One with nature but not society

A Sri Lankan living in Australia chooses to highlight, in his latest exhibition, the life and plight of aborigines after spending time with the Alyawarr people of Ampilatwatja
By Smriti Daniel

The title of Jagath Dheerasekera’s latest exhibition in Sydney is the response he received to his question: “Why sleep outside at night?” “Stars, sky, trees, breeze,” his subjects answered.

Having moved to Australia a few years ago, Jagath already knew who he would like to photograph. “Even long before I came to Australia, I was reading about the aboriginal people and knew about their plight. I first came across John Pilger’s writings in the Guardian in the ’90s when I was living in Europe. I was immediately hooked,” says this photographer, adding that while in Sri Lanka he did a series on the Veddhas.

Jagath’s photographs that depict the makeshift beds in the open

In January of 2010, Jagath had a chance to meet an aboriginal elder named Richard Downs. “He told me about many things. The Northern Territory National Emergency Response (commonly known as NT Intervention) and his people’s walk-off against it.” Richard belonged to a community settled in Ampilatwatja, located 320km north-east of Alice Springs in central Australia.

A ‘Prescribed Community’ under the NT Intervention, the Alyawarr people now number less than 1,000. “Their struggle to survive for the last 200 years has been made further difficult by the NT Intervention introduced in 2007, which many in Ampilatwatja consider as ‘an invasion, total disempowerment and revoking hard won land rights’,” says Jagath. In July 2009, the Alyawarr people of Ampilatwatja walked off from the Prescribed Area controlled by the government and began to build a new community on their homeland.

Jagath wanted to capture this moment. He decided to make the trip to Ampilatwatja and joined a group of volunteers who were helping the community build their first house or coordinating centre. “Everybody called it the Protest House. There were many volunteers from different states to help build it,” he explains. Jagath had initially hoped that he would have a chance to photograph fridges owned by the Alyawarr, but could find only one in the whole community.

“Meanwhile, during my many walks around the community I noticed that almost all aboriginal families in the community had a makeshift bed in the open air.  My queries about the use of these outdoor beds were met with replies in which the words ‘stars, sky, trees, breeze’ echoed again and again.  I could not help but marvel at the fact that while I went inside the house at sunset to sleep, the Alyawarr people actually came out of the house to sleep under the night sky.”

For Jagath, the words were a window into their deep connection with nature. “This photo series, ‘Stars, Sky, Trees, Breeze’, in my mind is a reflection of the conflict between colonizer-imposed confines of a house and fences on one hand and the unbreakable bond of the aboriginal people with the land and nature in their traditional way of life, on the other,” he writes in his artist’s statement. Emphasizing that the bottom line was “mutual respect”, Jagath says he camped out among the Alyawarr and spent some time getting to know them. “Quite soon the trust that built up between the members of the community and me led some to invite me to their homes,” he says, remembering that they taught him some Alyawarr words and learnt some Sinhala from him. Eating with them, Jagath made rice and curry and was offered tails of freshly hunted kangaroos in return.

The longer he stayed, the more obvious the issues became – “abject poverty, racial discrimination, disempowerment, dispossession, the legacy of 200 years of subjugation prevail in every corner,” says Jagath. He hopes his exhibition will draw much needed attention to the plight of the Alyawarr.

Curated by a leading curator and art historian, Djon Mundine of the Banjula aboriginal clan, Jagath’s exhibition will be on from June 30 to July 17 at the gallery At The Vanishing Point (ATVP) on King
Newton Street.

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