The launch of Rod's book, 'The Hard Light Of Day' at the Peta Appleyard Gallery in Alice springs on May 21st 2010, accompanied by a large exhibition of his works, was a highly successful and emotional event.
This short film compilation was played continuously during the launch.
Eminent Alice Springs lawyer Russell Goldflam gave a most inspiring address:
I swigged down Rod Moss’s book in one long gulp sitting out in the cold hard light of a dazzling, dazing Alice Springs autumn day. I couldn’t get enough of its bittersweet taste, drowning myself in the sorrows of the Whitegate mob, down to the last drop, thinking if I keep reading then this misery will go away. But it didn’t. The more of this book I drank, the sadder we both got, like when you decide to knock off the rest of the bottle, wishfully thinking you might start feeling better for a change, after just one more charge.
Rod Moss has been staring unflinchingly into the hard light of Alice Springs days for a quarter of a century. And for a quarter of a century he’s been unflinchingly recording what he sees when he stares. He’s not a sentimentalist, or a moralist, or a demagogue or a ratbag or a rabble-rouser or a romantic, or a cynic. He is an artist. First, he is a technician of light, extracting its shards from the sky, and, by some extraordinary alchemy, affixing them to canvas - like his enduring heroes, the French impressionists, flushing out ‘the deep colours found in shadows’ and ensnaring ‘the simmering atmosphere’.
But unlike the impressionists, who were drunk on the plein air they painted, and painted in, Moss is engaged not just with the marks he makes, but also with what, and more importantly, whom he sees in the hard light of day: his children, ever present in these canvases and on these pages, and, more discomfortingly and confrontingly, the Arrernte families who long ago he almost inadvertently got mixed up with .
This book is like only one other book I know. Ted Strehlow’s was an unforgettably poignant memoir of his father’s last agonising passage through the valley of the Finke River, saturated with the , the dreaming stories that vivified all the natural features they passed through. Moss’s memoir is hauntingly similar, an extended allergy for a dying Arrernte man who affectionately calls him ‘Sonny Boy’, and who fathers him through his country, from the eastern suburbs of Alice Springs all the way to where the Todd River floods out at the edge of the Simpson Desert. But Moss stresses “when you are embraced by an aboriginal family it’s the whole family you embrace.” And this book isn’t just a sorry song for Arranye, it’s a sorry song for all the Johnson’s and their kin. It is a sorry song for all Eastern Arrernte people, and therefore it’s a sorry song for all of us at this particularly sorry time here in this particular corner of the country.
The book begins with a cocky snapshot of a footy team worth of young, proud, tough-looking Johnson guys, which was taken 25 years ago. Almost every one of these fellas, including the cute-looking kid in the front row, is now dead, chopped down almost to a man by grog. As Moss, agog, witnessed this unfolding calamity over the ensuing decades, he didn’t flinch. He watched, he painted and he wrote. For a time he was at a loss how or even whether to paint what he was seeing: the squalor, the violence, the toxicity, the intoxication, but also that grim humour, the cheerful defiance, the intimacy of shared grief, the power of ceremonial ritual. Then some fancy art critic from New York gave Moss a poke. “Make the bastards squirm,” he said. “Bear down hard, even if it scares you.” and so Rod took a deep breath and bore down hard. What he’s been painting ever since it isn’t pretty, or rosy, or easy. It unsettles us politically correct whitefellas
The Whitegate mob themselves, however, ruthless realists out of dire daily necessity, see this work for what it is. It’s work made in their memory, in their honour. This is art as testimony, and if this is testimony then we’re all in court, embroiled in a case in which we are all parties and witnesses, and, yes, judges. As a lawyer, I suppose it’s only to be expected that I tend to see things through a legalistic prism. But there’s been an awful lot of law talk around town lately about the very issues that Rod Moss has been quietly testifying to all these years.
The first of what I would call his testimonial paintings, done back in 1987, is of a group of three black kids with their slingshots, pelting stones at whitefella property. One of these kids was Ricky Ryder, first cousin of Donny Ryder, who last year did much the same thing to the property of white fellas driving past, and as I’m sure you’re all aware, Donnie paid with his life and the fellas in the car are now paying for their crime. I know. I was the lawyer for one of them. Ricky Ryder himself died in 2006 after being attacked in his own home 100 meters or so from where Donnie was to die, by three brothers who were also his own relations. Those fellas went to jail too to pay for their crime. I know. I was the lawyer for one of them too.
The year Ricky died Rod Moss painted . There’s a version of that painting in the gallery here tonight, in which he depicts his own teenage son being bailed up, taunted and menaced by a mob of five young blackfellas, roughly the same age as the five young whitefellas who confronted Donny Ryder.
It’s impossible to look at these paintings now without seeing in them the seeds of the tragedies which have since enveloped us and shaken our community – if indeed one can even call Alice Springs a community any more, so deep and troubling are the fissures which yawn beneath our feet, threatening to swallow us all up. As Moss writes, “the silence between cultures seems greater than ever”. But he insists, through his art and his life, that we start communing again, to make for ourselves the community we have to become if we are to have a common future. In legal parlance, we have no choice but to settle. We must settle up, and we must settle down. To settle a case, first you have to agree on the facts.
Here are some facts, for starters, that I propose we agree on: in this town there is a great sorrow, the sorrow of lives thrown away. We must grieve together. This sorrow is a product of great violence – violence of action and violence of thought, born of despair and frustration and ignorance and fear and bleak memories. We must stand up against this violence together, and this violence is fuelled by the prodigious quantities of grog we swig down in great gulps like I swigged down Rod’s book. We must change this together. There is no grog here tonight, so that’s one little thing we’ve done from which a big thing might grow, like the countless little things Rod Moss has done ever since he pushed his garden hose under his fence a quarter of a century ago so that a black man he didn’t know could fill his billy can. From that little thing a big thing has grown. Let’s let that be a lesson to us.
Hard Light of Day
The art of acceptance
The friendship between a white painter and an Arrernte elder gives a raw insight into indigenous life in the red centre.
Review by Candida Baker
Sydney Morning Herald
There is a picture at the front of Rod Moss's book, The Hard Light of Day, of the local White gate football team. It was taken in 1985, shortly after Moss's arrival in Alice Springs to teach painting, and it is of part of his Aboriginal "family". Of the 14 men in the picture, nine have died since then- all of them, as Moss says, in their prime.
For most of us, going to funerals is the exception rather than the rule. Moss, however, has been to more than 60 in 25 years and only three or four of those were for people over 50.
If I had to sum up this book, and what it is about, in one word, it would be "duality". It is a testament to Moss that he has managed to embrace, both personally and creatively, the extremes of life in the red centre for the Arrernte and specifically the Whitegate people.
His initial contact with the Whitegate "mob" came when he met Xavier and Petrina, both then in their late 20s, who took to camping by his house. Despite the couple's
grog addictions and sometimes brutal relationship, there was a humour, warmth and honesty about Xavier that attracted Moss and his then girlfriend (later his wife), Elaine. At one point, when Moss commiserates with Xavier about the sudden loss of another family member, Xavier shrugs, "Don't cry for me. I'm too much crying already." He explains that his sorry cuts (bodily incisions signifying ritual mourning) are in honour of his three brothers and his sister who have already died, all in their 20s and 30s.
Through Xavier, Moss meets the vital presence in the book- the elder Arranye Johnson, who calls Moss "my son" and starts to induct him into Arrernte customs.
Cutting straight through this book, constantly making its presence felt - a kind of negative songline of its own - is the story of alcohol and the havoc that it wreaks on communities, from children to the elderly. Even worse is the description of a petrol-sniffing ward Moss has to pass through when he is visiting a friend in hospital. Arranye, less prone to being drunk than the others, still has to put off the taping process he has initiated with Moss when he has consumed "too much that green suitcase", as he calls their favoured cask wine.
It can't always be easy to rise above the frustrations of constantly finding that your friends and extended family are, in a formal "whitefella" sense, not to be relied upon but Moss seems to have brought to the table straight away an ability to go with the flow that allowed him to accept 30-minute journeys turning into all-day trips, planned excursions being aborted and then other, magical journeys appearing out of nowhere.
What this almost Buddhist acceptance seems to have given him is an unprecedented unconditional acceptance. The mob take him and his wife and then their children to their hearts. Moss learns how kinship is valued above obligation, that life's bounty is to be shared, and he is introduced to the question of honour and retribution killings, sacred ceremonies and circumcision.
Arranye takes him on numerous outings, and when Moss first kills a perentie by whacking it on the back of the neck with his walking stick, Arranye tells him, "You be proper desert line man now, my son."
As the story unfolds, it becomes clear it is the relationship between the old blackfella and the young whitefella that is at the core of the book and, one surmises, it will end with Arranye's death.
Around this relationship revolves Moss's complex family life - he and his wife have two children, they separate, get back together, separate again-and another songline, Moss's artistic career. Despite his obvious accomplishment and the book's 50 pages of colour plates, Moss as artist is not forced on the reader but again it is a kind of running subtext to the main deal - Moss's involvement in this amazingly complex, confusing and rewarding community.
Towards the end of Arranye's life, when Moss is questioning his right as a whitefella to tell the stories that Arranye has asked him to tape, Arranye is incredulous. "What you think I been tell you all this story for?" he asks from the depths of his pillows.
More than anything else, perhaps, this is what makes this such a unique book- that the relationship between a white contemporary Australian artist and an elderly Aboriginal elder managed to rise above the hard light of day.
4 Readings Monthly May 2010
A kind of love story
Barry Hill interviews Rod Moss about The Hard Light of Day
Rod Moss has been living and painting in Alice Springs for over two decades, forging close ties with the Aboriginal community there. He shares his experiences – and his artwork – in this amazing new memoir, The Hard Light of Day.
Barry Hill, award-winning author of Broken Song, spoke to him for Readings' New Australian Writing feature series.
Rod Moss, a strongly built, gentle man who arrived in Alice Springs 25 years ago, has a body of work which is unprecedented in the history of Australian painting. It is a work of astonishing nakedness, as well as satiric wit and drollery. This for two reasons: no other talented white Australian artist has mingled for so long with Aboriginal people with as much respect and intimacy. And in these years so much in Alice has got worse: what was once the heyday of land rights, with so much promise in the air, is now poisoned by a death rate among people who might be counted as among the wretched of the earth.
The power of Moss’s realist painting often depends on its revelation of contemporary Aboriginal life in one of the town camps – ‘the truth and the terror’ as he puts it: the drinking, the violence, the self-destructive degradations of family life that continues in a blur of sorry business.
At first glance the paintings look exploitative of people’s suffering. But the work – the painting and this writing that recounts the lives that make it possible – has a redemptive quality. Moss’s relationships with people are full of mutuality and trust. The Hard Light of Day is a kind of love story. The humpy settlement involved in Moss’s life and work is the Whitegate camp, on the eastern edge of town. A supreme irony is that the Hayes family who live there are the traditional owners of Alice Springs: they successfully won their claim of Native Title in 1998, which made little difference to living conditions. ‘Did I come here to go to funerals?’ Moss would ask himself. Within ten years he’d been to 60 funerals: most of them for people under 50, many of them his friends or their relatives, and whose grief flowed into his own, occupying his dreams.
He stayed on in Alice. His life was there: teaching art at the Centralian College; and his family, the two kids and their mother. When the marriage broke his family moved south, leaving him as sad as some of his Aboriginal friends. By then, however, his connection with the other culture was a source of fundamental nourishment. His door to them has been open in ways that few other whites can withstand.
‘It’s a terrific
endorsement to see
people hug a copy
of the book to their
chests and exclaim
that the book fills their
heads with memories,
and that they don’t
want to let go.’
He’s had a rule that no ‘drunks’ were to come in. But that was no easier to keep than the rule that things were not to be nicked from his house, or that there was a time in the day when he was no longer available to drive his friends to the supermarket, or out bush or even to the hospital.
Meanwhile – and this is a crucial meanwhile – there was joy to be had in their proximity and their trust. The bush outings, the camping and hunting together. His kids with their kids among the bush tucker, at the waterholes, as well as around town, or at the Alice Springs show. Normal – interracial – life is as much the subject matter of Moss’s work as the graphic indications of tragedy.
There are many funny things in the book: jokes that leap out of the Aboriginal play with English, as well as their lust for life. Finally, there was Moss’s deepening father–son connection with Arranya, or Edward Johnson, the knowledgeable old man determined to introduce the tender and open-hearted white man into the traditional stories of his country. Over 20 years this took place, and the process informs many of Moss’s paintings which tremble with another thing; that one day, he might, just might, succumb to the standing invitation being intimately pressed upon him by his younger friends: that he too be cut, initiated into manhood. So far he has not. He has stood back inside his own culture. His painting and the lucid, candid writing in this book throbs with ambivalence, however.
I began by asking him to say more about one of the paintings so well reproduced in his book. The Enigma of the Whiteman is a double self-portrait – a white man wrestles with himself in a half circle of Aboriginal men. The white man is naked and the others are not.
RM: You could say that the motive driving the fight within the self is having to resolve the conflict between animistic, pagan beliefs and Christianity. Or the anima/animus. Or the outsider/artist quandary with community. I feel I occupy this liminal between Arrernte ‘believers’ and my own activity as having ‘faith in art’.
BH: And how do they see this struggle, your portrayal of yourself as so naked?
RM: Just a few months ago a friend came to my house … ‘They see you naked,’ he said, of his friends and amily. ‘You man. They smile, but they think you man. Naked man. No shame being naked. Proper man. Look, you saying; me man, full man. You got power in your mind.’ He meant, I had power in my mind for painting, just as he has power because he has been initiated into country. ‘You not alone, here,’ he said. ‘Just remember.’ This blew me away.
BH: Is their privacy invaded by your pictures?
RM: The painting is a caring thing and the families instantly recognise this. They also like seeing themselves in my pictures … If it’s a tough painting – like Raft, for instance, which shows their drinking, I’ve known them to sit quietly and reflect on their ‘grog sickness’.
BH: The writing in this book – how did it happen, and what are you trying to do?
RM: The book derives from journals I’ve kept for many decades … I wanted to bring a sense of the vividness of encounters I was having on a daily basis and of a kind I had not read anywhere else …
BH: How does the writing connect with the paintings?
RM: Well, it backgrounds, or foregrounds the type of occurrences that erupted into paintings, though I don’t regard the paintings as illustrations of the text. The writing might go some way towards revealing the difficulties in establishing and maintaining relationships. I view them both as a means of reciprocated respect to the people depicted, as kinds of love letters.
BH: Other painters and this kind of writing?
RM: The list of literate painters is long. Van Gogh, Max Beckmann, Donald Friend and so on. I’m not aware of any in regard to crosscultural data.
BH: There’s Gauguin. But he painted and wrote under the heading of desire. Eros does not arrive in your work. You do nakedness without desire.
RM: That’s right. It hasn’t come into my life with Aboriginal friends.
BH: What have you left out of your book?
RM: Most readers have been shocked by the violence. But I have minimised it, as well as the funerals and the daily grind of running around … I don’t venture into the jealousies of sexual parties, or the politics of family rivalries; the background of these, which really drive daily lives, are not my province to disclose …
BH: How do you stay so calm in the face of such turbulent suffering? The invasions of your life! I think of you as a gifted quietist. Does that fit?
RM: It’s probably traceable to the power structure of my family, adapting to my father’s angry outbursts, my older brother’s merciless bullying – me maintaining my integrity by ‘quietism’: no argument, and certainly no physical resistance on my part. … I’m less interested in having power over people than over the materials of those little rectangles of painted splodges.
BH: What have you learnt from Aboriginal culture?
RM: Affection. Tolerance. Openness. Spontaneity. Physical embracing. Eye for detail. Indifference to acquisitions.
BH: You have gained this even from the people in a deeply damaged community?
RM: The above virtues persist.
BH: Your religious beliefs? How have they informed your life in Alice?
RM: …What are my abiding beliefs? I respond to needs of the needy where and when I can. A lift to the hospital. Phoning a taxi. Collecting firewood. I wouldn’t call it a religious activity. I’m enhanced by responding
in this way.
BH: How’s your book been received by the Whitegate mob?
RM: The families are immensely pleased, and it’s a terrific endorsement to see people hug a copy of the book to their chests and exclaim that the book fills their heads with memories, and that they don’t want to let go of the book.
Barry Hill is the author of, among other books, Broken Song (Vintage, PB, $34.95) and The Rock: A History of Uluru (Our special price $19.95).
A longer version of this article, with an extended conversation between Barry Hill and Rod Moss, is at www.readings.com.au.
Tragedy and mystery of life in the red centre writ large
An artist has
written a compelling book
The Australian May 21 2010
PEOPLE keep asking Rod Moss why. Why does a whitefella choose to spend so much time in Whitegate, an Aboriginal town camp on the edge of Alice Springs? What does he find there that is so important to his life and his art?
That the questions are asked, Moss says, is a “reflection on the state of the country”.
There have been few Australians able to make the physical and intellectual journey to where Moss has lived for almost 25 years. Anthropologists have been there, missionaries too in the past, but Moss is an artist for whom the people of central Australia are neither the objects of study nor the subject for salvation. They are who he wants to be with, and even who he wants to be. Writer Barry Hill, who also has spent time in the central desert and wrote an account of pioneering anthropologist Ted Strehlow’s time there, has spoken about Moss’s “quietism”, which is not an acceptance of the shocking alcoholism, poverty and violence of the Whitegate mob but an acceptance of all the rest, all the things about these people that Moss finds so compelling, attractive and rewarding.
“I do know how difficult it is for people to make the kinds of relationships that I have and why plenty of people walk away,” Moss says. “But mine is a valid experience, fruitful for both me and the people in the camp.”
Moss has been painting his Arrernte friends for almost as long as he has lived in Alice Springs, where begot a job teaching after a couple of years testing out the experience of living in the outback, far away from his suburban upbringing in Melbourne.
In his book, The Hard Light of Day, only a little of that background is revealed: an early memory of playing at hunter-warrior games, in imitation of all a city kid could know about Aboriginal culture from the little that was available, a visit by his parents to Alice Springs, which is captured in one of the paintings. These are the tiniest slivers of the picture that a different kind of memoirist might want to construct more thoroughly for a reader.
When he spoke with Hill for Readings bookshop in Melbourne, Moss revealed a little more, about paternal eruptions of angry violence and fraternal bullying. Hill also commented on the uniqueness of this body of work Moss has created, pointing out that while there are other instances of artists living among people whose way of life is so different (Donald Friend, Gauguin), those experiences in such cases were eroticised and thus present the viewer with an uncomfortable concern that they are sharing in exploiting the people on view.
While the people in Moss’s paintings are identifiable as individuals and their lives are sometimes documented with unflinching harshness, Moss neither eroticises nor romanticises his relationship with the Arrernte.
From the wild and funny, self- destructive unlikely survivor Xavier Neil, to the sagacious, steady, beneficent Arrenye, these are people whose friendship Moss treats like a treasured gift.
The lyrical is not absent, however, from the paintings or the writing. Moss calls it “rhapsodic”, and accuses himself (unfairly, it could be said) of “romanticising the place at times”. “I did want to enthuse,” he says. “I wouldn’t be here without some sort of poetic connection with the place.”
He is as puzzled as others by what Hill calls his “calmness” before the turmoil that engulfs these lives, the deaths, the hospitalisations, the violence, the alcohol, the suicides, the endless loss.
His book, written from diaries and then as a part of an academic thesis to gain qualifications recommended for his teaching job, is also an attempt to help people understand the paintings, through his relationship to the people who appear in them.
The writing, he says, “came from having to explain the paintings to people who had only the vaguest idea — and often a misguided one — about the subject matter”.
This need to provide a gloss has become even more pressing, Moss adds, since the work has developed further from portraiture towards narrative.
Compare, for instance, the 1986 painting of Neil, who stands looking out at the viewer, centre- canvas, displaying his “sorry cuts”, the scars on his body, with the 2009 painting of Arrernte elder Patrick Hayes, who sits in a chair in a study full of artefacts, along-side a couch on which lies Sigmund Freud, apparently recounting his dreams to the elder. Another painting shows several men collapsed and suffering, in poses that refer to the grand narrative painting by Gericault, The Raft of the Medusa, only the elemental tragedy that has put these Alice Springs men teetering on the edge of life is their alcoholism.
His subjects, Moss says, are “attuned to the fact I’m making these paintings. It’s a big part of my relationship with them, but not the main part.” Moss’s relationship with Neil, which began when Moss helped him out by passing a hose over the back fence to the makeshift campsite just outside town boundaries, provides a narrative thread through The Hard Light of Day (and Neil, in and out ofjail, in and out of trouble, a regular model for the paintings).
But it is Arrenye, the man who called Moss “my son”, and whose insistence that the old-time stories and knowledge be recorded on tape and in writing gave Moss the courage and conviction to do it, who haunts these pages.
Bedridden before he died, Arrenye responded to Moss’s repeated questioning about whether these records were acceptable to the old man and Arrernte custom:
“What you think I been telling you all this story for?”
Even now, a couple of decades on from when Moss arrived in Alice Springs, open to an experience he had only the vaguest notion he even wanted, the decimation of the Arrernte and their rapid loss of cultural memory means that a similar 30-year-old, arriving in town hoping to learn what he could from the people there, would be “hard-pressed”.
“We used to go out such a lot, walk around, see the country,” Moss says. “Even the urge to do that, to show me, has gone. It’s disappeared.”
Even readers who are interested in and a little familiar with Aboriginal culture may find The Hard Light of Day surprising. As Moss watches the fighting, the drinking, the daily struggle, as he helps out with lifts in his car, attends yet another funeral, is taken out into the bush and gradually taken further into the mystery his soul is thirsting for, as he finds a way to transfer some of all this on to his luminous canvases, the logical response is to shout out, “But what can be done?”
Moss’s way of looking and participating forces readers to adapt their reading, holding off judgment and reaction. The stories are astonishing, but Moss’s way of telling them and depicting them in paintings invites indeed forces - patience and humility.
The artist knows his experience and the way he has responded to it makes it likely he will be asked to talk about Aboriginal politics. “I am not looking forward to that,” he says. But there are things that need to be known, so ignorance is not an option. Moss describes how “massive billboards” outside the town camps shout about the prohibitions of alcohol and pornography. “It’s right outside their gate,” he says, seething with frustration. “It’s the most humiliating thing.”
Meanwhile, the talk goes on about what’s to be done with Whitegate, talk that has been going on as long as Moss can remember. His paintings, more and more allegorical, show the strangeness, not of the debilitated black community but of the white society that surrounds it.
“I don’t know how they survive,” Moss says.
Light of Day is published by University of
Queensland Press. Rod Moss is
Howard Goldenberg July 4th 2010
Rod Moss’s book, The Hard Light of Day is transgressive. It declares itself as such in its opening pages pp12-15. Its opening images are of deceased Aboriginl people. Its opening pages refer to them by name.
This is not going to be a meek or polite book. Nor is it ever disrespectful. It is the book that only an intimate outsider, one licensed to to see and to show and to tell, might write. Only Rod Moss could do this.
I took this photo in 1985..they lined up in three rows and I snapped them, with ten-year-old Ricky Ryder as the mascot. You can see he’s got a swollen neck. Had mumps at the time.
(Straight away we can see something that Rod is showing us: an Australian boy with mumps – in 1985. Whitefella Australia was immunizing its kids by that time. But this little ‘mascot’ fell through the net and contracted the infection)
Rod continues with a rollcall of the young men in the photo who have died prematurely. Joseph Johnson…died sudenly in 1998; then Ambrose died in a fight at MtIsa; Eric Neal’s eye exploded when he rolled into a fire. I was with him when he died a few months later. Jamesy Johnson was ‘sung’. Then there’s his older brither, Noelly. Until recently, still puttering – the only male survivor in that generation of the family. But sadly Noelly passed away as this book was about to go to press, from..untreated diabetes.
The list goes on, ending with the mascot: Ricky in and out of jail, was stabbed to death, April 2006. Terrible family business. All these deaths of men in their prime.
This photo has been reprinted dozens of times on requests from the men’s families…in my twenty-five years in Alice Springs I’ve been to over sixty funerals for my Aboriginal family. Only three or four were over fifty.
Arranye asked that everything he recorded on video or audio-tapes remain accessible..’Gotta keep it rollin’, Sonny Boy. Younger mob might be pick it up.’, he used to say. He did not want his name removed from use. Nor did he want his humble humpy dissembled after death.
(Another Moss malapropism: ordinarily we would read ‘disassemble’. ‘Dissemble’, Rod’s choice, means to deceive, to conceal meaning. Rod’s wrog word becomes just the right word.)
Late in their story, Rod asks the failing Arranye is this book, its reality and rollcall of the dead, is it okay for him.
When I asked him this he stared back incredulously from his pillows: What you think I been tell you all this story for?
It’s not a sweet or inviting title. The title is a warning.
In the hard light of day we can, if we choose, see reality, without illusion. Rod Moss lives and practises his arts in the hard light of Alice Springs. If you’ve been there, you know the light, how it bleaches at noon, how it softens and peaches and plums the sunrise and sunset. The hard light happens in the middle of the day. In that hard light, Rod sees the real lives of his friends, the Whitegte mob. He sees – and he paints and he writes what he sees. Most whitefellas who go outback go for the romance and the novelty; and they soon leave. Some stay for a time, to teach or preach, to heal or police or advise or to serve the public in some way. At the completion of their contract, their two years or their two weeks, these too, leave. While in Alice, the visitors see unwelcome sights, fragments of reality of Aboriginal life. We outsiders make what sense we can of these fragments. The shorter our stay, the more likely that the fragments crystallize around some judgement, something that reflects the visitor’s internal reality.
Rod is a stayer, seeing not fragments but whole chunks of life in a town camp. He’s never left, never reached the finality of farewell that commands the western mind to reach for a summation or a judgement. He simply records what he sees, directly; his affection doesn’t blur his photographic fidelity. He gives us pictures that do not judge or apologise or attenuate. Rather, Rod’s is a record of respect, which is bilateral. It is a unique document: Who else has(to use the current term) embedded himself in this way into Arrernte lives? Rod goes to Alice, he stays, he sees, he loves, he suffers, he paints, he writes. He tells the story. Le’ maan hoda le’ acharon (if he were jewish, we’d say he does it ‘in order to make known to the last generation’)
And his works are now a gift. A gift to a nation; it’s not too sweeping to call them a gift to humanity at large; and to his clan, the Whitegate mob. In return, Rod receives a gift, the gift of physical affection, spontaneously and promiscuously given.( P24)
The Painting, the Writing
As a painter, I’d describe Rod as a social realist and symbolist. He employs frequent touches of irony and humour; and he refers to previous masterworks, from the Renaissance and other periods, to render the timeless themes: the press of tragic reality; grace in suffering; love, loss, and faith; lives valued then squandered; dying that transfigures… Rod’s paintings are unique in the art record of Aboriginal Australia. As a writer, Rod is free of the artifices of his painting. His tools are intimacy and trust.. Unlike others who translate indigenous lives into words in English, Rod doesn’t have to worry about permission; he doesn’t have to fear that he’ll transgress by writing. The reason is that the Whitegate mob have actively encouraged him to write their lives, and their deaths. And to receive their Dreaming. He writes what he sees. He writes what he hears. He writes what people tell him. Rod is audacious; he adapted the desert dot painting of the sacred for his very secular project of recording the facts of life and the factuality of death among the Arrernte.
Equally bold is his use of language. The writing remionds me of Jackson Pollock, listening to jazz and flinging daubs and splotches at a canvas: the technique threatens the very idea of painting, but the effect is art. Rod does the same with words. The result is writing as jazz.
Sometimes it’s outrageous: The night was muggy and our sleep ruined by mosquitoes. The sun still shimmered below the horizon as the bird-shrieking trees whelmed with galah gibber. Pigeons paraded in perpetual promiscuity, puffing and preening between our swags. (p178)
The following short passage describes Rod and his kids as they absorb the realization that they have just parted from their dying friend, Gregory for what will be the last time. (p 195) The kids and I drove out of camp to nearby Snogger’s Hill to light a twig and absorb the panorama of the silhoutted town…The ground dust stilled with tears. Below us the town dozed naively in its neon geometry. I want to examine the choice of words here:’the groud dust’ conveys the familiar particulate nature of soil; likewise it suggests the effect of the timeless grinding of feet _ both animal and human_ the earth becomes an artefact of the living, and their passing. Then Rod writes of ‘dust stilled with tears’: the damping effect of human tears is of course an exaggeration. This exaggeration is the stuff of poetry. And again,’dust stilled’ suggests that some distillation is taking place, a mysterious purifying, an extracting or clarifying of an element previously admixed and obscure. An essence: death. Finally, the naïve town in its neon geometry: where have I ever read better the sense we have, on some personally huge occasion(my wedding day, the day of a birth or of a death), of the innocence of that great and unaware humanity? And how better to render the contrast between the modern constructed settlement and the bare native hillside, than to identify its neon geometry?
And now I come to the defining story in the book. It is the story of Rod’s relationship with Arranye. (p127) The fires and gossip made for intimacy against the scale of the unimpeded night sky. His confiding in me made me feel less inconsequential. Apart from having kids it was the greatest privilege.
I see this as a key passage in Rod’s record of his filial relationship with old Arranye. Arranye repeatedly addresses Rod as ‘my son’. Reinforcing the precision of that adopting, the old man calls Rod’s kids his grandchildren. He gives them names: Ronja is tjape awkweke; Raffi is awrekweke. The giving of names is an act of appropriation, it states a claim or a connection. And in this passage, Rod explicitly compares the intimacy and power of Arranye’s fathering to his own. I was much affected by the potency and the poignancy of the Rod- Arranye relationship; the discovery by each of them of that indispensible other: Rod in Alice, is both metaphorically and factually unfathered: Arranye’s younger brother(who we read, should require further teaching)), David, declines to allow the old man to father him into the Law.
Rod and Arranye reciprocally endow their decades of friendship with meaning.(As one who was himself well and truly fathered, I was transported by the beauty and fidelity of this adopting father and son.)
The first art work I purchased from Rod is a graphite drawing of a man sleeping in the Todd river bed, with Rod’s son, Raffi standing and gazing quizzically at the man’s side. The picture works at a number of levels: at one level, the older - indigenous - party is organically connected to the land; the younger - a little whitefella – looks to the elder for understanding. Behind them both a great gum rises from the riverbed. It seems to represent the life that emerges from the land, strong, upright, timeless. It is how the prostrate man would naturally be. At another level, the man is asleep in broad daylight, presumably drunk. The child – the newcomer- wonders what it means. Here the small newcomer represents me, us, the whitefellas of this country. The themes are subtle, layered, unsentimental. There is no idealization. Instead there is a relationship that doesn’t blink or shirk issues. It is a respectful relationship that is exemplary: it shows how the different and unequal can find in eachother a common humanity.
No man wants a second circumcision. It is only his genital reluctance that holds Rod back from full initiation. He contents himself with what Arranye shows him, with fragments, with knowledge that is ancient, threatened, possibly unique to Rod in his generation. Given that Arranye’s younger descendants disdain further learning, clearly Rod owes it to us, to the future and to the past, to part with a bit more skin. Rod gives us griefs – loss of friends, loss of marriage, of his kids; we feel his grief viscerally. The heart sings for both of them when Arranye addresses him as ‘my son’.
I was surprised and unconvinced when I first read Barry Hill’s description of this book as a love story. But it is that. It is the story of the love between two men, the love they share of their country; and the love of the people they hold dear. Like all love stories, it takes us on a journey that can have only one ending. It is Arranye’s. It is our own. It is also, quite profoundly, a book of travel, the story of how a man loses himself to find himself, to find his centre.
Excerpts from 'The Hard Light Of Day'
by Rod Moss
Adrian Hayes reckoned if he got the bolt back for the .308, we’d enjoy a good day hunting. Where was the bolt if it wasn’t in camp? We looked for it at his aunty Myra’s place. It wasn’t stuck in her chicken wire ceiling with the bits of meat and other goods too valuable for scavenging dogs. Myra suggested older brother Patrick had it. He might be at Charles Creek camp, at the hospital, or Trucking Yards camp. We tried each in turn, encouraged by confident informants until we found him at Amoonguna. He was bent under the bonnet of his car in front of his daughter’s house, spanner in hand. The car wasn’t road-worthy for town. But he used it to commute the twenty kilometres between Amoonguna and his outstation.
Patrick said he didn’t have the bolt. The chances of a day’s hunting were fast receding. Adrian kept on hassling for the bolt, unable to accept that we’d come this far without securing it. We followed an incensed Patrick into the house. He dragged his suitcase of clothes before his car, cursing loudly and claiming ignorance of the bolt’s whereabouts. He was totally stirred as he tipped all his clothes on the road. He raked his cowboy boots through them, ensuring through his conspicuous gestures and yelling, that neighbours would testify to his innocence. Then he undressed down to his boots and cowboy hat.
‘See for your self. I got nothing!’
He stood butt- naked before all silenced onlookers. It was enough for Adrian. We drove back to town. Patrick’s vivid rebuttal displaced further hunting thoughts. The bolt had circulated to the outstation as it happened.
The following Sunday was 40 degrees C plus. I borrowed a friend’s Toyota pickup. Arranye had talked up an excursion to Uyitye/Wyeecha, an important rainmaking site. He wanted to show it to younger family and me who’d not been there. It took two hours to navigate town, picking up family members who wanted to make the trip. We needed ice, bullets and drinks.
A brute wind whirled upon the crosscut saw of the Eastern Ranges. Mount Undoolya’s great wing shimmered. Its pink gravel veiled down to the plain on which our track wended towards Todd River Station.
Ten minutes down the Numery track there was thumping on the cabin roof. Dominic was remonstrating with Lizzie, demanding that we return to town. No way was I returning after exhausting my patience during the delays in the camps. He asked to stop. He jumped from the tray, gun tucked under his arm, and stalked twenty metres back, then retraced and climbed back in amid a barrage of blows from Lizzie and her pannikin. The ten people in the tray remained silent, as did the two old men, Davey Patywenge Hayes and Arranye who sat up front. Ronja sat between the old men and me, cramped over the transmission.
Ronja accompanied me on nearly all such trips and dominated the airwaves with her non-stop singing. They all loved it. She persisted putting her boots on the wrong feet. It seemed wilful. Arranye claimed he did that too.
‘Good job I blind,’ he laughed.
We left the dirt track through a gate half an hour south of Todd River Homestead, then ventured through some abandoned cattle yards up scrubby Uyitye Creek. Rocks in the lower creek were the height of the hubs. Adrian got out to engage the four-wheel. No one said a thing. If I was willing to drive, then drive.
Equinal winds sucked up the Pound, grinding its pomegranate walls, virulent and unsettling. The incubating heat enfolded us in the stubble of our bodies. Ronja got jumpy. I was trying not to panic in front of her and the calm old men. When we got stuck, she got out and walked with Gwenda and Lizzie. I was left with Arranye and Dominic’s advice to back up and charge the sandbank at a variety of speeds and angles. We made it out of the creek. Davey machetied a trail another twenty metres, but a wall of roof-high boulders defeated us. It had taken two hours to do less than a kilometre. It was too hot for the old men to proceed.
The women and kids settled there lighting small fires for tea. I lugged Ronja behind Dominic and Adrian, half an hour up a walking trail. The rocks flanking us were stained like latrines; lichens and calcites leant them a skin of rust and talc. The fig pods had split and were heavy with ants.
The site was blessedly cooler, in shade and water fronted. Pardalotes and rock pigeons fed here. Honey eaters of three types. And the crested pigeons cooeed and curtsied recklessly close to us. The overhanging gallery was loaded with paintings of bush tomato/awele-awele. Repeated concentric circles were linked with parallel lines of red ochre. Their magnitude was impressive, their code patiently re-fingered over the centuries on the ceiling. I felt like I was standing beneath a circuit board inside a giant skull. There were few such galleries in Arrernte country. I was excluded from the syntax or symbols of the work and the men were not in a position to speak for them, which I regretted. Designated custodians had the responsibility of speaking for sites and for protecting them. Though the basic story might be communal property, only these people could transmit at the level they deemed appropriate.
Adrian threw a stone into the water and muttered some words of gratitude. Then we men cooled off, fully clothed, in the spring, which was frilled with a green caul of algae. Ronja refused the inviting water and sat in the shade as native wasps darted about her. Martins, all air and grace, ducked in and out of mud nests daubed in the overhang. They scrolled against the sky, pursuing insects which hummed in ascending gyres above the water. The surrounding trees bent towards the pool as if in prayer. It was at the very peak of the valley; a revelation that so much water was trapped at this elevation.
We ambled back to the women and children. Arranye spoke of the rainmaking ceremonies that used to take place here, as we tugged at our damper and tinned meat. As if by theatrical appointment in the blasting blue sky, two cumuli drifted over the mountain shoulder to amplify the old man’s story.
‘Adrian. Is it going to rain?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know. Clouds don’t talk to me,’ he answered.
Arranye spoke of the Wakaya ‘foot soldiers’ invading from the north long ago, when his father was a boy, and trying to steal the stories pertaining to Uyitye.
‘You got water dreamin’? They asked. We want it.’
Without the story they would be denied the controlling powers of the site. The Arrernte resisted. Women and children were bashed to death; the babies were used as clubs. In spite of their aggression, they failed. I couldn’t estimate how long this invasion endured, weeks or months. It may well have been that the mining activities at Hatches Creek, or a drought, had forced them south.
Back in the vehicle, the descent was easier. We gained the cattle yard. Adrian yelled from the back something in Arrernte.
‘Not that way.’ Arranye flared as I motioned towards our recent tracks. ‘Young men want kere/meat. Might gettim on grass after their sleep finish.’
Kangaroos would be moving from the shade of the trees out on the plain now. The temper had slackened, but it remained hot. A hallucinatory heat. The wind dropped. We left the old men, women and kids under a stand of gidgee by a creek bank and drove on across the scrubby plains.
The vindictive light lasered the sandy track before the vehicle. As we approached within a kilometre of the bore, the road became slippery with cow shit. The surrounds were bereft of vegetation. The dust thickened where it had been churned over by hooves. Close to the water where their many approaches concurred, it became a great circle of manured mud, darkened by the mire of mating flies. Fifty or sixty cows lapped at the brimming troughs filled by the uncapped flow from the vast artesian basin. Millions of litres a day had seeped out since the bores had been sunk, many over a century ago, to propagate the herds of the early pastoralists.
We passed the bore and turned east. Then, on the cusp of surrender, Dominic tapped the cabin roof. Having spotted roo, I had to avoid ditches, ruts and trees, and ensure that guns were kept on the quarry side of the cabin. Despite vigilance on the shrubby plain, I still ran into creases which jerked the wheel and wrenched my spine. My left knee, unused to so much clutch work, burned with pain.
The power pact of the bullet on the open plain caromed against distant ridges. The vapour of scorched gun oil filled the cabin. In the rear vision mirror I could see the young men coated in dust. They shot three female adults, who tossed their progeny from their pouches as they fled. The deaths weren’t quick, clean shots. The ‘roos were hit more than once. They teetered, jerked and swayed to die beyond the Toyota’s reach in heavy scrub. They were easily chased then clubbed. Unless hit in the head, the .22 proved inept.
‘It only for rabbit,’ confided Edward Neil.
Young Malcolm gathered two joeys and befriended them. A pink embryo parched to death was kept for the dogs. Ronja as witness to this hunt, made a vegetarian pledge.
As we returned to camp, Edward spotted two emus ambling through the ironwood and raised his hand for me to stop. He asked Malcolm for his yellow T-shirt and slowly waved it against the passenger door. The lead bird lifted its head and cocked it at various angles, assessing the curious, moving mustard swatch. It wandered so close that Edward shot it with his first round. Despite the false clickings from Edward’s gun, the animals gazed nervelessly at us, waiting their leaded fate. Dominic jumped down, broke its neck, and tossed it amid the tangle of 'roos in the tray. He caught me frowning at the ancient .308.
‘That not for ’roo. That for man. Makim’ mince. He don’t come home an’ smile at his family after gettin’ this one,’ he said, almost apologetically.
Its bolt kept falling off. Like Edward’s .22, it required two or three squeezes of the trigger. The .22 was heavily bandaged with insulation tape to hold the barrel to the butt. Guns were sung over and empowered. Dilapidated, ‘customised’, they were valued for their collective memory, their stains, sweat and scratches.
Cooking was more elaborate than I had understood. The gidgee was uprooted, providing a ready-made ground oven in the red sand. It was the premium ember, slow-burning and holding heat: its crumbling incandescent coals were raked smooth. The meat was laid on a bed of gidgee leaves to avoid sand contamination. Edward adjusted the embers in the pit throughout the two-hour cook. He initially singed the fur and pan-fried the entrails as entree, of which everyone partook. The tails were rubbed with the half-digested, worm-riddled belly grass for hunting luck. The warm blood broth, cut from the groin was passed around the group. The butchery was incisive. Each activity was undertaken with the ritualistic, wordless dignity that accompanies sensible habits. Gwenda helped Ronja to drink from the pannikin.
‘Big daddy be drink, marle akweke. You be drink it too. Make it healthy and strong girl,’ said Gwenda.
It was dark by the time we’d eaten and got back into the Toyota. We drove home on the rim of sleep, bodies slumped against each other’s, aching from the heat that had polished us all day. At home, my left knee was painful to straighten and just as painful bent. Ronja rattled through the highlights for Elaine.
‘Daddy got lost and broken on a bumpy road. I cried because mummy and baby was home, and because little kangaroo is dead. We drank blood which make us healthy and wrong. When daddy get bigger, he will have a gun in back of the car too.’
I doubted that.
Farewelling The Old Man (final chapter of, Stumbling into Dreamtime)
Adrian Hayes came to tell me my ‘father’ wanted to see me. He was back at Charles Creek. I went early the following morning with the kids, a Saturday, when I often ran his longer errands. The concrete slab houses had been recently painted by Tangentyere with vivid colours and their numbers scrawled in large freehand on the front walls. He lay in the dark confines of the front room of number one house. His rheumy vision was exacerbated by conjunctivitis. He never bothered to brush the flies from his lids and their crap infected them. Boils had formed around his ankles. His legs had pretty much packed up, and he’d gone from using a walking stick to crutches.
I cut his hair and beard, while he lay too uncomfortable to move. Whatever caused his boils I couldn’t say, but it would do him good to wash more regularly at cuff and collar, and change his clothes more often.
‘Someone be eat my tucker line. You might be get it something for me. Meat and bread, my boy.’
He found his envelope of notes from the Tangentyere bank, and held them close to his eye.
‘This one might be it,’ he said, pressing a twenty-dollar note into my palm. ‘An' might be gettim papers, and tin tobaccy. Don’t forget it, my eye paste.’
We were silent for a few minutes before he mentioned a recent visit from some Kalihari Bushmen organised by the Land Council.
‘Arrernte and African mob been cook meat same way. You seen it. Tie guts up and chuck ’im on coal. Bury ’im. Good tucker, that one. Oh, but they shame us mob. We no longer be like them. Don’t make string from guts like olden times. Only shop one, I suppose. But hard country, Africa. Proper starvation country they got there, poor buggers. We in front of them. We got tap in every house at Charles Creek and them other camps. They still fightin’ for government bore. Only one bore they been got.’
Before leaving, I helped him into the sun. Despite his heavy suit coat and sweaters, he was cold. The sun was a reviver. He called to others for help to shift him throughout the day, following the sun’s arc.
I laundered some of his shirts and strides until the boils subsided. One of the women at the house tended the necessary ablutions. When the boils erupted and formed scabs, I softened them and added corkwood ash to cauterise them. Within the month he agreed to a wheelchair, arranged through Flynn Drive medical service.
I took some fresh linen to throw on Arranye’s swag. He said he wanted to take me to Pwelye Pwelye, Ruby Gap, Chambers Pillars, Rainbow Valley and Twin caves: quite an agenda for his conspicuously declining body. And despite a voracious appetite, he was paper frail.
Noelly Johnson, Edward Neil and wife Bonita Oliver, came one night to the door and touched hands. They told me briefly that cousin Stephen Kernahan’s teenage son had hung himself with hosing from the basketball hoop at Charles Creek. The police had cut him down. Then Bobby Palmer’s son tried to do the same thing a few days later, and was now in Intensive Care with possible brain damage.
Arranye moved back to Whitegate to join the large sorry camp for the grieving families. All the Turners were there and many of the Stephens. Tangentyere built a bough shelter behind the eastern tin sheds to accommodate the sorry business. I got the trailer and dragged in several loads of wood for cooking and warmth.
For several days the men sat in three rows, silently, mostly bowed, facing east towards Emily Gap. Arranye looked awful sitting, legs out, with puffy eyes, on a groundsheet. He leant limply sidewards, as if he were seeking the support of his shed, a metre away. His tale of old people sitting to die played in my head. Mary Hayes, Arranye’s sister, implored him to enrol at the Old Timer’s Home. He adamantly refused.
Weeks later, Arranye grudgingly accepted to go with his niece, Theresa Ryder, to live at Santa Teresa. I found his teeth and medicine pouch in his bedding and packed some clothes. He anticipated that Theresa would pick him up that morning. I later checked to see if he’d departed as planned. I found him sitting in the fading light, leaning against his rolled swag, all his sweaters and coat on, still waiting. A day later he was rushed to hospital suffering pneumonia.
Ronja, Raffi and I dropped in to seen him when he returned to Whitegate. He’d lost his sheen. His side was in constant pain. He thought it was his appendix. His cataracts had reformed.
‘You got more ‘Tiger Club’, I might rub ’im?’
He had finished the first tub of Tiger balm I’d given him, which he’d put in his old army bag crammed with obsolete eye drops, unspecified capsules, Mylanta and tissues. He said he needed another pedicure. I preferred to take him home for this task where his feet could be thoroughly soaked in warm water. But he was too weak to move. We darted home to collect the clippers and returned to find his feet inside a plastic bag full of water. He had got Bartholomew to fetch it. I scraped out the red ochre from beneath his nails and cut them as his legs dangled over the side of his bed.
Wherever I encountered Johnsons through town I’d hear them say, ‘That ol’ man, Arranye, be fucked.’ I was disturbed. Unless I insisted that they get into my car, then drove them to and from his humpy, no brothers or sons would visit him. Whitegate was still a no-go zone for most of the Johnsons.
Before the end of the month he returned to hospital with asthma and was put on the ‘puff puff machine’.
‘Asthma not my family line. That Neil mob been have it. Not Johnson,’ he railed, disappointed in himself.
Soon he was discharged. I found him back at Whitegate stretched out on his bed, rubbing fat on his legs, singing some snake song.
‘Dominic been come from Amoonguna an’ be give it me,’ he said holding the tin of fat
He looked at his feet as if wondering what they were. They were dreadfully swollen, an indication of his ruined kidneys. The wheelchair had arrived but was too heavy to manipulate. The kids made plenty of use of it as a toy vehicle, and most of his male visitors would occupy it as it was usually left next to his bed.
‘Anything you might want me to get from the shop?’ I asked him as I was leaving.
‘Nothing, my son.’
I left him to his singing.
Lawrence cornered me and requested a portrait of his kids. He’d painted a map of Australia on a canvas leaving me to work up the portraits within the shape of the continent. Then Julie dotted up the surround. Later Lawrence came to me with another one of his paintings and asked me to paint in a centrally positioned Mary Magdalene, and on the east coast of Australia, an image of Jesus, which he supplied. Again, Julie surrounded it, this time with bush foods. Lawrence mentioned that Santa Teresa relatives, on seeing these paintings started trembling from their power.
Reproductions of Mary Magdalene had recently circulated the Eastern Arrernte community. A religious fervour had gripped Santa Teresa after the discovery of healing water on the mountain behind the church. The white cross astride the mountain signalled the sanctity of activities in the valley below. If the township’s main road could bisect the church and run through its naive up the rocky escarpment, it would meet at the foot of the cross. The symmetry was impressive: man and mountain somehow in league.
But an auspicious story that outstripped such architectural conjecture had evolved over the preceding eighteen months. Apparently, a bed-ridden twenty three year old man from Santa Teresa had a vision, in which Mary Magdalene stood on top of some bushes on the hill behind the church, below a cave. To the left of her were four purple stars in the shape of a cross on some rocks. She indicated that if water could be found on the mountain, he should wash with it and drink it to be cured. He told his mother the next morning. With her two friends, the woman set off for the hill and was embraced by a strong wind, which they took to be the Holy Spirit. To their surprise, they found a stream of water and traced it to the source of a little spring under the bushes. They knelt and said the rosary, then collected and took the water to the young man. The spring waters affected an immediate cure.
People started drinking the miracle water, washing in it, spraying themselves and their bed sheets, sprinkling grains of wet sand between their blankets, or making compacts of the sand to apply to arthritic limbs. Even alcoholism was treated. A woman from Bathurst Island came and cured a tropical ulcer. A cancer disappeared. An old man’s sight was rejuvenated. A young teenage boy, who had ridiculed believers in the Healing Spring, entered his house and saw the image of Our Lady on the wall looking at him and crying real tears, causing him to fall to his knees and beg her forgiveness. There were many testimonies.
Such an incredible momentum had been established that eight Santa Teresa women joined a small group of white Alice Springs pilgrims to visit the Holy Waters in Medjugorje, Bosnia.
Later a whitefella working for Land Council reported that the rusty pipe from the community water tank had been replaced and the holy spring disappeared. The families advised that insufficient prayer had caused the spring to dry up.
I gave Kemarre Turner a lift with her shopping from Coles back to her house. She was one of the few women who unhesitatingly sat in the front seat alongside me. Even if men were present, she’d claim the coveted front seat. She asked me inside for a chat. I gazed, wide-eyed at the sacred images adorning the walls. Numerous icons of the Virgin covered the lounge wall. Frosty flesh on boneless limbs, heavily hooded eyes, each Madonna whether sitting, standing, kneeling or floating was unsoiled by domestic concerns or mortal desires. A large plaster cast of Jesus was erected in the corner opposite the TV, which was blurting out a chapter of The Simpsons.
Sensing my interest, she asked if I could give her five hundred dollars to finance her pilgrimage to Bosnia.
‘Maybe you could give me the money for the airfare, Rod,’ she suggested.
‘I don’t have that kind of money, Kemarre.’
‘But you’re a famous artist, Rod.’
‘I don’t know about that and whatever fame I have hasn’t brought me much money. Look at my car!’ I laughed at her naivety and shrugged off her persistence.
At the start of the New Year 1998, Elaine went to NSW for the summer, taking the kids with her. She kept the lease on the house she was renting, and arranged with her co-tenants to reoccupy her part of the house in early April. After being in NSW for a few weeks, she changed her plans and said that she would resume living in Alice at the advent of Alice’s pleasant winter.
The summer rains had evaporated or percolated into the sands of the Todd. The grass shoots that had pierced the soil so eagerly were now weary and singed. Verdant circles survived within the radii of the council’s reticulating sprays. On these patches, several groups sat solemnly. I recognised some of them and slowed the car as Big Rose motioned me to her party. She whispered news of another Hayes youth who’d committed suicide. I walked around the small groups touching hands. Nijas Ryder and Eric Neil jumped in the car.
‘Take us Whitegate to tell Arranye,’ said Nijas.
Back at Arranye’s camp they shook hands with him and were busy consoling other family, as I assisted Arranye to the car. He wanted a haircut and felt strong enough to move from his camp. Health Congress had replaced his first set of wheels with a lighter model. I folded it into the back of the Commodore.
‘Only a little bit walking now, my boy,’ he said apologetically. ‘You got it rubbing oil for leg? My leg all dry.’
At home I left him on the verandah in the cane chair and went to the kitchen for some cooking oil.
‘Got to give it oil like motor car engine,’ he grinned, as I splashed it over the scaly skin of his calves.
‘You sittin’ alone in house? You still got single man’s quarters there? Where my grandson?’
‘With his mother and sister on the south coast of New South Wales.’
‘Oh, when him an’ marle akweke come back home?’
‘They might come for a few weeks at Easter.’ Just talking about the kids so far away brought tears to my eyes.
After the shearing we got some ice, bread and tinned meat. I slipped him a banana. He was looking far better than at any point in the previous twelve months.
‘One more year, I been gottim, my son.’ He grinned matter-of-factly.
Xavier appeared with Lilla Miller, his new wife, at dusk the next day. He said that KKK activity made him too frightened to keep camping west of the river. He was staying at Whitegate for temporary refuge.
‘Anything happen today?’ I asked.
‘Man be find dead. Might be Ku Klux Klan again,’ said Xavier, referring to the young man’s body discovered north of Heavitree Gap.
This was the first I heard of KKK activity, although talk escalated through the remainder of the year. Where the tag came from, I do not know. It was doubtful that an organised, racist activity existed, and almost certain that no affiliation with the notorious clansmen of the southern United States was involved. However, there had been a racist precedent further north in Katherine. In 1989, SPONGE (the Society for the Prevention Of Niggers Getting Everything), was formed in response to the indigenous Jawoyn gaining control of the Nitmiluk National Park and establishing a tourist venue in Katherine Gorge.
Xavier told of black women being picked up and driven to Wongardi swamp and raped. One woman had two fingers amputated. He reported that a carload of hooded men ran into a lamppost outside CAAMA studios in pursuit of two young black women. The police attended the accident, but he’d heard they were only charged with reckless driving. Arrernte feared going to the police because they felt some of the junior officers were implicated in KKK activity.
The following day I read the newspaper article about the young man found near Heavitree Gap. He was reported to have suicided, but his body had lain undiscovered for two days and had been properly cooked in the 45-degree heat. The expanding fat had split the skin, giving it the appearance of bodily violence: flayed by thermal aggression.
I was invited to exhibit for a third time at Araluen, emphasising works from the preceding four years. The show was entitled Where Do You Come From, Brother Boy? This echoed Xavier’s question years ago in my lounge. The hearings on the Land Claims in Alice Springs were continuing at the same time as the opening. Jenny Green, an interpreter in the hearings, suggested that my imagery might support the claimants’ case for continuity of traditional ways of life. My depictions of the families showed that they belonged to networks of sites that made up their ‘familiar’ region.
In Alice, whitefellas speak of town and bush: a handy division made easy by the fence line and water drains. The cluster of shopping complexes and light industrial installations surrounded by suburbs, and the bush were all ‘country’ for the families. The parents of the Whitegate kids made them aware of the sacred sites that dotted both town and the bush.
I let Myra and Patrick know they might be required to walk around the show with the judge. Lawyers, linguists and anthropologists made a cursory visit before the opening. But it was decided there was insufficient time to mount a case for the judge.
It was the second Saturday morning of the show, and I had come to remind Arranye that a photographer from the The Weekend Australian Magazine would be coming to photograph us late in the afternoon.
‘Rod apetyeye/come,’ said Lawrence, summoning me to where he sat.
His leg was in plaster. A broken crutch bisected the puppies at his feet. He pointed at the images reproduced on his invitation to the show. I was surprised that he had an invitation, then remembered giving half a dozen to Myra fresh from the press mid December.
‘What happened to your leg that you need those sticks?’ I asked.
‘Them Walpiri mob been beat me. I had two of them. But they pretty good in a group. My mouth was bleeding. And I fell back over one of them I been put on the ground. Others came an’ kicked me. One fella with those American boots, big ones, broke my leg above and under knee. Two place. And here. You see where my lip been stitched? And here.’
He lifted his T-shirt. ‘See where they knife me?’
A broad scar, still pink, ran from above his hip, around it, and careered into the right buttock. Its curve echoed the one on his knee.
‘But I’ll gettem. I saw their families in the pub. I’m just waitin’ for my leg to be proper. I told them I got five son. And I got my old doctor here.’ He said, swinging around toward Arranye, who nodded from the blankets.
I spoke with Arranye and hurried off to sit the exhibition.
I carried a book that I’d just purchased titled Dear Spencer. I was half way through my copy. On its pages were the letters of Frank Gillen to Baldwin Spencer. Gillen, Stationmaster of the Alice Springs Telegraph Station in the 1890s, was Spencer’s main collaborator and informant. Spencer launched his international reputation by publicising field observations about the family’s great-grandparents. Though Gillen shared the authorship of the books in my house, he had nothing like the stellar career of Spencer. For the first time, Gillen’s own story was published.
Remarkably, when I randomly spread it, the pages opened to one hundred years ago to the day, when Gillen’s disclosures were at their most intense. He seemed too excited to order his thoughts into paragraphs. He was desperately interested and committed to record the life and customs of the Arrernte. Given the social climate of his time, the discrimination and brutality of the frontier, his fellowship with the Arrernte was noble. Though he didn’t get adequate recognition in his lifetime, I smiled when I heard the old men refer to Gillen as their grandfather, ‘Mister Spencer Gillen’.
Ceremonial life had been in Gillen’s backyard. More correctly, he’d been in the Arrernte yard, as the Land Claim hearings were making clear. The hearings contained testimonies of vast amounts of current knowledge deposited with educated Arrernte. Myra, who’d already helped Patrick secure the incision for the Hayes outstation, was a main speaker at the hearings. She won Native Title recognition for Whitegate. Little of the kind of knowledge Myra divulged was performed now in ceremonies. It seemed to me to be a sad and regrettable loss. Overwhelmingly the breakages and mutilations occurring in cycles of debilitating violence had nothing to do with ceremony, and much to do with its absence.
The kids came with Elaine to spend the Easter holidays in Alice. Ronja and Raffi unpacked, played with the dog, then wanted to see ‘grandpa’ and the Whitegate kids.
They kissed him and sat on his bed. He was bright but feeble. His frail grace. Everything he owned was under his pillow. He belonged to his bed now. Bartholomew, stricken with kidney disease and too ill to move far from the shack, slept on the ground nearby and tended their fire. At Arranye’s request, we collected a trailer of mulga from the flats by Pepperill Creek and dumped the dead branches near his verandah.
Xavier, who I hadn’t seen at Whitegate for months, was warming the backs of his calves by Arranye’s fire. He pointed to the clump of quartz growing on the hill in the middle of camp. Soon, he said, when Ronja played there, she would get her chest empowered. Soon she would be coming on woman. She would feel heat rising up her ribs.
Arranye spoke of returning to Little Well, which had been appropriately relocated three kilometres east, due to Gregory’s death. Government funding was allocated to building the two new metal clad, three bedroom houses, which were elevated off the flood plain with wrap-around verandahs.
Later that day, Xavier and Lilla lobbed. They supped on our meagre leftovers, a chicken rice dish with a pinch of curry. He crammed some crusts in his mouth, swamping the lot with a pannikin of tea. Lilla fumbled with a boiled egg, dropping splinters of shell to the floor. Sober Xavier accepted responsibility for his drunken wife, when he saw my disapproving expression.
When Xavier asked me to drive them to camp, I declined. He asked for matches, adding that he would camp on the nearby hill. He played on my pity.
‘I’ll be die soon, Rod.’
‘Probably not before me, Xavier.’
But it was true he lived more full throttle than me, as just about all his relatives did, and he would more likely lose his life from misuse than from old age.
On one of our wood runs, Raffi broke his leg. Instead of opening the door to exit the stationary car, he tried to jump out the rear window and managed to hook his leg. It was put in plaster. Arranye told me to collect the fuchsia plant so that he could sing Raffi’s leg strong again. The day before the kids were due to return to New South Wales, we were at the hospital to see how the bone was knitting. Raffi was wheeled to the X-ray room and we were surprised to see Arranye at the end of the passage in a roller bed of his own. Their pillows almost touched through the steel safety rails.
‘How much break you been gottem, my grandson?’
‘Then, two song I be give it,’ he said softly, nudging Raffi’s sheets with outstretched fingers.
The singing would have to wait until Raffi returned mid-year.
Arranye had been admitted that afternoon. He reckoned he’d poisoned himself by eating sour chicken. Meals-on-Wheels had left one the night before, but he couldn’t eat it then. During the morning, the tray had re-cooked in the sun. He was so hungry he’d taken a few bitter mouthfuls and fouled his gut. When the health worker from Congress saw him, it was off to Casualty.
I hadn’t seen much of Jude for months until our paths crossed near Billygoat Hill. He told me that the woman he’d lived with for a year in Port Augusta had died from drinking methylated spirits. Right now he had two wives and they were living in a flat on the west side of town. One of his current wives was ‘wrong skin’ for him, but the menage a trois worked.
Later that week I saw him outside Coles Supermarket with one of them. I crept up behind, leant over his shoulder, and plucked a sardine from the tin he was savouring. He reeled in surprise then took me aside. Tears runnelled down his cheeks. His wrong skin wife had been drunk, walked in front of a car the day after we met and was killed. As a result, he would be speared or knifed in the thighs from her relatives.
‘See you Rod. It’s all right,’ he said.
We embraced softly and I wended through the car park to the Commodore. I glanced over my shoulder at Jude walking stiffly away and wondered what lightness, what levity might enter his life.
Arranye had a backache that ran down his leg. I collected David and Big Rose’s husband, Michael Marshall from Charles Creek to see if they could help. Dominic had started the work the day before, blowing into his hands, rubbing them, and then placing them firmly on Arranye’s back. After a few placements he extracted a slither of bone, which lay, in his palm in a pool of blood. The old man sat up smiling. Next day, however, he was complaining again. This day, Michael took off his singlet, held David’s hand to double the power, and sucked on the old man’s upper right thigh.
‘Hold hands like cup, Rod.’
He spat into his hand, and then emptied the blood into mine. He dried his hands on his bare chest and told me that Dominic had not managed to get the rest of the bone out.
‘I see through leg like X-ray. See it, all tangled ball. I be free it up. I be like vampire, you might be think.’
My Commodore was clearly in its last throes. Driving off the bitumen gave it a hammering, prematurely ageing it. The plastic and rubber trimmings split or exploded in the heat, then peeled onto the road. Front and rear lights shook free of their housings. More than once I tested the advertised adhesive powers of various super glues. The Whitegate mob had called both the Suburu and the Commodore, Aboriginal cars. As the cars plummeted into decrepitude, they came to resemble the vehicles in desert communities that endured comparable battering.
I’d told Lawrence many months before that I was getting rid of the Commodore.
‘Remember me. I ask it first,’ he’d said, when its market value was between $1500 and $2000.
I couldn’t deter him with the recent spate of problems. But I went down market.
‘Five hundred,’ I said. ‘It’s just got new shoes.’
‘No worries. Julie can pay with her next pension cheque. My brother from Santa Teresa is mechanic. He can get that Commodore motor that’s sittin’ there and make changeover.’
The young blokes tore around camp in it for a few days, dropping doughnuts on the bitumen outside Whitegate. Once, Lawrence waved to me as I walked down Undoolya Road. It was so odd to see the car with all of them in it, minus me. Before a fortnight had elapsed, the pulley fell off. The car waited in camp for the engine and the expertise of the Santa Teresa sibling. Until then it led a brief half-life. For days, Lawrence had sat in the driver’s seat, feet stretched out the door, running cassettes through the cars most laudable feature. It was the most luxurious stereo in camp. Then it was gone. Benedict had taken it to Atitykala and hit a bullock. Both the bullock and the car now slumped in the scrub.
Elaine and the kids returned to Alice Springs for the duration of Alice's mild winter, where she resumed renting the same residence. The kids spent time with each of us.
The consistency of field trips with Arranye slackened as his health became yoked to the town’s medical services. Some days he was particularly weak. He would doze. Sometimes he woke lucid, sometimes blurred.
‘Oh, my son. When I wake, I not know whether I be North or South. Whether people round me talkin’ Kaytetye or Luritja.’
As a younger man he did stock work. Being of light stature, he was the favourite jockey for the whitefella Hayes on Undoolya Station. He trained horses on the bush track pummelled out of Emily Creek flats. Like many horsemen he carried a reminder of those days. But he fought off the appointment with the wheelchair for years, refusing my hand to help him to his feet!
Theresa Ryder urged the palliative care team from the hospital to attend him. Their care was unprecedented in a town camp. Fresh linen, a mosquito net, a urine bag, nappies and a few ampoules of morphine were delivered daily over his final week. The grandchildren were constantly in attendance. Family around him sang his songs.
The animosity existing between middle-aged Hayes and Johnson men, the legacy of the crash, deterred the latter’s visits. The resentment reared one morning when I visited Arranye before breakfast.
‘Adrian been take that rum from under Arranye’s pillow while he sleep. He don’t know it,’ said Bartholomew.
I marched over to Adrian who was surrounded by his brothers. I swore at him for his cowardice, pushing my finger against his chest.
‘That was a shitty thing to do. You know he’s in pain. That was his last money he gave me for that rum!’
‘That old man shouldn’t be dyin’ here. Theresa should be take him somewhere else. Old Timers Home,’ protested Adrian feebly.
None of the brothers rose to Adrian’s defence. I turned and walked back to Arranye’s bed, where Bartholomew prodded the ashes
That last night the moon came crisp and callow, prising through the metal shutters of his shed. Charcoal clouds lipped their way across the hunched rise. Thirty or so people huddled in groups outside. Closer family circled around his bed along with the palliative care nurse. I bit my lip. We were mostly murmurings. Arranye was too weak to keep his eyes open and to engage in conversation.
Louis Ryder who arrived in the afternoon from Santa Teresa, was too late to speak with him. Sixty, usually silent and always sober; he was bereft. He slugged at a bottle of whisky, then cried at the moon, periodically pausing to take his penknife and cut his chest and biceps. Each cut ended with an extravagant follow-through gesture. Then he raised both arms above his head and studied the trickling blood. He rambled shirtless through the chilling air, the suppurations forming a glistening map across his torso.
‘That my uncle, lying there. That my old uncle. I Louis Ryder. I cut meself right now for that old man. Oh, uncle. I too sorry.
He spied me amidst a cluster of men in the greying light, lurched to pull me aside by the shoulders, then in against his stomach.
‘You got that old man’s dreaming?’
‘We taped a lot of stories together.’ I was unsure exactly where he was coming from.
‘He never be tell me too much. Now you got it,’ he persisted, softening his speech so that only I could hear.
He held my shoulders at arm’s length, searching into my eyes. Then he dropped his arms, turned and wandered away.
I ambled over to Raffi and Ronja, and with them either side, we broke spontaneously into Aaron Neville’s hymn, I Bid You Goodnight. He slipped into a coma. I kissed his forehead and stroked his hair.
‘We all love you, old man.’
Raffi ferreted under the blankets and found his cool, wax-tender hand.
Arranye died in early August, three score years and ten, the only man at Whitegate who had endured into venerability. Though I was deeply saddened by his passing, his was a life lived as fully as I could conceive, with few, if any, regrets.
The week he died he delighted in recounting a dream he’d had of the two of us walking in Ruby Gorge, a place we had failed to get to. He also assured me, in spite of constant pain from his ruined kidneys and weakened lungs that he was all right.
‘Why you lookin’ at me so worry? Don’t be worry ’bout me too much, my son. Only worry ’bout yourself.’
The Catholic Church in Alice Springs, which Arranye helped construct as a stonemason, was filled with indigenous and non-indigenous people from hundreds of kilometres around. Father Pat Mullins presided over Mass. There was nothing feigned or pompous about Pat. He’d gone some way to Arrernticising the ceremony, having hymns translated and sung in Eastern Arrernte, and the smoking done in church with native fuchsia. The bringing together of the Hayes and Johnsons made things tense. Verbal abuse disturbed much of the Mass, but it was contained. Mullins paused to invite those who wished to say something, to come to the fore of the congregation. I didn’t need Theresa Ryder’s prodding to take my turn and speak of his qualities and achievements. I made thanks to the old man’s contribution to my education and his love of my kids. He was remarkable also for an absence of malice. I can’t remember any criticism he made that sounded like a complaint or a cry of injustice. This was despite all the changes and disruptions to his way of life.
The following night, Joe Johnson junior died. He was about thirty. The Hayes men reckoned he had pneumonia. But he was in perfect health at the funeral when we commiserated. Others said his drink had been poisoned. Bartholomew Johnson, gaunt and grave during his vigil over Arranye’s decline, died soon after from a brain clot. He was twenty-nine. In the same week, Christopher Neil, aged thirty-one, died at Amoongoona. And Jude soon followed with pneumonia. Such was the ceaseless, speculative flux of Arrernte lives.