The Dandenong Ranges, just on the edge of Melbourne, is full of Devonshire tea, tourists and the tallest flowing plants in the world. The other day I visited a particularly green and serene bit: William Ricketts Sanctuary. For decades this artist lived on the side of a mountain and dedicated his art and life to the environment and the Indigenous peoples of Australia.
His twin obsessions resulted in his art becoming one with the sanctuary, which is barely touched tree-fern and mountain ash country. His clay sculptures are fused with the natural rock formations and are embedded into the landscape. Where they stand out, they offer a particularly primal window through which to see and understand his mission. He was not Indigenous, but time spent in Central Australia saw him identify with the Pitjantjatjara and Arrernte whose traditions and culture inspired his sculpture.
He clearly depicts an idealised version of himself in his sanctuary work, but mostly his sculptures are of Aboriginal men, women and children. Sometimes, he uses Christianity to convey the idea that the land, its animals and people and advocates like himself, were crucified to a world represented by a bullet crowned figure whose clawed hands wield guns.
These days there are valid concerns about cultural appropriation. However, Ricketts was not appropriating Indigenous culture. His art was his own aesthetic, and he had his own invented symbolism, but he used it to highlight the central place of Aboriginal peoples and their cultures should have in Australia, for a mainly non-Indigenous audience. For some visitors, his works might have been the only valorised and heroic depiction of Aboriginal people they had ever come across. The sanctuary continues to exist as a reminder that Australia once needed this. And still does.
When Ricketts moved to the Sanctuary in 1934, the last frontier massacres of Indigenous people had just occurred the year before, so it’s not unreasonable to suppose when in Central Australia he might have encountered the stories of survivors. To Ricketts, I imagine, how people relate to each other and the land were matters of life and death.
Ricketts sets an example. This is how artists should engage with cultures. It shouldn’t be about taking what is pretty or *mysterious*and co-opting it out of context and making white people the best exponents of aspects of it. Inter cultural exposure should result in engagement, rather than theft. But pop culture mainly presents us with theft. At most what’s presented is Mystic Eastern Pastiche as interpreted by someone like Liam Neeson in Batman Begins, or his slight look-alike in Arrow, and now in Dr Strange, with Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One of Tibet, a Diotima to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Socrates. Sure, a woman, yay for diversity, but nay for white washing.
In mining their 20th century cache for new films, DC and Marvel bring back plenty that’s worthy, entertaining and clearly successful, but also a heap of unexamined colonialism, racism, sexism and cultural appropriation. It might be easier to write new heroes and villains and drop the baggage unless they want to alienate a proportion of their (new potential) audiences. This is one reason Deadpool appeals. I didn’t have to examine how I felt about anything except violence. There was no faux-Eastern setting for an encounter with a white martial arts wizard after an angsty lone trek around the world. Wilson was a dude who underwent bad stuff and became badder in exactly the opposite way to how William Ricketts travelled and worked, but with neither appropriating anything.