Question of Reconciliation

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Australian and Indian artists, baffled by attacks on Indians down under, explore how the two countries treat each other and their minorities

The past few years have put Australia in the headlines both in India and wherever else the increasingly seen-and-heard Indian diaspora has chosen to live across the world. Suddenly, in the wake of ‘racist attacks’, Indians and with them the rest of the world started looking at this scenic country, known for its informal chumminess, in a different light.

Most people in India I spoke to disagreed with the media-fuelled anti-Australia hype about the alleged ‘racist’ attacks. In Australia too there are many who look upon India with much love and admiration, as a millennial civilisation that continues to live and breathe the air of diversity. Also as a country of more than a billion people whose curiosity about the world is limitless. Perhaps it is for this reason there are also those in the business of education who prefer to see India as a market of unlimited needs and ambitions. It is with this mix of sentiments that my first show as curator is titled Racism & Reconciliation, as it seeks to engage these two unique countries in a dialogue on their history of dealing with the other, the different and the marginal.

As a former news anchor for CNN-IBN, I did a lot of live news breaks from the studio about the attacks on Indians in Australia, in cities like Sydney and Melbourne. I also got to speak to many victims of these attacks and their families. Interestingly, some victims preferred to see the attacks as petty crimes even as they lay in bed recovering. When I visited Australia in January 2010 to attend artist Roger Foley-Fogg’s amazing tribute to India, a show titled Spirit of India, I realised how pained and baffled Australians were by these attacks. My interactions with people in Sydney and Brisbane set me thinking of a show where artists from both countries could come together. I wanted an art show to address the issue calmly through the perspective of our histories, our colonial experience and our treatment of minorities. 

Keeping all this in mind, I decided to curate a show that, though not directly dwelling on the attacks, sought to see how artists from both countries read the situation. There was much debate over the name of the show. How we could posit a question and see how the public responds to what they had heard about ‘worsening relations’ between India and Australia.

And thus, on Australian artist Roger Foley-Fogg’s suggestion, we added the word ‘reconciliation’—as it indicated a desire to understand each other and find out where in the matrix of our relations had things been misinterpreted and misunderstood.

From Australia, the artists who showed the greatest enthusiasm for and grasp of the issue were light sculptor Roger Foley-Fogg and installation artist Tracey Deep. Roger works with LEDs around themes that see the world as one big family, where people are ‘all islands, joined beneath the sea’. His best received work in the show is a large Swastika that is created by a basket weave of rope lights whose loose ends lie carelessly on the floor. This work is called Love Hate Love, because, “The Swastika is a universal symbol that has come to mean hatred and terror as well as love and understanding,” says Roger. “But love conquers all. It is the only possible solution to all our problems.” His video installation called We Are All Friends Now is a rare documentation of a corroboree (an Aborigine retelling of things past) by Peggy Patrick, an Aboriginal law woman, talking about Black-White reconciliation in Australian society. It aims to show how race relations in Australia have moved on from a feckless and sometimes callous understanding of the other to a compassion-filled dialogue.

Artist Tracey Deep uses reusable and discarded material. “My installation Moonlight is made from recycled material, rescued from a landfill. It’s an example of how materials used in our everyday life can be reused, reworked and reinterpreted to create something totally new and give the material a second life,” says Tracey.

The two Indian artists in the show have made special trips to Australia, both to understand the complexity of the situation and to seek common ground with artists there.

Seema Kohli has put her observations across in her signature style of tapestry-like canvases and several sketches that crystallise for her the Oz spirit of informality and bonhomie. “I realised that both Hindu mythology and Aboriginal Dreaming have striking similarities in the way they see the continuum of life. Especially, how the position of a woman is glorified as a significant player in nurturing the world and harmonising all existence.” In one of her canvases, she has done a portrait of an indigenous Australian, blending it with her distinct palette.

Dhiraj Singh, who has made a successful shift from journalism to art, worked with X-rays for his installation Black Tide. “I think Black Tide is the best name I could think of for my work. It’s got X-rays of skulls captured on acrylic sheets cut out in the shape of surfboards. I look at it like Time, or as we say in Hindi kaala, which means both time and the colour black, dissolving away scars from the sands of human memory. The surfboards in this work act as totemic portals representing Dreaming, the Aboriginal idea used to describe the beginningless-endless journey of things and beings.”

For me this was a dream project that evaporated the sweat, toil and heartburn of a year of preparation.

Sahar Zaman is an independent arts journalist and curator. Her first curated show Racism & Reconciliation is on at Art Konsult, a Delhi gallery, till 20 February