Billy Griffiths reviews 'Rattling Spears: A history of indigenous Australian' art by Ian McLean

Billy Griffiths reviews 'Rattling Spears: A history of indigenous Australian' art by Ian McLean

Rattling Spears: A history of indigenous Australian art

by Ian McLean

NewSouth, $59.99 hb, 296 pp, 9781780235905

This beautifully illustrated book explores the ways in which Indigenous Australians have responded to invasion through art. ‘Where colonists saw a gulf,’ writes art historian Ian McLean, ‘Aborigines saw bridges. They didn’t hesitate to be modern, but on their terms.’

The tension between old and new, tradition and modernity, is evoked in the image of the rattling spears in the title. Before battle, McLean explains, Aboriginal warriors would roll their spears against each other to create ‘a chilling sound that calls ancestors from their sleep’. The sound served to focus the powers of supernatural forces, but it was also ‘a strategic manoeuvre’ to assert authority in the fight. The art that appears in the pages of Rattling Spears is similarly potent: it keeps the past alive and makes claims upon the present.

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Published in November 2016, no. 386
Billy Griffiths

Billy Griffiths

Billy Griffiths is a Melbourne-based writer and historian. He is the author of The China Breakthrough: Whitlam in the Middle Kingdom, 1971 (2012) and co-editor (with Mike Smith) of The Australian Archaeologist's Book of Quotations (2015). His latest book is Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering ancient Australia (2018, Black Inc.).