By KIERAN FINNANE
In colloquial speech, to souvenir something means to steal it. This is the drift of some of the objects created for Souvenir, an exhibition at Watch This Space, the Space’s show for the Alice Desert Festival. It “explores the wilds of central Australia via the imagery of keepsake”.
The wilds are as much the cultural as the natural landscape – a large map on the rear wall identifies Alice as “Bleeding Heart Central”.
Inevitably there are works tackling the appropriation of Aboriginal identity and imagery. Humour saves them from being too PC – only just in the case of Hannah-May Caspar’s Cultural AppropriApron, addressed to “the tourist who has a superiority complex and is a racist wanker”. Beth Sometimes, co-curator together with Franca Barraclough, is more thoroughly satirical in her spoof of the guilt-ridden appropriators, who attempt to return their un-PC souvenirs to the shop where they bought them. Trouble is they don’t realise, according to her “Jimmy”, shop-owner, that most of the objects bearing Aboriginal imagery were made in China.
The archetypal Aboriginal figure is taken in a different direction by Mel Darr in her beautifully realised Fabric of Life wallpaper. She references a wallpaper design of French origin which typically showed pastoral scenes, printed in a single colour on white or off-white paper. Her ‘pastoral’ scenes are transposed to the Central Australian desert; she references, in the rendering of Aboriginal figures, the cliched silhouette of an earlier generation of representations, but they are brought to life by her keen observations of the way the figures express a Central Australian Aboriginal modernity – their use of cars, cameras, their dress – even as they go about their traditional business, such as of hunting.
In interesting relationship with all these works are the genuine souvenirs created by contemporary Aboriginal artists for the show, such as Jane Young’s Little Well and the bottle-top earrings by Tangentyere Artists. The artists’ control of the means of production apparently liberates the object from white angst about meaning and commodification.
Jane Leonard’s pieces assert the primacy of personal, emotional experience in what can be “souvenired” from experience of place. Her slogan-bearing t-shirts are about conquests of trauma rather than giant rocks, existential struggles rather than road trips. Her snow-domes cleverly put the finger on some archetypal experiences for whitefellas living and working in The Centre – surviving rollovers on desert roads, the romance of sleeping under the stars, the shock of being on the receiving end of racist abuse for the first time.
Some artists have reinterpreted the souvenir as keepsake. Kim Webeck’s “I love Alice” tea-towel asserts a positive view of Aboriginal people in the river in contrast to the often negative view expressed about just such a subject in the civic debate. Dan Murphy’s attractive range of “No snow domes” cast an ironic eye on the cultural landscape created by forms such as the Tom Brown Roundabout and Flynn’s Grave.
Anyone interested in how Alice Springs represents itself and is represented to the rest of the world will enjoy this exhibition. Its dates have been extended to next Wednesday, September 21, with discounted sales of souvenirs on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Pictured above: Shaken, Rattled and Rolled by Jane Leonard – souvenirs of life-changing moments instead of geographical places.
Slideshow: Alice Springs – Bleeding Heart Central, detail of map by Franca Barraclough and Beth Sometimes • Cultural AppropriApron by Hannah-May Caspar • The Sorry Souvenir Phenomenon, detail, by Beth Sometimes • Toile de jouy – The fabric of life, detail, by Mel Darr • Littel Well by Jane Young • “I’ve been to Alice Springs but I’ve never been to me” by Jane Leonard • Shaken, Rattled and Rolled by Jane Leonard • A Keepsake for the Local by Kim Webeck • No Snow Dome – The East Side Pole (left) and No Snow Dome – Flynn’s Grave, both by Dan Murphy.