Title: 'The Greening of Icarus' (2010)
Mix media: X-ray plates, artificial grass, wood, acrylic sheets and light

114.5 cm X 114.5cm
Acrylic on canvas

Is a place that evokes happy memories and feelings. It has the colours of candy or the boiled sugar sweet often associated with childhood mollification and indulgence. 'Candyistan' therefore becomes a country (with the suffix 'istan') that is the equivalent of childhood memories, laughter, playfulness, splashing around in water, climbing trees, falling and getting up again. 'Candyistan' is a place far away from the enervating concerns and demands of adulthood. It is perhaps an expanded 'cake-house' of the Hansel and Gretel story that I greatly enjoyed as a child, more for its abundance of cake, biscuit and candies than anything else. This one is an attempt to evoke a non-terrestrial country, whose sweet, dreamy and nebulous landscape exists within each of us but whose inherent elusiveness leaves us sad and wanting and fantasising about a time when we had no abiding cares or fears or worries.

WE STAND IN THE middle of New South Wales’ Royal National Park holding hands and looking heavenwards to invoke Yullangur—‘the dreaming’ of the creation serpent—as our guide Les Bursill starts us on a tour of Australia’s sacred sites. ‘The Dreaming’ describes Aborigine Australia’s curiously Brahma-like worldview. According to it, all our realities lie subsumed by a ‘dreaming’ that started at the dawn of time, whenever that was. The fact that the phenomenon is still referred to in the present-continuous is interesting because it speaks of a larger inclusion of the timeline, especially since the arrival of the white man, a moment in history that has spelt nothing but doom for the ‘dreaming’. White Australians first came as a fleet of convicts and prison-guards to serve what was to be a very rigorous punishment. But strangely, they stayed on to give birth to a white nation, very different from what the Aborigine dreaming had ironically intended.

White Australia’s experience of the dreaming has ranged from outright rejection to utter moral confusion. From the early colonialists' point-of-view the native culture (or what was often seen as a lack of it) was in a need of a civilising influence. And they were more than happy to provide it. This began with the taming of Bennelong, a male aboriginal who in 1789 was abducted in keeping with King George III’s wishes “to open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections…” Bennelong thus became the first Aboriginal to speak English, dress up like the white man and even cross the seas to pay a visit to England—not quite like a caged exotic, but close.

Since Bennelong, white Australia has time and again tried to ‘conciliate the affections’ of those whom it has tried to rule. The dreaming since then has become an object of much research and creative exploration by white Australians. A sense of this ‘terrible fascination’ (to paraphrase Rudolf Otto) is visible at the souvenir shops and Aboriginal art galleries that have turned sacred totemic art into novelty pieces. It speaks of a process of exoticisation that has squeezed Aborigine culture of its values and humanity. But signs of a cultural sensitivity are gradually showing up. In Warwick Thornton’s touchingly unsentimental film Samson and Delilah (2009) an Aboriginal teenage couple escapes to the city from its community only to find city-life terribly harsh and unforgiving to moneyless wanderers like themselves. It is a fair portrayal of two opposing cultures that have unsuccessfully tried to negotiate each other’s mind space. There exists an interesting Aborigine corroboree or oral narrative about a massacre by the white man whose cow they had stolen and eaten because they were hungry. Since in the Aboriginal sense life is a dreaming it requires no further elaboration; in other words it has no need to assert notions of ownership, enterprise and other capitalist biases. These very ideas, on the other hand, have become cast in stone in the mind of the white West since it was industrialised.

Art has in fact served the Aborigine cause better. As its numinous appeal has been more in keeping with the dreaming way of life. But the wedge driven by the racial policies of the first white settlers have had a lasting effect. Aborigine poet-artist Maggie Walsh speaks of the lack of faith her community feels about the double life most of them live. “When I go back to the community they say, ‘So you wanna become a white woman, eh?’ and here in the city I meet all these wonderful artists and poets who treat me so fine and seem to understand me. I have no choice but to choose a double life.” Most Aussies of a generation or two ago are all too familiar with their treatment of Aborigines, who were often accosted at street corners and told to ‘go back to their own country’.

Internally, Australian racism is often viewed as a ‘hot-blooded’ response to immigrant presumptions but nonetheless it has deeper roots. Australia has been for over 200 years a society running on auto-pilot; a loose mix of white, imperialist and Christian tendencies. And now it suddenly finds itself having to make room for the ‘other’, largely non-white, non-Christian immigrant populations that have been gravitating towards its shores from all corners of the Earth. It is pertinent to recall here that for a long time Australia insisted on a ‘whites only’ immigration policy. It has only in the recent past opened its doors to other races. This makes Aussie claims to a deep-rooted cosmopolitanism rather facile. It’s like a big woman trying to squeeze into a size zero dress.

The ‘Indian issue’ has pained much of the left-leaning press and the intelligentsia but to the majority of Australians ‘it is not a race issue’. Till as late as 2005 white Australia had been at war with its ‘otherness’. In 2005 riots had broken out in Sydney’s Cronulla Beach between Lebanese Australians and whites over a few drunken remarks. A year before that, riots between Aborigines and white Australians had shaken up Palm Island over the custody death of Mulrunji, picked up for being ‘a public nuisance’. A few months before that, Aborigine residents had clashed with the police in Redfern, a Sydney suburb, following the death of Thomas ‘TJ’ Hickey, another Aborigine teenager under police surveillance.

The attacks on Indians have a terrible ring to them, a sense of déjà vu and yet the police and lawmakers continue to treat them as stray disturbances. This betrays an attitude that as a country Australia has not been sincere in facing its demons. It has in fact chosen to look the other way or pride itself for its many ethnic enclaves as a sign of cultural mixing. But in truth mixing in the Aussie sense carries a lot of baggage, especially from the days of its ‘white occupation’. Newcomers to Australia find themselves in a surfacely friendly country that scoffs at any real understanding or abiding interest in the ways of life of its ethnic minorities. It is not surprising then that the exchange between the dominant ethnic group (of white Australians) and the rest gets limited to a cursory stereotyping of the rest by the majority. There is a heart of Australian conservatism, visible some years ago in the anti-immigrant remarks of politician Pauline Hanson, that hasn’t been able to keep up with the spacious geography of the land. Hanson in her book The Truth, had parodied the idea of multiculturalism by suggesting that by 2050 Australia would have a woman president who would be part Chinese, part Indian and part machine. This February she announced her decision to move back to England, the country of her birth. Hanson is not alone in feeling a particular fondness for the ‘mother country’. Australian society, despite appearances is remarkably old-world, attached through a well-tended umbilicus to the idea of an imperial Britain that may itself now be a speck in the amber of time.

In a country living largely in denial of its racist background it is a peculiar group that has taken upon itself to ring the alarm bells. It is a group of artists who have since the Sixties been ardent iconoclasts. Most active among them is ‘light-sculptor’ Roger Foley-Fogg, who also goes by the stage-name of Ellis D. Fogg. Roger tells me how much he is in awe of the Indian idea of ‘Vasudev Kutumbakam’ or the idea of the world as one family. Roger’s February show in Sydney was titled ‘Fire 2010: The Spirit of India’ and it gathered rave reviews from the art world especially because of its timing and its unqualified love for India. The show had featured ‘lumino kinetic’ works or sculptures made of LEDs and inspired by Lakshmi, Marut, Agni, Jal and the mandalas. “These were my personal impressions of the spirit of India,” says Roger, “the subtext of which includes the idea that all matter is made from light and music and the harmony created by their mixing.”

Roger’s ideas about the dreaming and the world as one family go back to his Sixties peer group. “I was first moved by this concept at the Yellow House (a former artists’ commune) nearly 40 years ago through an unpublished cartoon by Martin Sharp titled ‘We are all islands, joined beneath the sea’,” he remembers. Today, the thought of Indo-Oz relations being at their lowest ebb pains him. Roger’s light and film projects about Aborigine culture have tried to hold a mirror to mainstream Australia’s clumsy track-record of handling its otherness.

The biggest part, I believe, of any healing between cultures that have been at odds with each other is a dialogue. And what better way is there than using the language of music, art, literature and films to start that dialogue. Aussie filmmaker Albie Thoms made a case for exactly this kind of a movement in his Seventies’ book Polemics for a New Cinema. Surely there’s no better time than now for Australia to open itself for some healing. To tell stories about its struggle with its otherness, especially through films such as the Aborigine saga of Ten Canoes (2006) or the cross-cultural love story of The Combination (2009). And to take on the bigger challenge of getting mainstream Australia interested in the dreaming.

© Dhiraj Singh 2010

It was a chance meeting that brought us face to face with Les Bursill, a one-man authority on Sydney's Aboriginal history and anthropology. And we were lucky to have him as our guide to the sacred sites located in the Royal National Park in Sydney. A descendant of the Dharawal community of southern Sydney, Les is a walking encyclopaedia on his area and its unique customs. He is also a seasoned bushwalker as we found out while trying to make way through the thick foliage of the Australian bush. We took with us bottles of water to pour on the awesome engravings to make them visible in the glare of the midday sun, while Les took us on a fascinating journey to the beginning of 'the dreaming'... when Yullangur or the creation serpent first appeared... and how the 'celestial sisters' came to give birth to the first humans and how the early Aborigines carried out their Orca hunts in the Sydney bay area.

Talking About Palm Island happened quite by chance while sitting in Elisabeth Cummings' beautiful home-and-studio in suburban Sydney. Elisabeth is one of Australia's most respected living abstract expressionists and a wonderful human being. In this clip she's telling us about The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island, a book that's impressed her immensely. The award-winning book by Chloe Hooper traces the custody death in 2004 of Cameron Doomadgee Mulrunji, a 36-year-old aboriginal man believed to have been a victim of the police's racial prejudice. The coroner's report tried to show Mulrunji's demise as a case of accidental death, which led to violent riots and sit-ins by the Palm Island aborigine community who alleged that Mulrunji was beaten to death. For me the incident is an important part of understanding race-relations in Australia and perhaps even back home in India where they take on a casteist colour.

Elisabeth, like many other Oz artists whom we met, also spoke about her deep fascination with the colours and sights of India. She was in Vrindavan recently where she had a great time visiting the temples and watching underprivileged kids paint.

Also at the table are Oz light-artist Roger Foley-Fogg, Hollywood film editor Francesca Emerson, CNN-IBN art correspondent (and wifey) Sahar Zaman and of course yours truly who's behind the camera.

It's no coincidence that these (this and the one below) are inspired by Gymea, the place where we stayed in Sydney, Gymea, the native Australian lily and Les Bursill's amazing tour of Aborigine sacred sites.

The Gymea Lily (Doryanthes excelsa) is a flowering plant indigenous to the coastal areas of New South Wales around Sydney.
The plant has sword-like leaves more than a meter long. It flowers in spring and summer, sending up a flower spike up to 6 m high, which at its apex bears a large cluster of bright red flowers, each 10 cm across.

The name "Gymea Lily" is derived from a local Eora dialect. Dory-anthes means spear-flower in Greek, and excelsa is Latin for exceptional. The Sydney suburbs of Gymea and Gymea Bay are named after the lily.

The genus Doryanthes was first described in 1802 by the Portuguese priest, statesman, philosopher and botanist José Francisco Correia de Serra (1750–1823), a close friend of Sir Joseph Banks. Doryanthes excelsa has also inspired the naming of Doryanthes, the journal of history and heritage for Southern Sydney founded by Dharawal historian Les Bursill.

Source: Wikipedia

46 cm X 46 cm each
Acrylic on canvas
Pix: Sahar Z

“MOST of the work here is inspired by my interpretation of the spirit of India and the meaning of Diwali, the largest light festival in the world.

My original Sixties’ lightshows were inspired by India’s colourful gods, mandalas and the concept of Karma and in my innocence and naiveté I must confess that India seemed a particularly attractive society because Coca-Cola and other suspect symbols of the corporate world were banned at that time.

Recent trips have strengthened my impressions of the spirituality of India. Not the spirituality of any one religion or particular belief but the way that the belief and social systems in all the many different ‘Indias’ add up to manifest a harmonious whole. One family.

My advisor, friend and special guest at the Exhibition artist Dhiraj Singh tells me that this ancient Indian concept of Vasudev Kutumbakam which means—the world is one family—holds special relevance today particularly in our reaction to climate change and other world problems. We all have to work together.

I was first moved by this concept—of universal oneness—at the Yellow House, Sydney, nearly 40 years ago through an unpublished cartoon by Martin Sharp, once lost now found, titled—‘We are all islands, joined beneath the sea’.

My work is also inspired by the theatre and film of Albie Thoms from whom I discovered ‘the futurist manifesto for the theatre’. In recent years I have given a ‘futurist’-inspired lecture (‘7 Aspects of Light’) at the National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra, to a very mixed audience response and with the late Adrian Rawlins and the multi-talented Edwina Blush produced ‘Mr Fogg’s Music Hall’ as a chaotic, ‘futurist’ event.

On the other hand I also design, construct and production-manage the annual ‘Christmas Tree of Light, Darling Harbour’ in a highly organised manner for the children of Sydney and in support of the Starlight Foundation.

For this exhibition I have tried to get both sides of my brain in some kind of sync!”

Roger Foley-Fogg aka Ellis D. Fogg
February 2010, Sydney

I believe we're most alive when we die... that's when we're liberated from the dragging weight of the body. On dying we become free and weightless as the sky. And like the sky we are given the gift of being present at many places at the same time.

I was in Sydney, Australia, when I received the news of my father's death in Lucknow. Just before he breathed his last he had given my mother extensive instructions about his funeral arrangements: how the family was not to be informed till it was a decent enough hour (he died at 4 am), how he didn't want his last rites to be delayed because of our (my brother's and my) arrival from two corners of the earth (my brother lives in the US). He died after telling my mother how much he loved her and how he was lucky to be going before her because he could not bear the idea of living without her. They had been married for 47 years.

In one of Roger Foley's interviews with Peggy Patrick, an aboriginal law woman, she tells of how her ancestors roamed the earth after they had been poisoned by their white 'owners'. She tells of another story where another white fisherman gives some fish to these dead ancestors and when he turns around he finds them gone. These ancestors then appear to their sons and tell them how they were murdered by the white men for stealing their cow. Peggy says how the dazed and surprised ancestors roamed the earth till they realised that they were really dead. They did not want revenge on the white man, they just wanted to pass on their stories to their descendents. Peggy Patrick's father was one of the men killed. Only her young uncle survived because he didn't eat the poisoned broth prepared by the white men of the village. He also escaped their shooting when they realised that he was not falling over like the rest who had had the broth.

I saw my father again five days after he'd died. We were at a hotel in Mumbai and I was there to see him off. He was taking a sea trip across to somewhere because his health didn't permit him to take the plane. Pa said he'd been very ill the night before but he had "survived" the night and was ready to take on the long voyage ahead of him...

Today we had a memorial service for Pa. We called it 'A Celebration of Life' and it was truly a celebration of what he'd meant to all three of us children, his wife and to his larger family that was really the whole wide world.

This one's for you, Pa. Have a great trip!

Roger Foley aka Ellis D. Fogg's lumino kinetics show, titled
'The Spirit of India--Fire 2010'...
We are honoured to be the 'special guests' at the opening :)



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As an art practitioner I work in a variety of mediums, what you see here are glimpses of my many creative projects. If you like or feel strongly something here please don't forget to comment



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