Hypothetical: The Hand that Signed the Painting


The Wasp in the Bottle



The year is 1998. Times are tough. The rising tide of protectionism around the world has put the squeeze on Australia's economy. Its exclusion from European and American trade blocs re-ignites the republican cause and Australia's need to locate itself in the Asian region. The Federal Coalition, nearing the end of its first term in government, is busy closing deals with Indonesia. The Indonesians seem to be softening a little on the thorn of East Timor but still perceive Australia as run by colonials new to the region. Then along comes a great clarification.

We go back to 1985, when Professor Holmes of the Anthropology Department at James Cook University is awarded a government grant to trace the Macassan settlements in northern Australia. The Macassans are a sea-faring people from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. They traded with Aboriginal groups in the top-end centuries before British colonisation. Holmes is particularly intrigued by the fate of Macassans who were marooned in Australia after their voyages were outlawed in 1907. He manages to trace one very enterprising trader to the suburb of Frankston, Melbourne. There he finds the Dekkers, a typical suburban family oblivious to their exotic ancestry. This news is particularly fascinating to the eldest, John Dekker, a failed sculpture student. He decides to find out more about his heritage.

Sulawesi feels just like home. Locals welcome Dekker into their hearts as the descendent of a revered trader thought lost at sea. Not only do they teach him their language, music and dance, but they also initiate him into their secret ship-building techniques. In appreciation of their confidence in him, Dekker teaches them how to use acrylic paints. One young woman, named Bala-jawaya, takes to the medium with great verve and produces work of stunning originality.

The novel emerges

My Frankston Bugis coverExcited by this discovery, Dekker returns to Frankston and begins obsessively reconstructing his Macassan heritage. With his secret knowledge, he builds a penisi, the traditional high-prowed Macassan vessela wonder of ship-building. He documents this feat in a novel titled My Frankston Bugis. (We should say at this point that bugis is the alternative name for `Macassan'thus the expression `bogey-man'.)

Louise Adler, you receive a letter in the post. Let's hear what it says.

Adler: Would you be interested in publishing it?

>> wins Vogel award

>> readers report: better than The Shipping News

Morag Fraser, one of your respected reviewers, Hubert Roos, is inspired by the novel and sends in a review for publication in Antipodes. Let's hear an extract:

Fraser: Would you have any problems in publishing such a review?

>>Dekker in Macassan costume on the front cover?

Roos' judgment is vindicated as My Frankston Bugis goes on to win a swag of literary prizes.

The art emerges

Capitalising on his success, Dekker attempts to interest an art gallery in the work of Bala-jawaya.

Schwartz: What would you need to make a decision whether or not to show her work?

>> Image on the cover of the novel

>>Article in FlashArt

>> Recommendation from Jeff Koons

McKenzie: Robyn McKenzie, as editor of PostModern Painters, a writer named Liz Kirkman approaches you to publish her review: this time of Bala-jawaya's first solo show, titled McAsia. She's terribly excited about the discovery of a new indigenous art and speaks enthusiastically about its sheer beauty.

Will you take it?

>> It turns out that an essential part of the work is the way the artist seeks permission from the `elders' of corporations for permission to reproduce their `sacred symbols', just as we would approach an Aboriginal group for permission to use their motifs.

>>Is there anything else that would influence your decision?

Ok, you're interested. Shall I read you an excerpt from Liz Kirkman's review?

The reversal

Well, who would have anticipated the mania for all things Macassan that sweeps Australia in the last few years of the millennium. Ujung Pendang replaces Bali as the most popular travel destination outside Australia. KFC offers a range of Macassan Spiced Chicken. But among all the conferences, study-groups, dance clubs, perhaps the most impressive effect of all is the Macassan boat races, where locally made penisi plough the waters in an impressive display of craft and dexterity.

Meanwhile, My Frankston Bugis is warmly received by Indonesians. They're intrigued. By showing Frankston through Macassan eyes, Dekker has given Indonesians a way of identifying with Australian life. Film rights have been sold and the first co-production between Australia and Indonesia is in process.

As for Bala-jawaya, the success of her work reaches Ken Done proportions. Her designs are appearing everywhere in tea-towels, t-shirts and screen savers. There are even calls to appoint her as official artist of the Sydney Olympicsbetter than the old world capitalism of Charles Billich.

Then, as you've been expecting, comes the sensation. On the eve of the Olympic games, Dekker appears on the Ray Martin show. Let's hear from a transcript of the interview:

The literary response

Adler: You're watching the Ray Martin show and your heart sinks. What do you do?

Adler: Your phone rings. It's the Indonesian ambassador. He's polite, but tense. He says Dekker has violated their trust by first posing as a Macassan in order to obtain their secret ship-building recipe, and then exposing their private knowledge to the world. He wants you to withdraw the book from circulation. Forthcoming trade discussions scheduled to take place on an aircraft over Macassar are in jeopardy. What do you say to him?

Adler: You run into your friend Robert Richter in a local café. You ask him for advice.

Richter: What do you say to Louise?

Fraser: You get a distraught email from Hubert Roos, claiming that his credibility is in tatters. He wants you to run an editorial denouncing Dekker. He pleads with you to stand by him. What will you do?

The art world response

Meanwhile, suspicion turns to Bala-jawaya's art work. In a official media release, Dekker announces that although the works were personally painted by Bala-jawaya, their composition was determined by himself. In response to confusion about the origin of these works, their value on the art market plummets.

Schwartz: Your phone is running hot. A collector who has paid $6000 for a Bala-jawaya acrylic painting wants her money back saying its worthless now. What would you say to her?

Dekker, unperturbed, asks for a new exhibition, still under Bala-jawaya's name. Would you give him one?

Now, just when you thought the worst was over, a deputation of Macassans arrives on your doorstep, claiming to have been taken for a ride by Dekker, and angry that their culture has been trivialised and the real injustice perpetrated by industrialists overlooked. What do you say to them?

McKenzie: What kind of article would you commission to cover this scandal? A specialist in Baroque painting is champing at the bit to write a scathing attack on the Liz Kirkmanwould you let him at her?

The legal action: Roos

Richter: Word's got around that Louise has spoken with you about the Dekker case. You're in chambers, about to go to court, and there's a knock at your door. It's Hubert Roos. He's in a desperate state. He claims his reputation is in tatters, not only as a reviewer, but also as President of the Oceana Book Club whose members are angry at being duped. Can you give him a legal means of bringing Dekker to justice?

Fricke: In your experience as a judge, how do you think that argument would hold up in court? What are your concerns?

Adler: The heat's on Dekker. You get a call from a respected ABC talk show to appear in defense of My Frankston Bugis. Would you appear? What would you say?

Fraser: Roos is running a newspaper advertisement denouncing the author of My Frankston Bugis for sabbotaging Australia literary culture. He asks if you'll add your name its list of signatures. Will you?

The legal action: Kirkman

Richter: This time it's Liz Kirkman at the door. She's heard you're a bit of a specialist in this area. She sees Dekker as just another white man using indigenous peoples as pawns in their theoretical games. She's especially incensed at his sexual relationship with Bala-jawaya.

She starts talking to you about `intellectual rape'. She claims Dekker is screwing around with people's mindsusing art as a Trojan Horse for his own attack on `liberal' thinking.

Is there a legal avenue for her personal anger?

Do the Macassan people have a case against Dekker?

Fricke:What would you make of Robert's arguments?

Schwartz: Do you feel inclined to drop Bala-jawaya now that things are getting hot?

McKenzie: Fearing that the courts will not bring Dekker to justice, Kirkman wants you to run a special issue on the whole affair, exposing the fraud and vindicating the rights of indigenous peoples. What do you say to her?


Well, Dekker and Bala-jawaya stick to their guns and manage to survive the anti-Macassar reaction. What they've lost in the mass market, they've gained as art world celebrities. Their petard is hoist, though, when someone else starts exhibiting under the name Bala-jawaya. Hubert Roos and Liz Kirkman have decided to fight fire with fire. Can Dekker stop them? That, ladies and gentlemen, is the question another scenario. Thank you.

Dede Pol © 1996
Last modified 27 Apr 2003
This product is assisted by the Commonwealth Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.

If anyone interested in using a hypothetical scenario for an interactive CD-ROM narrative, I am open to offers.