three broad categories of intercultural relations that Langton identifies as ways of creating 'Aboriginality'. For Langton, ''Aboriginality' is a social thing in the sense used by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim' (14). As I understand this, a social 'thing' is a social fact that is like a material thing in that it cannot be known through introspection alone. For Durkheim, 'social things' come to be known through observation and experiment. (15) In this spirit, Langton argues that Aboriginality is 'a field of intersubjectivity in that it is remade over and over again in a process of dialogue, of imagination, of representation and interpretation'. (16) Aboriginality is not a fixed thing. It 'arises', she says,  

17. Langton, p.31

  from the subjective experience of both Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people who engage in any intercultural dialogue, whether in actual lived experience or through a mediated experience such as a white person watching a program about Aboriginal people on television or reading a book. (17)  

18. Langton, p.34

19. Langton, p.81

  Including mediated experience in the field of 'intersubjectivity' then allows Langton to construct 'three broad categories of cultural and textual construction of 'Aboriginality': one where an Aboriginal person is interacting with other Aboriginal people in social situations largely located within Aboriginal culture; one in which Europeans who have never had substantial first-hand contact with Aborigines engage in 'the stereotyping, iconising and mythologizing' (18) of Aboriginal people; and one in which Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people engage in actual dialogue, testing and adapting 'imagined models of each other to find satisfactory forms of mutual comprehension' (19). The inclusion of mediated experience is vital because, as Langton says (putting forward a model of 'Europeanality'):  

20. Langton, p.33

  The densest relationship is not between actual people, but between white Australians and the symbols created by their predecessors. Australians do not know and relate to Aboriginal people. They relate to stories told by former colonists. (20)  



From my own experience, I would add that part of the density of the mediated relationship for white Australians is an experience of learning, often from Aboriginal media work, how selective were the symbols created by our predecessors and how unforthcoming the colonists when telling their stories. This sort of learning does not necessarily lead to the third form of intersubjectivity, actual dialogue. But it can help. This is one reason why the aesthetic work of a film like Moffatt's is so important for the ways it encourages 'all of us' to revise our inherited stories intimately, to remember our own childhood or 'maternal' experiences differently, and to do this inter-subjectively, in a collective or public way.

Now I want to recall a scene from Jedda, one of the stories that Night Cries brings in to the present and changes. Jedda was released in the midst of a ferment of debate about the assimilation policy and theories of culture contact. This debate is staged in Jedda between the white 'mother', Sarah McMann (Betty Suttor), and her husband Doug (George Simpson-Little), as an argument about whether Aborigines could or should be Europeanised. She thinks yes, he thinks no. She's a would-be reformer and an interventionist. He is more tolerant of Aboriginal tradition and has some respect for its antiquity (which he puts at 'a thousand years'). She is an idealist, in a thin-lipped way; he is a robust pragmatist interested in making the best possible use of the labour of Aboriginal stockmen. The Aboriginal characters take no part in this debate, although we sometimes see them in the frame (for example, a woman working at the kitchen stove) as the argument is played out between the whites; there is no inter-cultural 'dialogue' in Langton's sense.

In one famous scene, however, this 'white' argument is played out in Jedda's body (Jedda somatically becomes the 'vehicle' of the argument) and through Ngarla Kunoth's performance of hysteria as she plays the piano in front of an Aboriginal 'shield' hanging as an art-work (or a trophy) on the homestead wall. The set here, with its large back window and door, is the one recalled in Night Cries. Jedda has just tried to explain to Sarah her wish to go on walkabout with her people; laughing and scolding Jedda's desire away (or so she thinks) Sarah tells her the only the walkabout she needs is a trip to Darwin with her mother, then leaves Jedda alone at her 'piano lesson'. As Chauvel narrows down space to three points or blocs of reference – the piano, the shield, and Jedda's body – two musics begin to interfere with each other in her 'head': the European music that Jedda plays, and an Aboriginal music she hears swelling from the shield. She is overwhelmed, stops playing and bangs her head on the piano.

Everything happens here according to a logic of 'split identity' projected as the dividing of an Aboriginal woman's body and mind. This logic is also organised by a scenario of heterosexual desire: Jedda's helpless dizziness at hearing an Aboriginal music 'inside' prepares for the scene in which she first sees her 'Nemesis', Marbuk (the 'unassimilated' black man) but she is saved from it, temporarily, by the appearance at the door of Joe (the assimilated, not-so-black man). In its intensely melodramatic emotional saturation, this scene is the most explicit allusion in the film to the white hysteria about race and population that possessed intellectuals and policy-makers from the late 19th century to the 1960s (and which is staging an uncanny return, just as Aboriginal music does to Jedda, in Australian public life in the 1990s).


21. On Chauvel, see Stuart Cunningham, Featuring Australia: The Cinema of Charles Chauvel (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1991).

  Despite appearances in this scene, however, Chauvel apparently believed in the assimilation of Aborigines by Europeans through intermarriage (21). Jedda is supposed to marry Joe (Paul Reynell), the head stockman. Joe, we're told, is the son of an Afghan teamster and an Aboriginal woman, but he is sonically identified, through his 'accent' on the soundtrack, as 'British' – more British than Doug. In the historical reality to which the film alludes but could not name, Joe could just as plausibly have had a European father, perhaps Doug McMann himself: the piano scene is inserted between two dialogue scenes, Sarah/Jedda, Doug/Joe, in which a strong mother/daughter, father/son parallelism is formally set up – especially since all three scenes are about who or what has the power to determine Jedda's identity and, therefore, her future.  

22. As Langton puts it: 'Jedda rewrites Australian history so that the black rebel against white colonial rule is a rebel against the laws of his own society. Marbuk, a 'wild' Aboriginal man, is condemned to death, not by the white colonizer, but by his own elders. It is Chauvel's inversion of truth on the black/white frontier, as if none of the brutality, murder and land clearances occurred' (pp.45-46)

23. Colin Johnson, 'Chauvel and the Aboriginal Male in Australian Film', Continuum 1:1 (1987), pp.47-56

24. Langton, p.48
  Of course, the intermarriage scenario is threatened by the figure of the unassimilated Marbuk (Robert Tudawali). Marbuk is literally unassimilable for the intermarriage scenario, which is not projected as in any way 'dividing' a white woman's body; it reserved all the women for white and 'nearly-white' men. Chauvel solves the Marbuk problem by making him a criminal against Aboriginal law. (22) But Tudawali's was the most powerful screen presence in Jedda, and this led Colin Johnson to claim that in allowing Marbuk to 'steal the show for the Aboriginal male', Chauvel had made an Aboriginal text in spite of himself. (23) In turn, Langton speculates that white women might have formed a 'secret identification' with Jedda, the black daughter, because of Marbuk's seduction; 'so much more exciting and dangerous than the Rock Hudson type of seduction in the Hollywood romance?' (24).  



Night Cries explores a third possibility. Setting aside the 'split identity' model of Aboriginal modernity, it focuses on the women's relations and moves us into the more ambiguous cultural space of a shared but unequal dependency between identities with uncertain borders between them. This dependency is experienced by both European and Aboriginal characters: not only the dependency of Europeans on Aboriginal labour (a structure of economic exploitation which we see in both films) but also the emotional dependency of the white mothers on their black daughters, as well as of the daughters on their mothers – which we also see in both films but see more intensely in Jedda after seeing Night Cries.

Moffatt's scenario produces this intensified vision by testing out a new narrative possibility: what if Jedda had rejected both men and just stayed home with mother? This is how Night Cries links Jedda to Picnic – a film about a family of women bored senseless in small-town Kansas until a socially outcast male (William Holden) comes and lures Kim Novak away. What if Kim Novak had just stayed home with mother? What kind of story would that make? She could have become a stifled, repressed, hysterical and very funny spinster like the Rosalind Russell character in Picnic. She might also have been just like the daughter in Night Cries.


25. Periz, p.16.

  In Night Cries, the men are gone; the rural economy has changed, the house has decayed, the windows are grimy and patched, and the space of 'settlement' has contracted (25); the pebbled path which in Jedda led from the house to the gate of a vast cattle empire with sheds, barns and stockyards, now leads directly to the toilet (which, with its huge external bolt, also looks uncannily like a police lock-up). In Jedda, the world of the 'woman's film' is mainly confined to the interior; the exterior offers the generic world of action, adventure, nation-building, high drama and jumping off cliffs. In Night Cries, however, the domestic interior has become a 'frontier'. It is not really a frontier between two radically different cultures; the identities of mother and daughter are too blurred and shifting for that. It is the frontier on which state policy impacts on the psyches of black and white women in a continuous, prolonged abrasion.  



From the '50s to the '80s, between 'Chauvel' and 'Moffatt', the daughter's objects of desire have changed. Moffatt's daughter dreams of little black dresses, train trips and tourist resorts rather than 'walkabouts' (though she'd love to leave) and corroborees (though she'd love to be able to party). But the strain on her is much the same as for Jedda and it is enormous. Moffatt's daughter doesn't hear only two musics but all kinds of sounds and songs and cries, including a train – that train which is perhaps not really coming as she lies with her mother's body on the platform.

With this contraction of Chauvel's bifurcated world (interior/exterior, woman's film/action film) to one continuous space, Night Cries subjects state policy to the temporality of the everyday, domestic life in which policy's consequences are lived out. Moffatt's 'woman's film' puts domesticity, rather than great events, at the core of national history. With its more muted representation of the daughter's bodily hysteria (Langton's performance of breathlessness is more restrained than the Crisis that Chauvel draws from Kunoth), Moffatt's film tells us that this is how the burden of history actually feels, and where it falls, most of the time.


26. Personal correspondence; Murray, p.22.

  Moffatt also transforms Chauvel's way of working as an Australian filmmaker struggling to survive in an international economic 'space'. Chauvel was busy mixing Australian themes and settings with Hollywood styles and conventions in the 1950s, yet Jedda was the only Australian narrative feature produced in those years. Moffatt has pointed out that the set in Jedda (the window with a badly painted mountain range for backdrop) was quite un-Australian to begin with. Australian station homes are not like American ranch houses, and Jedda's interior is weird – part '50s suburban California bungalow, but above all 'very Bonanza'. (26) So she herself is working in a well-established tradition of cinematic hybridisation. But she makes two changes to the Jedda model.  

27. See Cunningham, Featuring Australia: The Cinema of Charles Chauvel.   One is to do with landscape. Like many white Australian image-makers, Chauvel believed passionately in The Land, or 'the spirit of place', as a source of national identity. This was a Romantic appropriation of Aboriginal tradition, or an image of such tradition, intended to give European-Australians a way to resolve our own supposed 'split identity' (which this discourse claims we experience). Chauvel's version of this has been called 'locationism'. (27) He would travel around looking for fabulous landscapes, then write a story and find actors (often 'characters' playing themselves, as the bit parts do in Jedda), to match the landscape. Jedda was deemed sensational on its release because Chauvel had found untrained Aborigines who were capable of acting – a discovery solemnly debated as proof that they could be assimilated. Even Tudawali's untimely death was later conscripted (as negative evidence) to this debate, rather than to a broader story of what happens to people plucked out of their ordinary lives, turned briefly into 'stars' by the media, then dumped.  


  In an inversion of Chauvel's approach, Night Cries uses two unknown white actresses alongside two of the best-known Aboriginal public figures in Australia – Langton, and Jimmy Little. Against Chauvel's locationism, Night Cries' vision of landscape is passionately artificial ('the faker the better', Moffatt says); she describes her own preferred landscape as 'a studio apparition'. So given the history I've just outlined, perhaps Moffatt's assertion of 'the right to be avant-garde' against the realism and the Romantic 'locationism' of classical Australian cinema is as much a critique of a certain Europeanality (to use Langton's phrase) in art as it is an assertion that Aboriginality can include growing up glued to Bonanza as well as having two mothers – and listening to Jimmy Little's interpretations of American gospel and country and western music.  




28. Moffatt, cited in Murray, p.22.

  This brings me to the first of the two Aboriginal mediators invoked in the film. Most middle-aged Australians, and many younger and older, know Jimmy Little's version of 'Royal Telephone' by heart. I don't know why: whether you like it or not, it's just one of those songs that stick. It was a huge hit when I was about thirteen. There was a fuss about Little himself as 'the first' Aboriginal pop star, but that faded (although he still sings, like many stars of the 1960s, on the club and cabaret circuit). The song, the memory of his voice, remains. Moffatt's use of Jimmy Little in Night Cries is unsettling, even macabre, at times; he's miming 'Love Me Tender, Love Me Do' during the scene when the daughter is cracking the whip and the mother is shuddering and sighing, with pain or pleasure, we can't be sure. Little is also part of an 'unsettling' cultural history in a broader sense. He is an evangelical Christian, and his first media role was in a Billy Graham film made in Australia in the early 1960s. So he has been part of a transformation of Aboriginal religious life, and thus of the role of art in society. Moffatt doesn't mock Little's Christianity or his music. She makes the mood around him fluctuate, by the way she cuts his image in and out of other scenes, fragments his body, silences and releases his gorgeous voice; his 'presence' phases between soothing and sinister, corny and uncanny; 'like something familiar which turns into something horrible'. (28)  

29. Laleen Jayamanne, '"Love Me Tender , Love Me True, Never Let Me Go..." A Sri Lankan Reading of Tracey Moffatt's Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy' in Feminism and the Politics of Difference ed. Sneja Gunew and Anna Yeatman (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1993), p.78.

30. Jayamanne, p.76
  In her wonderful essay, '"Love Me Tender, Love Me True, Never Let Me Go..." A Sri Lankan Reading of Tracey Moffatt's Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy', Laleen Jayamanne asks what the figure of Little is doing in this film; what his role is as the male but somehow 'not phallic' third term intervening between mother and daughter in the most intense scenes (the whipping, the beach flashback), and as the figure whose body and music, at the beginning and the end, frames the film? Jayamanne speculates that Little performs and voices something troubling, something mediating the public history that joins the private lives of mother and daughter: 'with style and panache he embodies cultural assimilation'. (29) If so, Little's role is crucial since, according to Jayamanne, the film is not only about 'the politics of imitation and assimilation', as Batchen suggests, but 'perhaps also about an aesthetics of assimilation'. By recalling Jimmy Little, she says, 'Moffatt is making an enabling tradition for herself to work in'. (30)  

31. See Sutton, and Jane Hardy, J.V.S. Megaw and M. Ruth Megaw, The Heritage of Namatjira: The Watercolourists of Central Australia (Melbourne: William Heinemann Australia, 1992).
  If Jimmy Little was acclaimed by white Australians as 'the first' Aboriginal pop star, he was not our 'first' Aboriginal post-War culture hero. That was Albert Namatjira, the memory of whose work saturates the colouring and the light of the film. Namatjira was not 'the first' Aboriginal artist to paint in a European style – Marcia Langton has some acerbic things to say about our obsession with 'firstness' – and he was certainly not the only artist of his time to paint naturalistic landscapes. (31) But he did become uniquely famous for doing it. Already in 1946 a film about his life, Namatjira: The Painter, was sponsored by the Commonwealth Department of Information.  

32. Ian Burn and Ann Stephen, 'Namatjira's white mask: A partial interpretation' in The Heritage of Namatjira: The Watercolourists of Central Australia, pp.249-82.

  In their essay 'Namatjira's white mask – A partial interpretation', Ian Burn and Ann Stephen have given us a way of understanding his life by relating it not to the discourse of 'split identity', but to art history and the history in the art. (32) Namatjira was born in 1902, and grew up in the area of the Lutheran mission established at Hermannsburg in 1877. For people in this region, the years of Namatjira's youth and early adulthood these were years of rapidly accelerating social change. Some orienting dates: in 1928, there was a massacre of Aborigines at Coniston Station; in 1929 the railway, and thus, eventually, tourism, reached Alice Springs; in 1932 the white landscape painter Rex Battarbee and others visited Hermannsburg; it was probably in 1935 that Albert Namatjira made his first watercolour paintings (although these were not, Burn and Stephen stress, the only art he practised).  


  Namatjira was enormously successful. He became the most popular Australian painter of his time, perhaps the most popular painter in Australian history. Non-Aboriginal Australians loved his landscapes. As the making of the 1946 film suggests, the government took an interest in promoting him as a 'star' of cultural assimilation – living evidence, once again, that the policy could work. The reasoning seems to have been that if Aborigines could learn to paint 'accurately' – i.e., master European perspective conventions (many argued that they couldn't) – then they could and therefore should become European.  

33. Although, cf. Burn and Stephen, p.260: 'A notable exception occurred in 1917 at the Cabaret Voltaire, the centre of Zurich Dada, when Tristan Tzara sang three Central Australian 'songs' in French as part of his cycle of 'Poèmes Nègres', which subsequently appeared in the journal Dada. By this appropriation, these Aboriginal oral traditions briefly became a Dada readymade pulled from the obscurity of Die Aranda- und Loritja-Stamme in Zentral-Australien, the work of Carl Strehlow produced at Hermannsburg and published in Frankfurt between 1907 and 1920'.   Let's remember that apart from a few ethnographers and eccentrics, Europeans knew almost nothing fifty years ago about Aboriginal art: its range across different media; its diversity across the continent; the complexity and richness of its conceptual basis. Unlike Polynesian and Oceanic art, Aboriginal art was not taken up in the wave of 'primitivism' that sustained so much aesthetic modernism early this century. (33) Only in the 1950s were small samples of Aboriginal art, mostly bark paintings from Arnhem Land, beginning to be collected and exhibited, and these came rapidly to define 'the look' deemed 'authentically' Aboriginal by intellectuals and the 'discriminating' art public when Namatjira was at the height of his popular fame.  

34. Sylvia Kleinert, 'The Critical Reaction to the Hermannsburg School', in The Heritage of Namatjira: The Watercolourists of Central Australia, p.241. This judgment is shared (in a feminising mode) by Lévi-Strauss, who 'describes Aranda painting as: "the dull and studied watercolours one might expect of an old maid"'. Kleinert, p.235.
  He was presented to the Queen in 1954, and went on a tour of the cities. By 1958, media and public enthusiasm about him was so great that there was an outcry when it was discovered that neither of the major state galleries in the East owned even one of his paintings. Sylvia Kleinert records that one trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria responded to the furore by calling Namatjira's watercolours 'absolutely frightful, real potboilers'. (34) This judgement, with its high modernist scorn for an apparently accessible, naturalistic art in a 'low', even 'amateur' medium (watercolour), largely held in art circles until the mid-1980s, and the wave of interest in contemporary acrylic elaborations of Western Desert ground and rock paintings (from an area much closer to Namatjira's country than the Arnhem Land barks).  



These days, those acrylics probably define 'the look' that many non-Aboriginal Australians equate with 'Aboriginal art'. As the art historians from whom I have recently learned these things have noted, the Western Desert movement has greatly changed the intellectual climate in which Namatjira's work is evaluated. Yet from a 'European point of view', I think there remains something troubling about Namatjira's aesthetics. I can express this best with a postcard available all over Sydney. It has a black border surrounding a dots-and-roundels image described (on the back) as 'The Map', and attributed to 'Aboriginal Artist Reggie Ryan'. The left hand border of the card says 'Aboriginal Art', and then 'Australia' appears in the bottom right corner.

I don't know anything more about Reggie Ryan or his painting than this card tells me. What the words on the card suggest most immediately, as Ryan's image sits among the others, mostly photos of Sydney, in any standard tourist rack, is that here I have the essence of 'Australian Aboriginal Art'. After reading Langton, however, and Kleinert, Burn and Stephen on the history of debates about cultural identity in Australia, I have a feeling that this postcard really offers me an essence of 'Europeanality' understood as a particular way of framing 'Aboriginal art': a way that uses a singular instance 'generically', in Fred Chiu's sense, to contain in one abstract gesture an entire complex culture.

Having noticed this, I try to imagine a similarly labelled postcard ('Aboriginal Art ... Australia') having a Namatjira 'gum-tree and mountain-range' image in place of Reggie Ryan's dots and roundels; I try to imagine a generic 'Namatjira' being sold to tourists in Sydney as 'Aboriginal Art – Australia'. I'm sure the effect would be quite different, but it isn't easy to say exactly why.

Perhaps it is just that 'European' Australians still don't quite know what to do with Namatjira's art today, in spite of the new and excellent scholarship available to us. There really is something unassimilable in the way that these utterly familiar paintings send a historical image of 'our' own visual culture back to us, instilling doubt about our new second-hand fluency in discussing 'Aboriginal Art' using the conceptual tools of post-modernism. There is also something unassimilable about ourselves to ourselves when we ask why it might seem odd to package a Namatjira painting today as an emblem of 'Aboriginal Art' – and what would need to change in Australian society for that sense of oddness to vanish.

I have two comments to make in conclusion about the issues Night Cries raises by reminding us of these histories of mediation.


35. David Bromfield, 'Making the Modern in the Newest City in the World', Aspects of Perth Modernism 1929-1942 (Perth: Centre for Fine Arts, 1988), p.2.
  First, this 'right to be avant-garde'. What can that mean in Australia now? I understand Moffatt to be using 'avant-garde' in its popular sense; she is generally claiming the right to do something new, to innovate, to change the rules of the genres she works in, and she is also assuming that 'avant-garde' is an established, even a commercial genre of cultural practice. But this invites the question, innovate in relation to what? Let's remember that for European Australian artists, modernism usually has been understood 'generically', as an imitative (and often also 'derivative') practice. To put it bluntly, 'modernism' here was set of stylistic effects and cultural postures, produced in Europe and the United States, that Australian artists copied. The Modern, as David Bromfield argues, was something that had already happened somewhere else; 'an extensively known history created through endless images from elsewhere and transmitted through the cinema and illustrated magazines'. (35)  


  Given this framework, Namatjira's famous and massively reproduced painting Ghost Gum could now be perceived as a remarkable experiment with the rules for painting his country that mattered to Albert Namatjira. But it could not be perceived as 'avant-garde' by white art critics in the 1950s and 1960s because it did not look like a Jackson Pollock, and it did look like our own conservative nationalist tradition of pastoral painting. No dialogue, on these terms, was possible.  

36. Peter Burger, Theory of the Avant-Garde trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).


  Further questions of history arise if we turn to recent scholarly work on the literally 'European' avant-gardes: for example, Peter Burger's argument that the avant-garde movements tried to overcome the institutional separation of 'art' from 'life', whereas the institutionalising process of 'modernism' acted to divide them all over again. (36) It's clear that, by these criteria, Namatjira's response to the cultural dislocations lived by the Arrente people in the 1950s would have a far better claim to be 'avant-garde' than most of the non-Aboriginal art being produced in Australia at this time. Yet his was an art that ordinary people loved. As Kleinert and Burn and Stephen make clear, one reason it was devalued was that it was an art that people could live with, close to the cultural values of home decoration as well as to the tourist industry. My own childhood home did not have an Aboriginal shield hanging above a piano like the set in Jedda. It did have a reproduction of Namatjira's Ghost Gum hanging near the wireless – and later, above the television.  



Like Jimmy Little's music, Namatjira's art really did change the way white Australians perceived Aboriginal people, and thus the way we perceived ourselves; he helped to make it possible for us think differently about our place in the country we had come to live in. This is a history at stake in Jayamanne's suggestion that, by recalling Jimmy Little and Albert Namatjira, Tracey Moffatt is 'making an enabling tradition for herself to work in'. And this tradition is not – despite, or because of, its big aesthetic ambitions and Moffatt's well-deserved personal success – easily assimilated by Australians today.

To commemorate Namatjira is to remember something about the place of 'art' in his life that requires us to make a connection between the delight many white Australian take today in Aboriginal culture, and/or our images of it, and the ways in which our social and economic practices still affect Aboriginal lives. In the year that Namatjira met the Queen (1954), he was charged with drinking wine – then a crime for 'registered' Aboriginal people, who had no civil rights until 1967. The case against him was dismissed, and in 1957 he was given special exemption from discriminatory legislation by being granted citizen status. But in 1958, he was sentenced to six months hard labour for sharing alcohol with friends and relatives, as his own law said he must. He served two months, he was released, and he died in 1959.

My second comment is that as we continue to discuss the role of culture in the social conflicts and injustices of the present, work like Moffatt's is developing a tradition which is enabling for others as well as herself. This tradition is not one of 'forcing us to confront the past' in a polarising, polemical way, but more subtly making it less attractive, less interesting to go on telling the same selective stories as our predecessors than it is to remake our national histories in a spirit of inclusiveness, justice, and truth. Langton explains that the creation of 'Aboriginality' as a social thing is a process for which personal reminiscence is insufficient. It is neither here nor there for me to say of Europeanality, 'We had a Namatjira in our house!' But in its insufficiency, it can help create the possibility of a 'field' of intersubjectivity where a different form of public memory may take shape.

There is an extraordinary painting about this field by another Aboriginal artist, Robert Campbell Jnr. It's called Roped Off at the Picture II (1987). It mixes perspectives, literally: embedded in Campbell's own 'picture' is an obliquely angled version of the 'Renaissance' perspectival tradition that ordinarily organises an audience's relation to a film image on screen in a theatre, impossibly combined with an 'Aboriginal' aerial perspective; the painting's little black and white figures, including the usher in the theatre and the cowboy on the screen are, like the audience bodies, actually facing us (those seated, with a leg splayed out), as though we, the viewers, are hovering above them.

In this remarkably twisted space, at least two things are happening. On the screen a white cowboy, not a black stockman, is riding around in the cultural space (the mise en scène) of a Namatjira 'gum-tree and mountain-range' landscape. In the social space of the cinema, the picture is not so mixed; the black spectators are roped off from the whites in the three worst rows in the cinema, right up under the screen.

As a child around 1957, I saw Jedda in an 'informally' segregated theatre, a lot like this, at the height of the debate about cultural assimilation. There was no rope, as I recall, in the Tenterfield Lyric, but there was always an usher with a torch prowling round up front to keep 'rowdy Aborigines' in line.


37. Jennifer Isaacs, Aboriginality: Contemporary Aboriginal Paintings & Prints (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1989), p.15.

  As a film critic, I must say that an image of Campbell's painting (which I have only seen in a book) (37) always pops into my head these days when I find myself expected to talk about theories of 'reception' and 'spectatorship' in cinema studies. Like Night Cries, Roped Off at the Picture II brings history right into the field of aesthetic experience and cultural debate, and asks questions about the present. The ropes and even the ushers are gone from picture-theatres now, but the painting has a powerful capacity to make one wonder what else has changed in the social and personal field of relations it recalls – and what role the effort to keep 'Aboriginal art' in line has played in the history of those relations.  




When I wrote this paper as a public lecture for a largely non-academic audience in Hawai'i in 1993, I called this an open question as well as a hard one; I was (still am) truly uncertain about how to answer it. Going over what was for many people in the audience an unfamiliar history so as to reach that open question was basically the point of the talk; I did not set out to offer a new or original interpretation of Night Cries, but rather to pass on something of the complexity of the things that had already been said about it, to put it in a historical and cultural context, and to share my sense of why it mattered. I wanted to interest people in Jedda, Marcia Langton's book, Jimmy Little's music, Laleen Jayamanne's essay, Namatjira's painting, and the book that I drew on so substantially, The Heritage of Namatjira – one of the best cultural histories of Australia that we have.

While I have a long-running interest in the relationship between the 'avant-garde' and the 'ordinary', and in the question of history in cinema, much of the history I learned by studying Night Cries was unfamiliar to me too. So, since I was sharing enthusiasms and 'teaching myself in public' (that dreadful crime for scholars), I never intended to publish the talk. I feel differently about this now. Since the election of John Howard's government, disavowal and sheer ignorance about Australian culture and history has acquired a respectability unthinkable three years ago; there is renewed fervour for 'roping off' the past and pulling 'rowdy Aborigines' into line; there is, once again, white debate about assimilating Aborigines, and a growing disinclination to hear stories about mothers and the children parted or thrown together by policy in the past.

We are being asked to forget about the past few years of remembering. Personally, I have no intention of doing this. It has been far too interesting, too involving; Moffatt's films, Langton's essay, books like The Heritage of Namatjira have engaged me in my own history to a degree that I never thought possible (brought up as I was on sheep, damned sheep and explorers). My personal intentions are of little consequence. However, as Australian artists and intellectuals accustom ourselves again to working in a world where vicious speech is honoured for its 'freedom' and redneck radio sets the standard for serious public debate (it takes me back to my childhood, really), there is at least something academics can do to resist the new 'institutional separation of "art" from "life"', the roping off being imposed on us."

We can start 'teaching ourselves in public' more often and more persistently; we can repeat as often as possible the things we know or are learning about the past, and try to share this knowledge around as much as possible; we can tell other people about books and films that have given us ways of understanding ourselves as well as others. At the moment, every second newspaper column I read is calling for a 'new' approach to politics from the left of Australian opinion, or just from the decent centre – a right and proper demand. However, I suspect that in the small and, for the moment, fairly powerless sphere of cultural criticism, the way towards a new approach lies in reducing our need for intellectual novelty.


38. Michael Bérubé, Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics (London: Verso, 1994), p.167.

39. Bérubé, p.167.

  Writing from an American experience of resurgent racism and political correctness panic, Michael Bérubé points out how 'thoroughly conditioned' academics have been by the legacy of modernism (rather than the avant-garde) to criticism, 'the imperative to say something new'. (38) I think he's right to say that to play any role at all in public debate these days, we have to unlearn this imperative to signify the (mostly illusory) newness of what we have to say: writing and speaking in public, 'we have to be willing to restate other people's work and forego the pleasure of producing the new, and we have to give examples' (39). My only disagreement is that I don't see this as foregoing pleasure – of which the 'enabling tradition' of experimental artists like Little, Namatjira and Moffatt provides us with a powerful historical example.  

  This paper was first presented as a BHP Petroleum Americas Distinguished Lecture for the Australian & New Zealand Studies Project of the School of Hawai'ian, Asian & Pacific Studies, University of Hawai'i at Manoa, October 1993.  

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