COMICS AND CARICATURES EDITION - THE OBSERVANT CRITIC

In Conversation with Cresside Collette

Famed for his iconic affiliation with the ‘43 Group, Aubrey Collette was a remarkable caricature artist whose works danced the delicate lines between comic and critical, which brought to light the socio-political intricacies underlying Sri Lanka’s prominent societal figures in the early to mid-1900s. His politically forward cartoons—the very same he was lauded and then eventually scorned for, culminated in political exile in 1961 amidst an increasingly hostile political climate in the country.

Cresside Collette, the daughter of revered political cartoonist Aubrey Collette sat down with ARTRA Magazine in the production of our Comics & Caricatures Edition to give us a snapshot of insight into the historic caricatures and drawings created by her father. Unpacking the man behind the reputation, Collette unravels the imagination, keen observation and wit that drove some of his sharpest caricatures.

Q | What do you think characterizes the caricatures/comics of Aubrey Collette?

For me, it is the fluidity of his lines and his ability to quickly summarise the essence of a person in a few short strokes of a pen or pastel. He was the first homegrown political cartoonist in Ceylon. Before his appointment by The Times in 1948, political cartoons were imported from England, so one could say that the novelty of someone observing and commenting on a particular society he is living in characterises his work.

Q | In your opinion, what of his personality, or perhaps innatetraits or skill contributed to Collette’s work in representing astrong critique of the political landscape of Sri Lanka of histimes?

Observation. I know that from the time he was a small childhe was constantly drawing, his older brother—my Uncle Lyn—told me this. Drawing hones your skills of observation of the world, of the people and the objects around you. As the years go by you build up a repertoire of these ‘seen’ forms and a dexterity to insert them effortlessly into your work. By the time he was drawing cartoons this observational skill would have been second nature.

Awareness. His knowledge of the machinations of government, of the public in general and the effect that the decisions of one group of people have on another drove his work. In otherwords, he was intellectually ‘in tune’ with current situations and the thoughts of the public at large. 

Imagination. He was able to conceive of comic situations to put his characters in to highlight their human failings and the absurdity of their actions. He could orchestrate, within a small frame, a scene that conveyed meaningful commentary.

Personal oppression. The Bandaranaike Government wasactively discriminating against the professional hierarchy and privilege of the Burghers, primarily through policies regarding education and the English Language. Much of his criticism was goaded by personal experience.

Q | What do you feel caricatures/cartoon drawings allow liberally, that other forms of artistic expression may perhaps not, or less -comparatively? 

Political cartoons and caricatures are focused on a particular event or person and are mediated by the use of humour. Sharp commentary can be diffused through the employment of gentle amusement, and still be piercingly accurate and pointed. Because cartoons and caricatures operate through satire, they can be ‘excused’ for being explicit or offensive. Of course, this depends on a liberal attitude by governments and religious institutions and often backfires on the cartoonist, as experienced by my father in Ceylon in the late 1950s.

Q | As an artist yourself, how does one choose to pursue specific medium and content lines in other words, their artistic process?

For my father it was always about picturing people, his endless fascination with their features both physical and philosophical – that drove his art. As well as the daily cartoon, he painted  portraits of his friends and people in the street. He was intensely aware of the trappings people surrounded themselves with. He also sculpted a series of masks of well-known Colombo figures.

For me, drawing always informs the basis of my work. Although I work as a tapestry weaver, the textile form it takes is always based on the drawn, printed, or collaged image. I love the tactility of the process and the texture that is produced in creating woven work in my medium of choice.

Q | Can you share three drawings of Collette’s that you find to bepotent, and why?

 

This cartoon from the 1950s depicting SWRD Bandaranaike’s push for complete control is still relevant in the political climate of Sri Lanka today, and indeed around the world with the rise of right-wing dictatorships. In those days it actedmerely as a warning, the ‘steps’ both literally and physically illustrated, and a definite prediction of what was to come in the Sinhalese/Tamil conflict. I find it the most potent of his cartoons that I am familiar with.

Aubrey Collette, 1961, A Cartoonist's Farewell [Cartoon]. Ceylon Observer

"A Cartoonist’s Farewell”

This image is more poignant than potent, as my father pictures himself joining the queue of Burghers to leave theland they were born and grew up in to seek an education in English for their children. Bandaranaike’s ‘Language Act’ of 1956 forced many of us out of the country, never to return. For my father it was even more dramatic, he left in 1961 after death threats. He always regarded Sri Lanka as his home and never felt truly settled anywhere else, although he had a distinguished career as a political cartoonist in Australia and South East Asia.

This cartoon was accompanied by a poem that he wrote, some selected lines are:

Farewell to Lanka,
land that I once knew
When politics was for
the chosen few,
When I was free to
weild my poison pen
And Premiers were
invariably men.

Democracy is far dispersed
And every Punchi Singo
thinks he’s first.
Compelled am I to leave

the blood and thunder
And
 join the tenuous
trickling trek Down
Under;
For though I like

to cartoon pompous
asses,
It isn't  fun to draw resurgent
masses.
……………
So leave I must before it’s too late
To join de Hoedt, van Langenberg and Pate,

 

Vander Straaten,
Jonklaas,
Herft and
Cramer, Mac Heyzer,
Toussaint, Jansz
and even Hamer.”

Unfortunately, I have no details of the date and the publicationin which it was printed.

 

February 13th, 1968, The Australian Magazine.

My father worked for the Murdoch-owned newspaper “The Australian" from 1965 – 1971, winning the coveted Walkley Award for best cartoon in 1970. This example is more politically potent than his winning cartoon as it critiques Australia’s very unpopular involvement in the Vietnam war that was raging at the time, and depicts Australia and Vietnam being pawns manipulated by the superpowers of the U. S.,China, and the Soviet Union. The spectre of the H-Bomblurks overhead.

Cresside Collette is a contemporary artist originally trained as a Graphic Artist at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), Collette worked as a book illustrator and advertising artist whilst developing large embroideries and exploring the textile arts. She was employed as a foundation weaver of The Victorian Tapestry Workshop in 1976, where she worked as a production weaver for fifteen years. She has exhibited in both individual and group shows consistently since 1971, and tutored in drawing and tapestry weaving in the Studio Textiles and Design Course at RMIT University for eleven years. Cresside has also designed and conducted "Mastering the Fine Art of Tapestry", a tour to view major tapestries, workshops and the work of studio tapestry artists in the UK and France.   

In a curated collection of over 60 caricature and cartoon drawings from Aubrey Collette, Bevis Bawa and Gihan de Chickera, ARTRA Magazine’s latest Comics & Caricatures Edition consists of works published and exhibited from 1946 to September 2023. Each work was selected on its importance in addressing a critical question of the time in expert draughtsmanship and creative prowess, alongside exclusive literary articles by venerated writers dissecting the nuances and potency of these works, including The Potency of Satire in Comics and CaricaturesThe Bawa of Brief, among others.

15th January, 2024 Visual Art | Paintings

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