If legend is to be believed, Yirrikapayi, an ancestor from Australia’s Tiwi Islands, metamorphosed into a crocodile after being stabbed in the back with a spear. As he dived into the sea, the barbs formed by the weapon were transformed magically into serrations along his back and tail. Jean Baptiste Apuatimi’s painting Yirrikapayi (2007) evokes this myth, giving it a contemporary spin. Instead of a graphic representation of the tale, her abstract composition, with its intricate and densely patterned meshwork of triangles and squares, serves to mimic a crocodile’s scaly skin as it glides through the water.

Apuatimi’s painting is part of Indigenous Australia: Masterworks From The NGA (National Gallery of Australia), a show which opened on Friday at Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). The exhibition, billed as a curtain-raiser for the forthcoming Australia Fest in India (activities commence in September), brings together over a hundred artworks produced by Australia’s indigenous artists, from the late 1800s to the present. “The art of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians is one of the oldest, richest and most complex forms of creative expression in human history. The NGA’s Indigenous Masterworks exhibition showcases the best work produced by the most significant indigenous artists in Australia," says Australian high commissioner Harinder Sidhu.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists draw on a long tradition of oral storytelling, and their art reflects this deep, ancient knowledge. Australia’s indigenous culture counts as the world’s oldest continuous culture, stretching over 60,000 years. Traditionally, legends were expressed through rituals, secret ceremonial songs and dances, body painting, rock engravings, and designs and patterns on domestic and ritual objects. The exhibition mirrors this variety of expression with paintings on canvas and bark, weaving and sculpture, new media, prints and photography.

The ‘creation’ myths

One of the most fascinating of all indigenous myths pertains to its creation mythology. Aboriginal cultures share the belief that the world was created by ancestral spirits in what is known as “dreaming". In most stories, these spirit ancestors came to earth and created its flora, fauna, rivers, mountains and other natural formations. These spirit ancestors include the Rainbow Serpent, the rain-maker spirit Wandjina, the Mimi Spirits, or fairy-like beings of the Arnhem Land, and the Karatgurk, or the seven sisters who represent the Pleiades star cluster. It is widely believed that once these spirits created the world, they transformed into stars, trees, rocks and watering holes which are still regarded as sacred spots.

The mythology of “dreaming" underpins many of the works in the show. Yanjilypiri Jukurrpa (Star Dreaming), 1985, is a large canvas work collaboratively produced by three senior men of the Warlpiri tribe. It depicts the creation of constellations and relates it to the tribe’s fire ceremony. In the ceremony, participants shake smouldering branches, producing embers that float into the night sky, mimicking constellations. These are represented by the circles and stars in the artwork, while the central motif of red and black lines recalls the ceremonial ground painting on which the fire ceremony is performed.

Many early works by the indigenous people were painted on pieces of bark, using natural earth pigments, thereby sharing a direct connection with the region they portray. The bark painting Fire Story At Caledon Bay by Munggurrawuy Yunupingu, dating from the 1960s, narrates the story of how fire was brought to Caledon Bay by Baru, the ancestral crocodile. Quails furthered the fire by taking burning sticks through the grasslands. The fire burnt through a Ngarra ceremony, charring the participants. Munggurrawuy developed an episodic style of painting in which a series of events are portrayed within the same painting.

Several paintings in the exhibition display an abstract geometry and a sophisticated use of colour, with secret codes embedded in the works. Interpreting Walangkura (Jackson) Napanangka’s Untitled work, Franchesca Cubillo, senior curator, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art, NGA, says, “It is a topographical map of the artist’s country, although painted according to a spiritual scale rather than a geographic scale: Significant cultural sites are large and dominate the canvas, while discrete locations and tracks are small and disappear into the work."

Ritual of self-documentation

By portraying mythology and ancient rituals, Aboriginal paintings also serve the purpose of documenting their people’s ways, preserving them for future generations. For instance, William Barak’s Corroboree, dating from 1895, passes on his extensive knowledge of Aboriginal culture. Depicting the corroboree, a dance ceremony, it has six men holding boomerangs and clapsticks—their bodies painted with clan designs—while others sit before them clapping.

The colonial encounter is also powerfully captured in the 19th century works of Tommy McRae. The delightful work Meeting The White Man, with its spare and simple lines, depicts a man with a top hat approaching a group of Aboriginal tribespeople, who don’t know what to make of this strange apparition. The drawing alludes to the story of William Buckley, a convict who absconded in 1803 and lived with the Victorian Aboriginal people for over three decades.

With more frequent exchanges between Aboriginal and Western cultures over the decades, Aboriginal artists have adopted more contemporary means of expression, such as the use of acrylic paint on canvas, landscape painting techniques, and photography. But, at their core, their works continue to reflect their deep spiritual connection with the land, nature and community.

Indigenous Australia: Masterworks From The NGA is on view at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi, till 26 August.

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