Intervention

2007, 165 x 120 cms NFS

Notes by Rex Butler, Author and academic, Brisbane

The picture is irredeemably strange. An Aboriginal family their bodies rendered in graphite, their clothes colourfully painted is gathered around a makeshift cot on which a newborn baby sleeps. They are posed awkwardly, slightly unnaturally, as though unconsciously echoing some archetypal scene.         

It's a candid snapshot of indigenous life, unflinchingly depicting the tattered clothes, the reduced circumstances, the flimsy humpy made of corrugated iron in which the family undoubtedly lives.

But most astonishing of all, in the middle of this scene of everyday life, a white angel arrives, his arm outstretched, his garments fluttering, his wings miraculously holding him aloft. The work is called Intervention by Alice Springs-based artist Rod Moss.         

The title refers to the idea of divine intervention: the angel arrives to halt or stay proceedings. And the painting cannot help but carry overtones of that divine birth in an equally humble manger in Bethlehem, an association confirmed, at least for the art literate, by the fact that the angel and the poses of the four figures in Moss's painting come from Baroque master Caravaggio's Nativity with Saints, of 1609. 

But in the current political climate, of course, the title of the painting cannot but be seen as a reference to the Howard government's policy of intervention in indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. 

What Moss is saying about the policy much discussed, praised and criticised is hard to say. But like all good artists, he makes the issue itself more urgent, lifts it to a higher level. 

His work allows the viewer to think that nothing less than divine intervention would be needed to turn back the consequences of 200 years of European settlement on indigenous people, that something akin to the miracle of virgin birth would be required to imagine the ongoing viability of aboriginal settlements and perhaps even indigenous culture and identity in general. 

Intervention, I predict, will be seen as one of the defining images of this moment in Australian history; a moment when, after the apology to the Stolen Generations, a sense of unique opportunity seems to have opened. It is though an angel has appeared in the lives of aboriginal people, offering a chance of rebirth, of being born again. 

And yet, the contrast in the picture between the ethereal white angel and the realities of black existence could not be starker. Does our celestial messenger remain aloft or is he shown plunging to earth? Moss has been making these subtly allegorical images of indigenous life around Alice Springs for some 20  years. The most surprising aspect of his work is not the confronting choice of subject matter, the daily life of Alice spring's aborigines drinking and playing cards, sleeping rough, awaiting sentencing on the steps of the courthouse but the way he does this through a series of quotations from Courbet, Manet and Seurat.  

But the contradiction between these two aspects of Moss's practice is apparent: the obvious artifice of his images merely increases their power. By constructing his pictures through quotes, Moss is reminding us that what we are seeing is not natural, but is staged for the gaze of the white viewer. Of course, some of the great realist depictions of Australian life employ the same technique: the little boy holding wool to the left of Tom Roberts's Shearing The Rams, for example, is based on a pose taken from Courbet's masterpiece of rural labour, The Stonebreakers. Indeed, Moss's choice of allusion to the French salon painters and realists reminds us that he shares with them the same project of depicting everyday life in an unheroic and unsentimental way. 

In his paintings, we have the same kind of naturalistic analysis of the workings of society as we see in the novels of Zola...Like all strong art, Moss's pictures often crudely painted and anatomically clumsy do not answer questions or take sides but rather force us to think differently and introduce us to new perspectives on the issues we read about daily in the newspaper.