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Distributed for Reaktion Books

Rattling Spears

A History of Indigenous Australian Art

Distributed for Reaktion Books

Rattling Spears

A History of Indigenous Australian Art

Large, bold, and colorful, indigenous Australian art—sometimes known as Aboriginal art—has made an indelible impression on the contemporary art scene. But it is controversial, dividing the artists, purveyors, and collectors from those who smell a scam. Whether the artists are victims or victors, there is no denying the impact of their work in the media, on art collectors and the art world at large, and on our global imagination. How did Australian art become the most successful indigenous form in the world? How did its artists escape the ethnographic and souvenir markets to become players in an art market to which they had historically been denied access? Beautifully illustrated, this full stunning account not only offers a comprehensive introduction to this rich artistic tradition, but also makes us question everything we have been taught about contemporary art.

272 pages | 130 color plates, 20 halftones | 7 1/2 x 9 3/4 | © 2016

Art: Art--General Studies

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“Mclean’s radical hut commonsense approach is to show how indigenous artists responded to and engaged with modernity, beginning with Captain Cook anchoring off the coast in 1770. Mclean treats contemporary indigenous artists not as ‘pure,’ to be kept safe from Western culture, but as actively engaged with modernism, and in fact quite successful at making a place for their art in today’s world, while operating in both modern and traditional temporal frames. He deploys current critical terminology fluidly, insisting on a transcultural context for the art, while also explaining the ‘Dreaming,’ the still-evolving mythopoeic sagas about ancestral beings and spirits that animate indigenous thought. He is clear-eyed about the roles that marketing, ambitious anthropologists, and cannily entrepreneurial indigenous artists played in the late-twentieth-century marketing of this work. The text is illustrated by a spare but well-chosen selection of nicely printed reproductions.”


"The best, most comprehensive, accessible, and detailed survey of a complex and beguiling field of study that I have yet come across. It is an outstanding achievement."

Sydney Review of Books

"A book so elegantly produced it seems to belong in a white-cube exhibition space. . . . Rattling Spears is McLean's attempt to tell the story of the movement from its beginnings through to the variegated indigenous art world of today."


"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 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. . . . The art that appears in the pages of Rattling Spears is similarly potent: it keeps the past alive and makes claims upon the present. . . . The book never ceases to be engaging, and it gathers momentum over the course of the narrative."

Australian Book Review

"Provides what instructors of indigenous Australian art have long been waiting for: a textbook on the genre. Though one can find a multitude of museum and exhibition catalogues and books on the art of specific regions of Australia, this is the first book to provide comprehensive coverage of the unfolding of indigenous art across time and place, across styles and borders, and across cultures. . . . Clearly organized and well written, the content is theoretical and factual, and McLean supports the discussion with excellent illustrations. One of the most important publications on the topic to date. Highly recommended."


Rattling Spears: A History of Indigenous Australian Art is the first comprehensive art historical account of this fascinating topic. It tells a clear and compelling story of the complex development of indigenous art in Australia, from the first encounters between indigenous and European explorers in the later eighteenth century right up to the present, as this ‘contact art’ manifests itself as one of the major movements within contemporary world art.”

Terry Smith, University of Pittsburgh

"McLean’s highly readable and absorbing book [is] a fine example of a postcolonial analysis at work, and a compelling rereading of the power, impact, and enduring appeal of a vast, fascinating, and complex realm of Australian visual and cultural expression."

Joanna Gilmour, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Table of Contents

                1 Origin stories: The dreamtime in Botany Bay, 1770
                2 Indigenous art and empire in Sydney, 1788-1830
                3 Post-contact indigenous art in the Australian colonies, 1835-1900
                4 Indigenous art in white Australia, 1900-1970
                5 The invention of indigenous contemporary art, 1970-1990
                6 Remote masters, 1985-2015
                7 Post-identity: Urban indigenous art
Conclusion: A theory of indigenous art in the age of modernity
Photo Acknowledgements

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