Exhibition shows anti-colonial sentiments in Australian aboriginal art

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New Delhi : A series of 102 indigenous artworks by Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, with the oldest dating back to the 1800s, are being exhibited at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) here till Sunday, and reflect undercurrents of anti-colonial resistance.

The artworks -- running into canvasses, cloth and ink works, sculpture, and wood bark paintings -- had started pouring in decades after 1788, the year of British entry into Australian lands, and continue even today, as the aftermath of a colonial history still impacts indigenous Australians.

A window into the history of the people, these historic and contemporary artworks allow a glimpse into their creative traditions influenced by invasion.

"Art was a mechanism (for Aborigines) to place these phenomena within a broader cultural context. Many rock art paintings from different regions of Australia have incorporated horses, rifles, British tall ships, etc," exhibition curator Franchesca Cubillo told IANS in an email interview.

Indigenous artist Tommy McRae's ink-on-paper work "Meeting the White Man" (1890) shows a white man walking towards a group of singing and dancing tribespeople, as they hold a 'corroborees' -- an Aboriginal ceremony involving dance and music -- and look at the intruder apprehensively.

Works like these are a unique visual record of contact between two cultures, as seen through an Aboriginal vantage point.

Many works reveal an unjust colonial past -- the invasion and denial of Aboriginal sovereignty, displacement from their homeland, and the devastatingly changed political landscape.

"Aboriginal people have also utilised their art as political (and provocative) statements about ownership of their land/country, about the artists status and place," Cubillo added.

A photograph titled "Broken Heart" in a photographic series -- "Portrait of a Distant Land" -- by Ricky Maynard, is a melancholic self-portrait of the artist standing on the shore of an island to which his people were exiled, as he cranes his neck to gaze at his out-of-sight homeland.

To this extent, the exhibition bears stories of personal loss and trauma.

A contemporary digital print called "Austracism" (2003) is a clever and satirical take on the prevailing racism against Aboriginal people, the roots of which were laid during the colonial rule.

"I'm not racist but...I don't know why Aboriginal people can't look after their houses properly and I'm not racist but...Aboriginal people weren't doing anything with land before we came here and I'm not racist but....they never even wore any clothes before we came...and I'm not racist but..."

The list goes on. The work puts together tens of statements from popular culture to convey racist commentary existing against Aboriginal people today.

"The British did not want to acknowledge the Aboriginal people's sovereignty and sophisticated society that existed within Australia at the time of the invasion in 1788," Cubillo said.

What about art created by colonialists?

Cubillo says the colonial representation of aboriginal people differed from how they represented themselves and wanted to be represented.

"The colonial representation was eurocentric and therefore biased. Aboriginal people were both perceived and portrayed as 'uncivilised aimlessly wandering nomads', sometimes happy and playful, often content to have their corroborees," she explained.

However, Aboriginal artists countered this perception of barbarity through their art.

Vintage ashtrays with Aboriginal faces or torsos caricatured on them -- which required stubbing cigarettes on the faces or torsos -- are offensive objects which have been used brilliantly by artist Tony Albert to surface the discrimination faced by Aborigines. The 2008 work is titled "ASH on me".

The exhibition explores themes of identity, politics, racism, ethnicity and people's connection with their land, and is open for public viewing till Sunday.

(Siddhi Jain can be contacted at siddhi.j@ians.in)