One Decade, Two Accounts: The Aboriginal Arts Board and ‘Aboriginal literature’, 1973-1983



In 1983, a decade after the establishment of the Aboriginal Arts Board (AAB), the Australia Council published a report that presented two competing accounts of the purpose, character and future of ‘Aboriginal literature’. The first part of the document assembled a detailed, approving survey of Indigenous creative writers and advocated continuing support for their activities. The second doubted the utility of a focus on creativity, urging instead a commitment to the social-communicative function of literature, and demonstrated the Board’s preference for supporting collective Indigenous literary production. This essay situates the conflicted publication in several contexts which bring literary-critical, governmental, policy, geopolitical and operational factors into focus.

We consider the critical reception of Kath Walker’s We Are Going (1964) and Colin Johnson’s Wild Cat Falling (1965), in particular how the values and conventions of literary reading failed to furnish conditions in which Aboriginal literature might be framed in terms of creativity. In the governmental domain, the AAB was committed to an agenda which endorsed traditionalism and – like other federal agencies at the time – sought to protect imperilled Indigenous cultural practices in the face of assimilation policy. This traditionalism was strongly associated with ‘tribal’ areas, which presented a challenge for the Board’s support of ‘urban’ Aboriginal arts. Literature was uniquely positioned, as an artform which might be figured with reference to ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ Aboriginal culture. The AAB’s literary activities, in the ten years preceding the 1983 paper, showed that while the Board was supportive of ‘creative’ work by individuals, it was also re-configuring literary models of authorship in service of its objectives to enhance communication within Indigenous communities, and between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.

The Australia Council’s Aboriginal Arts Board (AAB) has supported cultural producers and agencies in theatre and dance; music; arts and crafts; literature; and film, radio and television. The foundation of this separate, all-Aboriginal Board was an acknowledgement of ‘the absolute necessity for Aboriginal self-determination’ in the arts (Australia Council, Aboriginal Self-Determination).1 Since its establishment (with the Australia Council) in 1973, the aims of the AAB have always been twofold: to defend extant classical forms of expression from further attrition, and to encourage innovation, especially by those Indigenous Australians who are unable to pursue ‘classical’ forms of expression.

In the field of literature, the tension between these two aims, preservation and innovation, was apparent in 1983 when the Australia Council published a review of the AAB’s first ten years. One part of the review highlighted the potential of ‘creative’ authorship (1-41); the other doubted that an emphasis on ‘creativity’ was…

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Published 5 May 2016 in Volume 31 No. 2. Subjects: Aboriginal literature, Aboriginal poetry, Australian literature - Funding & patronage, Authorship, Critical reception, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Mudrooroo.

Cite as: Kelly, Michelle and Tim Rowse. ‘One Decade, Two Accounts: The Aboriginal Arts Board and ‘Aboriginal literature’, 1973-1983.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 31, no. 2, 2016, doi: 10.20314/als.a002f8186e.