21st Biennale of Sydney: Marlene Gilson and N.S. Harsha
The lived experiences of Marlene Gilson and N.S. Harsha are separated by both time and space. World War II was still raging when Gilson was born in the coastal Victorian town of Warrnambool. She was already 25 years old when Harsha was born, at the tail end of the swinging sixties, hundreds of thousands of miles away across the Indian Ocean in south-western India. Yet these two artists actually have quite a lot in common.
Gilson, a Wathaurung/Wadawurrung woman, lives in Gordon, Victoria, on her country. Harsha too resides in his home territory; in fact he still lives in his hometown, Mysuru. And both artists were commissioned to make new work for the 21st Biennale of Sydney. But perhaps the most significant link between the two artists is also the one that is most obvious in their works on show in the Biennale: as indigenous citizens of their respective countries, both Gilson and Harsha have had to negotiate the toxic legacy of British colonisation.
Gilson tackles the historical invasion of her country head-on in paintings such as Possession, Captain Cook First Fleet, 2017. Here the concept of Terra Nullius is exposed, yet again, as a wilful and corrupt fabrication. As Cook and his cronies raise the Union Jack and stake their claim, Gilson presents a landscape teeming with Indigenous Australians who had been making the most of the resources in their possession for millennia.
In Jones Circus Eureka, 2015, set some 60 years after Cook’s fateful arrival in 1788, Gilson again depicts a scene in which Aboriginal Australians play active roles.
Eugene von Guérard painted a similar scene in 1884. The colonial artist had a penchant for depicting Aboriginal warriors peeking out from behind trees, or holding secret corroborees, but in this painting the landscape is devoid of any signs of Indigenous occupation. In sharp contrast, the Aboriginal people in Gilson’s painting are everywhere, and instead of occupying the marginalised fringes they are integrated into daily life. Some hunt kangaroos while others adopt European modes of dress; they are adapting, surviving, thriving.
Harsha makes much the same point using a very different visual language in his massive mixed-media collage Reclaiming the inner space, 2018.
The artist has covered an entire several-metres-long wall in mirrored Perspex, then virtually obliterated this reflective surface with flattened cardboard boxes. A huge pool of ink splattered across this uneven topography mimics a window into space; we can see planets and myriad distant stars. In a dramatic sculptural intervention, a herd of carved wooden elephants seems to have literally ripped through the fabric of this universe. Symbolic of both the power of nature and the strength of indigenous culture, they trample the packaging of rampant late-capitalist global consumerism, part of the British legacy that Harsha calls the “consumeraj”.
Eschewing convention, both Gilson and Harsha present aerial views that simultaneously offer multiple perspectives. And, while Gilson paints in the naïve style favoured by many self-taught artists and Harsha employs a sophisticated symbolic code, the work of both artists can be read as a kind of cartography. But they are not just recording the world as they see it; these artists are creating it. Mapping is a political act, a naming and claiming that is never neutral. Marlene Gilson and N.S. Harsha are each, in their own ways, shaping the post-colonial world.