Australian artist Jo Bertini captures the lives of Kutch pastoralists, their remarkable history of mobility, the eco-systems which nurture their life, culture and spiritual moorings. By S S Balan
It was unusual to see the Maldhari pastoralists, attired in their traditional dress, roam the spaces of Indira Gandhi National Centre of the Arts and watch their mirror images as recreated on textiles by Australian artist Jo Bertini. They were not so excited about coming to Delhi as much about the artist who had chosen to narrate and dignify their little-known lives.
Jo, the artist known for her paintings and drawings of desert landscapes, has created the works for the project Living Lightly: Journeys with Pastoralists, during her six-week stay with the tribals. It is a curated multi-media exhibition organised jointly by IGNCA and Sahjeevan which works among local communities.
“I have always been interested in desert people and places. I belong to a family of artists with a rural background. My family comprised farmers from the desert and hinterlands of Australia. I grew up painting and drawing the remote places and the people and natural environment of my country. I own a small property with a big old wool shed there which is my studio.” Jo is an expedition artist working in the remote regions of the central deserts of Australia with scientists. She travels around three months a year accompanied by a camel string to do scientific surveys and research and documents the journeys with drawings and paintings.
Asked about using textile as the canvas for portraying the Maldhari way of life, she says the fabric was a metaphor for life. The woollen shawl of a Rabari woman of the tribe protects her from the harsh environment, affords her modesty within family mores and defines her status within the community. A stitched camel bag is an ode to the land, to the animals and to work. Jo says, “Working on this project in India with the Maldhari was a unique opportunity to learn about other cameleers and their ways. In Australia, the camel was brought from India in 1860. Hence there is a direct link between me and the Maldhari.”
The works include Night desert in Kutch, Maldhari man with goat, The camels of the region, Raika camel camp, Women collecting water, to name a few. The textiles that frame the artworks by Jo were sourced from the traditional communities of Kutch and Rajasthan. They were selected to reverberate with the work and unite an Australian perspective with Indian traditions. On the cultural connect, Jo says: “I have worked for many years with the indigenous aboriginal people of Australia. I am very interested to learn from other cultures. My paintings depict the most particular differences and remarkable quality of each individual and their lives.”
Through the journey for Common Ground, the artist has discovered that the people-place relationship against a desert landscape is very peculiar. “We share a special affinity, a collegiality through our relationship with deserts and our instinctive artistic compulsions. Living with the people has given me a much more profound understanding of the importance of my own contributions in presenting the natural world. It was exciting to see the people understanding my work. They posed for me and allowed me to draw their families and communities. In many ways it was very familiar to me as I have spent so many years camped out in the deserts with camels and living on the land. The only difference was that it’s more crowded in India.”
She is currently working on a similar project in the deserts of New Mexico, USA. An award-winning artist, Jo is also an art educator, lecturer and writer. The exhibition is supported by the Australian High Commission and is curated by Australian textile collector Carole Douglas. The works will be on display till December 18.
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