Cigarette butts and flakes of ash carelessly strewn around float in the mind when you encounter the term ‘Ash On Me’, ambling inside the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi. But a look at this large wall art by artist Tony Albert makes you laugh at your own naivety. Because, the artwork’s message goes much beyond the mere act of smoking. It speaks of the callousness of the colonisers, in this case the British, towards the plight of the Aboriginal Australians.
Remnants of such history are on display at the NGMA in an ongoing exhibition, Indigenous Australia. Curated by Franchesca Cubillo, senior adviser on indigenous art, NGMA, and an Aboriginal herself, the exhibition establishes a subaltern yet powerful narrative of the Aboriginals from Australia in stark contradiction to the mainstream school of thought.
“The artwork by Albert resonates with the feelings of the Aboriginals. The artist has collected ashtrays that depict the life and culture of the Aboriginals. He wanted to show that every time an ashtray was used, it meant someone was ashing on them. That’s why the title Ash On Me. The colonisers never paid any attention to this. For them, these were artefacts to be displayed on the mantle or used on a regular basis. That’s all,” Cubillo explains.
Understanding the history of a place that was once a colony primarily involves the perspectives of both the coloniser and the colonised.
However, two paintings by Danie Mellor, a contemporary Aboriginal artist from Mackay, Queensland, portray the colonised’s opinion of the coloniser. Interestingly, the two artworks revolve around two antithetical themes as well. While Paradise in Sun resembles the garden of Eden, with its blooming flowers, flushing meadows, streams and angels, From Rite to Ritual unveils a darker side of humankind. A form of freemasonry art, From Rite to Ritual exhibits the emblematic strength of European culture using architectural elements that are the tools of conquest, colonisation, settlement and deprivation through an ongoing ritual.
Speaking of the only commonality between the two disparate artworks, Cubillo says, “If you closely look at both the artworks, you’ll find the presence of Aboriginals in them. In Paradise in Sun, the artist has placed the people and animals such as possum and kangaroos within a garden. In doing so, Mellor puts forth the idea of how the Britishers saw us. Meanwhile, in From Rite to Ritual, he has placed the Aboriginals in a temple setting, which speaks of an uneasy co-existence, an unsuited yet evident interaction.”
Furthermore, Cubillo states that the Britishers’ eye for exotic objects has also been replicated in the paintings. She adds, “They (the Britishers) were fond of artworks on their bone China crockery. They would collect unique patterns. Mellor has kept this as the central theme while making the artwork. It even has tiny sparkles gilding the sides.”
The exhibition is also an amalgamation of the various guiding pillars of the Aboriginals. They range from political themes to spiritual beliefs. The connection with nature, especially earth, finds prominence in almost all of the artworks. If one carefully observes Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s Warlugulong, the use of earth pigments to describe a narrative from a bird’s eye view is nothing less than fascinating.
At the epicentre of the fire is a radiating circular figure emanating heat. On either side are stretches of land that have been burnt by a fire, which could well be a representation of a forest fire. “Actually, the artwork is a form of bush-fire dreaming. The idea is to show how a dreaming narrative (as per myths and tales of the Australian Aboriginals, dreaming or alcheringa, is a manifestation of events happening in the natural world) experienced by the ancestors and elderly of the clan during rituals and ceremonies, can function within the realms of nature. Apart from the bush-fire dreaming, there are nine other dreaming narratives in the artwork. As for the dot-like structures, it is the spiritual nature of the ancestors that governs this type of art. Also, it is only restricted to a few clans of Australia. Not everyone can make it,” Cubillo tells us.
The connection to nature and the intertwined spiritual themes are two of the most striking features of the collection. For a tribal community, or a clan, the importance of nature is supreme. Everything, from birth to death, prosperity to doom, revolves around the forces of nature.
The Wandjina ancestors from the Kimberley region portray the immense belief of the Aboriginals in nature. Dark eyes placed between an arcane face-like structure, with no other facial features, and a halo around the head are the most defining characteristic of a Wandjina ancestor. They are majorly found on rocks. According to the Aboriginals, they are the harbingers of rain and prosperity. A small yet amusing myth comes with these ancestors as well. It is believed that whenever the natives are troubled by the blistering heat, these ancestors come out of their rocks with their two children — a turtle and an al. While the turtle brings in the water, the al carries the wind.
Elaborating on the presence of such ancestors, Cubillo says, “They are rock figures. Whenever the weather becomes adverse, they come out of their rocks, bring about a change, and then go back. The artworks are so old that the pigments have entered deep into the layers of the rocks. Even if one tries, they cannot be erased. This shows their everlasting presence.”
The exhibition, Indigenous Australia, is on at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, till August 26.