The effects of colonialism have been felt within Indigenous communities across the globe for centuries. One component of this colonialism is the racial stereotyping of the Indigenous communities from the coloniser. This essay will explore the ways in which contemporary Indigenous artists utilise humour, focusing on Australian Indigenous artists. In turn, a comparison will be made with their Canadian counter-parts. I will show that there is indeed a similarity to the way artists from these communities respond to racial stereotypes and colonialism, and that the use of humour is paramount in unpacking these pre-existing notions.
Images of Indigenous persons, created during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are indicative of the Colonial Gaze.1 As such, they have contributed to the racial stereotyping of colonised people. Sugrue agrees by arguing that, ‘These images empower a colonial narrative by emphasising that Indigenous peoples are subjugated, disempowered, and in the process of inevitable assimilation.’2 These photographs and paintings cement this position and serves to Other them in the process.
Canadian artist Terrance Houle, who is of Blackfoot Indian heritage, responds amusingly to the Othering he and other Indigenous Canadians face. The work titled Urban Indian #7 shows Houle in full powwow regalia, shopping in the produce aisle of a supermarket. This composition was part of a series of five images originally installed on billboards at the Byward Market in Ottawa, Canada. They presented Houle dressed in regalia as he undertook ordinary activities in his daily life. In this series, Houle is commenting on the fact that he is always an Indigenous person, but that being an Indigenous person means that you are Othered. He is Othering himself (dressing in the full regalia in the context of day to day to life) and in the process elucidates the non-Indigenous audience to the ridiculousness of this Othering. The same method of satire can be seen in Australian Indigenous art as well.
In creating a dialogue with racial stereotypes, Indigenous artists constantly reference or appropriate colonial paintings and photographs. As Anderson comments ‘Artists, in drawing upon their lived cultural experience, may re-work or confront dimensions of the colonial imagination.’3 These references unpack an Indigenous understanding of the colonial visual language. Brisbane-based Indigenous Australia artist Megan Cope suggests that Indigenous people are born politicised and that is why much of their artwork is politically charged.4 This understanding is an important one because it has been left out, until recently, of the historical visual narrative. Further, Indigenous artists are not only de-constructing the colonial past but they are also using it to construct or explore both their own individual and communal identities.
It appears that groups with a long history of oppression seem to have a reputation for being funny. This can be seen in the comedy of such groups as the Irish, African Americans, and Jewish people.5 Indigenous Australians also have such a history. Neale contends they acquired the ability to ‘Dismantle racist humour, adapt it to their own purposes and fire it right back.’6 Typically, subversion plays a part in Indigenous humour. This type of humour creates a place for individuals to acknowledge uncomfortable circumstances and allows for a dialogue that is non-threatening and often healing. This, in turn, enables an Indigenous understanding and also allows Indigenous people to come to terms with the histories of oppression and displacement. Holt argues that humour enables the ‘Unpalatable truths’7 to be communicated effectively. Alternatively, Neale argues that hostile condemnation would likely be met with umbrage whereas