‘Skin Deep: Settler impressions of Aboriginal women’ by Liz Conor

conor

375 p & notes, 2016

On the first page of the introduction to this book, there is a picture of a young aboriginal woman, staring directly at the camera.  It comes from a book by Alice Duncan-Kemp called Where Strange Paths Go Down, published in 1964 and written in the tradition of Mrs Aeneas Gunn, Daisy Bates or Mary Durack.   Liz Conor, the author of Skin Deep does not know who the young girl is, despite searching for almost a decade for clues to her identity in order to repatriate the woman in the image to her descendants and to seek their permission and cultural clearance.  Conor uses her image nonetheless, and in this- as in much of the material in this book- she is conscious that in historicizing and interrogating the use of settler impressions of aboriginal women, she is also resuscitating tropes and assertions that might best be forgotten. As she says:

Focusing at times on unnamed women, that is, women already subjected to this very appropriation, creates a dilemma: should such images be left outside the historical account, when they have played a significant role in shaping ongoing imaginings of Aboriginal women? (p35)

She decides to proceed, however, after consulting with women in several communities in Queensland, South Australia and Victoria. The book does not concentrate on photographs alone: there are lithographs, cartoons and prose descriptions as well, often twisted with racism and misogyny and deeply offensive.  She warns readers that the material will be found repugnant, and it is.

The book starts with the earliest descriptions and depictions of Aboriginal women by the first European explorers who, deeply imbued with Enlightenment thinking, categorized Aboriginal people as either ‘noble savages’ or ‘native belles’. Images were engraved, reproduced and co-opted again and again through the new print medium. This chapter lays the basis for the central argument of the book:

…that colonial racism and gender relations hinge in particular ways and depended on the facility of print to reiterate and thereby entrench meaning as truth. (p. 38)

The second chapter reiterates this argument in a different way through the ‘bride capture’ trope, whereby white men could conveniently overlook their own sexual atrocities to deplore what they described as the kidnapping and enslavement of aboriginal women by aboriginal men.  Just as with the lithographs described in Chapter One, these assertions were repeated again and again by explorers, protectors and anthropologists. It took some time for a degree of nuance to emerge, whereby the women could be seen as not just victims but participants in a tightly regulated pre-elopement  marriage ritualized performance. What was left largely unsaid was the perilous position of Aboriginal women on the white/black frontier where white men accused of violence towards Aboriginal women were exonerated, or able to deflect blame onto the native police.

A similar process of repetition attached to the trope of infanticide and infant cannibalism explored in Chapter 3, although this is a more complex area. Unlike the bride capture assertion, which was spelled out in lurid detail, claims of infanticide and infant cannibalism were not actually witnessed by white writers, but drawn from Aboriginal testimony.  Weight does have to be given to some  writers on infanticide and cannibalism who had ongoing and generally trusted contact with their Aboriginal informants. However, it is very possible that in the midst of complex inter-tribal indigenous politics, informants to a trusted white settler or ethnographer were disparaging other tribes by accusing them of cannibalism, to distinguish them from their own tribe (which did not indulge in such practices). At the same time, too, white mothers were sometimes charged with committing infanticide, and it is possible that the  atrocity of cannibalism was  added to differentiate white and aboriginal female criminality.

These initial three chapters reinforce the power of repetition in embedding a particular impression of Aboriginal women into the settler and metropolitan consciousness, even when there was little or conflicting evidence. Print culture in particular facilitated this easy re-use and reproduction.  However, as a reader, while I know that the whole point that she is emphasizing is that repetition was a powerful tool, the chapters felt rather repetitious themselves. There is a chronological progress through the reports and depictions that she describes, but because they themselves were derivative and recursive, it felt as if you were reading the same thing again and again, without little new knowledge or insight being gained.  Her research is exhaustive here (and indeed, at the end of the book she exclaims that there are reams of such material), but it is exhausting reading as well.

So it was with some relief that from Chapter 4 onwards, she takes up a slightly different approach by following through the depictions of Aboriginal womanhood from domestic servant to sexual partner to old woman.  Chapter 4 ‘Footfall over Thresholds’ explores the descriptions of Aboriginal women’s gait, either as a sashaying, silent, dignified ‘native belle’ or as a  ‘felt-footed house lubra’ (p.261).  Certainly, Conor has been able to identify and reproduce many pictures of thresholds, with the white woman on one side of the doorstep, and the disheveled or sneaky  black woman on the other, and her point about the depiction of large flat feet is well-made with several derogatory cartoons found in twentieth-century ‘humorous’ publications like the Bulletin or Aussie.

In Chapter 5 she takes as an illustrative episode the moral panic that was provoked in 1936 over the prostitution of Aboriginal women and girls to Japanese pearlers, with accusations that they were being pimped by Aboriginal men.  This was a double outrage: not only did it reference the ‘bride capture’ trope of Chapter 2 but these were Japanese pearlers (i.e. non-white; increasingly suspect) who were pillaging Australia’s fisheries and natural resources in the leadup to World War II. Again, indigenous women were seen to be passive against the power of their men, without agency. It was only with the contribution of Aboriginal men to the defence of the Australian coastline during the war that they were reinstated as defenders, rather than purveyors, of their women.  Within the deluge of newsprint prompted by the prostitution scandal,the suggestive term ‘black velvet’ (a reference to Aboriginal women’s genitalia) was never used to describe the attraction of Aboriginal women to the Japanese.  Instead it was a coded phrase for white man/aboriginal women sexual relations. I was rather startled to learn that ‘Black Velvet’ was the original name for Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia.

However, there is nothing titillating or alluring about Chapter 6 ”Absolute frights’: appearance and elders.’  It was as if newcomers felt compelled to record and publish their disgust at the appearance of elderly, emaciated Aboriginal women, and they did- with derision and at length. This chapter really is offensive, and is well placed at the end of the book, after the reader has already been exposed to less offensive (but no less corrosive) nineteenth and early twentieth century commentary.

This book has been written for an academic audience and UWA publishing have not stinted on scholarly conventions and tools.  There are lengthy footnotes, a full bibliography and a good index which includes references to historians.  What luxury it is to be able to look up a historian’s name in the bibliography instead of having to track back through footnotes to find the original reference!  The book does draw heavily on theoretical work, and I really appreciated that Conor was not forced (in the cause of ‘attracting a general readership’) to strip out all references to other historians with the vague term “some historians say….” but was able to name the historian, and quote directly from her/him.  It’s a form of academic sociability: because Conor has been able to quote and summarize the key findings of other historians, you know the argument that she is embedding her work within. You’ve read that work too, or if you haven’t then it distills the argument so that you can see how Conor has integrated it into her own work. It’s an academic pleasure that is so often being withheld from us in the cross-over between academic and ‘popular’ history.

It sometimes happens that the argument of a book becomes known by a sort of  short-hand reference.  For example, you only have to say ‘Blainey’ and you think either ‘distance’ or ‘black-arm band’; you say ‘Reynolds’ and you think ‘frontier’. I think that Conor’s work here will spring to mind as a short-hand reference to the abhorrent and self-perpetuating use of imagery, especially in relation to indigenous women.

I finished reading this book in a week when Bill Leak published a cartoon in the Australian not too far removed from the late19th-mid 20th century cartoons reproduced in these books. ( In The Conversation, there’s a good article about the cartoon, which I will not dignify with reproducing or linking in this blog). In the face of Leak’s repetition of past injustices (and not-so past, in view of the Don Dale video) the last paragraph of Conor’s book, which encapsulates her argument, comes to life:

Construing Aboriginal women as infertile, infanticidal, infirm and thereby as embodying their people’s terminus, rather than generation, was an alibi for the violence they endured on the frontier and in its aftermath and through the interventions of state administrations.  The recursion of these effacing yet exposed constructs of Aboriginal women was advanced through print and its syndications on a global scale.  Once aware of how such racial distortions become entrenched, a renewed impetus to resist them at every iteration ought to become part of a nationwide apology and commitment to recognizing the dignity of Aboriginal women.  By extension, whenever and wherever we hear a misrepresentation advanced in public about a people that contrives to mark them off with exaggerated disparity or disregard, we need to call it out then and there. (p. 370)

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I have linked this review to the Australian Women Writer’s site.

 

Further reading: You might be interested in this article that Liz Conor wrote in New Matilda that draws on the book.  The article, as with the book itself, warns of the offensive content.

 

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5 responses to “‘Skin Deep: Settler impressions of Aboriginal women’ by Liz Conor

  1. Thanks for this, Janine, your review is excellent:)

  2. I’ve been working my way through representations of Aboriginals in Aust Lit in my blog. Some writers, Idriess say, you get the feeling were trying hard to be accurate, though a patronising tone still comes through. The worst I have come up against so far, maybe because I expected better, was David Ireland’s Burn. I might try and get this one from the library, though I’m not looking forward to the hard work!

    • It’s certainly not a simple read. The link to Conors’ article that I gave at the end of the review gives a good overview of the book (without all the pages!)

  3. Pingback: August History, Memoir & Biography Roundup | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

  4. Pingback: August 2016 Roundup: Classics and Literary | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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