By ROD MOSS
Forty years have elapsed since I relocated in Alice Springs from Melbourne. The move was motivated by a desire to make relationships with Indigenous culture having the strong links to country I’d read about and heard from a high school friend whose working life was devoted to First Nations culture. Maybe such links existed in Melbourne, but I was unaware of them.
If the strident Aboriginal voices in urban coastal cities now calling for reconciliation and representation in the Federal constitution existed when I left Melbourne, they were barely heard. I knew of Doug Nichols, but apart from Charlie Perkins’s Freedom Ride, the success of a few VFL footballers, Gary Foley and David Gulpilil’s occasional appearances on the big screen, little was known or seen of First Peoples.
The Marcia Langtons, Noel Pearsons, and Pat Dodgsons were yet to fully emerge as forces in the public arena. That the highly articulate indigenous journalist, Stan Grant, would occupy prime viewing on the national broadcaster, was unimaginable.
So it was an incredible shock to enter what was, and remains, frontier Australia with the streets amplified with many Indigenous languages. It was like immersion in a foreign country, which for me, in respect to sight and sound, it was.
By the 1980s the unprepossessing regional centre had a full complement of services and boutique shops. There was an enclave of secluded architect-designed houses adjoining a golf course, several ghettoes of housing commission houses, and not least, but out of sight at each point of the compass, its notorious camps on the fringes of town.
There was the dry riverbed bisecting it, popularised by an absurd annual regatta. And the magnificently lit ranges rimming its southern boundary in an east-west latitudinal line were a permanent reminder of a drama predating human existence.
Beyond the stockade-like fencing on the eastern edge of town stretched scrubby Crown Land, criss-crossed with dry creekbeds whose focus was Emily Gap.
Huddled amongst this bush were families of Arrernte at a camp called Irrkerlanye (kite-hawk), or Whitegate, that changed my life. We formed friendships that continue to evolve. Stories arising from those friendships have rooted me to the vicinity.
The money-earning Indigenous art that started to flourish soon after my arrival, fed a new found non-Indigenous appetite for the same connections to country I was soon privileged to enjoy, travelling the south-east country with knowledgeable elders.
The dotted symbols of this desert art were not concerned with depicting the lives of its creators. Knowing those lives, close up and personal, was not part of mainstream appetite.
No non-Indigenous Australian could or would countenance the appalling conditions of camps, or overcrowded commission houses in town.
Poverty and suffering are unlikely themes for art lovers preferring positive, or untroubling decorative work. You can shut a socially conscious book if it got tough. Similar themed films might run an hour or so. Same with theatre.
But something on your wall, staring at you, stirring you? Forget it. The situations I pitched demanded longer attention. Sometimes I resorted to European master works to increase the load.
Intergenerational dysfunction, housing shortage, poverty, drug use, domestic violence, disease, and adolescent anti-socialism have been on the rise since the 1980s and accelerating since the Federal Government implemented its Intervention policy across NT communities. As the gaps between the “haves” and “have-nots” engulfs the world population, its impact on town campers in and around Alice Springs is particularly acute.
My works are my response to my immediate environment, a chronicle of my time. In nearly every instance, they are reconstructions of events, thus poised between fact and fiction, and set chronologically like excerpts from a large format visual journal.
PAINTING by Rod Moss, at top: Johnsons at Whitegate, 1987. The families of Johnson women and men were the main occupants of the Whitegate fringe camp in the 1980s. Reading from left are Noelly, Joseph, Jamesy, Christine and Theresa. All were in the prime of adulthood then and would die within 15 years. The child, Teresa, is currently the lone survivor. The scene is stripped back, showing a mere glimpse of a pathetic shelter, or “chicken shed”, as occupants referred to them. There was, and remains, no connection to town power or water services to the camp at the eastern edge of Alice Springs.