The most significant experience for me, in Alice Springs, has been touching indigenous lives, and I wanted to bring something of this into my art. Where else in Australia would I be so painfully aware that two strikingly opposed cultures share a space while operating in parallel universes? Where was the art reflecting this fact? It was as if the so-called era of indigenous self-determination effected a hands off reaction from the mainstream community's visual horizons; a politically correct, insulating silence.
My curiosity with this indifference and a disposition towards the humiliated and disempowered has fired my art. And I would not have been impelled to venture to the Centre had I not an unease with anodyne, urban consumerism, the very shopping Mall and boutique blandness that soon followed my relocation. My response has been a hybridity expressed through references to older realist art, our own history of Dreamings. While I have no allegiance to any religion, I'm fascinated by the paradigms that other artists have found in the Bible. Occasionally old master art has helped me shape a language that is at once intimate and able to allude to the archetypal quality I find here. It is a conversation directed towards our shared humanity that might confront and question that silence. I wasn't able to theorize this stance in the 1980s as I do now.
From the outset I chose a type of Realism based on photography, believing aboriginal lives are lived too raw, too close to the knuckle of oppression for abstract interpretation. Colonisation has wrought its bitterness; stolen children; stolen land, deaths in custody, and the denial of basic life necessities. 'Intervention'. is but the most recent redress of imposed limitations, most of which are unseen or not recognised as such by the dominant culture.
The streets I walk each day, the conversations I have in them with locals, writhe with these difficulties. There is no need to lean on a trans-nationalist art trend to espouse a contrived angst. It would be offensive, even unnatural I believe, to do so.
A collective dissonance is embedded in the town. Two funerals I've recently attended epitomise the fact, both of long-term residents and both closely fulfilling what statistics claim. The first, a prominent woman artist of Anglo-Saxon heritage, and one of my former students, died peacefully in her late 80s. The second, a resident of Hidden Valley town camp was murdered by an axe blow, age 51. Both people I'd known for 25 years. Not a single aboriginal person attended the woman's service. Apart from the pastor and three prison officers accompanying one of his sons, I was the only whitefella amongst the hundred plus at the indigenous service. Yet I would see both bods regularly in town.
Emboldened by my position within the Eastern Arrernte families, I have articulated my struggles with this interface, my own difficulties living with disparities. I do not live with the buffeting wind, dust, ants, and whatever scents the earth issues. Or with the vegetative perfumes of the seasons, rain, rumours, campfire light, and the cramped proximity of relatives. My despair is not an interruption to the monotony of grief and continued broken promises and the resultant acceptance of injustice and adversity. Our consensual assumptions, Liberty, Democracy, 5% Growth, and Productivity, those principles our Government defends with its base on the outskirts of town, have little or no traction in the fringe camps of Alice Springs.
I was raised 30 kilometres from Melbourne; an hour by train. That place, in the Dandenong foothills was not, then, part of the contiguous eastern suburbs that it is today. Having concluded my tertiary training and considering myself a city sophisticate, at 20 years of age I was dispatched to teach in the remote Mallee town of Ouyen, just south of Mildura. This was my first taste of genuine separation from a city centre, from friends and family, and an induction to the peculiarly seductive powers of our vast arid interior and for me a pre-season run.
I did the travelling thing in the late 70s, though travelling for its own sake wasn't my thing. I hit on a study course in West Virginia in the spiritual training offered by one of the branches of the Armenian teacher, Georges Gurdjieff , tales of whom had attracted me since my late teens. At the course's conclusion, after criss-crossing the States, I headed with another graduate back to Australia through southern Europe, Turkey and Iran, stopping with several of the Dervish Orders we'd been introduced to during our course.
These experiences made Melbourne, in the early 1980s, seem remote and flat-earthed. So I took the opportunity to get out of Melbourne by looking up an old high school friend who'd been working in Indigenous communities, after quitting the Melbourne Museum in the early 70s. Visiting him at Strelley, in the Pilbara, where he worked in the school's small bi-lingual book production was another eye-opener. It presented another world, 'out there' within Australia, about which I was both stimulated by and ignorant of. No reading of Xavier Herbert, Stanner or Rowley, who provided windows on indigenous knowledge systems, could prepare me for the shock. I had not considered, by the way, the possibility of making art about any of this. Nor would I for another 5 years.
I'd stumbled into a way of interpreting my encounters in Alice Springs tentatively, and must own that a critical engagement with New York art critic, Peter Schjeldahl proved a crucial encouragement. We met here, in Alice, 1986. When I told him about hostile racist responses interstate to the narrative direction I was taking, Peter took this as a healthy sign, cajoling me that I was 'onto something big, some live raw edge and that's more than half the battle toward making great art. Bear down hard even if it scares you. With their yelps to guide you you'll find your way in the dark. You will also have great fun.'
For me, the intoxication of being a stranger in a strange land has never diminished. How do I make sense with the discomfort of the climate, the remoteness, the strained intimacies we enjoin, the distance from our roots, the disparities and dialogue between the dominant culture and the indigenous ones.