Samson and Delilah or : art as a remnant of sustainability in a rough world

Samson and Delilah, directed by australian filmmaker Warwick Thornton in 2009, is a movie about two lost individuals in the first place. Samson and his girlfriend Delilah, both coming from an Aboriginal community near Alice Springs, central Australia, struggle to lead a life in dignity. Based in a government-controlled Aboriginal community with his brothers, it seems like Samson’s life in its precarious surrounding remains the same day after day, without any prospect of change. The lack of drive and events leads the young man to petrol-sniffing, despite his love for music and his interest in the young Delilah, a quiet and sensitive girl that also lives in the community with her grandmother. After Deliliah got blamed for her grandmother’s death and Samson got beaten up by his brothers for having tried to shut his band up, they both drive away with a stolen car. Samson and Delilah find themselves drawn to each other in this common act of despair but also in their emerging hope to leave their old life behind and go find a deeper purpose in their existence elsewhere.

Delilah and Samson become outcasts in their village.

The exploitation of cultural heritage and artistic expression

An outstanding, yet discrete aspect of the movie is the artistic practice of its protagonists. Delilah is seen painting several times, along with her grandmother. The old Aboriginal woman makes allusions to specific stories or even myths by singing a song, which is an interesting parallel to the sacred legends the Papunya Tula artists from the Western Desert art movement believed in. As it is known, the Aboriginal artists were mediators of sacred legends, stories to those only the chosen ones had access. They transfered their stories through their visual language. The dot-painting-style of Deliliah’s paintings also reminds the spectator of the fact that he or she is currently watching Aboriginal artists from the Western Desert. The dot-painting, known as one of the characteristics of Western Desert art are shown on her works in process. Delilah’s and her grandmother’s artistic output seems the only thing that spreads positivity and self-expression in the monotone setting of their nowhere leading circumstances. From time to time, a white man brings canvases and paints to the remote community and takes away their paintings. This is a direct reflection of the hierarchized social norm that used to be in the early seventies and eighties when the white men determined the standards and conditions of Aboriginal people, even when it came, in some cases, to self-expression. It was also in the whites’ economic interests to introduce the indigenous art to the established art market almost forty years ago, when Western Desert art became fashionable resonating with the emerging conceptual art in western societies. The spectator of Samson and Delilah gets slight hints of the paradoxal relationship between the cultural significance of Aboriginal art, the economically profitable aspect of it and the discrepancy between white men’s interest in it and their perojative behaviour towards aborigines. When Delilah sees her grandma’s painting – which had been sold to a dealer for little money – on sale for 22’000 dollars in an art gallery, she becomes aware of the exploitation, even in terms of art.

The famous dot-painting style, one characteristic of the Western Desert art movement.

The artists from Western Desert are known for having had endured a long path of hostilities and rejection before being acknowledged as artists within the Australian art establishment. The story tells a slightly more complex path between the exploitation of artists and a hard path into acceptance in Australian society. The coincidence that conceptual art boomed at that time in a parallel universe called the western world increased the interest of white people in the paintings by Western Desert artists. The often minimalistic and repetitive patterns matched the characteristics that made lots of conceptual artworks fashionable. This total exploitation of Aboriginal culture for economic purposes is highlighted discretly in Samson and Deliliah, giving the viewer a slight idea of what the circumstances were like. When Delilah tries to sell some paintings to the people around a restaurant, they all reject her, since she is considered as poor, uncivilized and primitive. Delilah’s and Aboriginal people’s art first started to get interesting when it provided economical advantages.This shows the perversion behind the first so-called « establishment » of the Aboriginal people.

On their own in a challenging world: Samson and Delilah

Art as a symbol of identity

Art as an act of collective creation, increasing the sense of togetherness but also as the expression of a cultural tradition transfered from generation to generation  is one part of the scenes in which Delilah paints with her grandmother. (It is useful to mention at this point that a generation of women seems to be missing in the movie, as there is no middle-aged Aboriginal woman seen in the community. This makes the viewer speculate about the absence of these women and guess that these were either kidnapped or removed to another settlement by the government.) On the other hand, their communal painting might also been interpreted as a valve for all the suffering, in order to transform the bad energies into something productive and beautiful. This is one reason why art has always been considered necessary to human beings after all. But there’s got to be more to the act of creating; it is also a symbol of one’s identity. Anything might get destroyed by superior forces in hierarchized systems, including canvases and paints. Nevertheless the most repressive authorities can’t destroy your inventive and artistic spirit, even if they withdraw everything you need to make your self-expression happen. The power of having one’s own artistic language is something that goes beyond creating something beautiful. Since many artists from the Western Desert Art movement saw their art as a radical response to what their people had been enduring through the years, being bashed and excluded by the Australian government among others, one can’t help but see similarities to the relation between Delilah’s art practice and the conditions of her life.

The act of creation can be understood as a prop in the fight against adversity, as an expression of resilience in the groundlessness of an environment that has robbed their inhabitants’ last hold. But there is more to art from people from the Western Desert movement than despair and the urge to give reality a better glow. Probably art comes hand in hand with the need for a higher purpose to life, especially when the current reality seems too heavy to bear.

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