Skin deep: reproducing aboriginal women in colonial Australia

Zoe Holman speaks to author Liz Conor about her new book 'Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women' and the role these colonial images played, and continue to play, in Australia.

Liz Conor Zoe Holman
3 February 2017

Zoe Holman speaks to author Liz Conor about her new book 'Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women' (UWA Pubilshing). They discuss how industrialised print helped enshrine understandings of aboriginal sexuality, motherhood and domicile and the role these images played, and continue to play, in Australia.


ZH: Your analysis of images from the archives is presented in this book in specific categories—early encounters, gender status, maternity, domesticity, sexuality, appearance and elders. Why did you choose these themes? LC: This is a book about European perceptions and for print culture at that time it was predominantly—or overwhelming—men who were writing. So it is really about examining what the organising fields of perception were for European men of women. I found that the same organising fields applied to European women as to Aboriginal women. I started with early impressions because these were foundational. They laid the groundwork and what I try to show is that because they were recurring and repeating from early accounts, they were not challenged and stayed prominent in the print for a long, long time. In each field, I quantified what the dominant trope was. For example, on the status of women, which is very important to defining aboriginal women (and men) as primitive, it was the notion of bride capture—the idea that aboriginal women would get clonked on the head and dragged off by the hair. There is no evidence in the colonial archive that aboriginal men routinely abducted women and yet it goes on being a very popular trope in cartoons right up until recently. Settler cultural producers, cartoonists and authors really clung to this trope, as they did to many others. ZH: You cite Nicholas Thomas’ suggestion that ‘the business of simultaneously exhibiting and exter­minating the native is consistent with the enduring, invasive logic of a settler-colonial nation.’ What role did these images play in the Australian colonial project, in Australia itself or abroad? LC: In this case, it is about filling an absence that we created and feel responsible for. These objects—cute little ceramics, tea-towels and photographs—are comfort objects as they fill an absence with some kind of presence that is pleasing, or non-threatening: one that doesn’t evoke colonial dispossession or trauma. Instead, we can say ‘aren’t they lovely to look at and isn’t this delightful?’ So they become fetishes, really, as the function of a fetish is to disavow something unpleasant. They allow us to disavow the ugliness and unsightliness of privation, disease and impoverishment that are the most confronting part of the colonial encounter. In the same register as the notion of ‘terra nullius’, this disavowal gives us a comforting distance from the unease that comes with knowledge of the foundational act of the nation—which is theft, the theft of land.

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‘Courtship in Australia. Contracting an alliance with a neighbouring family’. 1849 image by a New South Wales settler. Credit: State Library of New South Wales.

ZH: Is there something about women, or representations of women, that can be idealised or sanitised in a way that representations of men cannot?

LC: There was certainly a strong interest in young aboriginal women who were seen as graceful and pleasing to look at, but older men were also idealised through the whole notion of nobility. However, that did not happen at all for elder aboriginal women. Instead, the authority that we have now been told accrues to aboriginal elder women is completely absent. There is, however, a lot of interest in elder women because they were naked outdoors and this was not at all pleasing to settlers—it was shocking and distasteful and was condemned as unsightly and primitive. So the way older and young women were represented was quite distinct.

ZH: You refer to Frantz Fanon’s ‘racial epidermal schema’ in settler-colonial conceptions of aboriginal men and women as others. What were some of the specific connotations of aboriginal women’s skin for white settlers—for example, the concept of ‘black velvet’?

LC: It was commonly known among white Australians that this was a term to describe white men’s unfettered sexual access to aboriginal women. It had imputations of prostitution, but I also found an interesting anomaly around a particular scenario of prostitution of aboriginal women to Japanese pearlers just before the war, when this term wasn’t used. I looked at the absence of its use in this case and realised that the term is actually quite racialised. It described specifically not just aboriginal women’s skin, but white men’s access to it—and nobody else’s. It doesn’t apply to Japanese men or black men – it applies exclusively to the phenomenon of white men and their sexual access to aboriginal women.

Ashtray depicting an Aboriginal woman in lingerie. Credit: Colin Chestnut ZH: The book includes common white slang to describe aboriginal men and women—for example, ‘gin’ and ‘piccaninnies’. Were you able to trace the etymology of these terms?   Yes. Tracing these types got me very interested in cultural typologies and racialised typologies, like the classic notion of the ‘pic’, the slum waif or the convict waif. The piccaninny, for example, describes a racialised childhood that was trans-historical, as the term comes from Portuguese. It started in the southern sugar plantations of the Americas and then in the exchange of language through trade routes, it made its way to Europe. So when Europeans came to Australia, it was already in their mouths as meaning a racialised child. What is really interesting is the way in which this Portuguese-derived word became useful to aboriginal people themselves, when they needed to communicate about their children to whites as they used variations of ‘piccaninny’  in their Creole. They had to use these terms to make sense of themselves to the settler.   ZH: But when it comes to actual names of individuals documented in these pictures, these were most often omitted?  

LC: Yes, and as long as the names were left out, those women lost their identities. What we can infer from this is that there are an awful lot of people who are present in the colonial archives, but whose identities have effectively been erased. An image might start with a name and then as it was circulated to say ‘look at these new primitive people from Van Diemen’s Land’, the woman’s name got dropped. It becomes an erasure of her identity—anonymising. I call it ‘name-dropping’ in the counter-meaning of redacting people’s identities. So in one sense, these images have enormous significance because they satisfy white curiosity in and consumption of this new, primitive people. But they are not significant in the sense that they are individuals—they are just types representative of their people. It is part of the category thinking that is foundational to racial thought. A lot of work is now going on in archives trying to trace and place women and once that happens, we can also do restitution of these photos.

ZH: Did you find comparisons or parallels with other early colonial representations of indigenous people, for example, in the Americas?

LC: Yes, in fact these images were transnational—they went all around the world and were reiterated. They might first be published in London and then end up being reprinted in New York or appearing in a Dublin newspaper. We were able to trace many tropes back to accounts by David Collins [an administrator in Australia’s first colonies] and he was basically just reiterating a whole ethnology from colonisation in other parts of the world—in Africa, the Americas, in Asia. His writing looks as if it has authority and credence as new thought, when in fact his views are just lifted from a set of foundational texts. It was essentially pulp ethnography—publishing enterprises that were trying to use scandal and shock to sell as many books as they could. The ‘primitive’ nature of the subject meant that certain things could be printed in books that would never have passed otherwise—for example, pictures of naked bodies, of breasts, depictions of marital rites, rape fantasies or the like. Really, it is a kind of ethno-porn.

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‘Woman of Van Diemen’s Land’, an engraving from 1777 inspired by an encounter described in Captain Cook’s journals. Credit: National Library of AustraliaZH: And this of course was permissible because indigenous women did not have to be afforded the same kind of dignity or propriety as white women of the time? LC: Of course. In fact one thing that worked particularly against aboriginal women was their withholding of information from white men—withholding of ‘women’s business’ around birthing, marital rights and so on. For example, men that were observing what they said were foetal remains in ovens in the ground had no access to women’s business around birthing, so that they couldn’t know that in some language groups, new born babies were placed in warmed earth in the same way that today we put new born babies in warm baths to regulate body temperature. So when they found dead babies in those circumstances they made assumptions—because they didn’t know, they couldn’t be bothered asking and because women were not going to tell men. (Nor would they tell white women unless in particular circumstances they had earned the right to that knowledge). So aboriginal women’s strictures around what information could be shared meant that white men filled in the blanks, and did so as salaciously as they could. ZH: You note that there is a ‘conflicting warp’ in the spine of this book, for you as an author. What is this conflict?  

LC: Essentially, this is the fact that I am describing something I have never experienced—that is, racism. So there is the whole question of whether it is my place to do so. The only way around this, as I ended up thinking, was that the material I was uncovering could help to challenge the amnesia around this subject. So there was a real political intention behind the research. On the other hand, there is the whole question of what if in recirculating these images, I am adding to the layers of insult and wounding? The answer therefore for any white scholar working in indigenous studies or history is to do as much consultation as you can. But a lot of indigenous people are on the wrong end of research fatigue, after decades or centuries of being objectified by researchers. And then—if you’re talking about people who might be experiencing crisis—there is the other question of what is this really going to do about housing, school attendance, education, discrimination or health? And the answer I have to say is, absolutely nothing! So we have to ask if it can be a priority for aboriginal people to give time to scholars like me. However, I did sit down on a number of occasions with groups of aboriginal women to show them the material I was going to publish and explain its intention—that this book is a polemic. And once I’d explained my motives, they all said, yes, this is very confronting material, but it needs to be out there. People need to know about the racism that was levelled at us, specifically as women.

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1928 cartoon from Aussie magazine. Credit: Hugh MacleanZH: This relates to Chris Healey's notion you describe of ‘remembering white forgetting’ and the potential of your research to help that project. So while it may not have direct practical effects on issues relating to people’s current lived experiences, many of the tropes that you discuss are reinforced in contemporary Australian policy, like the 2007 Northern Territory intervention, or so-called ‘National Emergency Response’? 

LC:  Yes. The intervention in particular rests on the settler notion of aboriginal maternity as incompetent. It also reflected this additional notion that they ate their babies, which is obviously complete rubbish. But that particular trope was sustained over decades—Pauline Hanson even referred to it in parliament in her maiden speech, suggesting that they were infanticidal. So these entrenched, commonly-held views about aboriginal mothers as very bad—if not fatal or actively murderous—for their children were there in the intervention in this notion of endemic child abuse. This isn’t to say that some communities had not been calling for assistance for years around family violence, alcohol and petrol-sniffing—they had and had not been getting enough of it. So it is a failure of government that gets turned around and pushed onto the handiest scapegoat. But child abuse is endemic in white communities, and across the community. So the question is really not so much is it a problem or isn’t it, but how that problem is deployed in public discourse in very specific, racialised ways. It is about whiteness going unmarked and things white people do not being characterised as white.

ZH: Yet the degree to which politicians these days are able to continue to reiterate these markers of racialised behaviour—for example, in the whole notion of aboriginal communities’ ‘lifestyle choice’—is astounding. Do you hope that your research will reach policy makers?

LC: Yes. Even if it is just getting a sense that complete falsehoods can be put forward about a people that are then entrenched over time because they are unchallenged. What it shows is that racism requires a lot of upkeep—these denigrating ideas about any particular group have to be said again and again to really take hold. So whenever we are silent when we hear a group of people being characterised by racist policy, we let the snowball keep turning and building. This is why it is so important to intervene every time—to challenge every iteration, because it feeds off reiteration. This is the bread and butter of racism. This is also why the hard-right talks so much about the right to be a bigot: because they know that having control over the cultural register is key to implementing the kinds of policy that they want and to building a new popular consensus around race—one that means that white men can maintain their privileges.

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