Across cultures: Indigenous modernisms in Central Australia



Publication Details

McLean, I. A.. Across cultures: Indigenous modernisms in Central Australia. Carleton University Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture, Canada. 2012.


The most intensive engagement with modernity in central Australia during the first thirty years of the twentieth century occurred at the Lutheran Hermannsburg Mission. It was at its most intense in the arenas of philosophy (in particular theology) and media, it occurred against a background of shifting collective identities and at a time when the most powerful political and ideological forces were shifting from those of empire to nation states. Finally, the engagement was bi-a cultural and it was focused in the art and body of the most travelled Arrernte man, Albert Namatjira.

This paper will outline how Arrernte-speaking Elders, in dialogue with Lutheran missionaries, developed a modern Indigenous theology that culminated in an Indigenous modern art movement that, in turn, played a central role in the emerging discourses of Australian national identity and Aboriginality, and inspired the late-twentieth-century Western Desert art movement that would play a pivotal role in the conceptualization of contemporary art.

At a deeper level the paper will interrogate the terms of identity that are the main characters in this story - terms such as art, cultural, racial, tribal, national, Aboriginality, Indigenous, Lutheran, Arrernte, Namatjira, and ultimately, the terms modern and contemporary. During the course of this story, which occupies the whole twentieth century, each of these terms became reified ideas though most dissembled in the highly charged contestations of the time. Welcome to the jungle of modernity

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