Why the huge Aboriginal painting coming to Sharjah this November is a must-see

The Ngurrara canvas has a deep historical significance, and helped its creators win a court case. It will be part of the ambitious Sharjah Architecture Triennial

Ngurrara artists producing Ngurrara Canvas II at Pirnini, an area in north west Australia, in May 1997. Photo by K. Dayman (Ngurrara Artists and Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency)
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A historically important Aboriginal painting will travel to Sharjah in November for the inaugural Sharjah Architecture Triennial. The brightly coloured canvas, stretching 8 x 10 metres, was used as a crucial piece of evidence in a land claim struggle between the Aboriginal Ngurrara people and the Australian government in the 1990s.

Presented as evidence of the ongoing importance of the land to the Ngurrara people, the painting — which depicts a map of geographically and spiritually important sites of the area, done in the indigenous tribe’s style – helped the Ngurrara win their title to the land.

It will be exhibited in Sharjah as part of the new Architecture Triennial, which will feature exhibitions and a series of talks and panel discussions across the city. The triennial was founded by Sheikh Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasimi, who died earlier this month at the age of 39.

Adrian Lahoud, the Lebanese-Australian architect who is curating the exhibition, says the Ngurrara “canvas is emblematic of the aspirations of the triennial… It speaks to the richness of indigenous understandings of the country”.

The Australian canvas, known as Ngurrara Canvas II, will be an exceptional part of the triennial. The Ngurrara are Aboriginal people who originally lived on the Great Sandy Desert, in the north-west of Australia. They were reportedly some of the last to make contact with European settlers and, after the Australian state allowed Aborigines to claim legal ownership of tribal lands in 1992, the Ngurrara began fighting a claim for their territory, an area just slightly smaller than the UAE.

The Ngurrara Canvas was part of the legal struggle: 40 Ngurrara artists came together to make the painting, which represents a map of the area in the traditional iconography of their people.

The canvas has toured before, mostly to Australian museums, as well as to the 2000 Lyon Biennial. Though the smaller Ngurrara Canvas I was put up for sale with Sotheby's in 2003 to raise money for the tribe, the community decided not to part with the second canvas. Its permanent home is the Mangkaja Art Centre in Fitzroy Crossing, just north of the area that the Ngurrara people won, and is still used for traditional ceremonies.

“The journey from Fitzroy Crossing to Sharjah is significant as it has not travelled for a number of years,” says Lahoud. The Sharjah Architecture Triennial had to find the largest gallery space available to accommodate the work, which will be shown at the Sharjah Art Foundation. The Sharjah Architecture Triennial and the Sharjah Art Foundation are not related, though some of the foundation’s sites will be used for the triennial. As is traditional for the aboriginal map, the canvas will be laid on the floor, emphasising its role as a representation of the territory.

The increasing age and fragility of the canvas also make its appearance in the UAE notable.

"Since its production 22 years ago, most of the artists have passed away," Lahoud says. "For their descendants, the canvas is one of the most significant connections between them and their ancestors and the canvas is an invaluable map not only of Ngurrara country but of a complex network of social and emotional relationships and memories. The loss of culture should anything happen to the canvas was a cause of trepidation and anxiety, however the Ngurrara Canvas II custodians have generously decided to share their story with the world."

How the canvas became a legal document

The Ngurrara canvas depicts "sites in their spiritual as well as physical relation to one another", says Lahoud, such as waterholes, called jila, which are important both in terms of survival and in the tribe's cultural life.

“The canvas was the evolution of smaller paintings created on field trips to the desert between 1994 and 1997, and for some of the artists, these trips to the desert were their first journey back to their homelands since their youth. The aim of these field trips was to evidence people’s connection to country through writing and painting that would then be presented to the Native Title Tribunal.”

In putting together their case for a claim to the desert territory, the Ngurrara felt that the way their people relate to the land could not be expressed in English, the language in which the battle for the Native Title was conducted. “They decided to graphically evidence their connection... so that they could show it to the Native Title Tribunal and the outside world like a map,” Lahoud says.

The painting helped prove the living continuity among the Ngurrara people, their traditions, and their ancestral land, by showing how the three elements were inseparable and lived on in the culture of even those Ngurrara who had left the territory.

The  Ngurrara Canvas I was deemed not large enough to encapsulate the full area. Ngurrara Canvas II was created on a bigger scale, and when it was presented to the Native Title Tribunal, it was considered such overwhelmingly eloquent evidence that it went forward as evidence in the case. The case was finally decided in 2007 in favour of the Ngurrara.

The Sharjah triennial, titled Rights of Future Generations, will weave together questions of ecological sustainability and indigenous and alternative practices, foregrounding models of co-existence with — rather than the plunder of – the natural environment.

Other participants include representatives from the Atacama and Quechua peoples in South America, the architect Marina Tabassum, who has worked on the inheritance of land titles in the Ganges Delta, and a team of sound artists, researchers and lawyers who have studied the displacement of archaeological remnants in Palestine.

The Sharjah Architecture Triennial will run from Saturday, November 9, 2019 to Saturday. February 8, 2020.