TEXT | Many geographies

Posted on 07/02/2012


My attention is split across a few projects which all give me pause to consider space and place. Yesterday I was briefed about my semester’s tutoring assignment which addresses urban analysis in written and visual forms. Because the students will be looking at cities across the world, I have an opportunity to learn more about the dynamics that shaped cities in different continents. I know very little – except in general terms of conflict, trade, disaster, culture and colonisation – about the cities of Africa and the Middle East. So here I was presented with a cue to track with some postcolonial thinking about these cities and their context. A Matthew Gandy essay about Lagos, for example, presents a bleak picture of corruption, poverty and urban decay as a colonial legacy.

This thinking about postcolonial geography, now, has become meshed with some other work I am doing which is focused on the Indigenous heritage in mining impacted areas. While addressing history and heritage, it’s difficult to disentangle the research from geography. It’s interesting that in much of the work I have seen to date – admittedly fewer than a dozen heritage reports – that examines cultural significance, the focus is on sites rather territories or regions. Sites, in a cultural sense, are usually linked. They are part of a network or networks that shape the cultural landscape. Regional or territorial (spatial) thinking would recognise the pathways, possible hierarchies and possibly a system for inscribing and arranging the landscape. It would recognise that part of their significance is their connection to other sites. A focus on individual sites removes that site from its relationship with other sites and the meaning of the landscape and can leave them vulnerable e.g. Burrup Peninsula. Such a process of connecting rather than disconnecting recognises an Aboriginal geography, which is formed of knowing the land rather than by aimless wandering (which seems to be the suggestion in some texts). This is, as Ziauddan Sardar argues, a kind of traditional knowledge, an Indigenous science. Land rights are grounded in this scientific knowledge.  

I have had several engagements with the Aboriginal art sector and Aboriginal artists, whose work emerges from lived experience and traditional knowledge and can sometimes be understood as landscape or as map. Those artworks offer a particularly cultural perspective of the land, of territory and of embodied knowledge. While the Western gaze tends to appropriate their spiritual values and stories, land rights are also imbued in those works. De Certeau argues against the dismantling of circuits of meaning, stating to remove one element of the circuit for focus is to destabilise both the circuit and the meanings. There is a tendency with heritage assessments, where significance means both the removal of from a circuit ot meaning, to authorise the destruction of the ‘insignificant, ordinarily on the basis of archeaological examination which is pitted against the oral record of traditional owners and other registered parties. Issues of proof and evidence – just as in Native Title – are complicated and seemingly weighted against traditional owners. In asserting an Aboriginal geography, multiple geographies are recognised. These reflected the values, priorities and land use of language and tribal groups as custodians of territory. As so many historians, artists and theorists have argued, a colonial mindset and ideology – a preoccupation with dispossession – remains embedded and empowered in Australia’s postcolonial condition.

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