REVIEW by KIERAN FINNANE
It’s an exhibition that reflects on its subject, following it down the paths of many different people’s memories and experiences, and it is also, as a whole, a manifestation of its subject.
Left: Jennifer Taylor, After Albert Namatjira 2.
This is Jennifer Taylor’s Dream of Home, in which Tangentyere Artists, Areyonga Artists and Yarrenyty Arltere Artists have substantially collaborated. To this list we must add the collection amassed over many years and held at the Araluen Arts Centre, the individual artists and works within it that have been drawn into this show and the astute contribution of Araluen’s curator, Stephen Williamson, assisted by Tim Chatwin.
So many ideas, memories, emotions brought into the room make for an exceptionally dynamic, exploratory reflection on the exhibition theme. They also, more than any exhibition I can think of, create a common ground around something that is fundamental for each one of us here in Central Australia, a sense of being at home here with one another, Aboriginal and other Australians – on our best days, our collective dream.
Taylor, a prolific painter, mostly of landscapes en plein air, was awarded a residency, the focus of which was to work in response to the Araluen collection. Among its thousand plus works, one in particular set Taylor on her path: Noel McKenna’s A woman’s dream, 1991 (reproduced here).
It shows a woman holding, in her arms and within the mantle of her long sweep of hair, a home. It takes the form of a house, the most significant thing about it being its size – it is as much as she can hold and protect.
Apart from its pitched roof, couple of windows and a door, signifiers of house as an idea, it is otherwise featureless which makes space for viewers to fill the image with what it sparks individually for them.
Left: Albert Namatjira, Hermannsburg Mission with Mount Hermannsburg, 1937.
Most importantly the image associates home with nurture and the maternal embrace: the shelter an infant finds in her mother’s arms and at her breast. Actually, it’s more than an association, the image expresses the symbiosis of home and mother, or home and family – they are inseparable, cyclical, generative of one another.
In the exhibition this intimate idea of home evoked by McKenna grows to fill our collective embrace of country and community, an ideal, of course – a dream. The exhibition is on the wall and in the room and within the specificity of each contributing artist’s images and words; it is also what each visitor brings to the reception of them and takes away into their daily lives, bathed in the show’s overall golden ambience, its warmth of feeling.
Can we collectively dream of a home in Central Australia?
Margaret Kemarre Turner says we can and do. I am always struck by the expansive generosity, the willingness to forgive and set aside the past, of her comments.
Left: Jennifer Taylor, Margaret Kemarre Turner: Mount Riddock.
Taylor’s portrait of her and her statement about what home is open the show, displayed on the wall just outside the entrance to the gallery, above McKenna’s work and Taylor’s homage to it. Kemarre sets the tone:
“What is home? It’s happiness! It’s the best thing. When our kids learn about their home, the land can speak to them. Even white people who live in this country, they love this country. New people are learning to join with the spirit of this country.”
Inside the gallery, the only domestic interiors are depicted by Aboriginal artists, several of whom contributed to the large Cutout Installation, comprising scores of small humpies, houses, schoolrooms and churches, cut out in wood and painted. We see, from the outside looking in, fondly remembered spaces and moments in family and community lives. The work proposes a radical shift for many viewers in how the humpy is seen. Forget the deficit view, here’s how Noongar Williams puts it: “Humpies are really nice. The rain’s not getting through, or the wind. Nice and warm inside.”
Above: Cutout Installation, contributing artists: Nyinta Donald Pepai, Kunmunara Boko, Doris Thomas, Marjorie Williams, Sally M. Mulda, Jane young, Elizabeth Nampitjinpa, and Rhonda Napanangka.
They offer the requisite shelter from the elements, they bring family closely together, they are places where the objects necessary to domestic life are gathered – hunting implements, pots and pans, clothes drying. These are contemporary humpies or the humpies of living memory. Artists show the domestic adaptations their families have made, including in the materials used to make the humpy – several are from corrugated iron.
One of the most detailed representations shows a humpy that looks like it’s been cut from a water tank; inside is its elderly gentleman occupant, his carefully stowed food and clothing, a light suspended from the roof, his dog, and sweetly and so specifically, the dog’s little bed, complete with bed frame, blankets and pillow.
On the opposite wall a painting by Doris Thomas fills out the scene, showing a detailed single image of remembered community life, probably in Titjikala where she grew up: humpies and houses alongside one another are seamlessly part of a busy day of comings and goings, in cars and on foot, and gatherings, by people and their animals, dogs in particular. An important feature is the campfire outside each dwelling, the hearth that locates home for many Aboriginal families.
In a video that accompanies the show, Maureen O’Keefe gives a beautiful exposition on the idea of home and is eloquent about the role of the campfire:
“When we lived in humpies we were free and happy people. We lived on the ground. Now in a house it doesn’t work like that.
“The campfire really brought us together. Everything was said at the campfire. The fire warms your heart. I miss those times. Really, home is the campfire. Home warms the heart. It grounds you. My mum used to say ‘the fire warms your heart’. My mum taught me a lot about the fire that burns at night; ‘fire is special, never let go of that flame.’”
Fire, heart, home, mother. These are the strong core elements of this show, and there is another. O’Keefe is talking here about her real mother but the show as a whole is a homage to a mother principle – home as nurture, giving and receiving, women and men. And country can do that too. It speaks to its children, as Kemarre says.
O’Keefe hears it when she’s “walking along” in the land that she misses when she’s away, “feeling the wind blow, looking at that beautiful country – it takes your breath away.”
In a number of large portraits Taylor has captured the intensity of such feeling, engendered by remembering the country that is home: for some it seems to be a deep yearning for what is past or distant (Kunmanara Boko: Jay Creek); for others, a serenity arising from a sense of wholeness (Leonie Palmer: Corkwood Bore); for others still, a transporting joy (Doris Thomas: Arlatila) or a deep contentment (the grouped portraits, above, interspersed with flowering plants, of, clockwise from top, Agnes Abbott, Patricia Ngetye Webb, Amelia Kngwarraye Turner, Cynthia Mallard, Margaret Pengarte Scobie , and Magdalena Perrurle Marshall).
From the collection a key work in this thinking about country as mother or nurturer is Daisy Jugudai’s Mereenie Ridge at Haasts Bluff, 2005. Typically for Jugudai, it shows a country of bounty, in seed, fruit and beauty, “the living co-ordinates of home”, as Taylor puts it.
Can this country also speak to its non-indigenous children? Kemarre says yes, if we learn to hear it. There’s a vivid sense of just such an endeavour in the grouped portraits of, below, left to right from top, Jasmine Crea, Sue Fielding, Zoya Godoroja-Prieckaerts, Kieran Finnane (myself), Bronwyn Field, Henry Smith, Joanna Hendryks, Valmai McDonald, Sue Grant, Penny Drysdale, Sonja Peter, and Craig San Roque. We were among the participants in a facilitated conversation led by Taylor, part of her research for this show.
We are all a long way from where we were born and raised; we have all made homes here, many for the long-term; what that means, when we are conscious of being on Arrernte country, is complex and often difficult. There is no way that Taylor could have situated our portraits in country-as-home in the way she was able to with her Aboriginal subjects.
What she shows though is not a state of alienation, but rather engagement in a process of historical change where patience and humility and willingness to listen and hear are among the necessary virtues.
Taylor also does honour to the complexity that is home for the immigrant. She conjures the loved memories of our places and families of origin that we all carry with us through some her own, in the extensive huts series. Some are small oils on board showing the high country huts from her native Aotearoa / New Zealand, which can make the difference between life and death for walkers and hunters in that country. Others are in cut-out form on which she has rendered plants and birds of Aotearoa, evoking the nurture we humans must return to the earth and its creatures if we are all to survive.
As well, Taylor paints explicitly into the immigrant’s exploration of her new environment. In many ways, this encompasses the whole show, with its multiple loving forays into country and into relationships with people and their culture, for McKenna isn’t the only artist to whom she specifically pays homage. Works by Albert Namatjira, his friend Rex Battarbee, and Namatjira’s descendants (family-way and artistic) are singled out for particular homage and reflection.
Taylor also follows her own lights in the environs of her Alice Springs home: walking and observing in and around and on Tyuretye / Spencer Hill (some resulting works in the installation view below). This can’t be divorced from a process many artists follow – Namatjira with Rwetyepme / Mount Sonder, Hokusai with Mount Fuji, are two that Taylor references. But it is also the path of the immigrant – the striving to make less strange, to understand, to begin to know one’s way, to feel attached.
This is a personal path that we all trace in our own ways. It is also a path for the whole community; to follow it we need one another and to go forth with care. Taylor’s Dream of Home is a beautiful, deeply thoughtful signpost along the way.
Shows at Araluen till 12 August. Artists in conversation this Saturday, 21 July, 10.30am.
Dream of home by CRAIG SAN ROQUE.
Coming eye to eye with the meaning of home and country by KIERAN FINNANE.