The fertile space between us – Part 3

p2168WTS-Overlap-sm By KIERAN FINNANE (continued) 


Not all work that is engaged creatively in the contact zone is collaborative or even directly consultative. How can this be? What is its integrity? In The Long Weekend in Alice Springs San Roque’s alter ego describes wrestling with this question. He sees that there is “the area of overlap” between his Western culture and Aboriginal culture, but is tempted to withdraw from its complexity into his own cultural “business” until he realises that his business is in the overlap: “I live in it.” As do we all. It’s a useful reminder. And one of the things he can bring to it, his offer, is his own cultural and creative strength.


Right: By Joshua Santospirito, from The Long Weekend in Alice Springs.


Peter Bishop (in Placing Psyche) also writes usefully about this, quoting another thinker, Benedict Anderson: “Human communities exist as imagined entities”. Individuals within communities may not ever know or even meet one another but “in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”. “What is important,” writes Bishop, “is how communities are imagined and the power that this imagining has in a contact zone.”


This brings me to the work of Pamela Lofts. A founding member and the first coordinator of Watch This Space, she was the creator of a very significant body of work in the ‘space between us’. She is deeply missed for her work and her vital person since her death in July 2012.



p2168WTS-Lofts-skin-smThis drawing (left) is one of a series of 60 to 70 by Lofts made in the early ’90s during travels Lofts and Sonia Peter undertook with six law women from the Great Sandy Desert – Tjama Freda Napanangka, Kuninyi Rita Nampitjin, Payi Payi Napangarti, Martingale Mudgedel Napanangka, Nanyuma Dingle Napanangka and Millie Skeen Nampitjin. These journeys and the stories of the country they travelled through – that the law women had been travellign through all their lives – are remembered in their book, Yarrtji (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1997).


As far as I know, the ‘skin’ drawings are the only time Lofts embarked on – or at least exhibited – a figuration of Aboriginal people. Yet Aboriginal people were frequently the concern of her work – sometimes explicitly addressed but more often, especially in later work, acknowledged by their haunting absence – a loss to be grieved, as Lofts made clear in her 2009 exhibition at Araluen titled Requiem for Another.


Lofts worked in the space of approach without intrusion. It entailed mental and physical mobility, purposeful returns again and again to places and experience – including with Aboriginal people – deep in the desert, and then withdrawing. She described it as a “necessary nomadism” and her position as always an outsider, yet not a stranger.



Above: Threshold (mightbe somewhere)1, 2007, by Pamela Lofts.


In the series Threshold (mightbe somewhere), 2007, we recognise the character of an abandoned Aboriginal outstation. In reality this place has a name and a specific history on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert but in Threshold Lofts goes with its emblematic force as a place of failed encounter. It stands in for a wider, still evolving clash of civilisations – the ‘threshold’ of the title evoking a space or time to be crossed, the ‘mightbe somewhere’, an Aboriginal English phrase suggesting that the place (of encounter) may exist but may well not.


It requires being brought into being by us – all of us, in the broadest sense.


p2168WTS-Taylor-symposium-2Jennifer Taylor in the process of her recent body of work, Portraits of Country, also invoked absence as a way of acknowledging Aboriginal presence, especially historic presence and historic encounter. Her process was different to Lofts’ because it was directly consultative – she entered into active dialogue with the Eastern Arrernte families whose traditional country she was painting and broadened this dialogue into a series of symposia open to the community.


Above: Jennifer Taylor with Mrs Turner at Raft Artspace symposium. Photo courtesy Fiona Walsh.


In the course of her research she came across a collection of historic photographs by Roy McFadyen, a white station hand and fine amateur photographer, who lived and worked alongside an earlier generation of these same Eastern Arrernte families out on Love’s Creek Station. Taylor’s series of painted portraits based on these photographs redoubled McFadyen’s earlier act of remembering, gave it a new life. The portraits have been warmly received by their subjects’ descendants,among them Margaret Kemarre Turner, who particularly valued the painting of Maggie and Peter Ulyerre, the elders of the group, for the sense it imparted of the strength of their presence in country and with kin.


p2168WTS-Taylor-Maggie-&-PeFor outsiders the portraits help put flesh on the bones of knowledge that this country was occupied before the arrival of the European pioneers. Here are the too often forgotten Aboriginal faces and demeanours of the colonial frontier, specifically identified Arrernte people undertaking hard work at a time of enormous change, and, as Mrs Turner has said, proud of it. In the context of Taylor’s wider body of work we are invited to imagine that they carry in their close memory the times and ways of living in country before this great shift.


Right: Maggie & Peter Ulyerre, After Roy McFadyen, 2013, by Jennifer Taylor.


Taylor spent her childhood in Aotearoa / New Zealand, where she discovered her love of mark-making at a young age. She has lived and worked in central Australia since 1994. Portraits of Country was produced during the course of doctoral studies in visual arts at Charles Darwin University, in which she undertook a rigorous scrutiny of her landscape painting practice in Arrernte country. What was the offer she could make in this context? The portraits were one answer; the landscapes, another – remembering Bob Stuart’s gentle exhortation: “If we all care, I’m sure there’s a way we can all share.”


In the paintings of country, one of the challenges Taylor faced in rendering her awareness of Aboriginal presence – attenuated now by historic change and complex contemporary circumstances – was the way in which non-Aboriginal Australians read as natural the ’empty’ landscape, that is country without obvious sign of human habitation. Seeing the land as empty provided, of course, the underpinning of its early settlement by Europeans. While this notion in many ways has been turned on its head, thanks to the land rights and native title struggles and significant victories of Aboriginal people and their supporters, it persists imaginatively.



Above: Smoke at Inteye Arrkwe 5, by Jennifer Taylor.


Wanting to resist literalness and didacticism, preferring to engage herself and the viewer in acts of imagination, Taylor found a way of tackling this in the sense of sadness with which she infused the rugged grandeur of the ranges at Inteye Arrkwe or Ross River. There’s beauty and yet there is this mood that hangs over them like a veil. In her writing about these works she quotes historian Greg Denning: “We never learn truths by being told them … We learn truths by experiencing them in some way.” Taylor invites us to experience the truth of the colonised landscape and all that it implies through the experience of sadness – grief for the loss experienced in country and by country as, left untended by the old fire-farming practices (and as we know invaded by alien pasture), it is ravaged by wildfire.


p2168WTS-Taylor-Dust-at-IA-And then, as if the veil of sadness has lifted, scraping away the paint, something else becomes apparent – an ethereal quality seeming to light up the land from within. I think of Mrs Turner’s “ magnificent writing” in every tree and rock.


Left: Dust at Inteye Arrkwe 2, 2013 by Jennifer Taylor.


Both Lofts and Taylor find ways to invoke a communal space harmed by the processes of colonisation. Without appropriating Aboriginal suffering they propose that Aboriginal losses are also losses for other Australians – an important act of re-imagining.


Some Aboriginal artists are working explicitly in this space. While a great deal of their contemporary painting in acrylics on canvas and board has been about rendering tjukurrpa – Mr Rubuntja termed it “land rights painting”, asserting Aboriginal belonging to the land – we’ve recently seen a body of narrative work addressing specific historic encounters.


In the 2013 Desert Mob, for example, we saw Judith Yinyika Chambers from Warakurna Artists use the formal properties of the low-tech light-box to ‘shine a light’ on two episodes from contact history. In one, titled Harold Bell Lasseter, Aborigines, some of them with raised spears, cautiously approach the prospector as he waters his camels and collects water for himself. In the other, Circus Waters (below, photo courtesy Araluen Arts Centre)the encounter proceeds to actual violence.


p2168WTS-Wara-Circus-WatersA camel has been speared and three white men take their revenge. Chambers spoke about the episode at the symposium, describing the white men as “explorers” (the written record suggests that they were the party of prospector Henry Hill, who was at Circus Waters in January 1900) . The Aboriginal people were Chambers’ forebears – “our family” – who did not know that white men were nearby when they made their camp. In her depiction, the white men’s bullets – whose trajectory is picked out by electric light shining through piercings in the wood – look to have mortally struck two of the Aboriginal men and grazed the head of a third.


I was interested to hear the new manager at Warakurna, Emilia Galatis, at an art history forum prior to this year’s Desert Mob, talk about the kind of effort involved for the artists in working on history paintings. The point didn’t seem to be the subject matter, not all of which is as grim as Circus Waters, far from it. The light-boxes included quite light-hearted subjects such as  Polly Pauwiya Butler-Jackson’s Watching ICTV. 


In fact Galatis’s observations were of the production of another body of realist figurative work, called The Missionaries Came to Warburton, shown at Outstation Gallery in Darwin earlier this yearAccording to Galatis and anthropologist David Brooks, the exhibition tells a story of “mutual respect and relative harmony”. They write: “The mission being in the heart of the country, at Warburton, meant yarnangu (people) did not have to leave their homelands or abandon cultural obligations … The affection many yarnangu had towards the mission is reflected in their work. Tales of specific people and treasured memories indicate the important role many missionaries played in people’s lives.”


The strain in doing the work seemed to arise from the use of realist figuration to render narrative. In contrast, Galatis said, the artists accomplished tjukurrpa paintings with seeming ease. They would take time off between each history painting to paint three or four restorative tjukurrpa paintings.


Here is evidence, I suggest, of generous Aboriginal engagement in two-way thinking and acting in the contact zone. If Aboriginal art sent to market or exhibition has always contained something of this communicative offer, the adoption of realist figuration by the Warakurna artists – coming at some personal price, especially as this work has not been commercially successful for them – makes this intention even clearer.


Continued/ – go to Part 4 . Go back to Part 2.  Go back to Part 1.


To COMMENT please go to Part 1.



All images courtesy the artists or from the Alice Springs News archive unless otherwise stated. 





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