Art as a concept has existed since time immemorial around the world, across various cultures and civilisations, even if left unrecorded in history. For the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders of Australia, art has always been an important part of their culture, with artefacts and artwork found to date as far back as 1890 and beyond. Across the past and present, such art has been used as a form of cultural identity, utilised in rituals, stories, and even expressions of trauma, and remains ever-changing, evolving across the years with surprising influence from other parts of the world.
This May, National Gallery Singapore is set to give visitors a glimpse into the rich artistic practice of the world’s oldest living culture, with its latest exhibition, Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia. Showcasing over 170 artworks drawn from the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and The Wesfarmers Collection of Australian Art, Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia marks the largest exhibition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art to travel to Asia, and is a rare opportunity to study First Peoples of Australia’s culture, history, and social action in the present through art.
Representing over 150 Aboriginal and Torres Islander artists, the works span paintings, video installations, bark paintings, sculptures and more, and showcase the rich tapestry of work that provides insight into Australia’s complex histories. Art emerges as a tool of resistance, asserting deep connections to Country, as well as using wit and satire to encourage conversations about current key issues; these works challenge stereotypes about First Nations people and what defines their art. The exhibition also illuminates their historical links with Southeast Asia, through works highlighting the regions’ trading encounters by sea, and recent artistic exchanges in batik.
Dr Eugene Tan, Director of National Gallery Singapore, says, “Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia is an embodiment of National Gallery Singapore’s ambition to create dialogue between the art of this region and the world. Through this showcase, our audiences are offered a rare opportunity to learn the stories of diverse peoples and foster a deeper appreciation for different forms of artistic expression. We are proud to work with National Gallery of Australia and The Wesfarmers Collection of Australian Art to display some of their very best works to inspire our visitors to understand the rich history, culture, and artistic practices of First Peoples of Australia.”
The exhibition is displayed across three galleries, and divided into six distinct sections. Right at the beginning of the first gallery, visitors will see Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser’s Forced into images, a video work that takes its title from a letter by African American writer an activist Alice Walker. The work itself is a silent film where two First Nations children laugh, cry, eat or react to an offscreen instructor, adopting an alter-ego for the camera, representing the way identity itself is performed and represented in person, perhaps inviting visitors to consider how we perceive identity, specifically First Peoples, in mass media, and how the exhibition may change it.
Stepping into the gallery proper, we are introduced to the concept of the complex belief system of the diverse First Peoples of Australia – the Dreaming, forming the foundation of culture and family and life, with a focus on caring for traditional homelands. It is with this knowledge in mind that we enter the first section –Ancestors + Creators, where visitors are introduced to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders spirituality and cultural practices, immortalised in iconography. It begins with Daniel Boyd’s Treasure Island, depicting a map of Australia divided according to various colours representing the diverse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language groups’ territory. At the same time, the idea of ‘treasure’ is a tension-filled one, knowing that colonists saw Australia as unoccupied land full of potential, and exploited and plundered such ‘treasure’ without care for the violent displacement of such First Peoples.
Elsewhere, visitors will be introduced to the work of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, representing the art movement at Papunya in the 1970s. Above, we see his work Warlugulong, considered a work of real national significance and one of the most important 20th-century Australian paintings by art critics, and represents eight different Ancestral stories, requiring the viewer to reorientate their point of view according to which story is being told.
The next section, Country + Constellations, celebrates First Peoples’ profound spiritual connections with land, and intimate knowledge of the environment, that include natural elements of the landscape, as well as of the skies and constellations. Wanka Tjukurpa (Spiderman) by Harry Tjutjuna presents the spider as a culturally significant figure in mythology, associated with healing and creation stories associated with the artist’s birthplace.
This section also features contemporary work Way of the Ngangkari #6 by Warwick Thornton, melding pop culture with First Peoples mythos. Seeing Star Wars in 1979, Warwick Thornton recalls that he was instantly enthralled by the fantasy it presented and the power of the Jedi. He realised that there were in fact Jedi all around him, and in this single-channel video work, the Ngangkari are seen as akin to Jedi, medicine men and women blessed with special powers.
Timothy Cook’s Kulama represents a Tiwi initiation ceremony known as kulama, to promote health and regeneration of life. Using natural earth ochres that gives the work a gritty texture, and the canvas a natural shimmer.
In the third section, Community + Family, artworks showcase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ strong sense of family and Community, through portraits, photographs and made objects. Palunya: that’s all by Dr Pantijiti Mary McLean, for example, is a joyful painting that shows stories from the artists’ childhood on her father’s Country of Papulankutja/Blackstone, Western Australia, and depicts various scenes in a tapestry of tales.
Other powerful work includes photographs by Michael Riley, from his cloud series of photographs. Objects and icons are set against an expansive, almost ethereal blue Australian sky, each one holding a degree of symbolic significance – the feather could be seen as a message, while the bible and angel represent the Christianity (and its associated problems) in the artist’s childhood.
In Gary Lee’s Nice Coloured Boys series, the artist aims to re-represent contemporary Indigenous male identity in Darwin, showcasing beauty and diversity of Aboriginal and Islander males, celebrating them in all their forms.
In the next gallery, we bear witness to the Culture + Ceremony section of the exhibition. Here, the artworks showcases the revival of these cultural practices after being lost or damaged by colonisation, through re-creation of ceremonial objects or the recovery of language information from archival sources. Many of the works in this section, such as masks, headdresses, and canvas paintings, also function as ceremonial objects.
This segues into Trade + Influence, which focuses on the historical connections with Southeast Asia which date back to the early 17th century, including trade connections with the port of Makassar, now part of Indonesia. These exchanges are still represented in artworks and ceremonies by Aboriginal Communities who participated in this trade.
More recently, Aboriginal Communities have also adopted batik techniques into their artworks and developed exchanges with artists in Indonesia. While 11 sharing many techniques with Southeast Asian batik, the batik works produced by Aboriginal artists in Australia reflect the diverse iconography and culture of each Community.
Amidst this section is commissioned work Untitled (walamwunga.galang) by renowned Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist, Jonathan Jones. Jones’ work celebrates the southeast cultural practice of collecting seeds, and how they are ground to make flour for sustenance. What is presented then are giant grindstones that acknowledge the history and stories, while a soundscape in Wiradjuri language plays in the background, together emphasising the sophistication of Aboriginal agricultural economy, which was erased by colonial narratives of Aboriginal people as hunters-gatherers.
Across the previous five sections, one notices a massive overlap in themes, and there are times the artworks are not clearly categorised under any specific section, straddling multiple ideas such as ceremony and community at the same time. But one theme that seems to cut across all sections is the undeniable presence of trauma and erasure caused by colonisation, representing itself in works that acknowledge the pain, or attempt to reinvigorate the culture by re-presenting elements.
The vast majority of these works, contemporary in nature, are displayed in Resistance + Colonisation, which presents diverse art forms that challenge commonly associated narratives of First Peoples from colonial history, and the nation building-narrative of Australia. The artworks in this section become tools of resistance and social action, as they highlight injustices of the past and present and advocate for a fairer future. In The nips are getting bigger by Karla Dickens for example, limited edition ‘Captain Cook RN’ whiskey bottles (referencing coloniser James Cook) are adorned with feathers, which presents an alternative narrative of colonisation and its ongoing devastating effects.
Elsewhere, Julie Gough’s Some Tasmanian Aboriginal children living with non-Aboriginal people before 1840 is a memorial to Aboriginal children removed from their families from the 19th century, and is critical of government policies that caused cultural dislocation and personal anguish, raising awareness of Australia’s violent history. The work itself consists of unfinished tea-tree ‘spears’ held within the framework of an old chair – the chair then holds the children captive, each spear having a section burnt away and on which Gough has burnt the name of one of the lost children.
Tony Albert’s Ash On Me, also featured in this section, combines text and souvenir ash trays (no longer as common) that appropriates First Peoples mythos and imagery for selfish, financial gain. The work then considers the idea of people stubbing out a cigarette butt on these symbols, almost nonchalantly desecrating them with ash, and seems to be a call to awareness of how First Peoples have been mistreated over the years.
To end off, Ever Present also features a special commission at City Hall Chamber, Level 3, where visitors will find Richard Bell Embassy, an artwork that creates a public space for imagining and articulating alternate futures for First Nations peoples, while reflecting on histories of oppression and displacement. The work takes inspiration from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which in 1972, was established on the lawns in front of Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra, to raise awareness of the government’s refusal to grant land rights to Aboriginal people. It still stands today as a powerful symbol of the Aboriginal rights movement.
Beyond Ever Present, National Gallery Singapore also invites visitors to continue their exploration with the Southeast Asia Gallery Trail, curated exclusively for National Gallery Singapore’s UOB Southeast Asia Gallery – the first time the Gallery presents an accompanying special exhibition works within its long-term exhibition galleries. Five contemporary artworks by Aboriginal artists were selected and placed within Between Declarations and Dreams: Art of Southeast Asia since the 19th Century – the Gallery’s longterm exhibition on the art history of Southeast Asia. The juxtaposition of the two regions’ histories and art bring out conceptual and historical connections between the narratives of Southeast Asia and First Nations, including challenging colonial narratives and depictions and presenting contemporary interpretations of traditional practices and beliefs through art. The Southeast Asia Gallery Trail begins in UOB Southeast Asia Gallery 1 (Former Supreme Court, Level 3) and ends at UOB Southeast Asia Gallery 14 (Former Supreme Court, Level 5).
One artwork in the trail is Christopher Pease’s painting, Wrong side of the Hay (a deserted Indian village), directly references a 1798 engraving of a landscape in Western Australia. However, nothing in the original image reveals that this seemingly peaceful scene was the result of the forced displacement of the Nyoongar people from their Ancestral lands. This work is placed in the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery 3, alongside similar images of picturesque and unoccupied landscapes in Southeast Asia; visitors are invited to reflect on what else may have been omitted from the artworks which display no traces of colonisation or industralisation.
Says Dr Eugene Tan: “Ever Present encourages visitors to reconsider their understanding of Southeast Asia through our historical ties with First Peoples of Australia, to reflect on our shared colonial history alongside ongoing conversations over decolonisation and drawing attention to artistic expressions and voices marginalised by conventional art historical narratives.”
Tina Baum, Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at National Gallery of Australia, says, “The history and cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is a crucial part, not just of Australia’s history, but globally as well. Ever Present is an opportunity to share our cultures with an international audience and we are very excited to premiere the largest exhibition of First Nations’ art to travel to Asia at National Gallery Singapore. To fully understand the richness, diversity and depth of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture would take many generations and lifetimes. But to appreciate it only takes a moment.”
Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia is presented in partnership with National Gallery Australia and The Wesfarmers Collection of Australian Art. This exhibition is proudly supported by Touring Partner Australian Government through the Office for the Arts, Lead Partner Singtel and Strategic Partner Cultural Matching Fund. Visitors interested in diving deeper into the histories and culture of First Nations can attend art historical lectures, curator talks, artist dialogues and curator tours throughout the exhibition’s duration. Visitors can also look forward to performances, including Painting the Dance by Mariaa Randall and Henrietta Baird, and a special edition of the Gallery’s Resonates with Residency programme, featuring Singapore-based artist, Syafiq Halid.
Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia runs from 27th May to 25th September 2022 at National Gallery Singapore. For more information, visit their website here