Jacket Image

Enlarge Image

250 × 190 × 25 mm
304 pages
149 illustrations, 142 in colour
01 Jun 2016
  • £35.00

  • This edition is currently unavailable

Rattling Spears A History of Indigenous Australian Art Ian McLean

Large, bold and colourful, Indigenous Australian art has impressed itself on the contemporary imagination. But it is controversial, dividing the stakeholders from those who smell a scam. Whether the artists are victims or victors, there is no denying their impact in the media and on the art world and collectors worldwide. How did it become the most successful Indigenous art in the world? How did its artists escape the ethnographic and souvenir markets to become players in an art world from which they had been barred? Finely illustrated, this full historical account makes you question everything you were taught about modern and contemporary art.

‘a book so elegantly produced it seems to belong in a white-cube exhibition space . . . Rattling Spears is McLeans attempt to tell the story of the movement from its beginnings through to the variegated indigenous art world of today.’ — The Australian

‘Mcleans radical but 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 aspure, 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 todays 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.’ — Bookforum

‘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 didnt 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

‘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

‘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’ — Choice

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, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh

Show all

Ian Mclean is Senior Research Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Wollongong and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Western Australia. His previous books include Double Desire: Transculturation and Indigenous Art (2014), How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art (2011) and White Aborigines: Identity Politics in Australian Art (1998, reissue 2009).



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