The edited anthology Indigenous Archives: The Making and Unmaking of Aboriginal Art presents 18 essays which offer a broad definition of record keeping. Editors Darren Jorgensen and Ian McLean acknowledge that The Dreaming itself is a kind of archive.

The Preface to Indigenous Archives is reproduced below, in full, with permission.

Indigenous Archives: Preface
By Darren Jorgensen and Ian McLean

Because a society archives what it considers to be its most significant things, the archive reveals what and how a society thinks, and the values by which it lives. Thus the archive is what Foucault dubbed a ‘truth regime’: its function is to produce truth – or determine what is true. As the touchstone for authority (truth), the archive is the guardian of ideology and the central site of power. This is what Foucault, who made the archive his field of study, meant by reminding us of the ancient aphorism that ‘knowledge is power’. He coined the term ‘knowledge/power’ to indicate that each is one and the same: knowledge produces power and power produces (or delimits) knowledge.

Foucault’s historical studies are based on the assumption that each society and culture is differentiated by a particular truth regime as revealed in its official archives – as if, like a fingerprint, the archive is an identity marker. This scenario is complicated in the modern state as it consists of many competing interests each with its own specialised archives. In his later writing Foucault developed a keener sense of the continuous flux of power, characterising it as a distributive, networked and relational economy in which, despite being increasingly governmentalised or regulated by the state, various truth regimes (or archives) are engaged in constant struggle: dominant groups ‘together with the resistance and revolts which that domination comes up against’.

In this Foucauldian spirit, we have compiled a selection of essays that work with varying purposes across different types of archives, ranging from those held by state museums to those in Aboriginal art centres.

However, beneath this turbulence, Foucault – ever the structuralist – detected a deeper, more steady current: ‘a massive and universalizing form, at the level of the whole social body’. This ‘locking together of power relations’(1) occurs in the common ground between these competing groups (or archives), making ‘visible those fundamental phenomena of “domination”’ that comprise the over-arching truth regime or official archive that sets the ideology of our times. In this Foucauldian spirit, we have compiled a selection of essays that work with varying purposes across different types of archives, ranging from those held by state museums to those in Aboriginal art centres. They address Indigenous Australian art through archives of all kinds, but these archives are all of a kind: each is a voice in the struggles that produce power in ‘the whole social body’. Together their essays touch on the turbulence that makes up the ‘massive and universalizing form’ of The Archive. Working within this turbulence, they cannot help but affirm its power, to demonstrate just how essential archives are to the functioning of contemporary Aboriginal Australian art. As Indigenous artists authorise themselves through The Archive, the Aboriginal art world authorises its auctions, exhibitions and writings with certificates and signatures, dates and names. Archives carry with them an authority that art alone does not. So it is that our contributors have reason to consult and defer to The Archive, to elucidate the very specific information it holds, to use it as a toolbox for research, or to treat The Archive as a subject in its own right.

In conceptualising this book we were well aware of the so-called ‘archival turn’ in contemporary art. Inaugurated by Appropriation Art in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and since then a feature of much contemporary art, it inevitably frames the essays in Indigenous Archives. Thus they address questions that inexorably flow from a turning: What does it mean for art to turn to The Archive? In what sense is art archival? What is it about The Archive that it can turn art? Towards what in art is The Archive being turned, and what is it about The Archive that art might turn on it? The bigger question, which Nikolas Kompridis points out in his rumination on the aesthetic turn in politics (and from which we directly purloined the aforementioned questions), is how do we judge the many turns – the ideological, the linguistic, the aesthetic, the material – that afflict our times? Are they a matter of fashion, or if they collectively point to some larger underlying turn, which of them matters the most? ‘Turns’, writes Kompridis, ‘can be overturned – some more easily than others’, and he argues, ‘if we are to speak confidently’ on the matter, ‘we must show that this turn involves a consequential change in our understanding of’, in this case, art. He suggests that the more meaningful the turn the more substantial and long-lived must be the relation of its terms, such that the turn in question may in fact be one of many returns.(2)

Australia was the site of the first archival turn in contemporary art. It was a defining characteristic of the Papunya Tula painters who initiated the Aboriginal contemporary art movement. In what was perceived at the time as a contentious and dangerous move, they revisited their archives as a means to create a modern art that spoke to their contemporary political concerns. This occurred shortly after the 1967 Referendum and in the midst of Land Rights demands, that is, in what was also a decisive turn in the Australian polity towards Aboriginal politics. Thus in Australia the archival turn in contemporary art was also an Indigenous turn. This is further underlined by the archival turn that occurred in white Australian art later in the 1970s and the 1980s with Appropriation Art. Two of its key artists, Tim Johnson and Imants Tillers, also turned towards Papunya Tula painting in their appropriations, as if emulating not just the look but also the form and content of the art.

Thus in Australia the archival turn in contemporary art was also an Indigenous turn.

In Australia Indigenous artists and scholars have used photographs, ceremonies and files to change our understanding of art, its histories and properties. In what has become the most classic example, featured on the cover of this book, Brook Andrew’s I Split Your Gaze (1997) dusts off an ethnographic photograph of an Indigenous man, to split his image that splits the viewer’s gaze looking at him. I Split Your Gaze is contemporary with Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever (1996), and both deconstruct The Archive’s authority to recreate the turmoil by which archives are constituted and reconstituted. For Derrida, archives enact a concealment rather than a revelation. In the process of concealing its items, The Archive conceals itself, gathering itself against an outside by which it also defines its difference. Paradoxically, it is the outside to which The Archive defers, in a doubled movement by which The Archive is both constituted and is exposed to its own undoing.

More than ten years after its exhibition, Djon Mundine and Fiona Foley complained that Andrew had not consulted with the descendants of the archival photographs that he had used to create I Split Your Gaze.(3) For Mundine and Foley, Andrew had skipped a crucial archival protocol, one that differentiates the Indigenous Archive from its outside. But the scandal of Andrew’s work is greater than this. For if, as Derrida argues, The Archive’s authority crucially depends upon forgetting, upon a historical amnesia, the power of the archival photograph signals the trauma that brought about the forgetting in the first place. I Split Your Gaze produces a new historical trace upon this trauma of the old, working not to reveal this man’s place in Australian history but concealing it, in the process deconstructing the possibility of archival truth itself.

I Split Your Gaze produces a new historical trace upon this trauma of the old, working not to reveal this man’s place in Australian history but concealing it, in the process deconstructing the possibility of archival truth itself.

Contrast Andrew’s photo-compositions with his contemporaries, with Leah-King Smith’s 1991 Patterns of Connection series and Brenda Croft’s 1998 In My Father’s House. The first sees archival photographs of Indigenous people through a fish-eye lens, and like Andrew recreates their heroic place in history with a layered looking. The second series also writes over photographs, these being Croft’s family archive that have come to symbolise the personal histories of many Indigenous Australians. While trauma is written into the distance of the fish-eye and the writing over Croft’s family, Andrew’s photo-compositions make it uncertain whether the image stands for a traumatic history at all.

Paralleling the work of artists, Australian art history has seen its own archival and Indigenous turns. Vivien Johnson undertakes a dogged archival journey in Once Upon a Time in Papunya (2014), in the process overhauling the history of painting at Papunya in 1971. Crucial to Johnson’s chronology is the label on a box of slides, through which she argues for a ‘School of Kaapa’, a group of figurative works on board that preceded, and were independent of, the ‘School of Bardon’ that has become the origin story of contemporary art in the Western Desert.(4) These figurative works create a stylistic bridge between the ‘painting men’ who had gathered around Bardon, and the naturalism of Albert Namatjira, the celebrated landscape painter, whose style Kaapa also appropriated. All of this rests upon an archival reading, a reading of the writing on a box of slides.

Other signs of this archival and Indigenous turn appeared when a box of paintings stored in a New York university gallery were discovered to be a lost collection of Noongar paintings from the 1940s. The return of this collection to Perth led to a series of exhibitions and the ongoing creation of an archive around this collection.(5) Also in Western Australia, ceremonial archives were used to resolve a debate over the origins of a group of so-called ‘Bradshaw’ rock paintings in the Kimberley. The publication of Gwion Gwion: Secret and Sacred Pathways of the Ngarinyin Aboriginal People of Australia (2000) illuminates the ceremonial and cultural context of the Gwion Gwion. Here one archive conceals another, rock art concealing ceremony and ceremony concealing rock art, to create The Dreaming Archive, an assemblage of enunciations and metaphysics, ceremonies and representations, that determine the possibilities of what can be said and done. While the turbulence of modern history shapes archives of the nation state, the repository of The Dreaming Archive is situated in deep time, its epochs glacial rather than centurial, its enunciations multi- dimensional rather than polemic.

Indigenous Archives is framed by contemporary archives that authorise and govern Aboriginal contemporary art and debates around it…

Indigenous Archives is framed by contemporary archives that authorise and govern Aboriginal contemporary art and debates around it, and is haunted by both this Dreaming Archive and the deep-rooted archival impulse it represents – what Derrida describes as a pathology to order the world in one way or another. McLean’s Introduction anatomises this tendency, this gaining power over things by ordering them, while Jorgensen’s Afterword tracks the shifting identity of The Dreaming Archive within Aboriginal art centre archives.

Indigenous Archives is an outcome of an Australian Research Council project to investigate the uses of remote archives for scholarly research,(6) and of a symposium in Alice Springs in 2014 that addressed remote art centre archives.(7) The first of four sections considers the limits of such archives for the art historian. Each essay is based on PhD research projects by art historians working with remote art centre archives in their investigation of a particular artist. Two essays draw on the relatively elusive and partial archives of a place, Utopia, that lacked a proper art centre. Anne Marie Brody, whose professional work as a curator with Utopia artists from the beginning of the art movement there has given her unique insights into the art, and analyses the significance of Rodney Gooch’s archive of the artists’ work that he developed while acting as their field worker. While under- taking her dissertation on Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Chrischona Schmidt was confronted with the lack of a complete archive of the artist’s work. Her essay considers the issues of working with partial archives spread across the country in galleries, art museums and other places, and the problems she encountered in developing her own archive of Kngwarreye’s work. Suzanne Spunner guides us through the complexities and controversies of provenance in Rover Thomas’s art through the evaluation of archival evidence – what it can reveal and also what it might not reveal. She draws on the Waringarri Arts archives and also considers the archives of other people for whom Thomas worked. Alec O’Halloran shows how even one of the most substantial and complete art centre archives, that of Papunya Tula, presents problems for the art historian seeking to write a biography of one of its original painters, Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri. The lesson of this section is that The Archive is not sacrosanct. Rather, it is an incomplete document that requires – indeed only gains its power – through extensive hermeneutical revision. In other words, behind The Archive is the archivist, the interpreter and organiser of The Archive.

Having established the importance of the archivist in the first section, the second section comprises essays that develop various arguments about Indigenous art from art centre archives. While, as in the first section, these writers build out from existing archives, their examination is instrumental rather than hermeneutical – they make use of archives for larger ends rather than reflect on their limits. John Kean also works with the Papunya Tula archive in his essay on the early life and art of Johnny Warangula Tjupurrula, supplementing it with the examination of private archives, weather records, diaries and photographs. Philippa Jahn also uses art centre archives to flesh out the place of an artist within a regional history. She examines the ways in which the choices of Kalumburu artist Mary Puntji Clement reflect the regional politics of northern Australia. Sadly, as this book was going to print, Clement passed away, leaving us many wonderful paintings from an all too brief career. After Jahn documents her life and what is now her legacy, Darren Jorgensen uses the archives of Kayili Artists to work out what Jackie Giles and Ngipi Ward have in common, and how their work embodies a general ‘style’ that grew out of this desert outstation.

The third section examines the ways in which contemporary artists have built their own archives, beginning with an examination of two examples of remote artists who have sought, in their art practices, to archive local histories.

The third section examines the ways in which contemporary artists have built their own archives, beginning with an examination of two examples of remote artists who have sought, in their art practices, to archive local histories. Emilia Galatis examines Warakurna history paintings and Robert Lazaras Lane investigates Wukun Wanambi’s archival, multi-media art. John Dallwitz, Janet Inyika, Susan Lowish and Linda Rive take us through the Ara Irititja archive of Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara speakers, a digital repository whose accessible, multi-media model is now being adopted by Indigenous communities in other parts of Australia.(8) Ara Irititja functions like an Anangu Google, but one that allows its contributors to upload content while holding ceremonial knowledge in confidence. ‘It can hide things if necessary, and then bring them back later. The Ara Irititja computer is clever like a dingo’, says Wilton Foster.(9) This is true not only of secret-sacred content, but of anthropological archives, including many photographs, that have been imported into Ara Irititja, reproduced from one archive into another. Here the photographs become part of a living archive, as Ara Irititja allows its users to add to the information around them, to name their subjects and places. Using examples from her experience curating and collaborating, Margo Neale proposes a ‘third archive’ that lies in the country itself, and in the minds of the Elders.

Indigenous Archives makes a decisive shift in the fourth section to highly urbanised centres. Four essays by seven authors bring different perspectives to bear on the work of seven artists who aim to decolonise existing museum archives developed in the colonial period. Jessyca Hutchens investigates the different strategies of decolonising the museum that arose from the art residencies of Christian Thompson and Julie Gough in British institutions that hold Aboriginal materials from the nineteenth century. Odette Marie Kelada and Genevieve Grieves trace the various ways in which artists Vernon Ah Kee and Yhonnie Scarce adopt archival strategies to invert the legacies of colonialism. Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll argues that this return to archives by Indigenous artists – she examines the work of Brook Andrew, Daniel Boyd and Julie Gough – is necessarily anachronic in order to maintain its deconstructive edge. Jane Lydon analyses how Vernon Ah Kee, Brenda Croft, and Christian Thompson use historical photographs to deconstruct existing histories and their archives, and reconstruct new ones. The fourth section concludes with Brook Andrew and Katarina Matiasek’s travelogue into the colonial archives of the Austrian anthropologist Rudolf Pöch – what might be considered the diary of an excursion into an existing archive in preparation for creative research.

Arguably these seven artists can only deconstruct the archive by, in turn, becoming archivists.

Arguably these seven artists can only deconstruct the archive by, in turn, becoming archivists. The same is true of academics, who have long been compelled to work with archives – to either affirm or deconstruct them – so that they are able to authorise what they say, or in Foucault’s terms to place statements in relation to each other. Yet as this volume shows, the logic of such authorisations and relations are not only academic. The recursive logic of The Archive, which embeds knowledge in relations, is a universal activity that occurs in all cultures. This is because The Archive, as the site of ideology and power, produces social order and the culture that constitutes it. Thus its recursive logic is also at work in the compulsions of artists and Indigenous communities, and is tied less to any one logic than it is to the contingencies of history and subjectivity. The Archive relies upon archives that are idiosyncratic and political, and dependent upon technologies and powers. They envisage modes of relation while overwriting other modes of relation. Indigenous Archives examines the various ways in which archives and archivists have made, and are remaking, Aboriginal identities and histories.

Finally, this volume is dedicated to one of our authors who may not live to see this book in print, the community leader and political campaigner Janet Inyika, in whom we lose a living archive of both the Pitjantatjara Lands and Australian history.

Indigenous Archives is available for purchase in all good bookstores and online from UWA Publishing


1. M. Foucault,‘The Subject and Power’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 8, no. 4, 1982, pp. 777–95 at 795.

2. N. Kompridis,‘Introduction:Turning and Returning:The Aesthetic Turn in Political Thought’, in N. Kompridis (ed.), The Aesthetic Turn in Political Thought, Bloomsbury, London, 2014, pp. xiv–xxxvii at xiv–xv.

3. F. Foley, ‘When the Circus came to Town’, Art Monthly Australia, no. 245, 2011, pp. 5–7; D. Mundine,‘Nowhere Boy’, Artlink, vol. 30, no. 1, 2010, pp. 18–22.

4. V. Johnson, Once Upon a Time in Papunya, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2014, pp. 11–43.

5. These exhibitions include Koolark Koort Koorliny (Heart Coming Home) and Revel Cooper both at the John Curtin Gallery in 2014, and Bella Kelly at the Vancouver Arts Centre in Albany in 2016.

6. ARC project number DP110104509 Mobilising Remote Aboriginal Art Centre Records for Art History.

7. Art Centres Art Histories Symposium, Alice Springs, 4 September 2014.

8. For example, at the Mowanjum Art and Culture Centre, viewed 3 March 2016, <>.

9. Why is Ara Irititja Important? needs underscore under the ‘r’ of Ara.

Book Extract