Conference Report on the AILAE Research Forum

Report on the ‘Second Imagined Australia International Research Forum’, Bari, Italy, 2009

By Oliver Haag

Some Australian Studies and Literatures conferences held within Australia suffer from a glaring dilemma: they fail—for several different reasons—to attract a significant number of Indigenous intellectuals. This is true despite the fact that most conference organisers do seek to actively include Indigenous themes. The ‘Association for the Study of Australian Literature’, for example, holds excellent annual conferences, but in the last two years’ conference programmes one can find the names of only a few Indigenous presenters, and not a single as keynote speaker among them. ‘This is because there are not many Indigenous academics, and those few have made their degrees outside the humanities’, as one (white) delegate said to me in Canberra this July. Is this really a sufficient explanation? Not if one leaves the Australian shores:
In June 2009, the second ‘Imagined Australia Research Forum’ was held in Bari, Southern Italy. The forum was organised by the University of Bari and AILAE (Académie Itinérante des Échanges Arts et Langues Européennes), an international non-profit organisation founded and run by Renata Summo-O’Connell and Roberta Trape'. The aim of this newly established organisation is to promote and study the exchanges and connections between Europe and the Australia-Pacific region, with the main focus being on artistic and cultural productions. The theme of the research forum reflected this focus, revolving around ‘borders, theory, art and power in the reciprocal construction of identity between Australia and Europe’. Although the conference theme had no explicit emphasis on ‘race’ and ‘Indigeneity’, the bulk of papers reflected cross-cultural subjects such as the constructions of whiteness, aspects of the relations between Jewish and Indigenous Australians, and a revisiting of Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend in a post-colonial and post-imperial context. Not all, but certainly more than half, of the thirty or so talks involved Indigenous themes; also, there were comparatively many Indigenous presenters, including a keynote. The keynote lecture, delivered by Aileen Moreton-Robinson, analysed the notions of white possession of Indigenous lands, using the example of white (and, in the end, male and heterosexual) Australian beach culture. Jonathan Kimberley and puralia meenamatta (Jim Everett) shared their perspectives on artistic collaboration between Aboriginal Country and Western landscape.

At the risk of over-generalising: Why, then, does a research forum—that takes place on the other side of the world—attract comparatively more Indigenous intellectuals, and non-Indigenous presenters working on Indigenous topics than conferences at home, at more prestigious universities, and, above all, at far lesser travel expenses?

I cannot fully answer this question. Much depends on the organisational skills, connections, and merits of individual persons working tirelessly on the inter-cultural connections between both regions—most noticeably, Renata Summo-O’Connell. Much may also be attributed to coincidence; much, however, is also because of the ethical debates on speaking positions, which are far more evident in Australia than in Europe: Who speaks about (or even for) whom, from what perspective, with what intention? These questions have been frequently addressed in the context of the representation of Indigenous heritage and cultural property within Australia. In the European academy, these issues, though far from completely new, are nevertheless less dominant. This makes it thus much easier for white Europeans than for white Australians to work on Indigenous issues. This alone is already problematic. What is more, in some of the presentations delivered by Europeans, one could detect a tendency to ‘fetishise’ Indigenous cultures to the extent that they had been considered as the ‘true-blue’ epitome of Australia.

In the end, what does it mean to praise this research forum as having attracted so many Indigenous themes and presenters? Does it make me a ‘fetishist’? Does it mean falling into the ‘authenticity’-trap? All I can say is that, as seen from the view of (intrinsically white) power-relations within the academy, Indigenous perspectives and presenters are sorely needed. Not because of being Indigenous per se, but because the plurality of perspectives and worldviews enhances our understanding of the complexity of human interactions. It is from this angle that I wish to bestow my accolade on the conference organisers to have attracted so many Indigenous themes and a respectful number of Indigenous intellectuals to come over to Europe.