Contemporary ceramics is currently gaining much popular traction with Australian artists such as Glenn Barkley, Pepai Jangala Carroll, Juz Kitson and Madeleine Preston working within a medium that has, up until relatively recently, been relegated to the realm of the decorative arts and crafts. Sri Lankan–Australian artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran is largely described as a ceramicist, and while this title has earned him tens of thousands of dollars in awards and grants from the ceramics community, his background is in painting and his approach is decidedly interdisciplinary. Rather than speaking to the categorisation of ceramics as craft, his solo exhibition at Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum of Art, ‘In the Beginning’ (until 26 February 2017), boldly refers to its earlier status in antiquity, as historical artefact, and this line of inquiry is not confined to ceramics.
A loosely handpainted figure, reminiscent of both the artist’s numerous self-portraits and Manet’s Olympia (1863), stretches across a wall of the uppermost gallery of the Ian Potter. In place of the bouquet and handmaiden in the original Manet is Philip Wilson Steer’s Flowers in a glass vase (1892) from The University of Melbourne Art Collection, differentiated from Nithiyendran’s work by a stark white placard noting its title and origin. Having been given access to the University’s Cultural Collections, ‘In the Beginning’ is littered with such ‘curiosities’ as a monkey skull, tiger snake, taxidermy swan and, of course, ceramics from the University’s Classics and Archaeology Collection – all distinguished by their traditional white gallery labels. Alongside these carefully curated relics, Nithiyendran’s unfired clay sculptures are imbued with the same tokenism, becoming an iconoclastic interrogation into religion, colonialism, the body and their relationship to culture – particularly in relation to the problematic field of archaeological collections management and exhibition.
Ironically, just one level below Nithiyendran’s exhibition at the Ian Potter is the exhibition ‘The Dead Don’t Bury Themselves’ (until 19 March 2017), featuring Early Bronze Age vessels from Bab edh-Dhra in the Dead Sea plain of southern Jordan, alongside ceramics and human remains from the Australian Institute of Archaeology. This considered, the inclusion of ‘Indian human hair’ as a part of Nithiyendran’s materials list, and ‘at’ signs before his name written in graffiti-style painting on the gallery’s walls, appear to reference both the physical and online presence of the artist, calling into question the state of the person (particularly the person of colour) as archive.
Audrey Schmidt, Melbourne