Sunday, September 10, 2017

Margaret Preston and Cultural Appropriation

I've always aesthetically enjoyed carvings and paintings of Australian Aborigine culture. Recently I became curious about whether any contemporary indigenous Australian artists had translated their traditional styles into works including woodcut printmaking. But all my searches are overwhelmed with the fine art prints of Margaret Preston.

Preston was a highly prolific and acclaimed modernist painter and printmaker. Last year I blogged about her The Bark Bag. Much of Preston's work directly references Aboriginal styles and motifs by integrating them into her compositions. Many works, such as the one featured here, are essentially reproductions of indigenous works. Seeing all this, I began to assume that Preston must be at least partially of Aboriginal ancestry. But she was not.

Preston was drawn to the Aboriginal work for many of the same reasons I am - based on aesthetic arrangements that struck her as fresh, striking, and beautiful. When interpreted through the philosophical lens of Modernism and imitated by her, Preston thought such styles and motifs to have universally appealing qualities that would transcend cultural and ethnic boundaries between people of European and indigenous ancestry, and thus be employed to establish a distinct and unified national art for Australia.

But what these imitations and Modernist interpretations also do is negate the meaning and purpose the original, indigenous works had for the people who created them. When I view works by indigenous peoples' (or historical works of art, for that matter) they are accompanied by information that sets them in context, presumably because that context is of utmost significance to fully understanding the works. The art and the anthropology cannot be separated without losing something essential to the work. I first viewed artwork by contemporary Australian Aborigine artists at the U Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and included were written, photo, and video explanations that attempted to give outsiders such as myself some broader understanding of what the works meant. Sure, I still enjoy the works on a purely aesthetic level, and I also cannot help but interpret them in my own way based largely on how my mind and eye have been trained to see them. But I don't pretend that my artistic sensibility - that is influenced by my own subjective cultural experiences - is somehow more universal and of greater significance than that of the artists foreign to me.

We cannot help but be influenced by what we see all around us. Picasso's art was profoundly effected by his exposure to traditional African sculptures and masks. Matisse's art was heavily influenced by his exposure to Japanese wood block prints. Japanese art has been influenced by waves of exposure to foreign cultures (primarily Chinese) transformed and made their own by Japanese artists. I don't know if there is a hard line between cultural misappropriation and the sort of cultural diffusion that is inevitable and oftentimes transformative.

Sadly, I don't find many of Margaret Preston's works which obviously feature Aboriginal styles and motifs transformative. The references are too blatant. Maybe I'm missing something, but many strike me as little more than the observational studies of an outsider. Like when an art student sits in a museum making a copy of a masterwork.


  1. solid thinking and at the same breath a great examination of the artist and the subject...there are times when I see T'linget and Haida designs and marvel as I have copied them and attempted to render them as well from a place of stylistic re-interpretation, often feeling as an outsider, even though reaching into the theories behind the work as well as having trained with native carvers, I have been able to understand a key influence is in the border between the shore and the water, in the reflections as well as the influence of hunting and butchery/anatomy. In the search for a unique voice and in the kinship that seems to call from primordial native work, there is a strange torch to pass that as a modern culture we must invest ourselves deeply into if we are going to accept our own interpretations as valid in a society whose currency is in reproductions and advertising...when as artists we are seeking to find a compass into life and our experiences with the world around us

  2. A few years ago I attended the International Mokuhanga Conference in Tokyo, and chatted to a young woman who was working with native Australians somewhere west of Darwin. She was teaching them printmaking techniques. Perhaps you could pick up a trail of the results of work made by people who live the stories of the Dreamtime communicating by using printmaking techniques.