Tuesday, 26 May 2015

AUSTRALIAN CULTURE AND SPIRITUALITY - 2021 update

I initially wrote this in 2015 when I was motivated to return to the topic by another blog which referred to ‘Australian culture’.[1]  The ensuing conversation highlighted that some of ‘us Aussies’ are still unsure about what this means, or who we are, or what makes us distinctive as a nation and people, or what makes our art, or indeed our religion/beliefs, distinctive.  For these and probably other reasons we keep worrying the topic.  I wonder if other countries and cultures engage in this exercise.  What is obvious is that some of us still seem to be unsure that we have anything uniquely Australian to offer the rest of the world...apart from our mineral resources and being a good investment opportunity.

It seemed to me at the time of writing that Indigenous Australians and Torres Straight islanders are clear what culture means to them.  It is part of their traditional and emerging story, dance, song, music, costume, art, language and being.  But their life in this land spans 40,000-60,000 years, maybe more[2].  For those of us who arrived much later and have existed here a mere 230 years or less, it seems to be, in some cases, a different story.  So it was interesting to read Stan Grant’s Australia Day at the end of 2020 and realise that for Indigenous people like him it is not as straight forward as it appears.

Stan Grant is of Wiradjuri, Kamilaro and Irish descent.  In Australia Day he explores Australian culture, history and who we are as a nation.  He also discusses what it is to be ‘an Australian’ and how he fits uneasily into this delineation – “I have been on this journey my entire life, always looking out, always wondering, who am I?” (p. 30) 

So is this an uniquely Australian question because of our particular history?

I wonder if Australians from countries like Senegal, Ghana, China, Thailand, Iran, Lebanon, Maori New Zealand, or India think about it either.  Their own tradition goes beyond and further back than any recent religious change or Western influence.  From an outside view, much of the original cultures still seems strong and clear even if they are now naturalised Australians.  On the other hand is this just an illusion and are they also undergoing cultural change and have questions about who they are now?

Perhaps a distinctive culture initially arises when a group of people is able to develop an identity for themselves without outside influences or conquest over generations.  Even though early Europe, Asia and the Middle East have long been hotbeds of conquest and reconquest, with Africa, North and South America, and Australia more recent, perhaps the cultures that were indigenous at the time had a strong enough cultural sense and confidence to absorb parts of conquering alien cultures without losing their own identity; in a sense living together but separately on shared land.  

A number of these countries and peoples have more recently gained independence from their colonisers/conquerors or have agreed on treaties and to some extent have been able to maintain or reclaim their particular identity and cultural practices.  Australia, on the other hand, has taken neither of these steps.  It has remained colonised with no formal Treaty or agreement with First Peoples and the Constitution and law still maintain the shadow of Britain.  The ongoing repercussions of continuing white rule for the Indigenous Peoples in Australia is addressed by Aileen Moreton-Robinson in Our story is in the land”: Why the Indigenous sense of belonging unsettles white Australia.

Over the last couple of centuries in Europe there have been numerous attempts to revisit and revive ancient beliefs and traditions, festivals, ceremonies, and rituals.  I also have travelled a similar path:  exploring my long forgotten cultural-religious heritage.  My path of revisiting ended up in Australia and an attempt to integrate the envisaged old with the experienced new.[3]  Yet I wonder how deep any such revival goes, and what it may mean longterm?

With this in mind it was interesting to watch the finals of Eurovision 2015.  The only entrants that seemed to retain a distinctive link to the country they were representing came from France and Israel.  In both cases the tradition was expressed through the music, the language and lyrics (in the case of France) and the dance (in the case of Israel).  There was a culturally specific sensibility in the songs and the way in which they were presented.

On the other hand there was little to distinguish most of the other songs.  Those sung in the native language helped to specify which country was being represented. Those sung in English could have come from anywhere.  Moreover it was difficult to pinpoint the performers’ countries of origin from their appearance.  The many cultures that now make up Europe have mixed the genetic pool in every European country, as with Australia.

Australia’s presence and performance at Eurovision was exciting and wonderfully performed, but it also was not distinctively different, as far as culturally specific music, to any other.  Guy Sebastian, however, was.  He had a sense of freedom and unpretentiousness that other performers did not have.  Has that something to do with being Australian, or is that just him?  Stan Grant makes a similar observation in Australia Day,


“It was overseas that I realised just how Australian I was; all of those clich├ęs are true: we don’t stand on ceremony, we are quick to laugh and we laugh loudly, we work hard and we treat people as we find them.” (p.12)

Some of us know that we are no longer British, or Irish, or Dutch, or..., and I include myself in this group.  We know Australia has changed us and we no longer have deep links to our or our families’ countries of origin.  We know we feel differently when we visit ‘old country’; that we are no longer like them or necessarily think like them.  We know how we feel when we return here: the sense of space and openness, the colours of the water and sky, and the strength of the sun. 

Early Australian writers and artists of colonial heritage did focus on the Australian environment and lived experience.[4]  What they presented as Australian culture may have been of its time, but it seemed more certain, more secure. Of course their view of Australia, of the country and of their relationship to the land, was tempered by their perspective and experience as ‘rightful settlers’. Only a few acknowledged Indigenous Australian presence and culture.

On one level we have changed since then. We have become a multicultural society and we have had to adapt, although Moreton-Robinson reminds us that with over five hundred original language groups Australia was always multicultural.  In the growing awareness of the Eurocentrism of the first waves of arrivals, the changing cultural mix of more recent arrivals, our resulting political correctness and our modernisation since then, have we also lost the sense of who we are as a nation?  The one thing that has continued through this, however, is our disconnect with the First People of Australia.[5]

Back in 2015 my mother kept asking when I telephoned, ‘what did we do before TV?’  Well, I guess we told stories, wrote letters, visited family, played or walked outside, sat on the verandah and socialised, and generally had a bit more time to reflect.  Life experience was localised.  We are not those kinds of people now.

In modern times, as well as being introduced to a wide range of cultures, the recent rise of cyber-technology, the current global conquistador, does not allow much time for self-reflection. It’s almost all we can do to clear the email inbox let alone catch up with Social Network news and it is globally focused.  Have people like me missed the boat as far as trying to define what is unique about being Australian, including its artistic expression and religion/belief?

The technology developed by ‘the West’ has driven, and continues to drive and change, global culture.  Accompanying the technology are changes in lifestyle, changes in artistic expression, and in many cases, changes in beliefs.  In other words the technology shapes our vision of ourselves and the world, and that vision is leading towards homogeneity.  But I also believe that the land, environment, native animals, and seascape changes the people who live with them and creates a special feeling of ‘being home’. Perhaps when we take the time to visit and spend time with the land we begin to know who we are...or is this also romanticism?

In Australia many of us seem to experience a conflicted relationship with the Australian bush and beyond.  We are not fully comfortable: happy to visit and enjoy for short periods of time and then happier still to return quickly to our suburban homes.  Is it because we arrived here as invaders and immigrants from constructed towns, gardens and farms and were not happy until we had recreated that mirror image here?[6]

In Australia Day Stan Grant explores the concept of the Australian landscape requesting more from us than we are willing to give, calling it ‘The Vanishing Place’.  What this tells me is that all we arrivals who feel this way have not yet really come to terms with this place, its stillness, its silence, its wildlife and the First Peoples who continue to be connected to their stories and law.[7]

I have on many occasions attempted to answer these questions and solve the contradictions, and this is another.  However I always seem to end at the same place: in the city and needing to come to terms with the city environment and lifestyle.  The great wonderful landscape of Australia has had to be left behind as I no longer live in the desert or country, or on the mountain.  I need a city-based culture and belief system and expression, as that is where I live.  And though my city shares the architecture and market driven work ethic as all other developed countries around the world, I would like to think my Australianness, which has been forming since the time of the First Fleet, makes me, and perhaps other Australians like me, feel different to city dwellers in other parts of the world.

But what is it?  I don’t know.  But I suspect it may have something to do with reflection:  taking the time to look at ourselves as individuals who live, and as a nation which lives, in this land and to consider the implications.  It may be that we need to take time to listen to and learn from Aboriginal heritage Australians and to understand the deep wounds inflicted by 230+ years of colonisation and governmental refusal to allow self-determination.  Maybe it needs for us to become an independent nation no longer tied to Britain, or until the First Peoples of Australia are acknowledged as such in the constitution and/or there is a Treaty and/or achieve self-determination which should be theirs by right.  Maybe it is all of this.[8]   It’s like growing up.  You need to bounce ‘who you are’ against other adults and peers until at some stage you can stand on your own two feet.  I also have a fantasy of a First People’s couple as our ‘governors’ general’ or ‘royal couple’[9].  In my view that would put everything into perspective

I love the idea that in the distant past Australia was part of Gondwana, a large mass of land south of the equator which encompassed what was later to become Africa, India and South America, and that geologically and probably environmentally as well, we have ties to those countries.  I also love the theory that all human existence emerged out of east Africa.[10]  Yet, at some stage, Gondwana split into four independent land masses, each developing its own culture of flora and fauna.  Then at another stage some of the original humans chose to leave their place of birth, find a land of their own, and begin the process of developing their own brand of culture in response to the new environment.

We are now living in a world being joined together again in cyberspace.  It is the space of the mind and computer.  It is not the space which has fed and supported us for the past tens of thousands of years.  The value is that it promises to offer a space where all persons have equal value.  Yet it is used to promote the worst of human behaviour by specific groups.  It seems to work against and at the same time support nationalistic tendencies.  Perhaps the problem and answer has nothing to do with technology, but with us as individuals.

So we are back to personal story, our perception of who we are, or wish to present, as uniquely Australian.  It may have something to do with the First Peoples of Australia as front and centre. It may have something to do with being an independent nation.  It may have something to do with focussing on and preserving the uniqueness of our flora and fauna.  It may be that we need more time.  It may be that our cultural uniqueness can only come from continuing to write stories, create and perform music and dance, create artwork and devise rituals which are inspired by this unique environment and the history of its people.  Maybe we only become unique when we allow the land we live in and on, and the traditional and continuing culture of Australia’s First Peoples, to change us.[11]

 


When I was living in the mountains I found a wonderful rock at the end of a street near my home.  It looked as if the molten earth had pressed up in waves and set over time.  To me it was a sacred site which drew me to meditate on the origin of life.  It was Stan Grant’s ‘vanishing place’.  In my view it should have been cordoned off and targeted as a place of pilgrimage.  But it wasn’t.  Already a new house was being built on land nearby.  Have we missed the boat...run out of time?  I hope not.[12]

 



[1] Grant Hall, China’s strategy for exporting culture: an approach worth emulating in www.wherewordsfailblog.com.  The question of 'Australian Culture' is one I have gnawed at since the 1980's,  I have also updated and revised this article many times since it was first written, as new information and thoughts have emerged.

[2] Since the initial writing more information has come to light which extends this dating: Bruce R. Fenton, Archaeology-Places-Humans-In-Australia-120000-Years-Ago’ in Archaeology, 11th March 2019

[4] There are many.  We read them and learnt their poetry at school.  One that springs first to mind is Dorothea Mackellars My Country, C. 1904.

[5] 2020 ended up being an interesting first half of the year, beginning with the firestorms which decimated our forests and wildlife, followed quickly by the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, and then the global repercussions of the murder of George Floyd in America.  The recurring themes which emerged from the Indigenous Australian community into the mainstream were - Indigenous Australians have a history of engaging in landclearing/caring practices yet their advice is not usually sought; racism is rife in Australia too and there have been 437 Aboriginal deaths in custody with no convictions, yet it takes an American incident for the rest of Australia to sit up and take notice;  whereas Aboriginal leaders took the initiative to protect their own communities from COVID-19, serving as an example of how Indigenous-led action succeeds, they have been historically blocked from deciding and advising for their own communities.  All in all it has become clear that Indigenous Australians, at one level, are still invisible, which says a lot about the-rest-of-Australian culture, including the culture of our governments.  It is becoming increasingly clear, at least to me, that until we address and redress this we may never 'find our place' here.  We need to put our house in order. 

Nola Turner Jensen who has researched and written extensively on cultural mindsets; specifically the difference between Aboriginal heritage and Anglo-European heritage mindsets expresses the current situation succinctly in 'Why I can't breathe (culturally) as an Aboriginal person in Australia' 

[6] The text, Woman and the Land, which served as the hypothesis for my thesis asked similar questions,

[7] Bruce Pascoe’s and Vicky Shurkuroglo’s Loving Country is a beautiful illustration of this continuation of Aboriginal stories, law and caring for country.

[8] By the beginning of 2020 I had become increasingly aware of Aboriginal Australians alerting other Australians to the fact that Australia was never ceded therefore there is 'unfinished business' between 'the Crown' and them, as well as constitutional changes which need to be made before the rest of the Australian public can consider the issue of becoming a republic - The republic is an Aboriginal issue, As Tony McAvoy says, The time to push for a treaty is right now. 

[9] These positions still carry the imprint of colonial rule – they are the British Queen’s representatives in Australia.

[10] This 'accepted truth' is now also being challenged. Steve Strong in The First HumanRace Came From Australia NOT Africa explores this assertion through research that has, on the whole been previously ignored.

[11] In 2021 I read Loving Country by Bruce Pascoe and Vicky Shukuroglou.  Loving Country is a beautifully written travelogue which takes the reader on a tour around Australia from an Indigenous perspective, resting at places of significance along the way to listen to stories about the land, its First peoples, wildlife and importance.

[12] In 2019 this came my way - What if Aboriginal people help all Australians to connect to countrywritten in November 2015. What if?  What a huge difference it would have made in developing an Australian identity and a deep personal connection to the land if we had known the stories, songs, dances, language, Indigenous names of our birth or arrival places, and allowed Aboriginal Australians their right to introduce and welcome us to country. Marcia Langton's book, Welcome to Country,  and Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sandtalk: how Indigenous thinking can save the world are such offerings.  I have written a short introduction to the books mentioned in this article at Australia Day, Welcome to Country, Loving Country and sand talk.