A. P. Elkin

This review consists of a selection of published work of A P Elkin consisting of 49 publications that were either authored, edited or gives an authoritative introduction to the texts by Elkin. Elkin Published consistently from 1932 – 1979 and during this time also edited two highly significant Australian anthropological journals – ‘Mankind’ and ‘Oceania’. Since Elkins Death in 1979 Key authors such as Tigger Wisse (1985), Ronald and Catherine Berndt (1965), Andrew Markus (1990), Jeremy Long (1992) and Jeffrey Grey (1998) have authored substantial contributions about the life and work of A P Elkin.

The key theories, concepts and ideas of Elkins work are the methods of the Anthropology of Australian Aboriginal people, descriptions of the significance of Aboriginal religion and Spirituality (especially totemism), Political representation of Aboriginal people in Australian society, assimilation of Aboriginal people, the history of Anglican religion in Australia, Aboriginal art as a modernist strategy, and discrete studies of the elements of Aboriginal language and Aboriginal ethnomusicology.

Some of the major issues and debates surrounding Elkins work encompass various debates relating to the social and historical representation of Aboriginal people in Australian society. For the majority of Elkins career Aboriginal people were not recognized as citizens of Australia and were subject to proactively intrusive government intervention into their welfare. Prior to World War 2 Elkin published work relating to Christian religious ritual (1932) as well as the Religious life of Aboriginal people in the Kimberley region of north Western Australia (1932).

Elkins collection of Aboriginal artefacts in many ways begins with his 1928 research in the Kimberley region of Western Australia and these collections formed the basis of several significant aspects of his published work. In 2001 11 Bullroarers acquired by Elkin in 1928 were subsequently repatriated to the modern day members of the Kimberley Aboriginal law and cultural centre due to their high cultural significance and the details of from whom and how they were acquired.

One of the first major studies that resulted from Elkins interest in the religious life of Aboriginal people was the role of totemism and Elkins early work is largely recognized for of the idea of Aboriginal totemic identification and the allocation of totemic signification upon members of an Aboriginal language group that he outline in two major publications ‘the secret life of the Australian Aborigines’ (1932) and ‘studies in Australian totemism’ (1933).

These publications were also significant in that they were published in the same year as his being appointed the Chair of the Anthropology department at the University of Sydney – a position he held for almost 25 years and where he supervised numerous students whose research is also represented in the Macleay Museum collections such as Gerhardt Laeves, Phyllis kaperbery and Ronald and Catherine Berndt.

In 1938 he published an introductory text a highly significant work in relation to the Australian Aboriginal art history “Australian Aboriginal decorative art”. This was a highly significant work in relation to the Australian Aboriginal art history. Fredrick D McCarthy, curator of the Australian Museum produced one of the first significant works in relation to modern Australian Aboriginal art history that treated the traditional painting techniques, styles and methods of Arnhem land artists as a uniquely Australian Art that had existed for thousands of years. (ref Maclean HAICA 2011).

“There were no major private collectors of Aboriginal art before the war, and the few works that were sold were bought either by museums or as ethnographic curios, symbols of an exotic culture that once occupied Australia. A few individuals such as the artist Margaret Preston and the anthropologist A P Elkin, argued for the recognition of Aboriginal art, but they were voices in the wilderness and went largely unheeded.”[1]

In 1938 Elkin edited a work on the structures of Australian Aboriginal languages; this was 36 years before Norman B Tindale produced the first of his maps of Australian Language regions that identified the geographic boundaries of over 300 Australian aboriginal languages in 1974. In 1939 he wrote the foreword and encouraged the work of female anthropologist Phyllis M Kaperbery that dealt with the life of Australian Aboriginal women.

During World War 2 the nature of Elkins work seems to have shifted from a focus on the religious aspects of Aboriginal and Australian culture to the role of the public intellectual and the purpose of Academic administration in the affairs of Australian Aboriginal people. Elkin had been called upon as a public intellectual for comment on numerous issues relating to Aboriginal people since the mid 1930’s by newspapers that were syndicated across Australia and was vocal in his criticism of bad management of Aboriginal people on missions and reserves.

From the early 1940’s Elkin undertook his own version of the British ‘Mass observation’ technique of relying on surveys and correspondence with people from numerous backgrounds to compile evidence of the need for government intervention into public morality and workplace reforms. His editorship of the 1946 publication “A White Australia: Australia’s population problem” consolidated his ideas as published in several works such as “Citizenship for the Aborigines: a national Aboriginal policy.” (1944) and an introductory forward for “Australia’s colored minority: its place in the community” (1947) is indicative of his proactive stance on issues of the assimilation of Australian Aboriginal people into the wider Australian community.

Whereas Elkins role in the development of Aboriginal art in Australia is often overshadowed by his proactive politically motivated assimilation agenda; in this section I will explore his influence in the creation of a significant collection of Aboriginal bark paintings acquired by Ronald and Catherine Berndt in 1946/1947 and his broader support for the development of an appreciation of aboriginal aesthetic in Australian art history in general. This Aboriginal aesthetic was also the basis for Margaret Preston to incorporate a ‘Aboriginal’ colour palette and incorporate elements of aboriginal symbolism and decoration into her paintings and

Clues to his personal preference for Aboriginal art are also indicated through the collections of artefacts he held in personal collections of art and artefacts that were donated to Sydney University in 1979 that are now held in the Macleay Museum and the university of Sydney art gallery. Later a large section of these artefacts would be transferred to the collections of the national Museum of Australia.

As Ian Maclean notes in his essay ‘Aboriginal art and the art world’[2]

“The Young anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt led the push to recognize Aboriginal art as fine art, and for individual artists to be named in their own right. As early as 1942 they proposed the establishment of a government organized Aboriginal art market as a means for Aboriginal people to achieve economic independence. If Namatjira was already showing this was possible, the new mood in anthropology was for so called ‘authentic’ aboriginal art, epitomized by Arnhem Land bark paintings. In the late 1940’s the Australian anthropological journal Oceania, edited by politically influential anthropologist A. P. Elkin, developed a keen interest in Aboriginal art, which was retained into the 1960’s. This interest focused substantially on Arnhem land art which Oceania had hitherto neglected”

As well as chair of anthropology at the University of Sydney Elkins was also a member of nationally focused political advisory bodies such as Association for the Protection of Native Races and an advisory capacity to the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board. Elkin supervised students who were undertaking fieldwork in the Northern Territory and the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Much of his work in relation to Aboriginal cultural practices in the late 1940s and 1950s was based on his student’s research. He encouraged Ronald and Catherine Berndt to acquire bark paintings from the Yirrkala community in 1946/1947 and around 126 of these paintings remain in the Macleay Museum collections at the University of Sydney with the remainder of Berndts collection housed in the Berndt Museum of anthropology in Western Australia.

In 1948 Elkin revisited his first fieldwork himself in the Kimberley region publishing the paper “Pressure flaking in the Northern Kimberley” in the October 1948 journal ‘Man’. In 1949 Elkin advised and supervised the research of his student H J Coate to search for and relocate several Wandjina paintings that had first been described by George Grey in 1838. Elkin considered these significant as they had been described as being painted with blue paint. Elkin conducted some significant research into the use of Blue pigment by the Aboriginal people of the Kimberley region by having sample of the pigment sent to him by Coates for testing at the University of Sydney geology department.

In 1950 Elkin publishes art in Arnhem Land with Ronald and Catherine Berndt and his authority on the art of Aboriginal Australians is coming from a similar background to Australian Artist Margaret Preston. His personal collection of items from his home and office that were donated the University of Sydney after his death in 1979 includes watercolors from the Hermansburg school (although no namatjira’s) wooden artefacts from La Perouse souvenir craftsmen Albert Woodlands and Joe Timberry and he opens significant exhibitions of Aboriginal art at the David Jones exhibition of 1957 curated by Ronald and Catherine Berndt which were later gifted as a foundational collection of Aboriginal art now held at the Art Gallery of NSW.

In the later period of Elkins publishing history he produces several overviews of his work throughout his career that draws on key elements of his research. Works such as ‘Aborigines and citizenship’ (1958), ‘Grafton Elliot Smith: the man and his work’ and ‘Aboriginal Men of High Degree – initiation and sorcery in the World’s Oldest Tradition’ Elkin presents overviews of his work and that of his key mentor in relation to policies on Aboriginal welfare and the comparative analysis of the religious life of pre contact Aboriginal societies and its importance for modern Aboriginal identity.

Elkin wrote little about the burgeoning Aboriginal self determination movement that had begun at his own university with the Freedom Rides in 1965 but privately is noted by activists of the 1972 post tent embassy movement such as Faith Bandler and Roberta Sykes as dismissive of their critical concerns regarding the assimilations agenda he had pro actively asserted.

Elkin can definitely be shown to have played an important part in the recognition of Aboriginal art as a unique artistic aesthetic that is grounded in traditional practice of art making among Aboriginal peoples.

Contemporary Aboriginal artists have often unknowingly appropriated the design aesthetic that arose during the period of Australian modernism that Elkin and his students Ronald and Catherine Berndt championed. However his legacy lies more with the anthropological research into the lives of Aboriginal people and remote communities than it does with the social and political history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander historians and academics today.


[1] (P.22 — P.23 Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge, Howard Morphy. University of Chicago Press)

[2] P.24 Aboriginal fine art, How Aborigines invented the idea of contemporary art. Writings on Aboriginal contemporary art edited and introduced by Ian Maclean