Tuesday, 26 December 2017

"Terra Australis Magnus" (Great Southern Land) - The Symbolism Behind My Latest Painting

[A note on "cultural appropriation":

Before I begin, I should point out that I have used an Australian Aboriginal motif in my painting, and I'm sure I'll hear the term "cultural appropriation" sooner or later. I feel I should nip this one in the bud.

Of late, I have been reading a lot about this notion of "cultural appropriation". Children are no longer able to dress like people of another culture for a fancy dress party or for Halloween. It's supposed to be disrespectful to the other culture.

I also read a post by an Indian woman called "White people need to stop saying namaste". Wow!

I'm an ethnic Indian just like the author of the above piece, but I have a markedly different view on this. I have a clear benchmark on when offence should be taken -- when it is intended. If someone says "namaste" to me in a mocking tone, I know that offence is being intended, and I will take offence. If someone says "namaste" to me in the sincere belief that they are being respectful, then I will take it in that spirit and return the greeting graciously. The mere use of the word "namaste" by a non-Indian does not make it wrong, or a form of "cultural appropriation". One needs to consider the intent behind the use of a cultural element. The author of that piece needs to fix her own attitude.

I think this entire concept of "cultural appropriation" is a sign of left/liberalism gone crazy. It seems to be part of a trend of manufactured outrage we're seeing a bit too much of. I also think it's precisely this excessive political correctness that leads to backlashes like the election of Trump, so let's all be warned not to push our luck.

I have used an Aboriginal motif with the intention of acknowledging the importance of the first peoples of Australia, not with the desire to mock or to caricature Aboriginal culture. My intent is therefore respectful. Perhaps the similarity of my work to the genuine article is only superficial, and neglects some core element of Aboriginal art. Well, culture is not a static construct, and so art should rightfully build on prior art, and innovate further.

So I reject in advance the notion that I have "appropriated" elements of another culture, because I reject any definition of "cultural appropriation" that does not include a consideration of intent.]

Over the Christmas break (which is summer in Australia), I painted the following picture.

"Terra Australis Magnus" (Great Southern Land) - click to expand

I'd like to explain what I intended to convey through this painting.

I have tried to put together symbols of Australia using the principle of antisymmetry, with opposites coming together in a complementary way.

The canvas itself has the dimensions 48" x 30", yielding an aspect ratio of 1.6, which is close to the Golden Ratio.

I have divided the canvas into two - not horizontally or vertically or even with a straight-line diagonal, but with an S-curve that passes through the centre of the canvas, dividing it into two equal halves. At a high level, the entire picture is radially symmetrical about the centre.

What lies along the S-curve is the Aurora Australis (the Southern Lights), which on its upper edge merges into a line of blue gum trees, part of Australia's native flora. (The jagged curve is not meant to represent the ASX!) The colours of the Aurora are Australia's sporting colours of "green and gold".

Aurora Australis - The Southern Lights; eucalyptus or gum trees

On either side of the S-curve are my pairs of opposites.

This is the top left corner, what I call "Sol Australis".

And this is the bottom right, which is of course the Southern Cross constellation (Crucis Australis).

These are the pairs of opposites that these two elements are meant to represent:

- Day versus night
- Land versus sky (the colour of the land represents Australia's "Red Centre" with its famous dunes)
- Sun versus stars
- Tradition versus modernity (the Aboriginal style of painting represents tradition; the use of stylised stars rather than conventional 5- or 7-pointed stars represents modernity)
- Native religions versus Christianity (the cross)
- Circle versus (rough) rhombus
- Convex shapes versus concave shapes (the stars are created out of the "negative" space between circular quadrants)
- Radial versus Cartesian coordinates (the elements of the sun radiate out from a central point; the stars in the Southern Cross are laid out along a horizontal and a vertical axis)
- Many versus a few (63 circles; 5 stars)

In addition, the sun ("Sol Australis") also symbolises successive waves of immigration. The dot in the centre represents the Aboriginal people. The ring of dots immediately surrounding it represents the First Fleet. The third ring represents the predominantly European migration of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The fourth ring represents New Australians (post-1970 immigrants). The outermost ring represents future immigrants.

The whole then goes to make up Australia - the Great Southern Land.

Why did I create this? And how? This blog post provides a detailed explanation.
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