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Joining the dots
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists have struggled for years to gain a collective sense of pride in their culture. Shambhavi Suri walks through an exhibition of the artwork of an entire community to gain a sense of their identity
After light rains in New Delhi last week, Franchesca Cubillo, senior curator of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, believes that it was the folk Wandjina painting that brought the showers to our parched environs.
Wandjina is a powerful rain-maker spirit and is painted by the aboriginal people of western Australia. The body of the spirit is shown covered in dots to represent rainfall. This is only one of the many stories that the artists have expressed through their works that are on display at NGMA. Beautiful sculptural pieces, rich illustrations of tree barks, natural pigments or acrylic paints on fabrics or canvas, topological desert paintings to artworks presented through new media expressions brought about a renaissance of visual art that has given a new dimension to the cultural landscape Down Under.
The British first came to the coastline of Arnhem land, in the northern territory of Australia, in the beginning of the 19th century.
They discovered summer shelters of the aboriginal people, which were temporary, built with sheets of bark and illustrations on the inside. These illustrations attracted the British and they stole these when the community was not around. Interest grew about these artworks in England by the museums when the colonisers took the art back.
After some 226 years of racism and marginalisation against indigenous people, their art and culture are finally at the forefront of Australian identity. The art “is tens of thousands of years old but also contemporary,” says Cubillo.
Though the medium has changed and evolved, the artists still continue to paint their spiritual stories depicting traditional designs and patterns.
William Barak’s use of dynamic design and bold patterns on the parrying shield is one such example. He took the inspiration of the design from one of his earlier paintings called the Corroboree wherein figures are in possum-skin cloaks. The techniques of dotting later evolved into the composition of lines.
Pointing to Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri’s Untitled (1994), Cubillo says, “Artists pick up a simple technique of dotting and lines to convey a larger matrix of their ideas.”
A lot of the paintings dated back to the 1800s were centred on the arrival of the British in Australia or the cultural or spiritual practices carried out by communities of indigenous people in those days. Tommy McRae’s composition of Kwatkwat people (1890) brilliantly depicts the indigenous people in black, with no definition of the faces or clothes, running away as the British or the “white man” — wearing the stereotypical “Englishman’s hat” and a suit — chases them away. William Barak’s Corroboree series (1895) depicts social events and cultural practices.
Cubillo draws similarities between some of the techniques and themes of aboriginal artworks and that of ancient Indian illustrations. Says she, “The artists will continue to create such remarkable works as the stories as provided by our ancestors are strong and still guiding us, making us a community with rich heritage and culture.”
Aboriginal artists from across Australia aim to connect the past, the present and the future, and communicate these ideas to their ancestors, peers and future generations. They believe that they should be given a chance to tell their stories through the expression of art and that they all should be heard.
The movement called Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art has impacted the aboriginal communities and artists economically “by providing artists with resources and facilities to sustain their work.” Displaying their art has also significantly improved the well-being of these communities by increasing their collective self-esteem and cultural pride.
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