Liz Conor. Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women. Crawley: University of Western Australia, 2016. 514 pp. $50.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-74258-807-0.
Reviewed by Sianan Healy (University of Melbourne)
Published on H-ANZAU (February, 2017)
Commissioned by Toby Harper
Historian Liz Conor opens Skin Deep with a photograph of an unnamed Aboriginal woman, taken in the early days of settlement. It is a striking image, powerful and unsettling, and Conor uses it simply and devastatingly in laying out the premise of her excellent book: that settler-colonial knowledge production about Indigenous women was only ever “skin deep”; “an invented system of type-portraits whereby the nation of Australia was imagined as a shared experience” (p. 6). Covering the period from the early days of settler invasion to the mid-twentieth century, Skin Deep undertakes to reveal the ways in which settler imaginings of Indigenous women were profoundly implicated in settler colonialism and to show the centrality of both race and gender to the settler colonial project. Conor succeeds in her aim through an analysis that is both detailed and wide-ranging, sensitive at all times to the complexities of both the images she interrogates and the times in which they were produced.
Conor situates her reading within a framework influenced by the work of such scholars as Homi K. Bhaba, Gayatri Spivak, Patrick Wolfe, Anne McClintock, and Chris Healy, and uses them as a starting point for her analysis of the meanings within the repertoire of images of Aboriginal women that were created for white consumption. These images, she contends, revealed “newcomers’” need for knowledge about Aboriginal women’s lives, rituals, and beliefs; at the same time, they were an example of Wolfe’s “logic of elimination” through their erasure of each portrayed woman’s individual identity. Those identities were “supplanted by types, tropes, obfuscations and sometimes outright lies,” Conor writes. “It is these supplanted imaginings that form the basis for this book. It is a print history of settler impressions of Aboriginal women situated at that most potent juncture of racism and misogyny. It is a book of lies” (p. 27).
The book’s structure is organized around different examples of European representations of Aboriginal femininity: the first chapter looks at early impressions, followed by gender status, maternity, domesticity, sexuality, and appearance (particularly of elders). Each chapter provides a litany of examples of settler representations to support Conor’s argument that gender as well as race was a constituent element in the making of settler-colonial identities. Both were interlinked lenses through which the settler nation-state organized and negotiated its “competing and incomplete differentials of power” (p. 368). Conor’s revelation is the way these formations of identity had to be produced over and over: the breadth and depth of her research reveals an overwhelming number of representations that repeated again and again the same messages about Aboriginal women’s difference. It was through repetition, she demonstrates, that such distortions became entrenched and understood as truth: they “were recirculated again and again, like a discursive tic, in the industrialised and commodified print culture of the coming centuries” (p. 89).
Given that the majority of these representations are negative, their purpose to refute the subject’s personhood and to support their elimination or dispossession, they are in the main powerfully offensive and upsetting. Their republication in this book, therefore, runs the risk of reinstating colonial power over visual access, of causing further hurt. It is an issue that Conor grapples with in her introduction, and an issue that all historians undertaking archival research on marginalized peoples must consider. Conor reaches the conclusion that telling this story and re-sharing these images is necessary in order to rethink the meanings they contain and to intervene in the “tissue of errors” about Aboriginal womanhood that these settler imaginings created.
In aiming to “challenge the amnesia about our history of everyday cultural racism,” Conor decides, it is necessary to take Shino Konishi’s advice to move from “archive-as-source to archive-as-subject” (pp. 36-37). It is a turn that exemplifies the nuanced, critical, and honest approach of this book, in the writing of which Conor situates herself clearly. Conor takes a deeply personal approach to the material she interrogates, regularly acknowledging its distressing nature and its effect on her. She pulls no punches with her writing, exemplified in her last chapter, on images of women elders: “The trope of women elders as unsightly is distressing not only because of the unique and exemplary authority and respect we have come to understand is accorded to Aboriginal elders. This particular form of dehumanising is also painful to witness because of their valiant struggle to protect their children and grandchildren from the worst interventions by white administrators, to pass on their way of being while coping with their own trauma, deprivations and grief. Compounding this is the reverence we feel for our mothers and grandmothers, and the profound and fierce sense of protection we experience as their bodies become frail and vulnerable. For that very frailty to be cast as monstrous—the visual marks of their suffering and endurance, or disfigurement by accident, assault or intervention, or the traces of mourning and maternity—is itself monstrous” (p. 363).
Skin Deep is a timely and important contribution to the literature on representations of race and gender in settler-colonial societies. She demonstrates the power of traditional print media and ephemera in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, its ability to legitimize through constant repetition and reiteration, to transform tropes into fact. In our “post-truth” world of “alternative facts,” heeding Conor’s call to resist and call out such distortions is more imperative than ever.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-anzau.
Sianan Healy. Review of Conor, Liz, Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women.
H-ANZAU, H-Net Reviews.
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