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The Hon Peter Garrett AM MP
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts

Remarks at the opening of the Culture Warriors exhibition

American University Museum, Katzen Arts Center, Washington DC
10 September 2009

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It falls upon me to officially open Culture Warriors but before I do that can I add to Ambassador Richardson's welcome my own welcome on behalf of the Government.

Can I also say to the artists how good it is that you are here. They have travelled, in some instances, a long way from warm country to colder country and I know that that journey can be a long and a difficult one and so it is fantastic that you are here. And I think you are going to be speaking on Saturday to people here and I reckon there will be a lot of people that will want to come and hear you talk about your work.

Can I acknowledge the generosity of the University and thank Dr Kerwin and all his staff for the assistance they have given to the embassy and can I also commend Brenda Croft, who you will hear from in a minute, for the curatorial work that she has done on Culture Warriors.

I think it has been difficult for us to understand even when we grow up in Australia, what an extraordinary feat of creativity the work that Indigenous artists produce actually is. Difficult to understand because of the history of our country and the dispossession of people from their land. Difficult to understand because it really was only some 40 or so years ago, perhaps a little bit longer, that a group of traditional men in the Western Desert near a small town called Papunya, first started painting on canvas with acrylic paints, having previously rendered their stories - their cultural stories - in the sand. Difficult to understand because not only is this work which has a very direct and strong cultural resonance but because young Indigenous artists produce work which not only is referential to culture but speaks very clearly to their own experiences and today.

And it is the case that the works have got a dimension which I think is very rich and which will reward viewers and those who want to seek out and learn and understand something about this art. It is, in some cases, steeped in ceremony and ritual - ceremony and ritual that we don't have that great command of anymore in Western society. They are full of meaning and not only a meaning which is applied on other people's meanings or referencing other art works, which is quite often the case with modern work that is produced today. I find it a bit difficult to appreciate it unless I understand what it is that the artist is trying to tell me. You'll have no difficulties in trying to understand what the artist is trying to tell you in some of this work.

It is work that is rich in imagery. Yes, it is provocative at times. It is innovative work. But to describe it in the words of one Australian writer, a key feature of the work that Aboriginal people produce is that there is a wide, grand current of creativity that runs through it.

Whilst there is much that we can be proud of and much to share in our creative offerings, and Dennis spoke to some of those things - it would be beaut to have the Australian Chamber Orchestra here and I think Cate Blanchett is getting rave reviews for Street Car already in Sydney - I think the fact is that Indigenous art arguably stands over and above all of our cultural work and particularly our cultural exports. It is the most important, certainly the most distinctive and most authentic creative expression that emanates from Australia. And you will have an opportunity to see some of that in this exhibition.

My view, and it is a personal view, is that it is our finest art. There is a prodigious level of thought and creativity and imagination that goes into it and it shows no signs of abatement. And so we are very, very keen to share this work that you have at this exhibition.

I should point out quickly how important the work that artists produce is both to themselves and to their communities - particularly from artists in remote or regional areas of our country where there may not be many opportunities for employment. This is art that is generating somewhere between $400 and $500 million a year. It makes a very important economic contribution to communities and of course it greatly increases the pride that communities have in the artists themselves.

And in some instances, including some of the artists who are here today who are highly respected in their communities - very knowledgeable in law and culture - the art is a focal point for that expression of law and culture.

Finally just to say that the Australian Government is strongly committed to recognising and protecting Indigenous cultural heritage. Indigenous culture is important to Aboriginal people and to their way of life, but it also lies at the heart of our nation and whilst this exhibition is reminding us, particularly some of the work, of the daily struggles that people are engaged in, of elements of our history including some of the troubled parts of our history that we want to work to redress and move on from, it is still the case that all of this work and the creativity and the spirit that lies in it is quite key to our identity as Australians.

There is a great imaginary outpouring happening here and it is a real privilege to know that the artists have come here and for us to see some of their work up here, I am very, very proud.

So let me finish by saying that we are going to see the stories of people who paint from the heart, with a deep connection to their country and to their culture and who feel deeply the situation and the place that they grew up in but yet I think they can speak to all of us.

So it is my very great pleasure to be officially opening Culture Warriors.

Thank you


Commonwealth of Australia