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Representation, Revision and Resilience: Ever Present at the National Gallery Singapore

If you stepped into the National Gallery Singapore’s (NGS) latest exhibition of First Nations art expecting nothing more than canvases covered in dots, well, look again. 

Intricate bark paintings and shell necklaces; glass sculptures addressing colonial violence; immersive video pieces; large, singing grindstones — this is just some of what’s on view at Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia.

With over 170 works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists drawn from the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and the Wesfarmers Collection of Australian  Art, Ever Present is the biggest survey of First Nations art in Southeast Asia to date, and an ambitious, eye-opening one at that. 

Jointly curated by Tina Baum (National Gallery of Australia), and Phoebe Scott and Goh Sze Ying (NGS), the show offers audiences several ways to begin engaging with the diversity, depth and complexity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. 

“A much bigger story”

Ever Present is, of course, a visually striking celebration of the creative, joyous ways in which First Peoples have given their immensely rich cultures material form. But it doesn’t shy away from difficult histories of colonial and post-colonial oppression either. Giving voice to communities whose stories have been written out of history is a priority which comes through strongly in the show’s curatorial approach.

The travelling exhibition also raises important questions about what “Southeast Asian art” includes and relates to, and how we should present it. Phoebe explained:

“If we’re going to talk about the global discourse of modern art or 20th century art and do it in a decolonizing and meaningful way, we actually have to look beyond exchanges with Euramerica or resonances with Euramerica. This is a much bigger story.”

How, then, can we think about different temporal rhythms beyond the linear history of Western “civilisation”? Apart from the relationship between colonisers and colonised, are there other linkages that might be mapped between, say, Australia and Southeast Asia? Ever Present gets us thinking about these difficult questions.

The Dreaming: a different order of space and time

Stepping into the first gallery, I was drawn to a video piece flanked by two paintings, which seemed, at first glance, to belong to an entirely different visual tradition. In Warwick Thornton’s video Way of the Ngangkari #6, a strange, humanoid creature hovers against the inky expanse of the Milky Way. Sparks fly from the open fire beneath its feet as it glows in neon reds and blues, as if filtered through a thermographic camera. 

To its right is Seven Sisters. Energetic, radial orbs and dark, rugged streaks dance across the collaborative dot painting, which tells of ancestral beings morphing into constellations. To the left, a large, orange-hued canvas by traditional healer (Nangkari) Harry Tjutjuna depicts a giant arachnid surrounded by a web of phosphorescent sacs. 

Despite their stylistic differences, however, the three paintings draw on and evoke the Dreaming. A European term used by First Nations peoples, it refers to the spiritual, cosmic dimension of reality that stretches from the very beginning of the universe to a time beyond living memory. 

“We’ve been here before time. We’ve been here for countless centuries, and are still here today,” said Tina, who is Gulumirrgin/Larrakia/Wardaman/Karajarri, highlighting the continuity that underpins the art and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples — one of the oldest living societies in the world.

Rethinking the linear chronology of art history 

This circular and cyclical notion of time explains why the exhibition adopts a thematic rather than chronological approach, doing away with labels like “premodern”, “modern” and “contemporary” that structure Western art history.

Initially, the curators had considered a more linear structure, as the time period covered by the exhibition — from the late 19th century to the present day — aligns closely with the chronology of NGS’s permanent galleries.

“But when Tina came on board, she was adamant that […] it shouldn’t be about applying a very Eurocentric model of art history — paradigms to do with style over time that didn’t really capture what was essentially important about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art,” said Phoebe. 

Instead, the show was organised according to six themes: Ancestors + Creators, Country + Constellations, Community + Family, Culture + Ceremony, Trade + Influence and Resistance + Colonisation. 

“I thought it was very important, for audiences that have either very little or no knowledge of or experience with our First Nations art from Australia, that some really simple, basic concepts needed to be looked at,” said Tina.

Community + Family, for instance, foregrounds the relationships and cultural practices that connect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through generations and across broader clan affiliations. 

Here, we find traditional carved boab nuts from the 1900s and aluminium sculptures of it from 2013. Delicate, pearlescent strings of King Maireener shells made by Ancestors are displayed alongside similar necklaces by contemporary artist Lola Greeno. 

Nearby, a large, conical eel trap woven from sedge rushes by Yvonne Koolmatrie hangs in mid-air, above a mat-like weaving by the Ngarrindjeri people titled River Dreaming. This display visually echoes Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist Michael Riley’s photographs, which depict elements from his childhood — a feather, a boomerang, and a Bible — floating against azure skies.

Such fruitful juxtapositions of artworks and artefacts across time and artistic media recur throughout the show. Labels like “traditional” and “contemporary” fall away, and a different, circular and cyclical order emerges. This brings to light the continuity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural practices and symbols, which have lived on in spite of colonial policies which separated families and communities.

Reclaiming ties between First Nations and Southeast Asian art and culture

Ever Present engages us in this project of recovering lost connections, not just within First Nations communities, but also between Australia and Southeast Asia. If you’re wondering what exactly this show is doing at NGS, the Trade + Influence section provides some illuminating answers.  

Nandabitta Maminyamandja’s bark painting offers us a glimpse of the flourishing sea cucumber (also known as trepang) trade between South Sulawesi and the northern coast of Australia. In 1906-07, the British colonial government severed the trepang trade, which had been ongoing since the early 18th century. 

By examining these regional linkages, Ever Present asks us to reconsider how we conceptualise geographical space and to see connections beyond modern state boundaries which have often been drawn by colonisation. 

This section also looks towards present cultural exchanges between First Nations People and Southeast Asia. Suspended like a series of tapestries is a gorgeous collection of batik by makers from the Central Desert Communities

One can’t help but marvel at the resonances between these pieces and, say, the Asian Civilisation Museum’s Batik Kita, or Jafaar Latiff’s bold, modern experiments. They bear witness to the rich artistic exchanges between Aboriginal practitioners and artists in Indonesia since the 1970s. 

In the same vein of mapping cross-cultural linkages, five works by contemporary Aboriginal artists have also been installed in the permanent Southeast Asia galleries. Christopher Pease’s painting, Wrong side of the Hay (A deserted Indian village) draws attention to the violence of colonial “settlements” (the term itself is a misnomer) in Australia and its omission in landscape paintings.

Placed alongside idyllic Mooi Indie landscape paintings, which present a stereotypical view of the Dutch East Indies as a bountiful, beautiful, “pre-civilised” paradise, Pease’s work asks what else is left out of Southeast Asian landscape traditions. 

Ever Present serves not only as an opportunity for new audiences to learn about First Nations art, but also as a platform for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists to make their voices heard, and to regain agency over how they are represented. 

Curatorial presentations matter

If you’re looking closely at the artwork labels, you’ll notice that they include direct quotations from the artists themselves. This is quite different from the usual, seemingly objective stylistic descriptions that one would expect. Tina’s active curatorial voice also comes through in the introductory texts to each section of the exhibition. 

These curatorial gestures make an important point — that no space of representation is neutral, and that the way communities are seen can have political implications. In our interview, the curators stressed how art has been a powerful tool in promoting the visibility of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. 

Against possible criticisms that such a travelling, international exhibition might just be paying lip service to and commodifying First Nations rights, it’s also important to recognise that art has been a “persistent way that their presence has been felt and insisted upon,” as Phoebe put it. 

“We need to tell the truth of what happened in this country,” shared Tina. “It’s a way of healing to tell these stories, and to […] ensure that they are heard. That they’re not lost and not forgotten. And what better way than through art and through the visual, through the written, though poetry, song, performance, theatre.”

Reckoning with violence

Deeper in the exhibition are works that confront the violence of colonisation. In Yhonnie Scarce’s Silence part 1 + 2, glass forms resembling boab nuts are pinched, stretched and prodded with surgical instruments. The sculptures allude to the “medical” experiments conducted on Aboriginal people, and to the widespread perception that they were classified as “fauna” — it was only as late as 1967 that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were included in the official population. 

Julie Gough’s sculptural installation, Some Tasmanian Aboriginal children living with non-Aboriginal people before 1840, is another powerful indictment of the racism and violence enacted against First Nations people. It consists of a collection of unfinished tea-tree “spears” bound by the frame of an old chair. Into each of these wooden sticks, the artist has burnt the names of lost children — members of her family who were taken away by the colonial government and severed from their language and culture. 

“There is trauma and sadness that often comes with these deeply personal stories,” acknowledged Tina. “But I think there’s an even stronger desire to make sure that these stories are heard.”

Looking inwards

Of course, listening to the First Nations peoples here also raises questions about the indigenous inhabitants of our own island — the Orang Laut, or “sea people”. 

While there are contextual differences between the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and Orang Laut, it is nonetheless valuable to reconsider the narratives that have been left out of textbook History. 

Can we, for instance, revise the official story of how British colonisation turned Singapore from a “sleepy fishing village” into a thriving port, by recovering the crucial role of the Orang Laut in maintaining trade networks for centuries? And, looking beyond history, how can we create spaces for their rich cultural traditions to live on today

Installation view, Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia, National Gallery Singapore 2022. Image credit: Joseph Nair, Memphis West Pictures.

All in all, Ever Present is a show well worth a visit, or perhaps even two or three. Whether you’re looking more generally to learn about another culture, or to engage with larger questions of racism, colonialism, and cultural representation, you won’t be disappointed. 

Beyond the beauty of the works, there is, as Tina puts it, “still joy and passion and humour and resilience within these works, because that’s what […] really gets us through to what we have to deal with, even today.”


Ever Present runs until 25 September 2022 at the National Gallery Singapore. Click here for more information.

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