By KIERAN FINNANE
Artist and author Rod Moss has grown old in Central Australia, settling here in the early ‘80s. He was in his mid-thirties then, he’s a grandfather now, a greybeard if he had one.
In a new exhibition, All My Fat Country, he revisits, in a double movement, the places he took his young children to, the places he was guided to by Arrernte friends, many of them no longer with us.
The passage of time and accumulation of experiences make themselves felt in these large-scale drawings. It’s as if the memories grew under his hand, in amplitude. It may be old country – literally and as remembered – but its life is full-fleshed.
Moss is a story-teller, as his writing and his oeuvre of narrative paintings demonstrate. He also made up stories for his children, going beyond the anecdotal to build whole imagined worlds, with an eye for the grotesque (see Blue Moon Bay, 2019).
Moss in the ’80s (supplied) and below, in 2018 with daughter Ronja (archive).
There is something of this flavour to some of the landscapes on show: it is as if they were or are about to become the scenes of high drama with a cast of characters, fantastical, mythical.
Moss’s titles lend themselves to this idea – One by one we wander, orphans on the road, 2020, for example (image at top), suggests the aftermath of a cataclysmic event. The title text is extended in the drawing to read “… sniffing for the mother’s scent / midst the motherlode.”
In the generously illustrated booklet that accompanies the exhibition, Moss tells us that this place is an Arrernte women’s site; it may not be possible to know or disclose more.
His personal associations with the place derive from elsewhere. The scene – dominated by the gaping mouth of the cave, capped by jagged tooth-like rocks – brings to his mind Robert Bly’s, ‘The Teeth Mother Naked at Last’. This sweeping anti-war poem is rooted in the cataclysm of the Vietnam war but reaches back through time, to the violence waged against Native Americans, to the ancient eras in Europe and the Middle East, as well as into a primal timelessness as suggested by the title.
In this association it can’t be coincidental that the fascinating rock formation he has drawn is within the Kweyernpe (Kuyunba) Conservation Reserve, adjacent to the Pine Gap military base, a place that brings into compelling juxtaposition the ancient, as expressed in its Arrernte stories, and the world of contemporary high-tech warfare.
This juxtaposition unsettles another landscape from Kweyernpe, not far from the cave, showing a sheltered light-infused spot which seems at first glance to invite rest. Moss’s poetic title, Sleep not in the blissful dawn. Sleep not where the breeze is born, is again scribed into the drawing, and thus needs to be considered as integral to the work. With the repetition of “sleep not”, I can see it urging us on the one hand to not miss being part of what is so magnificently uplifting even if fleeting, but on the other hand, in the context Kweyernpe / Pine Gap, forewarning us against complacency.
My broader point about these titles though, and others like them – such as Centuries of sobs and lamentations gnaw at their heels – is that they make explicit the intertwined history of land and people that is core to Moss’s project. This last-cited title, again written into the landscape (image below), could read as a grieving over the colonisation of Aboriginal land and ongoing encroachments on it. In the booklet text, Moss is more specific, associating the site with a killing and its payback, involving an Arrernte man, a Warlpiri man and their families, as well as the mainstream justice system. The time span invoked by the drawing title sets that story within a much longer history.
Some of the landscapes are titled simply with their place name and not always their Arrernte place name, depending, it would seem, on Moss’s primary experience of them. For instance, Pool at Wigley’s Gorge, 2021, is remembered as the destination for the first excursion from home for all three of his children as infants, and also, sadly, as a place where friends have drowned.
The year before he drew the same site, from a different perspective. Then, as his text indicates, his vision was driven by his own delight in the landscape and appreciation of its shifts and secrets: “Immobile and permanent rock structures contrast with ephemeral running waters, the mute housing the garrulous. Summer cloudbursts often ignite the Todd although the water is soon lost to the sands as are the clouds to the torrid sun. An acoustic mystery claims the hills …”
While in both these drawings the skies are free of heightened drama, with the perspective directing the viewer’s eye to the pool, Moss’s treatment of the land itself and the rock formations in particular is of a kind with the other recent drawings. It is interesting to contrast them with the two drawings of Nthwerrke (Emily Gap) from the mid-90s, which are antecedents for this project. (One of them is reproduced as the booklet cover, below.)
The mark-making is simpler in the earlier works, but the difference lies more in the vision. For all the reverent distillation of the mid-90s views of Nthwerrke – the site being one of the most spiritually significant in Arrernte Country – the rocks are rock-like, if you could put your hand on them you’d feel them cold and firm, whereas in the recent drawings (and there is a new one of Nthwerrke), they breathe an extraordinary creaturely-ness. Not like creatures you have ever seen but organisms of a kind, fleshy, animated, expressive.
Moss is not attempting to represent Arrernte ways of seeing Country – the Creation Ancestors embodied. And he relates the choice to draw, rather than paint, and the elaboration of his mark-making to the influence of Albrecht Durer’s prints and engravings, their “twisted, strenuous grace”. But with his long exposure to Arrrente culture through experiences with his friends, it can’t not have influenced him. The difference between the earlier and later works is surely in part a measure of these relationships, understandings and experiences over the intervening decades. It is summed up in the exhibition (and booklet) title, All My Fat Country – a redolent gift of title from his friend, the late Patrick Ampetyane Hayes.
Moss tells the story in the booklet, of travelling with Ampetyane in a time after rain, the air rich with its scent, alive with birds, Undoolya Creek breaching its banks, the ground seething with insects, the flicker of a snake in the grass. “All my fat country this one my son,” he recalls the old man saying. “You be paint it. Any time. Your time or mine.” And so Moss has, bringing to it his own sensibilities while offering an acknowledgement of Country that is moving and profound.
Images of artwork courtesy the artist.
Shows at Araluen until 22 August.