DALABON BIYI / DALABON DALOK
For at least a decade, Darren Siwes, now well known for his works of art using cibachrome phototechnology, 1 has been fascinated with various artists, philosophers and mathematicians from different ages who proposed ideas of perfection and the correlations between the divine proportions to be found in ‘man’ and nature. This might seem unusual for an artist who is usually classified crudely as simply an Aboriginal artist. His ancestry is both Dalabon and Dutch, and he is equally proud of both as the sources of his cultural heritage. As these beautiful photographic works (Gicleé prints on Fine Art Pearl paper) demonstrate, the ideas of Euclid, Pacioli, and Leonardo da Vinci have enchanted him, but so too, the works of Plato and several others. Does perfection exist? Or is it an ideal? Despite the centuries-old debate on this binary, it is a fact that the concepts used by Siwes in these depictions of his Dalabon relatives in their landscapes near Weemol in the Northern Territory of Australia, the golden ratio and the Fibonacci number sequence, exist both as ideals and in the world. Many examples cited in the history of this strange concept have been disputed, but it is clear that there are recurring instances of the proportion in nature, one being the golden ratio expressed as fractal patterns in a type of crystal. 2
“The Golden Ratio”, or phi, discovered by Euclid more than two thousand years ago, is a remarkable mathematical proportion. In his great work, Elements, at Book VI, Definition 3, he defined the golden ratio in this way: ‘A straight line is said to have been cut in extreme and mean ratio when, as the whole line is to the greater segment, so is the greater to the less.’ This is also stated as ‘Two quantities are in the golden ratio if the ratio of the sum of the quantities to the larger quantity is equal to the ratio of the larger quantity to the smaller one.’ The golden ratio is an irrational mathematical constant, approximately 1.61803398874989. 3 Euclid’s idea of the golden ratio was later discussed by Pacioli in his work De Divina Proportione (Of Divine Proportion). Pacioli was a Franciscan friar who wrote De Divina Proportione in Milan between 1496 and 1498. It was published in Venice in 1509. The illustrations of the regular solids in De Divina Proportione were drawn by Leonardo da Vinci while he lived with and took mathematics lessons from Pacioli.
A 12th century Italian mathematician, Leonardo Fibonacci discovered the “Fibonacci numbers,” a sequence of numbers where each successive number is the sum of the two previous numbers. This begins with 1, and proceeds as follows: 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, etc. Mirroring the golden ratio’s mathematical constant, any given number in the Fibonacci sequence is approximately 1.618 times the preceding number. 4 This relationship between the golden ratio and the Fibonacci numbers is another fascinating aspect of the mathematical ratio that has gripped Siwes’ imagination. He uses the Fibonacci sequence, by arranging the images into groups of eight in this catalogue: ‘There are eight images of men, counting the cover, looked at one way and looking at it in reverse there are eight images of women, therefore remaining consistent with the Fibonacci/Divine sequence,’ Siwes explained to me.
In his artist’s statement, Siwes draws out the inspiration of the various ideas of beauty and perfection in these photographic works of his Dalabon kinfolk: ‘‘Vitruvian Man’ is about linking human form to perfection as shown through proportion, using the Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio.’ In reference to Leonardo da Vinci’s illustrations of polyhedra in De Divina Proportione, he uses the idea of the golden ratio to frame his Dalabon kinfolk in the brooding landscapes of their country in the Northern Territory. They are framed in a circle and square, used together as a symbol of the essential symmetry of the human body, and by extension, of the universe as a whole as proposed by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius in Book III of his treatise De Architectura. By framing them in the golden ratio, or divine proportion, he challenges ‘conscious and subconscious notions and viewpoints of perfection by layering it with less familiar Aboriginal cultural and Aboriginal social viewpoints and perspectives.’ His aim, he writes, is to infuse the perfect form of the ‘Vitruvian Man’ with Aboriginal culture, country, creation and religion. But as well, as rich, mythico-realist portrayals of people in place, the images also contrast divine proportion, or perfection, with the ideas about ‘racial inferiority’ that shaped the present day order of things for Aboriginal people and burdened them with social and economic inequity. Such beautiful images are a stark corrective to this history.
For Siwes, Dalabon culture, which also poses ideals, believed at least by the Dalabon to be real, is the perfect place to express his own version of these principles. The Dalabon ideas of creation which are expressed in the sacred narratives are recast here by Siwes in his use of the landscapes. He was instructed by his Dalabon women relatives to have regard for the distinctly gender-specific ‘country’ of his people. After several injunctions as to where he may and may not point his camera, he photographed the Dalabon women in ‘women’s country,’ and similarly, under instruction from his brother, Johnny (who does not appear in the photographs), and other Dalabon relatives, he photographed the men in ‘men’s country.’
Such laws in the Aboriginal world have been inherited by present day people from ancestral beings. These ancestors are more than human, more than superhuman, and are responsible for the nature and appearance of the world as we experience it today. These wondrous ancestors, or nayunghyungki in the Dalabon language, established waluno, the absolute law, the rules governing the world. 5 Aboriginal people are descended from these beings, and are said to have some of their ‘essence.’ The division of places into men’s and women’s space is a part of this design that was established during a mysterious and enchanted period in the sacred past.
Language, too, is inherited from these ancestors. Nowadays speakers of Dalabon live in the communities of Weemol and Beswick (where Siwes visited while working on this project), and also Barunga, all in Arnhem Land, a former reserve that has been returned to the traditional owners as special Aboriginal titles held by Aboriginal trusts. The communities are located east of the town of Katherine. The Dalabon residing at Weemol returned there in the 1970s. This was an important centre of Dalabon culture and the return to this homeland marked a turning point in their postcolonial history. The linguist Dr Ponsonnet recounts, ‘When farmers eventually colonized that area, the populations living there were deported to settlements (villages created and managed by the government) closer to Katherine. Some speakers returned to Weemol in the 70s, while others remained in the old Beswick and Barunga settlements.’ 6
It is possible to understand, then, the great commitment to being in ‘country’ that the stances of the Dalabon subjects display in these photographs. And we are better able to understand Siwes’ commitment to showing their relationship to their country by posing them as ‘Vitruvian’ men and women. They are expressions of the ancestral and sacred order of things.
1 The artist wrote to me to answer my question about how to describe the photographic process. His reply was as follows: ‘Cibachrome images can be described as images which are exposed from transparencies rather than negatives, essentially it is a positive to positive print process. This is how I used to print images in earlier works where I photographed at night. The process is almost obsolete and there are very few people still printing this way.’
2 See UR: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2010-01/haog-grd010510.php; Accessed 15 September, 2011.
3 For an account of the golden ratio, see Mario Livio, (2002). The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, The World’s Most Astonishing Number. New York: Broadway Books
4 For the source of this information, see URL: http://www.investopedia.com/terms/f/fibonaccilines.asp#ixzz1XziLTnhV; Accessed 15 September, 2011.
5 See ‘A few words in Dalabon’ at URL: http://www.sorosoro.org/en/dalabon; Accessed 15 September, 2011.
6 Dr Maïa Ponsonnet, Centre for Research and Documentation on Oceania (CNRS, Marseille) & Australian National University (Canberra) at URL: http://www.sorosoro.org/en/dalabon; Accessed 15 September, 2011.
Euclid, Elements, available at URL: http://aleph0.clarku.edu/~djoyce/java/elements/elements.html; Accessed 15 September, 2011.
Livio, Mario (2002). The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, The World’s Most Astonishing Number. New York: Broadway Books