A landscape view of Uluru during the day with red sand and scattered green bushes in front of it

Anthropology: Cultural Significance of Uluru and the Tourist Gaze

As the sun stoops beneath the desert’s enflamed sand blanket, Uluru presents a magnifying beauty; it strikingly protrudes as a natural lightbulb, illuminating Australia’s vast dry landscape with a soft glow.

Uluru is a large sandstone formation located in the southern part of Northern Territory in Australia. The enormous bulging rock cloaked in red sand is described as ‘the heart of Australia’. It is sacred to the Pitjantjatjara, the Aboriginal people of the Central Australian desert (also known as the Aṉangu people). In 1987, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in 1993, the Rock’s colonial name, ‘Ayers Rock’, was changed back to ‘Uluru’. (You can read more about World Heritage Sites here). More than just a rare photo opportunity, these iconic rock formations conceal layers of ancient knowledge and diverse plant and animal life. Amazingly, there are over 400 plant species and 21 mammal species that dwell near the obtruding shadows of Uluru.

A long-distance shot of a red Uluru rock illuminated by the sun at sunset with pastel green bushes in front
Image Source: Ella Syvret

Uluru and the tourist gaze

Uluru appeals to an array of tourists. From those seeking a spiritual adventure to those on a quest to discover Australia’s culture and history. Aboriginal culture is foundational to Australian tourism. The number of visitors at Uluru reaches more than half a million each year, and therefore, it is an iconic canvas for the tourist gaze.

The tourist gaze refers to the way tourists perceive and interact with places and people, directed and organised by tourism structures. As clusters of minuscule people gather below Uluru’s gigantism, camera lenses shutter rapidly to capture a glimpse of the Rock’s transforming colours. Indeed, the tourist gaze is frequently experienced through the camera’s lens, facilitating a Western ‘addiction to gazing’.

The sacred Aboriginal country (Tjukurpa) has been unsettled with the arrival of busses and helicopters that transport eager tourists. Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park – a sacred place of Aboriginal culture and creation stories – has been commodified into a tourist landscape; a readily consumable sightseer spectacle.

A group of tourists gather to take pictures of a red uluru at sunset
Image Source: mollygeography.wordpress.com

The detached ‘camera-eye’ in the tourist gaze

Experiencing Uluru through a camera’s lens is not uncommon. While temporarily visiting new places many of us yearn for a memorable piece to take home. However, many professionals in the tourism industry are trapped behind the camera, alienated from Uluru’s authenticity by profit-motive barriers. In this way, the tourist is often implicated in the destruction of authenticity, despite well-intentioned goals to learn and genuinely experience different cultures.

A man and woman hold their smartphone cameras up to take a picture of a glowing red uluru at sunset with grass planes to their left
Image Source: Eleni Curry via abc news

The individualised narratives of tourism

Many individuals perceive travel as a way to practice self-knowing and self-actualisation. In other words, tourism presents an opportunity to search for self-authenticity rather than an area’s authenticity.

Snapping moments in time through the camera lenses are like mini collectables that build the tourist’s personal experience and character development. These individualised narratives and goals often stand in the way of travellers’ genuine connections to the foreign lands they visit. Certainly, many Uluru visitors stare in awe at its beauty, but few learn of the Rock’s cultural and spiritual significance to Australia’s Aṉangu people.

A red rock surface on Uluru depicting a craved cross and rock art
Image Source: Ella Syvret

Images captured through the tourist gaze are a result of the egocentric observer. This infers that the traveller’s view of Uluru is constructed heavily from an individualised perspective, at the expense of other cultural insights and people.

Within the tourism industry, there has been an increased promotion of Uluru as a site where tourists can experience the mystery and spirituality of one of the most ancient cultures in the world. Despite this, Aboriginal people are habitually omitted physically from tourist photographs and intangibly through the tourist gaze.

Photos of Uluru display a vast red structure, often from a distance. But these two-dimensional images don’t capture the feeling of being there. I have a friend who recently visited Uluru. Although she had digitally witnessed Uluru’s magnificence on the Internet, she was stunned by the textured depths and colourful layers that this online experience omitted.

A crevace in Uluru showing red walls of rock meeting in the middle to form a small river that trickles into a pool of water below
Image Source: Ella Syvret

A paradox of desire

As described in Paschen’s study, many Uluru visitors are drawn to see ‘the vast and unspoiled wonders of Australia’s interior’; its ‘aura’ as a unique and original landmark. However, the desire to take visual possession of Uluru’s presence, to ‘pry [it] from its shell’, is to objectify it into a reproducible image. Ironically, this destroys its natural ‘aura.’

Seeing Uluru beyond the collectable photo

In the Uluru-Kata Tjuta visitor guide, traditional Anangu land owner Kunmanara Lester advocates a different way of looking at Uluru. Discarding the tourists’ detached and straight-on gaze, she emphasises a more personal way of seeing.

The Western gaze occupies a frontal position that scrutinises Uluru for knowledge fragments and signs of a mysterious past. But once these signs are found, many fail to delve further into the story’s full meaning and cultural history. Indeed, Kunmanara notes that Aboriginal connection to country extends far beyond the visual, beyond the surface-level graphics that many tourists seek to obtain.

From the perspective of the Anangu people, Uluru is a corporeal presence, an ancestor’s body that forms a nexus between past and future generations. It is not, as would be suggested through the tourist gaze, a mere photographable landmark.

Viewing Uluru as a living presence of knowledge and culture inspires a two-way relationship with country, rather than the Western perspective’s habitual one-directional gaze.

A worm's-eye-view of Uluru's red rock wall with a tree reaching upwards towards the sky
Image Source: Ella Syvret

The cultural significance behind the Uluru climbing ban

A long line of tourists hike up Uluru's red dirt-covered summit with blue sky in the background
Image Source: nytimes

The most recent contested issue concerning Uluru is the climb to the Rock’s summit. Up until 2019, stomping up Uluru’s dusty tracks was considered a crucial activity to check off the tourist list. Why did the ban eventually come into effect?

The reasons behind the ban are complex, mostly hinged on cultural clashes between the Uluru climb and Anangu laws and lore. The Central Australian landscape holds life and law for Anangu culture. Moreover, the land is the physical embodiment of Tjukurpa (a religious philosophy that links Anangu to the environment and their ancestors). Tjukurpa is all-pervading, it intricately entwines nature with spirituality; if it dies, then culture dies with it.

Over the years, destructive footprints and disrespectful behaviour have fed the fires of change. From people hitting golf balls onto the desert floor below to photos of tourists stripping naked at Uluru’s peak, Tjukurpa has been compromised and Aboriginal land rights have been insulted.

Inevitably, there have been concerns about how the ban will affect Uluru’s tourism. However, there is still a variety of ways to experience the area.

Climbing Uluru echoes colonialist histories

For the Anangu, the Uluru climb holds sacred significance and is permitted only to initiated men of the Mala group. However, up until recently, many visitors still considered the climb as an essential part of their tourist quest.

Spatial logic and colonial conquest

The climb echoes a colonial conquest; it is a performance of Australian settler identity founded on myths of explorers who infiltrated the outback for settlers. As climbers reach Uluru’s peak, their vertical position above the land symbolises an imperialist notion that the Rock offers a place from which to ‘objectively’ report to the world. This perspective corresponds with the masculine narratives of colonial exploration. The tourist ritual of climbing Uluru allows individuals to symbolically claim the space of ‘above’. As a result, a detached tourist gaze that fulfils the individual explorer’s personal quest over an objectified landscape is permitted.

Physical ordering

Before the ban, Uluru’s natural summit was invaded by iron poles, chains and well-trodden pathways. These physical installations authorised the climb as a natural activity of the modern tourist. Consequently, imagery of colonial conquest is written into Aboriginal land as a stark reminder of imperialist pasts.

A worm-eye-view of the Uluru summit with bar chains attached to posts along it
Image Source: outbackjoe

Problems with Uluru’s ‘joint management’

Today, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is managed by a joint group of Anangu and non-Aboriginal rangers. The joint organisation aims to promote Tjukurpa by hosting compulsory workshops for tour operators. These workshops promote cultural integrity and place Anangu interpretation of Uluru at the forefront.

However, for Indigenous Australians, sovereignty over land remains a spiritual notion. By its very administrative nature, tourism management departs from these spiritual frameworks. So how effective is multiparty management in practice?

Uluru Statement from the Heart

The Uluru Statement from the Heart was formed at a 2017 National Constitutional Convention, emerging from the voices of 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates.

The statement (which can be read here) called for the establishment of a ‘First Nations Voice’ enshrined in Australia’s constitution. It also established a ‘Makarrata Commission’ to oversee decision-making and truth-telling between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Makarrata is a word from the Yolngu people’s language in Arnhem Land. It means two parties coming together after a struggle, to heal the wounds of the past, and to live again in peace. The statement’s goal is to provide a constitutionally guaranteed voice for Australia’s First Nations people.

A photo of the Uluru Statement from the Heart on a colourful Aboriginal art painted background and text in the middle
Image Source: Thomas Mayor via antar

However, the Uluru Statement from the Heart has been criticised. Some Indigenous activists argue that it is contradictory to obtain constitutional recognition from settler people when colonisers never had the right to assert themselves as a sovereign power to begin with.

Given ‘permission’ to speak the truth under settler-colonial law contradicts the goal of enhancing self-determination for Aboriginal people. By allowing the government to choose the form of interaction, it can create and demolish these relationships as it pleases.  In other words, the power still rests with the state, often with little input from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. While the statement encourages First Nation’s voices in parliament, these voices are still constrained within existing modes of governance. For instance, we still see few Aboriginal people assume the positions of leaders in government policy and decision-making. Unfortunately, this subtle form of structural violence merely repeats colonial experiences of the past.

Ultimately, the question is: is it possible for settler law and Aboriginal law to coexist? Or does their mutual presence inevitably lend power to the former?

An Englishman’s ‘Field of Light’ outshines Uluru

Field of Light, by British artist Bruno Munro, is one of Australia’s largest art installations. The unique exhibition bestows a soft veil of tiny lights that illuminate the sandy ground beneath Uluru as dusk settles.

Tiny lightbulbs attached to stalks beam brightly against a dusk lit background and a silhouettete of uluru in the background
Image Source: inhabitat

The Anangu community seem to have embraced the installation, translating the name into their Pitjantjatjara language – Tili Wiru Tjuta Nyakutjaku meaning ‘looking at lots of beautiful lights.’ Field of Light is said to enhance the spiritual nature of the destination and allow visitors to remember it in a unique and captivating way.

Despite this, Munro’s works have not been left uncriticised. In the heart of the Australian desert, Aboriginal communities have fought hard to protect and nurture their homes in the face of swelling tourism. The expansive Field of Light installation, while certainly beautiful, promotes the art of a white British man. Could this be yet more subtle imagery of colonial expansion? Could this space have been used to promote the artworks of First Nations people instead?

Uluru art galleries that support Aboriginal Australians

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park houses art galleries that showcase Anangu art and crafts – Maruku Arts and Walkatjara Arts. Both galleries are located in the Cultural Centre, and are Aboriginal-owned and operated. Profits from artwork sales are invested back into the local community.

Maruka Arts

With thousands of years of skill and patience, Anangu people have developed artistic practices that reflect the close relationship they share with the land. Maruku Arts display and sells traditionally crafted punu (wooden carvings) as well as paintings and jewellery. Many of these art forms are beautiful embodiments of the desert fauna. All works are created by Anangu artists in the Central Western Desert region.

Two Aboriginal people teach two white people about traditional Aboriginal art while they sit under a tree in the desert
Image Source: maruka.com.au

Walkatjara Arts

Walkatjara Artworks are filled with the Creation stories of Uluru and traditional aspects of desert life. The vibrant paintings carry Anangu culture and knowledge into the future, recircling ancient stories such as the Seven Sisters (Kungkarangkalpa).

An Aboriginal woman holds a paintbrush above an Aboriginal dot painting with shades of yellow black and orange
Image Source: walkatjara.com

Significance in anthropology: positioning yourself outside the tourist gaze at Uluru

Some might argue that ‘showcasing’ Uluru photos in this blog is somewhat ironic and contradictory to the argument. However, when moving towards a greater appreciation and understanding of other cultures, this visual story can be helpful; we just have to remember to look beyond it too.

Uluru projects a breath-taking beauty and a captivating image of Australia. Of course, it is only natural for us to take pictures. But photos freeze a moment in time. They tell us a stagnant story. However, for Aboriginal Australians, the story does not end at the fleeting shutter of a lens or a momentary appreciation of beauty. Therefore, to appreciate and fully recognise First Nations’ rich culture, we must delve deeper into our surroundings and open ourselves up to the wealth of knowledge and history that the land offers. We must position ourselves outside the tourist gaze and set our personal motives and experiences aside. Aboriginal leaders hold a unique connection to Australian land that many others do not. Therefore, by silencing our egos and listening to Indigenous voices, our knowledge can flourish alongside a respectful engagement with Uluru’s cultural abundance.

Leave a Reply