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     Volume 4 Issue 75 | December 16, 2005 |

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Art of Survival

"Language is as old as Consciousness" Karl Marx

Avik Sanwar Rahman

On Friday morning the 8th of June 1770 Captain Cook, whilst sailing off the East coast of Australia on his voyage of discovery, passed the beautiful island North Queensland, and he named it Family Island. Some of the comments made by Cook are documented. He said, that the nation of people has no form of government, they do not till the earth and have no form of written language.

The Aboriginal art of Australia is indeed both a written language and a vivid

Dr. Sham Lohani with his wife

documentation of their culture and history like the Egyptian hieroglyphics, and the Inca, Aztec and Maya art.

Australian Aboriginal art is the documentation of the visual and oral history of the Aborigine. People standing with a spear, a mark of a hand print or turtles, kangaroos, lizards and eggs are not figures but represent a written language, a language of the hunters and gatherers that has been transmitted from one generation to the next with a vision and dream.

Australia has many different areas of land. It has desert in the centre, rain forest in the north and the subtropical areas in the southern area. Aborigines live within this land area, at one with the land. They are purely hunters and gatherers caring for the land. The land became the Aborigine mother. The mother provides them with life, fire, water, food and shelter. When we die we go back to the earth, back to the mother, it's a continuation. Therefore Aborigines' time is a continuation, a never ending circular pattern.

Australian Aborigines have six, eight, twelve to twenty seasons depending on the weather patterns and natural food resources. This is why they move around the land to protect the earth and its natural treasures. The Aborigines are natural. Their art forms also reflect this respect for earth's resources and it reflects their lifestyle.

The Aborigine people live in a state area moving through different seasons around the land area. For instance, in some places when a water flower is in bloom, it tells them instinctively that the mud scraps are flat and full and ready to be harvested and that the ponds are coming in close to the coast. So the aborigine migrate to that area, caring for the land.

The aborigine also traded with other nations or tribes. They called the trade routes or communication lines song lines. Through these song lines people were sent out, usually two warriors carrying a painted message stick. In some cases their bodies were even painted with the same message. So they were never invaders or spies going through the country. If they were, they could be speared and put to death. This gave them safe passage through the country to take that message where they had to go. The painted messages served as a passport to a safe passage going through that land.

They also traded different goods. Though they had no knowledge of metal they made stone axes. It takes 500 hours to prepare a stone axe made with very hard black stone. This was a precious commodity and found around 2000km along the trade routes.

The Aborigines have always been a very democratic society because they have no kings, no queens, no chiefs. Instead there is one body of elders, and no one man was put up high above another. The body of elders included experts in the hunting, tracking, story telling, dreaming laws, initiations, settling disputes, declaring war, helping the people. So they were highly intelligent people.

In the Australian aborigines culture, though men have a high status, women have a similar position. There is a clear division of labour with the women engaged in particular activities that men could not take part in and vice versa. But at the same time both men and women could take part in certain ceremonies. In many tribal groups if a man committs adultery a woman has a right to punish him. By law a normal form of punishment is a spear through the thigh. The punishment is usually dealt with by her family line.

Aborigine children are highly regarded, loved and respected, and very rarely disciplined. When they reach puberty, boys and girls are separated, the girls to the women, the boys to the men. They are taught hunting, tracking, bush medicine, the law, and the dreaming stories. The boys learn weapon-making, fighting and so forth. It takes a period of two to three years, sometimes five.

At the time of invasion of the Aborigines' Australia, the status of a woman was just above that of cattle. Children were not classified as human beings until they reached nine years of age. Hence, under British law children could be sent down to the mines, to work in factories, and even in the chimneys. There was even a common belief that men with sexual diseases would be cured if they had sexual intercourse with a nine-year-old or younger virgin.

Australian aborigines' paintings have a unique traditional style of story telling. Once it is told it is understood, due to the defined grammar of the art language.

Their paintings reflect their dream and vision, for example how to care for the Earth, food sources and also men's and women's business or division of labour.

Australian aborigines never paint human faces or figures; they paint the symbols. So a mark of a handprint is a symbol of claiming the place and painting of animals represents the food source.

Circles in Aborigine culture represent the life force. So the life force of a circle in their written language can depict human, animal, trees, plant, rock, fire, lightning, sacred area, camp site and many other things.

The Aborigine use natural colours from rocks and charcoals. The colour has its own meaning. Blue represents rivers, water and ocean, red is fire or desert, black is Aborigine people, white represents the colonisers, green the rain forests, brown represents wood and land. The aborigines draw dot paintings and sometimes paint diamond patterns as well. Everything they paint is through the small dots. The aborigines mastered the form of geometry in their paintings which is a reflection of their natural knowledge of geometry.

The art documents sacred areas, weather patterns, the food sources, and the movement around the land, and ceremonies.

For instance a painting may show potato as a food source in the desert, the division of labour, how the women dig the ground, which places they are leaving for next season, and their movement pattern around the food source. Another painting may tell the story of the wet season in northern Australia. The story tells how they read the earth, the mother. It states when the wet season is coming, and how high the floods are going to be. In one water colour there is a baramandi which lives in the salt water, but breeds in the fresh water. The painting shows that they are in fresh water and aborigines know this because of the presence of a turtle in the painting. The turtle has claws which means it is a fresh water turtle. The sea turtle has flippers. The baramandi lays its eggs, the turtle also eats the eggs of baramandi at that time. This way the Aborigine know that the wet season is arriving.

Aborigine people painted in black shows that they then migrated into that area to hunt and gather the food source of crocodile eggs, the baramandi and the turtle. The U shapes in the painting represent the camp site of the people at the top end of the river. So the painting shows food source, hunting and gathering, the weather seasons of the rain and how high the flood is going to be.

"They are fascinating people, they are all natural artists", said Dr. Sham Lohani, who has been in the export business of Australian Aboriginal fabrics since 1990.

Dr. Lohani went to Australia in 1968 to do his Ph.D on natural products from Melbourne University. In 1971 during independence Dr. Sham Lohani was an active member of the "committee for the support of Bangladesh" in Melbourne. The committee was chaired by Dr. Fieth of Monash University. After the emergence of Bangladesh Dr. Lohani became the President of Australia Bangladesh Society, a friendship organisation between the people of Australia and Bangladesh.

In 1980, Dr Lohani started a horticultural book distribution business in Australia.

"As I was in the book business I found some people who were interested in craft and textile art books, particularly patchwork and quilting books", said Lohani.

Market demand led the Bangladeshi chemist to distribute books, patchwork fabrics and other accessories. Soon he started printing Australian designs on 100% cotton fabrics. At that time Dr. Lohani came to realise that the Australian Aboriginal designs could be interesting and challenging designs for the patch workers."

"We now supply our Aboriginal fabrics to the USA, UK, France, Canada and some other countries of the world," said Dr. Lohani.

Dr. Sham Lohani is the Managing Director of M&S Textiles Australia. Now this company is a manufacturer of Aboriginal and other Australian designed fabrics. Dr. Lohani is also the President of Australia Bangladesh Foundation, Inc., a newly formed organisation to help needy people of Australia and Bangladesh with health and other social care projects.

The successful venture of the Aboriginal designed fabrics led Lohani to think about an exhibition of this magnificent form of art in Bangladesh. The exhibition will be held at Shilpangan gallery located at road 5, house 25 Dhanmondi. The exhibition will start from December 17 and will continue till December 26.

"Aborigine paintings could be an inspiration for us. The indigenous culture has reached the international periphery from the caves of the Australian Aborigine", said Lohani.

Besides commercial venture, the aborigine paintings also show the failure of all efforts of ethnic cleansing of the aborigines through killing, slavery and reproduction. Australians took a policy of out breeding with the aborigines. Australians thought that through out breeding, after three generations the Aborigine people would become white. Which means after three generations the children will be blue eyed, blond haired and white skinned. The Aborigine boys became labourers in the white missions or dormitories and girls worked as domestic help. Ninety percent of the girls were sent back to the mission after falling pregnant to the white workers.

The disturbing element depicted in the painting besides the oppression of the settlers on the Aborigine, is the policy of 'out-breeding', an attempt to make the Aborigine assimilate.

Aborigines' modern painting reflects this fact of cultural erosion. The painting shows different colours for different castes like half castes, quarter castes and so on. Amidst the wholesale cultural erosion, the black Aborigine still survive within the symbol of charcoal black reflected in the paintings, which delineates their consciousness, their dream and their art of survival.

Photo: Shamim Ahamed Ranju.

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