Aboriginal Art comes to Karachi

Noor Jehan Mecklai writes about a collaboration between Australia’s ArtOne62 and Pakistan’s Artkaam gallery

Aboriginal Art comes to Karachi
True to their word regarding a programme of exchange, and wasting not a moment in getting started, the Australian gallery ArtOne62, which is now associated with Karachi’s Artkaam gallery, have brought to Artkaam this most interesting exhibition, featuring many examples of Australian Aboriginal art. The show is curated, and was brought here from Australia by by Shahid Malik, himself an artist, businessman and classic designer.

But who are these Aboriginal people, and when did they reach Australia? Their culture dates back 60,000 to 80,000 years, it is widely agreed. Some archaeologists believe that their first migration to Australia was achieved when this landmass formed part of the Sahul continent, connected to the island of New Guinea via a land bridge, though the exact timing of the ancestors’ arrival has been a matter of dispute among archaeologists.

It is also believed that humans migrated to Australia from Asia in primitive boats, just as the early Maori migration travelled to New Zealand in canoes, from a mythical place called Hawaiiki. A current theory holds that the early Aboriginal migrants came from Africa about 70,000 years ago, making them the oldest human population living outside of Africa.

Indigenous art is centred on storytelling, which is used to convey knowledge of the land, events and beliefs of the Aboriginal people. These people do not have their own written language, so they make use of many common symbols (often called iconography) in their artwork. Though these symbols vary from region to region, they are generally understood, and form an important part of Australian Aboriginal art. A painting may have several different levels of story, depending on whether it is intended for children, initiates, or elders, and the symbols’ meanings may also change, depending on the context of the story.

'River Turtle'

Dots are used liberally in Aboriginal art

In 1971, Geoffrey Bardon, a teacher working with Aboriginal children in Papunya near Alice Springs, noticed that when Aboriginal men were telling stories they would draw symbols in the sand. He encouraged them to paint the stories onto canvas and board; and thus began the famous Aboriginal Art Movement. It was a major jump for indigenous people to start painting their stories onto western facades, and since then Australian Aboriginal Art has been identified as the most exciting contemporary art form of the 20th century. The artists inherit the rights to these stories through generations, within certain skin groups. They cannot paint a story that does not belong to them through family.

Modern Aboriginal paintings may be done in mixed media, ochre or acrylic on canvas. Ochre or iron clay pigments are used to produce white, yellow and red, while black comes from charcoal. Other colours such as smokey grays, sage greens and saltbush mauves have also appeared. Black is the colour of the people. Yellow is a sacred colour - the colour of the sun. And red is for land and blood. There is a saying, “We are all of one blood. From the land we come and to it we all return.”

'My Spirit and Me'

Dots are used liberally in Aboriginal art. When Bardon first helped the artists transfer their stories from desert sand to paint on canvas, they decided to distinguish between what was secret or sacred, and what was for the public domain. So they abstracted designs into dots, to conceal, for example, the sacred designs used in ceremonies. Dots may be created by using a paint covered brush, dotting stick or other implement. This is, of course, a form of pointilism.

‘Eating Ants,’ the striking picture which appears on the invitation cover, is certainly a prime example of the use of dots. The subject is the Australian anteater, called the spiny anteater, only found in Australia, Tasmania and parts of New Guinea. It mostly eats termite ants and other small invertebrates in the short beak which forms its mouth. It is also called the echidna, and is one of only 2 mammals in the world that lay eggs, the other being the duck-billed platypus. Both are threatened with extinction due to the raging forest fires that have, this time in Australia, persisted for so long, though this creature’s normal lifespan is 10-16 years. In the picture its beak has been greatly elongated as part of artistic licence, while its spines have been beautifully stylised, and decorated with white dots, the head being covered with black dots. The body, as a modern touch, has been rendered in black, white and brown stripes, while the echidna is surrounded by ants in the form of black and brown dots.


Dots of several colours form the base of the piece titled ‘Times of Plenty,’ which features some of the creatures making up the Aboriginal diet, some of them, such as the snake and lizard, beautifully decorated with line patterns. In the centre is the symbol of a camp - or is it a camp water hole? And surrounding it on variously coloured areas of sun, water and land are creatures such as lizard, snake, honey ants and witchetty grubs. The witchetty grubs - what an evocative term! - are the large, white wood-eating larvae of several types of moth. They are native to Australia, are rich in protein and have been historically a staple food of the Australian Aboriginals. This picture, with its colour and distinctly folksy appearance, is definitely one to remember.

The lizard plays an important part in the history and life of the Aboriginal people. According to history, when the first of these people arrived in Australia, fossils show that they were met by giant predator lizards about 20 ft. long, though the Melangolia, relic of the Pleistocene Period, was evidently the size of a saltwater crocodile, and was the largest lizard that ever lived. As hunters and gatherers, the Aboriginal have maintained a close relationship with the natural world, and since hundreds of lizard species are found all across Australia, all are considered useful food items. Furthermore, they are part of the Dreaming stories that relate to the creation of the natural world, and to the role of the ancestors. Painted here is a large, yellow lizard - is it one of the goanna species? Parts of the skeletal structure and some internal organs are clearly shown. Previously this was quite a feature of Aboriginal art, though now, with modernisation, the style appears to have changed. This lizard is surrounded by dots, and the picture includes several attractive water hole formations. But what lies beneath those dots?

'Spiritual Learning'

The river turtle picture is quite outstanding in its colour. It is truly reminiscent of the form-changing stories found in many cultures, often the work of wicked witches. But in this case it was wicked men who changed a young man into a turtle by hurling spears at him as he tried to escape from them in a hollow log floating on the river. So, struck on the neck by a spear, he became a turtle, but with human hands, his neck and limbs beautifully decorated, while his back bears a design based on some of the traditional Aboriginal art colours. Inside the log with him are several miserable human forms,whose fate we know not. But as aforesaid, it is the contrasting, brilliant blue background that makes the picture outstanding in this collection.

There are so many more animal pictures, such as that of the snake spirit (something like a Tibetan mandala), elsewhere a large snake patiently hatches eggs, and a well-groomed emu chases her eggs out into the world, well-groomed by the artist in contrast to the scruffy, dishevelled emu found in the desert. But let us now look at pictures of men, firstly young men. The picture titled ‘Spiritual learning’ shows us 2 young men out in the wilderness under the night sky during their initiation period, below them being symbols of adulthood  such as spears, woomera, boomerangs. As part of their initiation, after instruction by their elders on how to survive and what to learn of themselves in the wilderness, on adult life in general and the ‘secrets’ of their tribe, young men aged from about 10-16 undergo such a journey, called ‘walkabout’, for as long as 6 months, to make the spiritual and traditional transition into manhood. However, in modern times and/or urban areas it may only be for a minimum of 3 weeks. The 2 initiates pictured here are small by comparison with their surroundings, and appear to be decorated with bodypaint, though as part of the initiation ceremony itself, they must endure incisions into their limbs, buttocks, chest and shoulders, as well as the ordeal of circumcision. No doubt the moon and stars in the picture are their guides, while the light-coloured brush marks of the artist give substance to the otherwise empty nocturnal wilderness. And as to the white dots, have the initiates been taught what lies beneath them?

Then to ‘My Spirit and Me,’ where the spirit above has a calm and benign appearance, his large, far-seeing eyes seeming to indicate the depth of his understanding of things from now to the far distant future and beyond. This beautiful and fascinating picture gives an indication of what the young initiate dancing near the fire could become in the future. The red of the spirit’s upper aura is well balanced against the red of the fire below. But what of the 10 stars - has 10 a special meaning in this culture? One can say, of course, that as the spirit guides the individual, stars in general have been a guide to people in many situations from time immemorial. As to the fire, this is an important symbol in Aboriginal culture. Traditionally it has been used as a practical tool in hunting, signalling, cooking, warmth and landscape management through proactive firestick use. Fire also holds great spiritual meaning for these people, with many stories, memories and dances being passed down by men around the campfire, just as the initiate pictured here dances around the fire.

A lone tribesman travelling on foot through the desert by night captures our gaze and our imagination in the picture titled ‘Traveler.’ The dark-skinned, purposeful man travels with a firm hold on his spear under the night sky with its few stars, and is surrounded by a many-coloured series of circles, which seem to protect him, and are themselves surrounded by his footprints.But actually, these circles are indications of the distance he has travelled - the further he travels, the more circles appear. Below them is the symbol of a path interrupted by waterholes, so one understands how far he has travelled, and we congratulate him on finding water in the endless, night-covered desert in the midst of arid Australia. In the background is a group of stones illuminated by the moon, and no doubt representing his destination. Telepathy is very important amongst the Australian Aborigines, and by this means he has probably given word of his intention to visit them.

The curator regrets that by now a number of these artists have passed away. But the beautiful and didactic legacy they have left behind is a treasure to be admired in many places by many generations to come, as examples of contemporary Australian Aboriginal art.