More about Savages
An art exhibition remarkably high standard was held in London recently. It consisted of pencil and crayon drawings, abstract patterns and nature-study notes, the work of seven to fourteen year old children of Western Australia. Not European children but black fellows’ offspring. To use one writer’s phrase “the flotsam and jetsam of one of the most backward races in the world, living under desperately miserable conditions, absolutely untaught.” A group of human beings shunned socially and ill-treated physically by their “superior” white brothers.
It would appear at this stage to be simply a picture of little geniuses producing works of art in spite of awful conditions. Reminiscent of the English species starving in garrets. But what of the contradiction the picture points? Man surely only responds to some stimulus, and excels in those things to which he has access. And Aborigines are no exception.
Precisely. These children have come under the influence of two Europeans who treat them kindly, an experience previously unknown to the native Australian. And of greater importance is the fact that they approached the children as teachers, not preachers. Over a period of four years they taught what they could. For conditions were appalling. Very few materials, cowed pupils, and severe climate being only three adverse items. But striving against all this they progressed, concentrating on art needlework and nature-study. The last mentioned was very fruitful for the school was set in land where animals abounded.
As the work progressed, the children’s response became evident. The note-books of eight year-olds would equal the average standard of many London fourteen year-olds. The drawings are really lovely—some are so adult as to almost cause doubt of origin. Perspective of incredible truth and delicate colours are common to all the pictures, as is also, the animated portrayal of kangaroos and men.
It is essentially an intelligent response. Work is balanced, clean and beautiful, the calligraphy amazingly clear and even. When asked by visitors to produce a picture, the children settled to the task with great concentration for as long as two hours. Nor looked up from their desks when people came round and watched them.
Another point of special interest, was the non-acquisitive attitude of these children. Given chalks and paper as presents, they left them in the schoolroom, when going home. It was explained to them that these were personal gifts but this they were unable to appreciate. No doubt as capitalism engulfs these simple creatures, this pleasant trait will quickly disappear.
Opponents might here utter the time-worn argument that conditions and poverty do not affect capacity, that they are no barrier to brilliance. But as socialists maintain, results occur only under suitable conditions. This article tries to show that the experiment in the dry-wastes of Western Australia backs up this contention. Possibly the only pleasant things in life to the Aborigine are the trees and sun and leaping animals, and it is these things about which ideas are expressed in simple pictures and patterns. To express it differently these people respond to a limited environment, sans books, sans houses, sans machinery, sans practically everything, in an intelligent, though limited way. A man who can tell by the appearance of leaves, how long since a kangaroo passed by, is not a cretin, as is proved by the performance of his children when in school.
Evidence has yet to be found of a division of Homo Sapiens which is congenitally backward.
M. L. Brown