Ever Present: A Lesson in Comparative History

Considered the largest exhibition of Australian First Nations art in Asia, Ever Present: The Art of Australia’s First Peoples at the National Gallery Singapore is an in-depth survey of the National Gallery of Australia and the Wesfarmers Collection of Australian Art.

Capturing over 170 works by 150 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, the works date back to 1890 and cover a wide range of contemporary practices.

Visitors can encounter a nearly 5-meter painting by Emily Kame Kngwarreye among works by Albert Namatjira, Destiny Deacon, Timothy Cook, Judy Watson, Tony Albert, Rover Thomas and many more.

The exhibition also includes two special commissions: Jonathan Jones’ Untitled (walam-wunga.galang) and an iteration of Richard Bell Embassy.

Dr Eugene Tan, Director of NGS, said: ‘Always present encourages visitors to reconsider their understanding of Southeast Asia through our historical connections to Australia’s First Peoples, to reflect on our shared colonial history alongside ongoing conversations about decolonization, and to draw attention to artistic expressions and voices marginalized by conventional art historical narratives.

Tina Baum, Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the NGA echoed: “The history and cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are a crucial part, not only of the history of Australia, but also around the world.”

This interconnection is illustrated in a recent lecture, staged inside Richard Bell Embassybetween Badtjala artist Fiona Foley and Sabah-born Malaysian artist Yee I-Lann, who presented works as part of an artistic journey at Always presententitled Between declarations and dreams.

Installation view of Richard Bell’s Embassy, ​​2013- in the City Hall Room, National Gallery Singapore; picture provided.

Works by five Aboriginal artists, including Foley’s Badtjala Woman (1994) and Yee’s imagine the power (2013).

NGS Gallery curator Goh Sze Ying, who moderated the panel, observed the exposition of the journey and the pairing of conversations, “are sometimes presented as parallels, but sometimes punctuated with provocation”.

Goh told ArtsHub, “It is unequivocal how firmly rooted First Peoples art is in political, social and creative action – a testament to their enduring presence despite a violent history.

“The exhibit immediately challenges our local and regional audiences’ stereotypes about First Peoples’ art history, culture and heritage,” she added.

Through this discussion, similarities can be drawn between Foley and Yee’s practices and their cultural origins as they examined the impacts of British colonialism and globalization.

Change Archiving Purpose

For both artists, photographic archives and photography served as a medium of exploration. Yee said, “Looking at the colonial records of Southeast Asian societies, particularly in Java… This massive realization struck me that we were part of a constructed history.”

This includes nation-state building and the manipulation of geographical borders that now encompass Malaysia and Borneo under “Malaysia” as established in the second half of the 20th century.

Yee continued: “The relationship that we in Sabah and the Malaysian Borneo States still have with Federal Malaysia is a problem. And trying to figure out why we feel this anxiety… My whole practice is about that, understanding our boundaries and these power structures.

How do you colonize someone? You colonize them by administration, by the violence of the administration, by the violence of the educational system, by the directives of language or loss of language, of what is defined as civilized or uncivilized, which is considered valuable and should be kept in a museum.

Yee I-Lann, Malaysian artist from Sabah

For Yee, the lightbulb moment came from the presence of tableaus in historic photographs captured through a colonial lens.

She explains: “I started to see everything differently, and imagine the power was the result of that blistering moment of the violence of the table and its invisibility or harmlessness. The archipelagos of Southeast Asia have no history of tables, everyone sat on the mat.

Installation view, Between declarations and dreams. L: Fiona Foley, Badtjala Woman, 1994 and R: Yee I-Lann, Picturing Power, 2003. Image provided.

Likewise for Foley, who followed in her mother’s footsteps by recovering cultural material from archives in Australia, the re-examination and reinterpretation of historical material gives way to empowerment.

Foley said: ‘My mum put together a word list from all those archives in museums and state libraries and I grew up in a family that was very proud to speak a vestigial language, even if it wasn’t complete sentences, just a word here and there.’

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In his work Badtjala WomanFoley recast herself in the image of an anonymous ancestor found in admiration through this archival research.

“It’s like extracting the archives to articulate a different form of Badtjala’s reality in contemporary art,” Foley added.

Most importantly, these practices seek to empower those they represent, resulting in real impacts on communities and cultures.

Art translates into real impacts

The impact an artistic practice can have on communities cannot be underestimated, as both artists have dedicated their lives to creating visibility and empowerment for their people.

One thing Foley encountered in the early 70s was this lack of recognition around city-based First Nations artists and their rightful connection to Country.

“I was part of a wave of artists through the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists’ Cooperative and it took a long time to convince people in the arts institutions that we are just as legitimate as the people who make art from Arnhem Land, Central Australia or Western Australia.

“We had to fight for this space, which is now quite commonly accepted. And part of that acceptance is that there are Indigenous curators in every state gallery in Australia,” Foley added.

“It’s a story that many young conservatives working in the industry (thankfully) ignore,” Foley said.

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Yee reflected, “I want to put my thinking, my theory and my concepts into practice – that’s basically what I’m doing now. I can talk about the violence of this harsh and patriarchal colonial table but what is the alternative?

“How the hell do you make communities value each other? How can I make communities understand that their knowledge is valuable and needs to be nurtured?

“I’ve been on this quest to relearn our local philosophies and how to deal with current issues via something that’s deeply familiar and sometimes taken for granted,” Yee continued.

Yee’s practice promotes circular economies, employing women weavers who then teach their craft to the next generation and hire their husbands to be part of a team building a permanent space.

Returning to Always presentYee said the inclusion of her work in national institutions affirms more than knowledge and signals visibility and power.

Yee said: ‘I think having my Tikar-A-Gagah (2019) on the ground floor of the NGS is impacting the thinking of curators at one of the most important art institutions in the Southeast Asian region, [who are] write our canon art. How big is this role? I see this as a power.

Always present is on display at the National Gallery in Singapore until September 25. ArtsHub has received a draft recording from the panel which will be available on the NGS YouTube channel next week.

The traveling exhibition was first shown at the Art Gallery of WA earlier this year.

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