One Thousand Cuts
Life and Art in Central Australia
By Rod Moss
REVIEW by KIERAN FINNANE
Consoling his friend over the pain of separation from his wife and the absence of his children, Edward Arranye Pengarte Johnson cupped his hands in the shape of the Larapinta Valley: “Mpwarntwe like this,” he said. “It welcome you. It holdin’ you. You fall. Not far to fall, my son. It be give it both hands.”
Artist and author Rod Moss recalled this conversation with his great friend and Arrernte ‘father’ towards the end of his first volume of memoir, The Hard Light of Day. Moss took Arranye’s lesson to heart:
“Cool, cool this breeze, with cocky flocks swirling around the rivergums, beaming a white light against the cloudless azure.”
The country becomes the “safety net” into which he leans to find joy and consolation in face of the many griefs that come.
These are told in a new volume of memoir and reflection on his art, published this week by UQP and titled tellingly One Thousand Cuts. It bleeds grief. Alongside the violence, disease and death that ravages his circle of Arrernte friends and at times leaves Moss reeling, he also separates from another wife and must endure the absence of another child. The light and beauty of the country, its movement and music buoy him, hold him, as Arranye said they would. They buoy his readers too. Without these moments of reprieve One Thousand Cuts would be almost unbearably sad.
The vivid, warm, humorous and wise presence of Arranye has gone. His death, at a venerable age, closed the first memoir (though briefly revisited here).
We know from the dedication of One Thousand Cuts to Xavier Neil, the other major presence of The Hard Light of Day, that he will go: the dates July 1959 to February 2013 circumscribe his life. Despite his terrible violence towards his wife, Petrina Johnson, and his reckless drinking, he loomed large in the first memoir for his passionate assertion of who he was, an initiated Arrernte man in his country, intensely proud of his cultural inheritance; for his fierce affections for Moss and his family; and for all its brutal ambivalence, his deep attachment to Petrina. The glimpses Moss gives us of the decline and finally end of this couple’s relationship, and the further decline of both into the alcoholism that will cut their lives short, are haunting.
In Alice Springs we hear all too often of the excessive events of alcoholic lives – the stabbings, the bashings, the multiple-fatality car accidents. What is less familiar is the alcoholics’ slow and pathetic deterioration. We remember Xavier’s fine physique from Moss’ early portrait of him (reproduced in The Hard Light of Day); he is now “skin and bones”. His fierce affections often seem now sentimental, self-serving. He forms a new relationship with another woman, also a heavy drinker, and is only intermittently at Whitegate, the fringe camp on native title land on the east side of town that is the central locus of both memoirs. When Petrina eventually dies there in her sleep, Moss goes to find Xavier at his makeshift camp at Charles Creek. His wordless reaction – dropping his head, snapping a twig, stabbing at the sand – conveys his deep sense of the horrible waste of their lives and love.
We don’t learn of the circumstances of Xavier’s own death; it occurred after Moss had submitted his book to the publisher. But we do learn of many, one after the other, a dreadful rollcall. Too few have reached old age – Patrick Hayes, Aubrey Johnson are in their seventies when they pass; Magdalene Hayes, “a staggering 105 years old”. Others such as Noelly Johnson come up early, like Xavier and Petrina, against the sheer physical cost of their hard living. We remember Noelly as the “strappingly handsome man” shown in Games Alley, joyfully holding Moss’ fair-haired baby boy; we see him again, a much reduced figure on his knees in Agony in the Garden: The Diagnosis of Dr Goldenberg. He was not yet fifty years old. Moss writes: “What level of pain he was enduring was impossible to grasp. Fear, machismo, indifference about his condition, why hadn’t he sought out someone? If grog had encouraged this condition it also suppressed the pain and the decision to redress it.”
Games Alley, 1993.
Noelly knows the penalty his drinking will exact. Earlier Moss records him holding up a can of beer in one hand, pointing to it with another and enunciating “with promotional zeal” first in Arrernte, then in English: “This is grog. It is no good for you. It will kill you.” Moss comments: “Never a truer word have I heard him utter. And he seems intent on living its truth.”
More terrible perhaps – how do we make such a reckoning? – are the deaths to violence or suicide and the deaths of the young. One young woman is not dead yet, but how long will it be? She has tried to hang herself; she has done gaol time and mandated rehab time after stabbing her pregnant sister-in-law and killing the baby in utero; towards the end of the book, Moss sees her in hospital. She’d come off the wagon with two bottles of rum over a weekend: “… whatever the damage done, for the time being she now can’t walk.”
A young man, Devin Neil, who also features in Games Alley, the child fairly bursting from the canvas, dies at age twenty-four. He had survived having his skull crushed by a shovel in a fight at Port Augusta, but a few years later could no longer stand the pain in his head and stopped taking his medication.
Ricky Ryder, the first child Moss met at Whitegate, is stabbed by another young man and subsequently dies from medical mishap while his wounds are being repaired. As if rippling out from this violence, Tarzan Loo-Hayes, the father of Ricky’s assailant, is murdered, by a stranger with an axe, a prison escapee. No-one seems to know or at least are not saying why, but Moss writes: “It’s convenient to speculate that he was sent on some retributive mission, since Tarzan’s sons are in gaol.”
More than disturbing too are the multiple non-fatal knifings, which include some inflicted by mature women. “Stabbing. Stabbing. The cutting times,” writes Moss. These are some of his “thousand cuts”. Others are the self-inflicted “sorry cuts” by those mourning the deaths, not to mention the blows from the petty prejudices, insults, disappointments or worse delivered from ‘the mainstream’.
One stabbing shadows a fine painting by Moss, And dark was the night. A severely handsome young man kneels, facing out from the canvas in its lower left-hand corner. He holds a burning candle. His father-in-law stands behind him, arms spread, his young wife, a little behind, holding their son. Just days later the candle-bearer, after a long day’s drinking, turns knife-bearer and stabs her. Moss under-writes the violence – who can blame him? He reports that the young man, whom he calls Syd Uke (known to the court as Sid Murphy Impu), stabbed his wife in the back. In fact, he inflicted a total of eleven wounds. Amazingly the young woman survived. Moss reflects on his painting, wondering at the prescience of her father’s “protectively flung arms”. From the court, when Syd was sentenced, I learnt of the violence he had been exposed to as a child. It helped make sense of Moss’ staging in the painting, “a depiction of an internal test of faith and psychic endurance in the face of formidable pressures”, as he writes in The Hard Light of Day – a test that Syd would soon fail.
And dark was the night, 2009.
Enough. If this was all, perhaps even Moss’ deep well of compassion and kindness would have dried up. There are still the flashes of humour. Dogs bring it out. Pinkie Hayes quips on his dog scratching fiercely at its ribs: “Him be strummin’ his guitar.” A sickly dog is dubbed “Congress” (after the Aboriginal health service). The boss dog in camp is named “Do Ya”.
There is still the spontaneity, the fearlessness. Still the deep attachment to their traditional culture. In this chaos, initiation of young men continues and is repeatedly offered to Moss, whom the families see as one of their own. A man who emerges strongly in the book is Gerald Rice. He puts it this way to Moss: “You not alone here. Jus remember. You not alone. I respect you. And the families respect you. You want to have power? You want to open your mind? Old Patrick might be steal you for business. Only one week.”
There are still the trips into country, particularly in the later pages when Moss travels out with groups organised by the Healing Centre. Stories continue to be told, songs sung – at least to some extent. Moss writes of “the persistence of the poetic mind” as an old woman , on entering her country, sings softly of the morning star story. Plants are gathered, animals hunted, the country read for its signs – of imminent rain, of long winters, of a kadaitcha, a ritual executioner, on the prowl.
All of this is the kind of writing, the kind of insight into the Arrernte world and this desert country, that earned the first memoir its accolades, including the 2011 Prime Minister’s Award for Non-Fiction. This second volume is not quite as compelling. This is in part due to what has happened in the lives of those in and around Whitegate. Little wonder, in this regard, that the telling is much more fragmented. Fragmentation also comes from the greater attention that the book gives to the evolution of fifty of Moss’ paintings and drawings, as well as the author’s digressions into political and social commentary.
The latter is not Moss’ strong suit and weakens the overall impact of the writing. He asks early in the piece, in relation to the endless bad news related by mass media, “Where is the genuine looking and feeling into the present moment that arises from engagement?” A more than legitimate question and this “looking and feeling” are what Moss does best. When he turns to a more distanced commentary it is often quite superficial, even glib. An example, following on from an observation about the “generational incarceration” of the Aboriginal Hayeses: “Recidivism is a massive issue, partly resulting from the irrelevance of whitefella law for its ninety percent Indigenous constituency, whose own legal system is more meaningful.” This glosses over the clear breakdowns in the Indigenous legal system, of which Moss provides a lot of evidence, and the shocking toll that this (among other factors) takes on Indigenous people themselves, of which he is all too well aware. It also does not take into account the problematic aspects of traditional crime and punishment in the contemporary world where, for instance, the position of women has changed.
Moss’ later comments on the sentencing of five young white men for the manslaughter of Donny Ryder are also wide of the mark. He asks whether five young Indigenous men would have had “access to such legal representation”. He clearly thinks not, but he’s wrong. At least four out of five of those young white men were represented by publicly funded defence lawyers, just as they would have been had they been black. In the trial of two young Aboriginal men accused of the murder of white man Ed Hargrave, who died a few months before Donny Ryder, both were represented by publicly funded QCs, brought in from Darwin and Melbourne (one of the accused was acquitted, one found guilty of the reduced charge of manslaughter). Moss’ comments on the courts’ attitude towards the rehabilitation prospects of Indigenous defendants similarly reflect his lack of knowledge in this area.
At left: Intervention, 2007.
His representation of the advent of the Intervention perpetuates some of the myths about this radical move by the Federal Government. He has it imposing “compulsory health services on children under sixteen” (inaccurate) and suggests that the premise of the Intervention was “unsatisfactory” behaviour, which he goes on to describe as Indigenous failure to “adopt mainstream expectations and market integration”: “The perception assumes possessive individualism as a fundamental human trait to be prized over collective ownership and reciprocity.” Not a word about the critical and central issues of child neglect or abuse and the devastation of the “rivers of grog”. This is unhelpful and complacent about the problem for governments, society generally and, above all, for Aboriginal people themselves, of the deep malaise in their communities that Moss elsewhere so memorably evokes. One can be critical of the blunt instrument of the Intervention without such obfuscation.
An editor with greater familiarity with Central Australia might have suggested improvements to the text in this regard. Similarly, different choices might have been made about the appearance of the book. The photograph of a technicolour sky on the cover seems crude, especially alongside Moss’ many poetic descriptions of dramatic skies and his treatment of them in his paintings. Most of the chapter opening photographs (none of them by local photographers, as far as I know) do not contribute meaningfully to the story Moss tells and take up space that would preferably have been given to the reproduction of his paintings. On the whole, as often quite intricate narrative works, they suffer from being reproduced at too small a scale, forced in part by the choice of a square rather than rectangular format for the book. These are small criticisms alongside what must be our appreciation, particularly as Central Australians, for UQP’s commitment to the publication.
A novel aspect of the book design is the inclusion of black and white photographs as smaller format inserts. Many of them are close-up portraits of Moss’ friends, mostly taken by him, some by other people. There are photos too of him and his family. All of these do augment the book, allowing a presence for individuals that is independent of the lens of Moss’ art and writing.
How to close now and commend this book to you? It’s not an easy read, but you didn’t think it would be, did you? This is harsh terrain but as deep the grief, as great also the fleeting joys, the enduring allure of the country, its exigent beauty, its secret bounty, its spaciousness, and as profoundly touching the stories of its humans, their suffering, their cruelty, their hate and despair, their certain zest for life and their capacity for love. In this last, not least among them is Moss as he keeps faith with his friends and continues to bear witness to their lives.
Note: One Thousand Cuts will be launched locally at Dymocks in the Alice Plaza on Saturday August 17, 10.30am. A retrospective exhibition of Moss’ art, titled Anatomy Lesson – You. Me. Us., is showing at Araluen until August 11.
RELATED READING in Alice Springs News Online:
These stories are from our foundation archive; the link takes you to the issue, scroll down for the headline you’re looking for.
A short history of violence
The sentencing of Sid Murphy Impu.
Racial divide no surprise
KIERAN FINNANE comments following the sentencing of the five men convicted of the manslaughter of Donny Ryder. The piece also gives an account of the assault on Ricky Ryder, following which he died in the operating theatre of the Alice Springs Hospital.
25 years of love and anguish
KIERAN FINNANE reviews The Hard Light of Day.
On the Australian Policy Online site:
A death in Alice Springs
Originally published in the journal Current Issues in Criminal Justice, November 2011, an article by KIERAN FINNANE and MARK FINNANE, an academic with the ARC Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security at Griffith University. It gives a contextualised account of the death of Donny Ryder and the legal proceedings that followed, including sentencing.