Published in Dhaka Live on 31 March 2011

One of the world’s oldest continuing art traditions will be on show in Dhaka for the first time from 1 April at Gallery Cosmos in Malibagh, Dhaka.  The Balgo exhibition features 26 paintings by Aborigines, Australia’s indigenous people, who have inhabited the island continent for the last 125,000 years.  The first known evidence of Aboriginal art traditions – which are most familiar as rock and bark paintings – date back a staggering 35,000 years.

The 26 acrylic paintings by contemporary indigenous artists continue ancient meditations on “The Dreaming,” which is the period of creation in animist Aboriginal spirituality.  According to Jackie Dunn, senior curator of Artbank, the Australian government’s art rental programme and producer of Balgo, “‘The Dreaming’ is peopled by mythical shape-shifting creatures… and learnt through scripture and parables.  The stories – which are filled with epic journeys and accounts of love and sexual exploits, with brutal punitive death and recurring life – offer moral teachings and warnings to those who learn them.”

The Dreaming also links a person to their ancestral homeland, as incarnation may occur in a particular tract of land.  Each of the 18 artists featured in the exhibition belongs to the remote community of Balgo in Western Australia, which means “dirty wind.”  The Balgo settlement was established by German priests in 1939 as a refuge for the formerly nomadic peoples who had “been through the long, slow process of the [British] colonisation of Australia’s desert heartland.”  As Dunn further explains, “[Indigenous people] were displaced and their population decimated by violence and disease.”  Many arrived in desperate need of food and shelter.  Unlike at other mission settlements, the priests and sisters at Balgo encouraged the use of local languages and customs.  Acrylic paintings from Balgo first appeared in the 1980s – and though it remains one of Australia’s most remote communities, several Balgo artists have gained international recognition.  Balgo is 1,800 kilometres away from the state’s capital of Perth, and it is located on the outskirts of the Great Sandy Desert, which has a landmass twice the size of Bangladesh.

The unconventional landscapes depicting the massive desert appear to blend modern abstract principles with ancient traditions – red hues and dotted motifs tend to dominate, with many tones derived from the ochre in the earth itself.  Aboriginal paintings may use a semicircle to represent a hill or a camp, and a u-shape may represent the people who gathered there.  Artist Jimmy Tchooga said, “We write the story down in English, about the country [the painting relates to, but] only little bit of the story, not too much.  The sacred bits we keep secret.”

As Dunn further explains, “The art is abstract, but not in the sense that the word is used in western modernism: here, abstraction is used in a much older sense of the term, as a concept for what is known to be in existence.”

In association with Gallery Cosmos, the Australian High Commission in Dhaka is hosting the Balgo exhibition, which began its international tour in 2008.  Balgo has already been exhibited in over 15 different nations, and after closing in Dhaka on 13 April, it will travel to South Korea, before starting an extensive tour of Latin America.  The Australian government hopes to promote a deeper understanding of artistic and cultural traditions of indigenous Australians, who comprise around three percent of its population.

Balgo runs from 1 April – 13 April 2011.  It is open from 11 am to 6 pm on weekdays and from 12 pm to 7 pm on weekends.

Venue: Gallery Cosmos, Cosmos Centre, 69/1, New Circular Road, Malibahg, Dhaka – 1217