Research Proposal

Displacements, Transitions and Diasporas: Cross-Cultural Exchanges between Northern Aboriginal Women’s Ritual Art in Contemporary Settings.

Introduction

The main objectives of my exegesis titled Displacements, Transitions and Diasporas: Cross-Cultural Exchanges between Northern Aboriginal Women’s Ritual Art in Contemporary Settings is to create an understanding of the commonalities and differences, thoughtful and critical perspectives presented through cross-cultural exchanges in art.  Although a great deal of cross-cultural research on contemporary women’s art has occurred in various academic disciplines with Asia, there has  never been a study undertaken in collaboration in contemporary developments in art between Indigenous women from the Northern Territory, Australia.  I hope that my research will make an original contribution in this area.  My research also examines the transformation of rituals and its relocation into new contemporary and local/global settings.   Issues of the secret/sacred/secular and inside/outside meanings in ritual art and its practices in contemporary gallery and museum settings will be also addressed.

 

yikula
Yirkulla In Northern Territory

My research originates in my early exposure to oral traditions and original works of ritual threshold art in India called kolam created by Tamil women from Tamil Nadu in Southern India.  Millions of Tamil women in Tamil Nadu currently practice this ritual and it is embedded in their everyday life.  It is mainly women who create this ritual art, during festivals and other religious ceremonies.  More recently several Indian contemporary Indian artists began to study the philosophy of Tantra (an ancient ritual art of meditation using symbolic designs in Buddhism and Hinduism religions).  Tantra is also linked to kolams.

 

Nature of Rituals

Through the use of rituals, women emphasize their roles as nurturers of people, land and relationship (Orenstein, 2001).  Ritual art is a central part of the life of both Aboriginal and Indian women.  It takes many forms.  Regardless of whether the art is for private or public purposes, Indigenous Australians are inspired by the traditional marks and symbols from what they call the Dreaming.  The Dreaming is a term used by the Indigenous people from Australia to describe relations between the spiritual, natural and moral elements of the world.  It relates to a period before living memory referring to a time of creator ancestors and to the contemporary world.

Women from India would say that their knowledge is from parampara or from a time without beginning and that we start learning the secrets of life when we are in the womb of our mothers.  Similarly, Indigenous Australian women believe that you have to look back to your ancestors and their teachings to move forward.


Birth, festivals, death and everyday life in India are all conducted with rituals and sacred ground paintings. The belief is that the walls, (Rettakudi, 1998) particularly the front of the house, are the boundaries that must be safeguarded.  Hence the magical ground paintings are seen as an invitation for the Goddess’s Lakshmi’s protection and prevention of the evil eye.  The ritual practice that I experienced in India contains a sensory dimension.  Tactile impressions of kolams parallel the Central Desert art created by the Aboriginal artists that has been researched by Munn and Watson in their book Walbiri Iconography, (1986).

 

kolam_pattern
Kolam

The ephemeral art form called kolam has appeared on thresholds all across India for hundreds of years and yet little is known about the beginnings of this traditional ritual.  Many self-taught books on kolams have been published in India with a general description about kolams but very little scholarly research has been done on the spiritual and ritual manifestations of the threshold art called kolam.  Perhaps little has been researched on kolams due to the fact that it is a women’s daily practice and has existed only as an oral tradition for a thousand years within the community of women.  Likewise the Aboriginal women’s ritual art has been overlooked until very recently researched by leading anthropologists, Munn and Watson.

kolams
Kolam Festival

 

Vijaya Rettakudi, in her thesis, Hosting the Divine: The Kolam as Ritual, Art and Ecology in Tamil, India has produced in depth research on kolam, the threshold art form after interviewing women from South India.  Her research talks about the larger implications of the kolam to Tamil women who make them daily.  Her thesis focussed on the religious aspects of kolam ritual, ecology, metaphors, narratives and representation in Tamil women’s daily life.  Rettakudi’s research was the outcome of her deep-rooted memories in participating in this ritual art not only in India, but also in America.

Stella Kramrisch in her book Unknown India: Ritual Art in Tribe and Village in Exploring India’s Sacred Art, 1983 was the first western art historian to refer to kolams in her writings.  Recently several other scholars (Nagarajan, Vijaya Rettakudi, 1998, Stephen P. Huyler, 1994) have written scholarly studies on this ephemeral art form.   Kramrisch basically gives a description of the Sanskrit version of the threshold art called Yantras from the northern states of India.  Stephen Huyler’s book Painted Prayers is a beautiful visual photo documentary on women’s decorative art from communities from seven Indian states published to encourage further documentation of this ephemeral art form.

The ritual threshold drawing of South India—kolam—is a popular form of sacred ground painting found in and around the homes of most Hindu families. The drawings are executed only by women and according to knowledge passed from mother to daughter.  Due to this gender exclusivity, kolam is often characterized as a women’s art form.  Birth, festivals, death and everyday life in India are all conducted with rituals and sacred ground paintings. The belief is that the walls, particularly the front of the house, are the boundaries or the liminal space that must be safeguarded.  Hence kolams are seen as an invitation for the Goddess’s Lakshmi’s protection and prevention of the evil eye.  The ritual practice that I experienced in India contains a sensory dimension.

Kolams are drawn, mostly by women, on the floors and walls of houses with rice-paste, rice flour or powdered colours during festivals and other religious ceremonies.  Rubbing oil or sandal paste on the idol or feeling the rice powder trickling down between your fingers as you draw the kolam; the smell of the offering of incense and flowers; the braiding of Jasmine flowers for the hair while hearing and chanting mantras or prayers are all the sensory part of the daily rituals in India.  In many homes in India, the first activity of the morning involves creation of the kolam in three places – on the ground at the entrance of the house, on the floor in the puja room (prayer room), and in front of the thulasi plant growing in a specially made plant holder and dedicated to mother earth.

Because the kolam is prepared with rice flour, it holds special significance in the Hindu ritual – you starting the day with charity by feeding the birds and insects with food.  At the time of execution the woman is supposed to face the rising sun and align the kolam with the cardinal directions.  In the North of India these sacred patterns are found on the walls and the floor. They are executed during religious festivals or in personal ceremonies.  In the south-western states of Kerala the design outlines are filled in with petals of flowers.}

Naminapu
Naminapu

 

Concept of Hybridity and ‘Third Space’

I am on an artistic journey and this paper represents the introduction of my process, my memory, migration, my studio art practice and theory.   I will be undertaking research in history of memory and identity of having crossed borders.    The theme of "Crossing Borders" emphasizes the many physical and non-physical boundaries, in which contemporary artists must negotiate to pursue their careers in an increasingly globalized art world.  Diaspora studies have emerged as a major academic discipline in the past few decades as large groups of people have moved away from their places of birth to settle in foreign lands by choice or under duress.  Diasporas are created by colonization and migration.  They are problematic, and raise many questions.  How do South Asian women who migrate to the U.S.A retain their identity?  Do migrants lose their identity after a certain time abroad?  How do South Asian women artists explore their personal journey and identity in a globalized, hybridized, twenty-first century?  These are some of the questions I explore in this paper drawing upon the ideas of Homi Bhabha, a leading postcolonial theorist and his concept of the ‘Third Space’ which he explains in his article The Commitment to Theory: "Cultural Diversity and Cultural Differences.  Bhabha states the ‘Third Space’ cannot in itself be represented.  It is the area or space occupied by all cultural interaction; the space within which hybridity occurs.

Bhaba (1995) urges us into this space in an effort to open up the notion of an international culture not based on ‘Orientalism’ (Said, 1978) but on the writing and communication of culture's hybridity.  And by exploring this ‘Third Space', we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of ourselves.  In other words he suggests different alternative ways to perceive who you are, where you are, who you are with and where you want to go.  Similarly Edward Soja, a geographer and urbanist in the U.S.A, in his book, Postmetropolis, strives to transcend thinking about opposites by searching for the third space, the liminal space, which is the in-between spaces, neither physical nor entirely spiritual.  He says that globalization processes, economic restructuring and new technologies are the three most important forces of change affecting the contemporary world, and each is affecting a wide variety of fields and disciplines, from literature, politics and geography, to art, music and film studies.  Similarly, I have travelled from India to America and only after coming to Australia to do my research and collaborating with the Aboriginal women did I realize that Bhabha’s ‘Location of Culture’ and his theory of the Third Space will be a useful strategy to conduct my research.

Encounter and creation of third space are emphatically an individual experience.  There are no rules, except that you have to listen and give others an opportunity for self-expression.  This appears again to reaffirm Bhabha’s notion of the third space.  The past is made alive via collaboration, oral traditions of cultures and rituals.  I hope my research is bridging the past with the present and forging into the future through collaborations with the Aboriginal artists.

Crossing Borders – India into U.S.A

I moved to the U.S.A in 1987 with my family.  However over the following decades I found it difficult to retain my Indian identity.  In the late 80s Indians had become targets of racial attacks.  In New Jersey, articles in the local news paper reported that several Indian women were attacked by the so called “dot-busters, because they were in their 'native dress', with ‘pottu’ or the vermillion dot on their forehead..  It is with such pressure to conform, the traditional rituals and customs I practiced everyday at home in India seemed to slowly slip away in the U.S.A.   At the same time modernity (and migration to the U.S.) brought both negatives and positives, and new opportunities.   Upon moving to Cincinnati, USA, I took classes and taught in the western genre at the University of Cincinnati.  Over a period of years, I studied drawing, sculpture, painting, and printmaking.  I was immediately drawn to printmaking, which offered an endless source of learning and offered immense scope for innovation.  By western education came an empowerment that made it easier to express individuality and still respecting tradition.

Following the death of my mother in 2000, I consciously sought to return to my cultural heritage and reconstitute my identity along cultural lines.  Through my MFA at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the central themes focused on identifying elements from the western philosophical genre.  Yet, even so, I was the first artist in my program to use traditional printmaking techniques with kolam designs on fabric.  I began using my art to illuminate that very complex notion of home, in its diasporas in a literal and spiritual sense.

During 2001 – 2005 my work documented my personal experiences and memories shaped by my contemporary surroundings.  Coming from a traditional Indian background, and then living in USA relearning my culture, has been an interesting experience, which has challenged my artwork.  I developed a renewed connection to the past developed by using images and stories of everyday myths taught by grandmother and my mother.  The purpose was to put ritual practice back into my artwork, connecting me with the country that I had adopted.   Artistic expression and communication helped me articulate complex ideas about race, migration issues and politics.   Reconnecting with my cultural heritage provided me with a narrative mode of understanding, discovery and revelation.  Feminist art theory, centred upon post-colonial narratives of migration through printmaking and textiles has helped me define my identity and the parameters of this research.

My research examines the transformation of kolams from this ritual context as everyday life, to the art world of galleries and museums.  It was only after Independence in 1947, schools of art institutions sprouted in cities like Calcutta, Bombay and Madras in India.  During the 1950s several of these newly opened art institutions faced allegations of excessive abstractions influenced by western schools.  I began studying visual art in the early 1970’s in the Government College of Arts, Madras in Tamil Nadu where I was taught to paint with a western approach to fine art emphasizing personal creativity and originality.

In her book Tradition and Change: Contemporary Art of Asia and the Pacific” (1993) Gita Kapur examines the evolution of traditional Indian art to Modern Indian art in the 1900s through the artist K.C. S. Paniker, who was then the principal of the School of arts in Madras, India, and established the first artist village in India called the Cholamandal Artists Village in the State of Tamil Nadu.  The Cholamandal Artists village was planned in order to give Indian artists the space and stimulation that would lead to the cultural revival of local folklore and craft traditions.  Paniker visualized artist’s commune that was specifically influenced by south Indian traditional fine arts.  This school lead the way in reviving traditional Indian folk styles in fine art and even today continues to meet the need it was originally set up to fulfil.  Recent art school graduates can spend time here in the company of older artist veterans, learning the typical Indian way of doing traditional art.  I will visit this school as part of my field work in 2005/06.

Crossing Borders - USA to Australia

There has been a long tradition of exchanges between Indigenous and non indigenous artists in the Northern Territory of Australia.  The foundation for my current research began in Darwin, Australia in the year 2001.  I attended an international workshop conducted by Basil Hall, former head of the Northern Editions Print department at Charles Darwin University.  At this workshop I met Yolngu artists Naminapu Maymuru White and Boliny Wanambi, from Buku-Larrngay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala which is located in the Northern Territory of Australia.

Naminapu is a well established Yolngu artist from Yirrkala and she and I worked collaboratively on a woodcut print called 'Similar Cultures'.  During our work together, Naminapu adopted me as her daughter.  In September 2003, I took up an invitation to visit Naminapu in Yirrkala.   I also visited the art centre where I collaborated and produced artwork with Marrnyula (Watjumi) Munungurr on bark.  The designs used in this collaboration art were part of our daily ritual life.  The designs that I used were from kolams, and the designs that Watjumi used were from her Dhuwa moiety or clan.

radha_nami
Radha Namie

 

The patterns in the artwork are ideas and concepts that emerge from the legends and stories of South India and from Arnhem Land.  They represent the connection between women in our families and culture.  Collaboration with the Yolngu women, for me is to go back in time and relive memories of ritual exchanges with my grandmother and mother. Yolngu women have retained their tradition because they did not yet bear the brunt end of colonization.

I am also involved in collaboration with Larrakia community whose traditional land includes the region of Darwin and the Belyuen peninsula.  I am engaged in collaborating with Lee-Cubillo family within the Larrakia community.   The art work produced in the collaboration will be based on the theme of mangroves growing in Darwin and in South India.  The Larrakia are salt water people and the mangroves are very important because the wetlands offer refuge and nursery grounds for sea food like crab and fish.  Mangroves are also prime nesting and migratory sites for hundreds of bird species.  Mangrove forests literally live in two worlds at once, acting as the interface between land and sea.  The mangroves serve as a metaphor for growth, evolution and new beginnings.

To me, crossing borders are like mangrove seeds that wash up and take root on another country and build a stable land mass for other life to take hold.  Similarly, the kolam like the seed cultivates a bridge between my past experiences and my present interaction with the aboriginal people.  It is an honour to collaborate with the Aboriginal community and to engage our creative energies together which I hope will enable us to forge new links with the benefit of postcolonial research and migration and global art practices today.  The past is made alive via collaboration, oral traditions of cultures and rituals.  I hope my research is bridging the past with the present and forging into the future.

My PhD research at Charles Darwin University concerns collaboration in art with the Larrakia community in the Northern Territory of Australia.  I am also involved in collaboration with Larrakia community whose traditional land includes the region of Darwin and the Belyuen peninsula.  I am engaged in collaborating with Lee-Cubillo family within the Larrakia community.   Gary Lee states (Lee 2005 p.13) ‘it was unfortunate that the Larakia people bore the brunt of colonialism when Darwin was chosen for the new township by the beraguds (white People)”.

The art work produced in the collaboration will be based on the theme of mangroves growing in Darwin and in South India.  The Larrakia are salt water people and the mangroves are very important because the wetlands offer refuge and nursery grounds for sea food like crab and fish.  Mangroves are also prime nesting and migratory sites for hundreds of bird species.  Mangrove forests literally live in two worlds at once, acting as the interface between land and sea.  The mangroves serve as a metaphor for growth, evolution and new beginnings.  To me, crossing borders are like mangrove seeds that wash up and take root on another country and build a stable land mass for other life to take hold.  Similarly, the kolam like the seed cultivates a bridge between my past experiences and my present interaction with the aboriginal people.  It is an honour to collaborate with the Aboriginal community and to engage our creative energies together which I hope will enable us to forge new links with the benefit of postcolonial research and migration and global art practices today.  The past is made alive via collaboration, oral traditions of cultures and rituals.  I hope my research is bridging the past with the present and forging into the future.

Description of Research Methodology

  • Exegesis 33% - Theoretical Key words for my exegesis is insights from diverse academic disciplines of postcolonial studies, diasporas, migration, anthropology, women studies, folklore and ritual and spiritual art.  My goal is to provide and ethnography based research to women’s ritual art in contemporary settings and to link South Indian and Aboriginal women’s voices.   My research will also involve fieldwork in Australia, United States and India.  In the United States, I am interviewing three south Asian artists, Kalpana Prakash, Sita Bhaskar and Sonia Benjamin.  These three artists have crossed borders and now live in the United States.  While in South India, I will observe and interview Indian women creating kolams in around villages and rural areas in Tamil Nadu and in Chennai.

  • Studio Practice 66% - I am using kolam designs in my art.  Kolam is a ritual art form created by Tamil women from South of India.  Kolam research and creation is the methodology by which I am coming to terms with my diasporic experiences in U.S.A and Australia.  The collaborative art workshops with the Indigenous people of Northern Territory will help us explore on similarities and differences, personally, historically culturally politically and artistically.  Our art practices give us an opportunity to extend our understanding of others and ourselves in mutual exploration in art and culture.

 

I will be involved in working collaboratively with the key individuals in the Yolngu and Larrakia communities.  In the Yolngu community I will be working with Naminapu Maymuru White and the Lee-Cubillo family from the Larrakia community.  These workshops will involve mixed media printmaking with ochres on paper and fabric.  My research will be on natural materials that are used in ritual art in the south of India and pigments that are used by Aboriginal women in their art.

In my studio methods, I enjoy experimenting in printmaking and combining other media’s along with printmaking techniques.  I like to combine intaglio, relief, and digital printing, and print on many surfaces including paper, wood, textiles, and metal.  I also take lots of photographs and these images show up in my work, transformed along the way with computer technology.  The figures and textures that appear in my art are not just shapes and patterns that contain ideas and concepts that come out of the legends and stories.  These are voices and stories of women from my past, which I have heard from my grandmother, mother, aunts and sister; they represent the unique connection that characterizes the relationships among the women in my family.

The art forms of ancient civilizations, such as the American Indian Sand paintings or the Ethiopian healing scrolls and the Aboriginal art, use iconic drawings, geometrical magical shapes, words or images to cure illness or heal the spirit.  In much the same way, I use kolam rituals to aid in this research.

Art is an expression of those assimilated interpretations in their adopted countries.  And hence crossing borders is an event that meshes two pools of behaviours.  The creation of South Indian and Aboriginal ritual art was created for a specific need and it had its place, materials, designs and a certain time to create.  Over the years the traditional methods of Indigenous ritual art have already yielded to more contemporary applications and contemporary designs.  For Indian woman, living in large cities and in apartments, juggling home and work, have no time to draw kolam as their women ancestors once did.  The kolams has moved to the third space with the spread of new social structures and breaking down of the values in which the kolams thrived.   Kolam was once drawn only by hand and now you can find hollow tubes and stainless steel containers perforated with kolam designs and generic kolam designs on stickers to aid in this threshold ritual.   In some instances natural pigments used in rituals by the Indigenous women of Australia has given way to acrylic paints and brushes.

I too have moved away from the formal ritual of kolam and I have printed kolam designs on fabric and now on door mats. The kolam being an oral tradition is kept alive through new ways.   I can see that spirit of kolam is being kept alive when I crossed borders and doing so has empowered me through very rough times in my life.  The application of the kolam might be different but the spiritual connotation is still alive.  In formulating that part of my self that draws on my Indian heritage, I am keenly conscious of the postcolonial experiences that I share with the millions of Indians and Indigenous people of Australia.  I am half a world away and I have the privilege to objectify India and my own past.  Perhaps in me, as I have made these journeys across continents and lived amongst thousands of other immigrants of diaspora who reside in the third space and shape the third history, I hope in my journeys and in my research, I will come full circle and my quest of identity has a productive outcome through my collaborations with the Indigenous people of Australia.

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