European constructions of Aboriginality


‘It begins, I think, with the act of recognition.

Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing.

We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life.

We brought the disasters. The alcohol. We committed the murders.

We took the children from their mothers.

We practised discrimination and exclusion.’

Redfern speech‘, the then Prime Minister of Australia, Paul Keating (1992).

'Man is born free but everywhere is in chains.'

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Click on the images to enlarge them and discuss the following.


Or, if working alone, write a response in your learning journal.

a)     What similarities do you see between these pictures? What differences? Note, for example, the women’s clothing, posture, props, colour, lighting, line of gaze, use of symbols, grouping of others in the frame, or the implied viewer's position in relation to the represented figure(s).

b)     How might Paul Keating’s account of the effect of colonization on Aboriginal culture alter our perception of the comment made by Perron d’Arc - that the woman’s grandson ‘died of natural causes’?

c)    Read the exhibition notes which accompanied this image when it was displayed (1993). Do these notes surprise you? If so, how? How do you think Henri Perron d’Arc’s view of the Aborigines might have been influenced by his European heritage? How might the views of the people who installed that exhibition have been shaped by a European cultural perspective?

d)     Read this extract of the lyrics of 'Treaty' by the indigenous band Yothu Yindi. In what way might placing the Yothu Yindi lyrics alongside either Delacroix’s French revolutionary image or d'Arc's portrait of the old woman alter your perspective of these texts?

e)     How might an understanding of the effects of colonization on Australian indigenous cultures have impacted on a nineteenth-century French or European audience’s reception of Perron d’Arc’s text? How might it have changed their view of this woman’s anger? How might it affect your own?

f)      Experiment with the basics of creating a multimodal poem or song by playing the soundtrack of Yothu Yindi’s song while looking at these images. Discuss the effects. A clip of Yothu Yindi’s song, ‘Treaty’, can be found by clicking here and scrolling down to ‘Treaty2’.

g)    Imagine creating a multimodal text which put the soundtrack of a late eighteenth- or early nineteenth-century French music composition together with the image of the unidentified old Aboriginal woman or Perron d’Arc’s drawing. How might this affect your response to these texts?
(You can hear and read here
about ‘La Marseillaise’ - the revolutionary song which was composed during the period of Australia’s first white settlement and later became the French national anthem.)


Extension activities:

  • To learn more about Jean Jacques Rousseau and his idea of the ‘Noble Savage’ explore here.
  • For an impression of an older Aboriginal woman’s reflection on her life, listen to Ruby Hunter’s song, ‘Down City Streets’ here.
  • Read the lyrics of Hunter's song here.

Consider the effect of illustrating ‘Down City Streets’ with any of the above images. What would be the effect and why? What other visual texts could you use to provide a counterpoint to the text of Hunter’s song? (e.g. images of affluent homes and fashion of non-indigenous Australians)


Record your ideas in your learning log.