Men in Mourning
“Men in mourning” 2012; printed 2014 ©Maree Clarke National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2014

The grounded material reality of relationships in Aboriginal Cultures

By Oliver Damian

Karen Martin’s article “Ways of knowing, being and doing: A theoretical framework and methods for indigenous and indegenist re-search” made me aware that the ontology and epistemology of the Quandamooka people are primarily relational. It’s all about relations between entities of particular people, land, plant, animals, the environment and spirituality. This is a rich contrast to the stark, clinical, atomistic objective ontology and epistemology of Western civilisation..

I particularly like the protocol for introducing one’s self to others by giving information about one’s cultural location so that connections can be made. This is in stark contrast to the current plague on western thought where one group of people label each other as progressive versus conservative. They do this not to make connections but for exactly the opposite reason of knowing who to ‘unfriend’. In the current climate of western politics, anyone who does not subscribe to a particular set of ‘either progressive’ or ‘conservative’ as prescribed by the pundits are shunned and disconnected from and sometimes even treated as the enemy. This can only lead to further polarisation. These things don’t end well as what we’ve seen in history.

However rich this Quandamooka ontology may be, it will remain foreign to anyone who is not raised Quandamooka. It is very unique, particular and subjective. Thus there can not really be a totally indigenous method of research since the kind of university research we know is primarily an objective and western one.

There is value to the western objective ways of research that enables comparisons to be made between different ontologies and epistemologies. Martin’s way of bridging the subjectivity of indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing with western qualitative research methods is an exciting one. It may just open to the rest of the world, a richer and truer understanding of one of the oldest ongoing civilisations on earth while allowing these indigenous peoples to have more control over their lives and futures.

“Immaterial Land” by Brian Martin, chapter 13 of the book “Carnal knowledge: towards a ‘new materialism’ through the arts” further cements this contrast between the Western knowledge of enligthenment and empiricism very much based on the metaphor of light compared to real-world art and ideology of Aboriginal culture based on the metaphor of land and country.

According to Martin, in western thought, ideology is very much an abstract notion, an imagination that is divorced from reality. Art is something that is in museums. This creates a cultural amnesia that divorces the ideal from the real. He talks about Heidegger’s thing in itself, and how art reveals the essence of the thing by focusing on the thing in itself. Each thing has a standing reserve, a potential which true art can become actual. In Aboriginal culture, this standing reserve rests in the notion of a country where all things are extracted through memory and practice. In this way of seeing, aboriginal works of art are not just iconic or symbolic signifiers, they are indexical to the real thing. By engaging with the art we get to experience the real thing. The artwork materialises the immaterial cultural ideology of a people. This made me understand why the elders in the SBS documentary film “Putuparri and The Rainmakers” cried when they stepped on the large canvas painting of their lands. To them, it was not a representation of their land. It was their land.


  1. Martin, B. 2013, ‘Immaterial Land’ in B. Bolt & E Barrett (eds), Carnal Knowledge: Towards a New Materialism Through the Arts, IB Tauris, London, pp.185-204.
  2. Martin, K. 2003, ‘Ways of knowing, being and doing: A theoretical framework and methods for indigenous and indigenist re‐search’, Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 27 no. 76, pp. 203-214.