Northern Queensland: A Rich Legacy of Cultural Diversity by Christina Arum Sok

ChristinaAS - AylieMcDowell

Self portrait by Aylie McDowell, 2015

Finding herself within a new geographic context in Cairns, Australia, Christina Arum Sok became interested in the social history of the region, which inspired her to research artists in the area working within a traditional style of practice. Christina visited artist Aylie McDowell while researching an upcoming exhibition exploring the practices of women artists in the region to discover why she made art, finding that her contemporary practice held a dialogue with many of the traditional themes of Aboriginal art.

“Before the modern world ‘discovered’ Australia and the chapter of James Cook began being written, this ecologically unique sub-continent was inhabited by people just as genetically and culturally unique, the indigenous people known as the Aboriginal race. The Aboriginal Australians have been on the sub-continent for over 40,000 years as archaeological evidence has supported.

Though scholars have researched the origins of the indigenous people, the closest kin outside of Australia has been much debated and DNA samples strongly suggest that these groups of people had already split off from possible ancestors in Europe and Asia over 60,000 to 70,000 years ago. As such, the Aboriginal peoples seem to be direct descendants of migrant populations of Africa. In addition, these findings have brought to light that the Aboriginal peoples have occupied this same territory of Australia continuously—longer than any other groups of people outside of Africa. This has been an astonishing revelation as I had not been exposed to Australia’s indigenous history prior to this trip to Cairns.

A prominent common thread that weaves throughout the artists of this region is that there is a palpably strong relationship with nature and the environment, in a way that is mystical.

The tradition of pictorial depictions and art-making has certainly been part of the Aboriginal people for as long as they have been recorded inhabiting Australia. Aboriginal art has been dated as far back as 40,000 years old and discovered in caves as rock carvings and rock paintings, which is in fact the most ancient and continuous tradition of art in the world. This incredibly rich heritage can be witnessed in the Northern Queensland region. Current Aboriginal artists in the Queensland area and the Torres Strait Islands produce entirely distinct artwork that has the deep influence from the sub-continent’s long cultural heritage. Despite Cairns being a relatively small city with a population of about 150,000 and the Torres Strait Islands with a population of 6,000-7,000, the region is abundant with artists and cultural practitioners. I had the privilege to spend a week discovering the different art institutions and galleries in Cairns, as well as visiting several artists in their studios, being exposed to a wide variety of practices and learning about these artists’ influences and each of their visual languages.

A prominent common thread that weaves throughout the artists of this region is that there is a palpably strong relationship with nature and the environment, in a way that is mystical. Nature is an integral part of life in Northern Queensland and people are blessed by the mountains and the ocean on either side, making it natural for this to be a strong source of influence and inspiration. As research for an upcoming exhibition in March 2016 with a group of women artists, I went to discover the practice of women artists in the Cairns region. I had the privilege to catch up with artist Aylie McDowell in her new studio and had a deeply spiritual conversation with her about her practice. Aylie has a design and fashion background but is now delving into her fine art practice; in an entirely refreshing way, I learned about how she is spiritually guided. She describes her artistic process as a medium that has transcended beyond her physical body, and her spirit guide naturally flows through her, which results in her hand moving unconsciously, free-flowing to create her art.

Her practice is guided by her sixth sense and she seeks to connect with the Earth and the Universe.

Aylie’s strong desire to express her relationship to the natural and spiritual world can be seen in the works above — the middle painting is a self portrait and the two panels on either side are strips of wood that can be incorporated into wall panels or door frames. Almost like how ancient Greek sculptors could see the sculpture in the piece of marble before they started carving, Aylie sees works existing in natural elements such as wood, bark and animal feathers with which she works with. Her creation process is fluid and organic as her hand is guided to make marks and lines, which bring about the forms.

Even though she was not consciously influenced by Aboriginal art, there is an undeniably tribal element in her work. Her self portrait depicts a tribal goddess-like figure adorned with feathers and jewelry as well as with a dried plant in the centre of her forehead, which represents the opening of the third eye. In addition, there is a halo above her head, showing her enlightened state, her artistic alter ego who is connected to another dimension. Aylie very much sees herself at one with nature, and she understands her relationship to Mother Earth.

Her practice is guided by her sixth sense and she seeks to connect with the Earth and the Universe. When we talk about artists being like shamans or people of other mediums, I see this being very true for Aylie and her practice as she is so sensitive with that which cannot be seen, and has a strong calling to express the human spirit. Aylie will be spending the next six months living and working in a small village in Papua New Guinea, which will give her an invaluable opportunity to discover tribal living, immerse herself in an entirely new civilisation and also collaborate with local artists to produce works of an entirely new visual vocabulary.

Christina Arum Sok is an Asian art historian, independent curator and writer currently based in Singapore. She has a bachelor’s degree in Art History and English from Columbia University in the City of New York and a master’s degree in Asian Art History from the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London). 

Her curatorial practice and research are reflective of her background—melding her ethnic Korean roots with her upbringing in Southeast Asia, particularly in Singapore, her adopted home. As such, her research focuses on modern and contemporary Korean and Southeast Asian art, as well as cross-cultural exchanges, cultural globalization and multi-disciplinary collaborations. She is dedicated in contributing to the scholarship on modern and contemporary Asian art. 

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