Postcolonial Representation of Aboriginal Australian Culture

Location Past to Location Present in National Geographic

How to Cite

Hyndman, D. (2000). Postcolonial Representation of Aboriginal Australian Culture: Location Past to Location Present in National Geographic. M/C Journal, 3(2).
Vol. 3 No. 2 (2000): Culture
Published 2000-05-01

Representation of Aboriginality in National Geographic

In trafficking images of cultural difference, National Geographic has an unrivalled worldwide reach to over 37 million people per issue. Over the past 25 years, 48 photographs of Aboriginal Australians have appeared in 11 articles in the magazine. This article first examines how the magazine has exoticised, naturalised and sexualised Aboriginal Australians. By deploying the standard evolutionary model, National Geographic typically represents Aboriginal Australians as Black savages relegated to the Stone Age. In the remote outback "Arnhem Land Aboriginals Cling to the Dreamtime" (Scollay & Tweedie 645). In "Journey into Dreamtime" (Arden & Abell 8) an Aboriginal man is "triumphant with his kill of a wild turkey [and] leads a small group of Aborigines who have returned to some of the old ways of their nomadic ancestors in the Great Sandy Desert". The article concludes that the Stone Age encounter with modernity depicted in the magazine became a journey through time from location past to location present.


The world of the Aboriginal Australians is male through the eyes of National Geographic. This stems from the Western cultural pattern that assigns things masculine to the cultural and things feminine to the natural realm (Ortner). The male Aboriginal performer of an initiation ritual in "Leapingin tribute" (Scollay & Tweedie 656-7) is represented as rooted in tradition and living in a sacred yet superstitious world. Portraits abound of men with painted faces, as in "Surging energy" (Scollay & Tweedie 648). Male finery and self-display become salient markers, Aboriginal "Boys summon courage" in male initiation focussing on bloodletting (Scollay & Tweedie 656). Such images convey the impression that the region is one of nature, taboo, danger and adventure and that it is a land out of time. The enchantment with ritual stems from it being a key to the past and indicative of photographer and writer having travelled through space to travel through time, similar to the connection made by Victorian evolutionary anthropologists last century (see Fabian).


The naturalised Aboriginal Australians appearing in National Geographic are characterised by having timeless societies and personalities, what Wolf identifies as people without history. Routine location narratives naturalise Aboriginal Australians through their remote landscapes and seascapes ("blazing bushfire", Scollay & Tweedie 652-3; "conjuring an image as old as his ancestors", "scorched in one season, sodden in the next" Newman & Abell 3-9).

In the West the cultural appropriation of nature is the object of labour, whereas for Aboriginal Australians it is the subject of labour. Aboriginal men are hunters ("triumphant with his kill", Arden & Abell 9; "the earth and sea of their own accord furnish them with all the things necessary for life", Newman & Abell 14-5). Thus, in National Geographic the productive world of work further naturalises the Aboriginal 'Other'.


Naked Black women provide the hallmark National Geographic imagery of the sexualized 'Other'. By purveying the nude Aboriginal female, the magazine develops Western ideas about race, gender and sexuality, subcategorised in each case as black, female and unrepressed (Lutz & Collins 115). Women are white, men are Black and Black women are invisible in popular visual representations of motherhood in Western culture. In trafficking in photographs of Black women for an overwhelmingly white readership, National Geographic is clearly linking narrative threads of gender and race (Lutz & Collins166). As the readers' gaze focusses on the Aboriginal child they become the site for dealing with racial anxieties through creating the Black love object ("an appetite for learning", Scollay & Tweedie 654; "mud mates", Ellis & Austen 8-9). National Geographic's nickname for mother-child photos is 'tits and tots' (Meltzer) and they are a romantic staple in the magazine. Aboriginal mothering in "marriages of diplomacy" is idealised as the foundation of human social life (Scollay & Tweedie 650-1). However, with "seven of Johnny Bungawuy's 11 wives and a handful of his 52 children" this marriage is exotic enough to make cultural difference an issue because it depicts the unusually large number of plural marriage partners available to Aboriginal men in their practice of polygyny.

The attribution of erotic qualities and sexual license to Aboriginal women is a result of displaying their bodies for close examination. The naked Aboriginal women in "marriages of diplomacy" represent the nude stylised as ethnographic fact (Scollay & Tweedie 650-1). The addition of a woman in the "marriages of diplomacy" photograph commoditises the practice of polygyny and illustrates that women have traditionally been seen as objects to be possessed, owned and adornments to the lives of men (Pollack).

Location Past to Location Present

Idealisation of the Aboriginal 'Other' allows for detemporalisation to be played out in alluring images of a simpler, natural Aboriginal world only now tentatively facing the throes of modernisation. Social Darwinism counterpoises superstition/ritual with science/technology and darker skin/exotic clothes with lighter skin/Western clothes. The Aboriginal guide bearing a "striking resemblance to his counterpart on the Burke-Wills journey" facilitates a form of ancestor worship that relates to what Rosaldo calls imperialist nostalgia for the passing of what we ourselves have destroyed (Judge & Scherschel 165). Photographs of the Aboriginal Australians are organised into a story about cultural evolution couched in normative discourse of modernisation and development as progress.

In photographs contrasting the premodern with the modern the commodity stands for the future: "soda, soap, and spears in the arms of an [Aboriginal] father and daughter demonstrate their coexistence with white society" (Scollay & Tweedie 662). While for the Aboriginal father in "keeping faith with past and future" his "son enters an era that will inevitably propel his people into modern society" (MacLeish & Nebbia 171). Commodities in these contrasting representations are to be seen simply as a stage on the way to Westernisation. Dynamism, change and agency are apportioned to the Western centre, while Aboriginal Australians are just responding to the onslaught of modernisation on the periphery.

Aboriginal masculinisation of modernity is situated in a series of photographs depicting the expansive frontier outback where Aboriginal stockmen are content to muster the cattle of white station owners. In "boiling the red dust" the Aboriginal stockman strums his guitar but sometimes "lapses into tradition and roams on walkabout" (Walker & Scherschel 457). Another Aboriginal stockman, in "saga of beef or bust", "uses his tracking ability to run down strays and cleanskins -- unbranded beasts" (MacLeish & Nebbia 161). "Other than his boots and a jug of water all he owns is rolled into the swag", the Aboriginal stockman must compete with the modern helicopter ("pesky as a giant fly", MacLeish & Stanfield 165); alternatively, "with a wager on the line, an Aboriginal stockman whoops it up at the annual Bedourie Race Meeting" (Ellis & Austen 3). The idealised image is one of the rugged yet happy lives of the Aboriginal stockman in transition to modernity.

Social evolutionary theory "saw women in non-Western societies as oppressed and servile creatures, beasts of burden, chattels who could be bought and sold, eventually to be liberated by 'civilisation' or 'progress', thus attaining the enviable position of women in Western society" (Etienne & Leacock 1). Aboriginal feminisation of modernity is told through stories about the premodern helpmate to husband work of Aboriginal women. "Sharing a 'cuppa' at the start of their day" is gendered with vulnerability, primitivity, superstition and the constraints of tradition (Newman & Abell 24-5). The ambivalent message represented in "sharing a 'cuppa' at the start of their day" is complicated by the Aboriginal woman's stockman partner being white. Western ideological understanding of women's work has changed since WWII from helpmate to husband to self-realisation and independence (Chafe). However, images of Aboriginal women in modern work are conspicuously absent.

Dispossessed Aboriginal prospectors earn money by 'yandying' ("Paddy Blair's no Irishman", MacLeish & Stanfield 166) -- "winnowing by tossing handfuls of ore into the wind to separate dirt from tin or gold" and 'noodling' -- "poking through rubble" ("selling water and renting bulldozers", Moore & Tweedie 569). Abject "down-and-outs addicted to cheap, poisonous wood alcohol" end up as dispossessed fringe-dwelling 'goomies' in Redfern ("matron saint", Starbird & Madden 224-5).

Resistance through situationally motivated undertaking by Indigenous people against expropriation of land and resources is rarely represented in the media (see Drinnon), and National Geographic first attempts such a representation in the 1980s with "heads of several clans" (Scollay & Tweedie 653). Aboriginal men attempt to block a government mining survey crew. But the six Aboriginal men gaze off in different directions and only one is clearly focussed on something in the frame, thus the assembled men assume a disconnected, uncoordinated look.

In the 1990s National Geographic story "The Uneasy Magic of Australia's Cape York Peninsula", Aboriginality is equated with caring for the land (Newman & Abell). Aboriginal peoples of Cape York Peninsula are portrayed as conservators valuable for their preservation of biocultural diversity ("the richlytextured landscape", Newman & Abell 17). Aboriginal "white sand people" of Cape York Peninsula are "on a sacred mission" when they "return an ancestor's skull to their homeland at Shelbourne Bay (Newman & Abell 32-3). After years of frustrated efforts to win back their lost domain, the peninsula's native people are at last gaining ground". Aboriginal Australian uses of land and resources are idealised as non-destructive and caring in contrast to rapacious postcolonial development aggression. National Geographic images of Aboriginal Australians have moved from the exoticised, naturalised and sexualised location past. Images in the location present of Cape York mirror the postcolonial transition from Aboriginal dispossession informed by terra nullius to their contemporary empowerment informed by native title.

Author Biography

David Hyndman