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Indigenous Modernisms By McLean, Ian

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REM178-1
Published: 09/05/2016
Retrieved: 23 July 2024, from


Indigenous modernism is not to be confused with earlier ideas of modern Indigenous art, though they do to some extent pre-empt it. In the mid-20th century, some Indigenous artists who made or responded to Western art forms were referred to as modern. For example, in 1952 the Namatjira School of landscape painting in Central Australia was dubbed modern Aboriginal art, while Ulli Bieir made similar claims about African artists in the late 1950s and 60s. In the 1960s and 70s, emerging interest in non-traditional and tourist Indigenous art resulted in scholars and auction houses applying the terms modern and contemporary to distinguish such art from traditional works. However, the concept of Indigenous modernism applies to Indigenous art in general, whether considered traditional or not. For example, bark paintings from Arnhem Land originally valued and collected as primitive art have recently been interpreted as forms of Indigenous modernism. The term Indigenous modernism, then, refers not to art that emulates Western modernisms, but to art that engages with experiences of modernity from an Indigenous perspective—a notion with profound consequences for how modernism is generally conceived and theorized. In particular, it challenges stylistic and classical accounts of modernism, and the center/periphery model of modernism. These challenges, arising from theories of alternative and multiple modernities more generally, have created new interests in modernism, but have yet to be theoretically worked through.

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McLean, Ian. Indigenous Modernisms. Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, Taylor and Francis,

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