Aboriginal Enterprises: negotiating an Urban Aboriginality

Aboriginal Enterprises: negotiating an Urban Aboriginality Journal Article

Aboriginal History

  • Author(s): Kleinert, Sylvia
  • Published: 2010
  • Volume: 34

Abstract: In 1952 long time political activist Bill Onus used compensation from a road accident to establish Aboriginal Enterprises, a tourist outlet in Belgrave, on the outskirts of Melbourne. Employing both Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers Aboriginal Enterprises manufactured artefacts and furnishings, imported bark paintings and didjeridus from Arnhem Land and sold a range of other small objects. At a time when assimilation policies expected Aborigines to adopt the ideals and values of white Australians, Aboriginal Enterprises offered a model for cultural maintenance that began to rebuild pride in Aboriginality, contributing toward a new urban Aboriginal presence in Melbourne. Yet despite its success, Aboriginal Enterprises is almost completely overlooked in the history of Aboriginal art in south-eastern Australia. With colonisation Aboriginal people in south-eastern Australia were incorporated within the uneven power relations of a settler society. From the outset they engaged in barter and trade, drawing from their own cosmologies, stories and histories and selectively incorporating from colonial genres. For Aboriginal people, participation in tourism through the production of artefacts and cultural performances was an expression of continuing attachment to their own culture often carried out in opposition to government policies of assimilation. However the narrowly ethnographic concerns of museums viewed the stylistic hybridity and commodification of these objects as evidence of acculturation and cultural decline. This scholarly response imposed an enforced silence on the history of Aboriginal art in the south-east such that, even today, a lacunae exists from the drawings of William Barak and Tommy McRae in the late nineteenth century to the emergence of a contemporary ‘urban’ Aboriginal artistic expression in the 1970s and 1980s – a period of silence that coincides precisely with the implementation of assimilation policies aimed at rendering Aborigines invisible. By considering the cultural production of Aboriginal Enterprises in the light of recent debates in cross cultural discourse and the wider socio-political context of colonisation, this paper intervenes in this apparent historical absence to argue for a dynamic and resilient presence in south-eastern Australia. My research shows that for ethnic minorities entangled in colonial power relationships, the visibility politics of tourism provides a critical insight into the representation and recognition of Aboriginal identities within the wider framework of the nation state. The ambiguities and tensions that arise around issues of authenticity and tradition as Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike engage in processes of collaboration, adaptation and appropriation suggest the saliency of this study to postcolonial debates on tourist art.

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Suggested Citation
Kleinert, Sylvia, 2010, Aboriginal Enterprises: negotiating an Urban Aboriginality, Volume:34, Journal Article, viewed 09 August 2022, https://www.nintione.com.au/?p=4554.

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