Works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists from across Australia on show in Singapore

The exhibition will be on at the National Gallery of Singapore from now till Sept 25, 2022. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - An exhibition that surveys historical and contemporary works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists from across Australia is now on at the National Gallery of Singapore.

It is a collaboration between the National Gallery of Singapore, National Gallery of Australia and Wesfarmers Art, and will be held from Friday (May 27) to Sept 25.

"It is really important to be able to talk about the ever-present presence of the First Peoples, beyond the enduring legacy of people here, we wanted to showcase that through the art in the collection," says Ms Tina Baum, 52, a curator from the National Gallery of Australia.

The First Peoples of Australia refers to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who lived in Australia before British colonisation. The term was used as early as 1789 though every community is ethnically and culturally distinct.

The more than 170 artworks at the show were produced using different mediums, including bark painting, water colour, mixed media. It is the largest exhibition of the First Peoples art of Australia to travel to Asia

The works also touch on the lesser-known ties between them and South-east Asians
 in pre-colonial times, for example the trading of sea cucumber between traders from Makassar, Indonesia and the Aboriginal people from Arnhem Land. This trade connection was later severed due to colonisation.

“Some audiences may be pleasantly surprised when they learn about that connection, and hopefully we can get reconnected again,” says Ms Baum.

A later connection with South-east Asia can be seen in batik artworks, with several Aboriginal Communities in central Australia learning the technique, sometimes in collaboration with artists in Indonesia.

Resistance and colonisation is another theme explored in the exhibition. Artists Tony Albert, 42, and Julie Gough, 57 , want to use their art to tell the painful stories of their people, which are often erased in Australia's colonial narrative.

"Art is a vessel to tell these difficult stories, and I think people have a greater comfort with imagery," says Albert, whose work Ash On Me, displays his collection of ashtrays to reflect the commercialisation and generalisation of First Peoples' culture.

Gough's work is darker, featuring unfinished wooden spears burnt with names and bound by a wooden chair frame. She pays homage to the First Peoples' children who were taken by colonists and indentured to a life of servitude.

"Repetition is a way to speak and show trauma. These spears are not finished as they're not burnt at the tips, just like I don't know what happened to many of these children. Did they survive, did they become adults? I don't know," she says. The artist is a descendent of the Trawlwooway Aboriginal people in Tasmania.

The artists hope the exhibition can celebrate the culture and art of the First Peoples of Australia, and delve into the history of colonisation that the First Peoples and Singaporeans share.Gough says: "Across different age groups, demographics, wealth, there's a great possibility to bridge divides through art."

Artist Julie Gough's artwork pays homage to the First Peoples' children who were taken away by colonists. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

Highlights of Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia

Berceuse by Christian Thompson

In a video, Thompson sings a lullaby in the Bidjara language of his people, which has been classified as an extinct language. However, Thompson believes that speaking or vocalising the language transforms it into a living language once again, using the soothing song and accompanying chants to reinforce his people's presence.

Koedal Baydham Adhaz Parw (Crocodile Shark) Mask by Alick Tipoti

The ceremonial mask represents clan totems, in line with Tipoti's goal to use his art to support and give recognition to the traditions of his people and Ancestors. The mask uses different materials as a nod to the cultural practices of his people, such as nutshells evoking the sound of feet stamping in traditional dances.

Untitled (Walam-wunga.galang) by Jonathan Jones collaborated with Stan Grant and Beatrice Murray

Jones wants to challenge the narrative of the First Peoples being hunter-gatherers by showing the sophistication of their agriculture, as seen in a grindstone thought to be 32,000 years old and from New South Wales. To him, the grindstones represent the enduring presence and strength of his people's knowledge, and the stories they have to tell.

Corroboree by William Barak

Done in 1895, Corroboree is thought to be one of the oldest artworks by the First People of Australia. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

Corroboree is one of the oldest artworks featured in the Ever Present exhibition. Done in 1895, Barak used his art to preserve the traditions and pass on his cultural knowledge as clan Elder of the Wurundjeri people, who were forcefully displaced by colonists from the land that is now the state of Victoria.

Green Maireener Shell Necklace and Blue Ceremonial King Maireener Necklace by Lola Greeno

Greeno uses strings of shell necklaces to represent the unbroken connection between Ancestors and Country. She was taught how to make the necklaces by her mother, as part of the generational knowledge passed down between the women in her family.

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