Jacques Derrida speaks of the archive in terms of its future value. In his text Archive Fever (1995), he states, ‘it is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow.’1 Here we might ask; in order for the archive to maintain its relevancy, must it first be activated? If an archive exists solely in physical storage and is never studied, how can its information remain relevant to current contexts? The archive, which was traditionally seen as fixed, is a collection of historical documents pertaining to one particular place or individual’s lifetime. Therefore, the archive can be subject to an ongoing evolution, especially if in relation to the history of a country or a people. When studied, the archive can serve to challenge notions and to provide new perspectives.
Wendy Garden (The University of Melbourne) examines the archive concerning material related to Indigenous Australians. In her text, Ethical Witnessing and the Portrait Photograph: Brook Andrew (2011), she suggests that ‘archives are marked by traces of institutional control exercised over private lives. Yet by ensuring the safekeeping of this material for subsequent generations archives preserve the personal for later reclamation.’2 Many authors speak about viewing historical and archival images as an act of “bearing witness” to an event3. The photographer is the initial witness to a subject and the viewer becomes witness to the photograph (the archival material that remains and can be accessed). Therefore, to revisit archival material is to once again bear witness to the original event(s) (at least as viewer from the photographer’s original perspective of the event). As Ekua McMorris writes in Performative Acts of Race: Authenticity, Blackness and Identity through Photography, Memory and Movement (2018), ‘we have to take into consideration the study of the photographer’s view of the subject, and the overall influence it would have on the image; its composition would be dictated by the message the photographer wants to convey to his or her audience’4. With this in mind, we can ascertain that the photographer has agency over the photograph and the subject. Therefore, the active subject is the photographer (and later the viewer) and the passive object is the person (sitter) or photograph.
Jane Lydon asserts in Behold the Tears: Photography as Colonial Witness (2010), that ‘in choosing to look at photographs that document difficult pasts, we participate in a form of remembrance that some argue is both an ethical act and a sign of cultural maturity.’5 The viewer both acknowledges the past and actively engages with it. Contrastingly, Dr. Mark Sealy claims in his thesis (2016) that ‘modern space often denies the racial spectres that live in museums and among the photographic archives. It is a space where time seems to start afresh and memories are suppressed.’6 The photographer allows the viewer to bear witness to the original event in the way that they wanted to portray it. In the case of colonial photography, the subjective view of the Western photographer has allowed the dissemination of stereotyping and the othering of the black body.
The Colonial Gaze
The Colonial Gaze refers to the Eurocentric consumption of anthropological imagery for scientific study or entertainment. Garden states that ‘photographs were often created and circulated without any consideration of the moral rights of those portrayed,’7 she acknowledges that some Indigenous sitters were either collaborated with or paid a fee for being photographed, but in other instances Australian Aborigines were tricked into having their portraits taken. Moreover, Garden asserts that ‘in numerous instances portraits were widely circulated without consent, captioned and labelled to privilege European understandings of the sitter’s racial inferiority or even provoke ridicule.’8 With this in mind, it is clear to see how white Western photographers controlled and had agency over the representation of Aboriginal identities, creating a problematic, singular and reductive historical perspective. These archives have strongly influenced the reading of colonial history. This narrative includes the concept of the “Noble Savage”, an idealised or romanticised “uncivilised” man. This caricature was particularly prevalent in 18th and 19th Century literature.
The idea of the Noble Savage has been traced back to Jean Jacques Rousseau (18th Century Enlightenment philosopher). He looked upon the “uncivilised’ man as ‘free from sin, appetite or the concept of right and wrong, and that those deemed “savages” were not brutal but noble,’9 according to Helen Gardner (Deakin University) in Explainer: the myth of the Noble Savage, where she discusses the figure of the Noble Savage in Australian colonialism. Gardner goes on to discuss Captain James Cook’s observations of his journeys in the Pacific to have ‘Rousseau-style sentiments when he described Australian Aborigines in Noble Savage tones.’10 She continues that as Australia became colonised, the idea of the Noble Savage was replaced by a view that Aborigines were “primitive” and “backward” in comparison to the “modern man”. In 1988, Ad Borsboom (University of Nijegem) suggested that this view of the savage as ignoble, served as a justification for colonisation. He said, ‘the ideas about the nature of primitive societies are mythical creations which serve as an antithesis for the notion of European civilisation…a justification for progress, development and even colonization.’11
As Australian Aborigines were subjected to the colonial gaze, firstly as the Noble Savage and then later as “primitive”and “backward”, outside of developed society, the dissemination of the objectified image of the Other became part of Western colonial archives and in turn the dominant discourse. Now in contemporary society, we find artists engaging with the archive in an attempt to decolonise the gaze. The questions “who has the right to speak on behalf of the subjects of the archive?” and “who has the right to work with colonial archival material?” are of importance, as both Indigenous artists and white artists have equally employed colonial material within their practices. In particular, Christian Thompson (b. 1978, Australia) and Christian Vium (b.1980, Denmark) both use Australian colonial archives in their work. Linda Alcoff discusses the issue of speaking on behalf of others in The Problem of Speaking for Others (1991/1992). She states that ‘the effect of the practice of speaking for others is often, though not always, erasure and a reinscription of sexual, national, and other kinds of hierarchies.’12 The Colonial archive does just that. It speaks on behalf of others and inscribes Indigenous identities from a Western perspective.
There are three potential positions of agency to consider: firstly, the photographer, secondly, the subject of the image and thirdly, the viewer. “Who embodies the agency to make change to the colonial archive, to “unfix” the archive?” It is the artist’s role as the critical thinker to re-activate the archive and aim to decolonise it. The artist is able to come in and unpack positions that were previously considered fixed (that is materials that were collected in Western history). In the works of Christian Thompson and Christian Vium the question of agency directly relates to the shifting status of the colonial archive throughout history. The core aim of both artists’ work is political, to some extent, so therefore do they achieve the same outcome? If their shared mode is re-staging the colonial archive, it must be acknowledged that they are at least coming from different positions.
Christian Thompson (b. 1978, Australia) is a Bidjara* artist who takes on a direct and critical approach to his use of archival material in his practice. Through a fellowship granted to the artist, Thompson was able to work directly with the Australian photography archives at Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford. His series We Bury Our Own (2013) and Museum of Others (2016) focuses on performing what he termed a ‘‘spiritual repatriation,’ rather than a physical one13, [to] fragment the historical narrative and traverse time…’14 in terms of activating the colonial archive. Thompson often employs his own image in his photography. His self-portraiture acts to create new imagery that serves to extend the archive, as Derrida suggests, for the future. Curator of Photograph Collections at Pitt Rivers Museum, Christopher Morton asserts that;
Rather than directly invoking or re-presenting historic imagery, as is evident in the work of other artists such as Brook Andrew (who has also worked extensively with archives), Thompson has chosen to take the history of photographic representation of Aboriginal people as a starting point for the spiritual repatriation of the archive through the redemptive process of self- portraiture.15
He claims that even when photographs are repatriated, either as a physical or digital copy, the ancestors that are captured on the photographic paper ‘remain in the storerooms of remote institutions,’ but still ‘hold spiritual and emotional qualities.’16 Thompson activates the space between art and photography and the phenomenon of ‘the archive as a permanent ancestral resting place.’ 17
Museum of Others (Othering the Explorer, James Cook) (2016) is a self-portrait of Thompson holding up an image of Captain James Cook in front of his own face. The portrait of Cook acts as both a placard and as a mask, where the viewer sees Thompson’s eyes gazing out beyond the frame through the eyeholes he has cut into the image of Cook. The title, Museum of Others (Othering the Explorer, James Cook), tells the viewer that Thompson is quite literally subverting the colonial gaze, by employing his own. He is ‘othering’ the white pioneer’s body, rather than the black body, or what is considered the hegemonic view of the Other. By doing so, he attempts to decolonise the photographic representation of Indigenous identities and simultaneously claims agency to unfix the colonial archive.
Christian Vium (b.1980, Denmark) is a white, European artist and anthropologist working with Australian archival images18. His series The Wake (2014/2017)19 is a contemporary re-staging of photographs from Sir Baldwin W. Spencer and Frank J. Gillen’s photographic archive. The archive pertains to the study of Australian Aborigines during an expedition from Alice Springs, where the pair covered over two-thousand English miles between 1894 and 1896. Vium clearly states on his website that ‘the views expressed in the work are those of the author alone and in conjunction with community consultation.’20 Perhaps he does this as a way of acknowledging the potential problems surrounding his European heritage and the subject matter that he is working with and as a way of not claiming agency over the images.
Rather than a direct re-staging of the archival material, Vium creates new images in the same locations that the original photographs were taken. Placing his new images side-by-side with the archival images, he allows the viewer an insight into past colonial readings of the archive and as Derrida suggests, a response, a future of the archive. Wendy Garden poses the question, ‘how does the ethnographic photograph and the reworked image inform our understandings of the past?’21 As a white male photographer, not belonging to the Indigenous group which he photographically represents, can Vium speak on behalf of others in the way that Thompson can?
Alcoff addresses the question of validity when speaking for others, querying if it is ever valid to do so;
We might try to delimit this problem as only arising when a more privileged person speaks for a less privileged one. In this case, we might say that I should only speak for groups of which I am a member. But this does not tell us how groups themselves should be delimited.22
Vium’s usage of archival ethnographic images might result in an association with an imperialist view of Indigenous people to be sustained. The viewer is reminded, and even invited, to partake in the colonial gaze. Vium offsets this in his own photography by collaborating with an Indigenous community to allow them to retain a sense of agency over their representation. It is a mutual establishment of identities, as opposed to the perhaps exploited representation of the Aborigine in the Baldwin W. Spencer and Frank J. Gillen archive.
The comparison between Thompson and Vium’s practices aids in the activation of agency of the people depicted within the colonial archive. Both examine the way in which the archive has perpetuated othering through photography, albeit from differing perspectives. Common to both of their practices is the way in which they as artists activate and engage with the archive in an attempt to unfix society’s paradigm of the Aborigine as Other. As a question of the future, the role of the artist (generally speaking) is to question the hegemonic view that the colonial archive has maintained. The question of “who is allowed to speak on behalf of whom?” remains. Both artists have succeeded in bringing issues of the colonial gaze into a new context. However, where Vium places himself within an Aboriginal community (in collaboration), Thompson literally places himself within the archival images. The question of speaking on behalf of someone is more prevalent in Vium’s body of work, as he comes as an outsider to an Aboriginal community, whereas Thompson takes on the role of the Other, returning the gaze and decolonising the archive.
* Bidjara is an Indigenous Australian people of Central Southwestern Queensland
1.Derrida, Jacques, Archive Fever, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press: 1998, p. 36.
2. Garden, Wendy, ‘Ethical Witnessing and the Portrait Photograph: Brook Andrew’, Journal of Australian Studies, Volume 35, Number 2, Taylor & Francis: 2011, p. 253.
3. Particularly Ekua McMorris, Jane Lydon and Dr. Mark Sealy.
4. McMorris, Ekua, Performative Acts of Race: Authenticity, Blackness and Identity through Photography, Memory and Movement, University of Brighton, 2018, pp. 86-87.
5. Lydon, Jane, ‘Behold the Tears: Photography as Colonial Witness’, History of Photography, Volume 34, Number 3, Taylor & Francis: 2010, p. 235.
6. Sealy, Mark, Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time, Durham E-Theses, Durham University: 2016, p. 98.
7. Garden, 2011, p. 253.
8. Ibid, p. 254.
9. Gardner, Helen, ‘Explainer: The Myth of the Noble Savage’, The Conversation, Melbourne & United Kingdom, http://theconversation.com/explainer-the-myth-of-the-noble-savage-55316, accessed 7 March 2020, para. 2.
10. Ibid, para. 6.
11. Borsboom, Ad, ‘The Savage in European Social Thought; A prelude to the conceptualization of the divergent peoples and cultures of Australia and Oceania’, Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia, 1988, Vol.144(4), p. 419.
12. Alcoff, Linda, ‘The Problem of Speaking for Others’, Cultural Critique, No. 20 (Winter 1991-1992), University of Minnesota, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1354221, accessed 18 March 2020, p. 20.
13. Repatriation of artefacts and Aboriginal human remains from institutions to Aboriginal communities is common practice.
14. Thompson, Christian, We Bury Our Own, exhibition leaflet, Oxford: Pitt Rivers Museum, 2013, https://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/files/Christian_Thompson_leaflet.pdf, accessed 10 December 2019, para. 5.
15. Morton, Christopher, ‘Spiritual Repatriation and the Archive in Christian Thompson’s We Bury Our Own’, catalogue essay, We Bury Our Own, https://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/event/christian-thompson-we-bury-our-own, Oxford, UK: Pitt Rivers Museum, 2013, accessed 10 December 2019, para. 3.
16. Ibid, para. 1.
18. Vium’s project The Wake also took him to the Brazilian Amazon and Siberia.
19. Appendix 2.
20. Vium, C., The Wake, http://www.christianvium.com/thewake, accessed 12 September 2018
21. Garden, 2011, p. 252.
22. Alcoff, Linda, ‘The Problem of Speaking for Others’, Cultural Critique, No. 20 (Winter 1991-1992), University of Minnesota, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1354221, accessed 18 March 2020, p. 7.
Alcoff, Linda, ‘The Problem of Speaking for Others’, Cultural Critique, No. 20 (Winter 1991-1992), University of Minnesota, pp. 5-32, , https://www.jstor.org/stable/1354221, accessed 18 March 2020.
Borsboom, Ad, ‘The Savage in European Social Thought; A prelude to the conceptualization of the divergent peoples and cultures of Australia and Oceania’, Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia, 1988, Vol.144(4), pp. 419-432.
Derrida, Jacques, Archive Fever, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press: 1998.
Garden, Wendy, ‘Ethical Witnessing and the Portrait Photograph: Brook Andrew’, Journal of Australian Studies, Volume 35, Number 2, Taylor & Francis: 2011, pp. 251-264.
Gardner, Helen, ‘Explainer: The Myth of the Noble Savage’, The Conversation, Melbourne & United Kingdom, http://theconversation.com/explainer-the-myth-of-the-noble-savage-55316, accessed 7 March 2020.
Lydon, Jane, ‘Behold the Tears: Photography as Colonial Witness’, History of Photography, Volume 34, Number 3, Taylor & Francis: 2010, pp. 234-250.
McMorris, Ekua, Performative Acts of Race: Authenticity, Blackness and Identity through Photography, Memory and Movement, University of Brighton, 2018.
Morton, Christopher, ‘Spiritual Repatriation and the Archive in Christian Thompson’s We Bury Our Own’, catalogue essay, We Bury Our Own, https://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/event/christian-thompson-we-bury-our-own, Oxford, UK: Pitt Rivers Museum, 2013, accessed 10 December 2019.
Sealy, Mark, Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time, Durham E-Theses, Durham University: 2016, http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/11794/, accessed 26 November 2018.
Thompson, Christian, We Bury Our Own, exhibition leaflet, Oxford: Pitt Rivers Museum, 2013, https://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/files/Christian_Thompson_leaflet.pdf, accessed 10 December 2019.
Vium, Christian, The Wake, http://www.christianvium.com/thewake, accessed 12 September 2018.