WRITING ABOUT ROD
Exhibition at Araluen Gallery, Alice Springs, July 2013
Passing through light and time
By KIERAN FINNANE
Rodd Moss may mostly paint by the hard light of day, but the retrospective at Araluen covering his work in Alice Springs over three decades opened by candlelight and in an atmosphere of reverence. Why did this feel so fitting and potent?
The opening crowd of perhaps two hundred entered the darkened gallery, paintings on the walls dimly apprehended by a shaft of light from the foyer and the flickering of candles held by Moss and a friend. Slide guitar ceded to a rising and falling cello, a music of mixed sadness and joy, of longing. Moss and his friend began their walk, the crowd parting as they passed, acolytes coming forward, taking light from them. More candles flared, more images emerged momentarily from the shadows. The men walked on.
At the far end of the gallery – and it did seem far – they reached Margaret Kemarre Turner OAM who was waiting for them. They passed her their light. In her taking it, it was as though this indomitable, generous spirit, senior Arrernte woman, gave them her blessing and this blessing transmitted to everyone in the room and beyond, to all that is good and hopeful that can pass between people in this loved and testing place.
She passed light then to her great-grand-daughter who lit the final candles beneath the painting Madonna of Larapinta. Moss spoke quietly, an offering of thanks. Mrs Turner thanked him in turn for “the beautiful images”, the tears running down her face. No more was said.
The ceremony was devised by Craig San Roque, who has a rare gift for orchestrating moments of community well-being and focussed thinking. He spoke the next day of wanting the experience to slow down time. It did this and so opened up a space to think differently about what we would see in this exhibition, to go beyond the usual appreciations and judgements.
It also somehow worked to encapsulate time’s passing, and with it life, like the flickering in and out of darkness of the faces, bodies and places of the paintings, of the people present, all half-glimpsed.
Many of the Arrernte men and women who figure in Moss’ paintings and writings have died, too many well before their time. This loss is distilled in some of his finest works – Funeral at Santa Teresa and Fallen Man. Others though express a palpable vitality and warmth – Games Alley that I reproduce below (as we approach Show Day) is but one example. Moss’ paintings are important acts of remembering this strength, in such danger of being over-shadowed by our understandable preoccupation with suffering.
A further important strand is the charting of his own relationship with his Arrernte friends, and that of his children as well as more tangentially (and not always flatteringly) other non-Aboriginal people of the town. This is one of the places from where he speaks (and paints), in “the overlap” as San Roque has put it, the “contact zone”.
Another place is that of the Western art tradition, particularly of narrative painting. Some of the power of works such as Fallen Man derives from our cultural memory, even if subliminal, of its Renaissance antecedent. San Roque places strong emphasis on this: “Humanity needs a line,” he says in his beautiful comment on the show (available as a printed text to gallery visitors). Moss stands in the line, he follows “the guides, the masterful predecessors … the ones who helped keep a creative and humane thread right down from the beginning of time”. If we don’t hesitate to agree that Arrernte traditions are worth preserving, we need also not to forget our own.
The exhibition, titled Anatomy Lesson – You. Me. Us., shows till August 11. Moss is the author of an acclaimed memoir, The Hard Light of Day, which won the Prime Minister’s award for non-fiction in 2011. A second book, One Thousand Cuts: Life and Art in Central Australia, is due out in August (from UQP).
Craig San Roque is a psychoanalyst and author of the recently published graphic novel, The Long Weekend in Alice Springs, adapted and drawn by Joshua Santospirito.
Margaret Kemarre Turner OAM is the author of Iwenhe Tyerrtye – what it means to be an Aboriginal person.
Author/journalist, Alice Springs
'Nobody can do this like Rod,' enthuses Bernard Neil, shaking his head with wonderment as he unrolls a large graphite sketch in the dust. 'Nobody in the world.' His friend, an old man called Aranye, who has wispy white hair and thick horn-rimmed glasses, is quick to agree. 'Magic,' he assures me several times, as if it is something I really should know.
The sketch is an evocative depiction of young tribal men being 'called in' by their elders for dancing and celebrations after undergoing traditional initiation ceremonies. Its unveiling takes place in the same location as the ceremony did, a well-organised collection of tin sheds, shelters and various other casual constructions in the bush a few kilometres from Alice Springs.
Bernard, Aranye and the sketcher, Melbourne-born artist Rod Moss, are partners in one of the country's most successful relationships between an artist and his subjects - not to mention the most unlikely.
The two Aboriginal men belong to a dwindling group of Arrernte people, the traditional owners of the Alice Springs area, who are making a deliberate and in some senses quixotic effort to maintain their traditional customs against the onslaught of World Culture. On this otherwise sleepy Saturday morning, the subject matter of the canvas, in which both men are portrayed, has provoked intense discussion about the challenges of living under two laws, in two cultures.
'It's got to be hard, proper hard - sit up all night and sing all night because this is our culture you know,' says Bernard. 'Not like white people, they make men easy, but our way is really hard, we got to follow our law and our cultures.
'Young generation - you know, you had fifties, rock and roll now, and you got another generation now, rap dancing and all that. But we still got one law. If we change it - well, it's no good. One law,'
The other law in Bernard's life changes on a regular basis. Now there is argument that the land on which they live, part of a cattle station called Undoolya, should be included in a native title claim. Up until recently the law has stated unequivocally that he, Aranye and everyone else at Whitegate are squatters. Undoolya - where they and their ancestors have hunted and camped for generations - has been earmarked for large scale residential development.
Statistically speaking, Moss is part of the wave of settlers from around the country that has created the pressure for such urban expansion. And the longing for contact with Aboriginal people and culture that drew him here is shared in a more amorphous form by the thousands of tourists who keep the town in business.
Generally speaking, their prospects for satisfaction are limited. A rushed corroboree with the incongruously named Dreamtime Tours, a ten day journey into the desert with Desert Tracks for the dedicated, or a canvas from one of the dozens of art galleries cashing in on the increasingly adulterated phenomenon of contemporary Western Desert art. In a recent interview with Philip Adams, Indian author and social commentator P.Sinad described Alice Springs as 'one of the more depressing cities in the world.'
'There's this huge multi-million dollar industry run on the basis of Aboriginality,' said Sinad. 'Even the supermarkets are selling Aboriginal culture. Through the whole city and Todd Mall I found one shop that was actually owned by an Aboriginal.'
Unable or unwilling to make rewarding contacts with Aboriginal people through the tourist industry, many tourists choose to play the voyeur instead. And many Aboriginal people oblige them by not only eating, drinking, fighting and sleeping outdoors, but doing it with a sublime disregard for sensitivities of anyone who happens to be watching. Captured without context through the telephoto lens, the observations are relayed to the rest of the world through snapshots and home videos. Unfortunately, the camera lies - or at best tells a fraction of the story.
Moss also takes photographs of Aboriginal people, but he goes beyond the images - negative or positive - into contexts that defy exploration by those of us trapped in a white cultural time frame.
For Moss, the photograph is merely one stage in the long process of observation, imagination and consultation that informs each artwork. Photographic images are shuffled through time and space into combinations that delight and often baffle their human sources: once the Whitegate mob found themselves pushing a bogged police paddy wagon out of the Todd River, and in The Inland Sea they stood in a ceremonial circle in the river around some half-buried Coolibah flagons. While in this case neither event had actually transpired, their poignant and humorous symbolic truths were immediately evident to the participants, whom Moss often asks to pose for a painting idea.
Moss has painted the people of Whitegate almost inside out. Working, playing cards, drinking, brawling, dead drunk, and in prison. He has painted them burying their dead, hunting, and in ceremony. He has done so not only with their permission but their whole-hearted support and frequently under their direction. The resulting exposures of their personal lives - usually life-size and often larger - are hung in galleries and living rooms all over the country, filling the gap between romantic, idealised representations of tribal Aboriginal life and its hard contemporary reality. Inevitably, with their frequently bizarre urban and suburban props, they are also about the rest of us.
In Contesting Sights the Whitegate residents re-enacted a story that had taken place several hundred kilometres north, when a drunken whitefella who had deliberately torched an Aboriginal car was unexpectedly confronted by its owners. A current project features the Whitegate kids playing cowboys and Indians at the drive-in with David Gulpilil playing out Australian director Philip Mora's fantasies in Mad Dog Morgan.
'If I've amplified these stories at all successfully, they'll transcend their photographic origins,' writes Moss, who admits to having fun 'swinging between the plausible and the fanciful.' In fact, as Aranye puts it, Moss already has the photograph inside his head before he takes it. 'His heads works like a camera, only backwards,' says the old man.
In the sharply divided society of Central Australia, the story of this relationship has a symbolic quality of its own. Moss moved to Alice Springs in the early eighties to work as a TAFE college art lecturer. Then as now, the predominantly white core of Alice Springs was surrounded by dozens of Aboriginal camps, ranging from rough tents on rocky hillsides to serviced 'housing association' from which inhabitants make regular sallies into the bustling centre and suburbs for supplies. (The traffic is overwhelmingly one way)
Moss lived at the extreme eastern edge of the suburbs, overlooking across a high Colorbond fence that separated the town from the scrubby foothills of Undoolya Cattle Station, slowly being claimed for residential settlement.
'There was a man and his wife on the other side of the fence,' he recalls.
'At the time I didn't know what their status was within that small group of families at Whitegate, but in retrospect it seems like he was taking time out, cooling off from the group by living in a small valley, a little pocket just over the fence there.'
'One evening I was walking to the letter box and coming back I came across him and his wife. They asked for a match for a cigarette.' After sixteen months of unsuccessfully trying to make some contact with local Arrernte people, Moss seized the opportunity.
He took Xavier and his wife home and gave them some matches. The spark took. Xavier was at the fence the next morning looking for water, and very soon Moss was, in his words, 'launched out to Whitegate.'
'Xavier still refers to me as his white man. 'I caught that white man,' he says, 'laughs Moss...who was soon introduced by Xavier to the more painful realities of Whitegate life.
'Soon after I met him, I saw him belting his wife. I could see them there up this little valley and he was hitting her on the head with a rock. I thought, you know, what a terrible thing. But I didn't know whether to go and separate them or cringe from my viewing point.
'I didn't need an answer because very soon he was at the fence asking for water to wash the wound he'd made. It turned out he was belting her because earlier in the day a fellow on a motorbike had just come up and shot their dog in front of them. He was taking out his anger about the dog and the man on her.'
Moss took a photograph of the dead dog and painted it into a triptych, consisting of the dog, Xavier, and his wife with her two sisters. But he had no intention of instituting himself as Whitegate family painter, and returned to his then current themes.
'Increasingly as this Aboriginal event came in I didn't know what to do with it all', recalls Moss. 'But I kept telling people, you know, there's amazing things that are happening to me.' Those he told included visiting American poet and art critic Peter Schjeldahl.
'He told me to put up or shut up, that I had these realist skills and someone should be telling this stuff in Australia. I started to feel confident that it was at least possible.'
While Schjeldahl was visiting, he and Moss were disturbed by a hail of stones hitting the neighbour's roof. The incident, and Schjeldahl's advice, brewed in Moss's mind. A year or so afterwards his 'Aboriginal' paintings began in earnest with an imaginative recreation of the episode, the children slinging rocks over one of the numerous extended Colorbond fences that characterise Alice Springs suburbia. It was painted from the children's side of the fence.
By the time Moss had finished the painting, his relationship as friend and provider for the Whitegate families was already well-developed and has continued to grow. Now Moss the painter and Moss the friend are virtually inseparable, as is revealed in an as-yet unpublished book in which Moss describes the histories of his paintings.
The book is a moving, frank and often humorous account of the relationship between the cultured Melbourne intellectual and the hard-living fringe-dwellers. It's met a confused and hesitant response from the conventional art world - as often have Moss's paintings. As one of his fans, Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald wrote perceptively, Moss is 'working in a mode considered anachronistic by the bloodless androids of contemporary art.'
Moss happily admits to bypassing modernism, which he believes 'raided' exotic cultures for meaning in a time of religious decline. In creation of his own mode, he borrows from the Italian masters, the French Realists and from the 'wide-eyed, slow pan' of film-makers like Pasolini and Kurosawa.
But besides his shameless adoption of the narrative mode - every Moss picture tells several stories - there is the nagging fear that Moss has been trespassing, that he is himself a voyeur. After all, what is a white man doing in a black world, a world in which Aboriginal painters have shown how well they can speak for themselves?
It's a question that Moss, forever scrutinising his own motives, admits he can not completely answer. A recent canvas shows him naked - wrestling with himself in the desert while his Aboriginal friends look on with amusement. But perhaps the answer lies beyond the separatist, black and white view that informs race relations in the current swing of the ideological pendulum.
Jungian psychologist Craig San Roque works with both black and white artists in the development of substance abuse programs for Aborigines in the centre. He believes Moss is taking part in historical processes vital for Australia's spiritual maturity.
San Roque sees the Mabo case as a collective attempt to expel a kind of national psychosis, represented by the doctrine of Terra Nullis. He believes black-white relationships have been dominated by the failure of whites to 'see' Aborigines beyond the most superficial or culturally biased impressions. The results of this failure have been cataclysmic for Aborigines, he says, but have also harmed the western psyche in ways that are less visible.
'I see Rod as one of those people who is carrying out a necessary psychic task,' says San Roque.
'He's being driven by what drives an increasing number of Australians: an attempt to allow some of the delusions and fictions about being Australian to be dispersed and corrected by reality.
'Rod recognises living in Australia means coming to terms with its history and that means recognising where the Tjukurpa (Dreaming) and the Aboriginal experience impinge on European perceptions.'
Inevitably, Moss's life has been changed by his involvement with the Whitegate families - an involvement from which Moss has been careful to maintain the possibility of withdrawal. There is a sense of detachment in his works involving people that contrasts with his landscapes.
But in the last few years, both the subject matter and the style of his story portraits have begun to soften around the edges. One recent work features Aranye sitting, lotus posture-style, in a sandy creek bed, telling a story to a group of children - three of them Aboriginal and two of his own.
'I think if there is a shift in the work, it's the fact that I'm sort of seen as a white-skinned piece of family, with family obligations attached.
'I come back from a break in Sydney and the first day I'm at hospital running wounded people around the place. I'm the one left in the dam hospital with a bloke who's got his guts ripped open. I've got to wait and take him back, and if his family don't want to look after him, I've got to find a place for him to sleep - if it's not my place. You know, I'm right there in the zone, I'm not just an outsider. That obviously has increased in twelve years and more so in recent years.'
And how has this intensity affected him as a person? Unlike a swag of authors to have recently alighted in Aboriginal communities, Moss is wary of being too cosmic about his experiences in 'the zone'.
'I've become less anxious about some things. I am much more capable of sitting still in my own house in the front garden and just letting life wash over me,' he says.
'One of the striking things about Aboriginal people that everyone comments on is the lack of possessions. I used to feel acutely embarrassed when people would run their fingers over everything in the house as if they were exploring a first-seen thing. And in many cases it probably was. You know, the vertical blinds with chains on them, electrical gadgetry - they didn't go into shops that had those things. They were encountering them for the first time.
'I do feel that I've de-scaled. I haven't become more greedy for stuff. I've sort of stabilised.'
While for Moss, the reward of his relationship has been a growing sense of belonging and personal authenticity, for the families of Whitegate there is a reciprocal feeling of recognition - both from his involvement as a friend and his paintings.
Kemarre Turner belongs to one of Alice Springs oldest and largest families, with representatives across the strata of Alice Springs society. Yet she and her friends feel the weight of white perceptions every time they emerge from their ghetto to shop in a supermarket, walk down a street or read yet another newspaper article or letter to the editor complaining to the editor about 'the anti-social minority.'
A few weeks ago Turner and a group of women were sitting in the riverbed, conducting 'sorry business' for a friend who had died. Their mourning was interrupted by police in a paddy wagon. The police were obviously convinced the women were drinking, in contravention of the Territory's famous 'two-kilometre law' that prevents people from drinking within two kilometre of a licensed premise. Despite the women's protestations, they remained sceptical and even arrested a man they considered to be drunk, but who actually suffered from a motor illness.
'Rod sees the people at Whitegate, 'says Turner, who lives in the Aboriginal housing association' of Charles Creek. She describes Moss as 'more popular than the Central Land Council' with the Whitegate families.
'He's a channel of survival. It's like, you know, here are these people who are still surviving in a place like this...he holds them, they are the survivors. That's why they get Rod to paint them, to show people the meaning of who they are and how they live.
'The people of Alice Springs know these people at Whitegate, but they don't know what they're doing. They're still having ceremonies, they still hunt - right here in the middle of Alice Springs. And they don't hunt in a motor car, they walk! They go out hunting for witchetty, and they still look for apwaraltje and alangwe, when there's water after the rain, and they camp around, and if they want to come into town, they walk.'
Kemarre believes Moss's paintings have helped many blacks in Alice Springs feel better about themselves, as well as deepening the context in which the town's white people view Aborigines.
'Alice Springs people have got to learn to recognise the best person,' she says.
'To recognise people is to know who that person is, what his life is, and not just say, oh, there goes another drunk, all Aboriginal people are drunks. They got to learn not to judge people.'
On the eve of a native title claim that could see large areas in and around Alice Springs declared Aboriginal land - including Whitegate - Kemarre's challenge begs acceptance. Idealistic presentations of Aboriginal culture have failed to convince white Australians who live close to the reality. For those who don't, the fairytales are sabotaged by the hit-and-run techniques of television current affairs and the political need to present Aborigines as victims - which, as the success of the new member for Oxley seems to have demonstrated, is a risky strategy.
The International Year of Tolerance is slipping by with little public commemoration, perhaps because there is much in our lives that is intolerable. Hugely confronting in both size and statement, Moss's paintings ask not for tolerance but for the engagement and exchange that comes when we see past our preconceptions. Beyond propaganda, beyond protection, they restore the dignity of ordinary, flawed humanity to this most scrutinised and objectified of peoples.
Naked In Alice
No artist's work is reducible to the independent truth
John Berger, Courbet and the Jura
As soon as you arrive in Alice Springs you are instantly aware of two things. There is the light that strips things naked. It's a light that both hurts and illuminates. There is a glare, and yet objects are luminous. Close up, things seem magnified. In the distance, they seem stage-lit. The first poems I wrote out of the place were an attempt to talk about the way the country pulsated. I have always felt the pulsation was absolutely deep and as timeless as granite and, out of that, strongly erotic, as fecund as Aboriginal song.
The second thing is nakedness of another kind. Inseparable from this pulsating landscape are the Aboriginal people. They make up a quarter of the population of the town of Alice Springs and they are, even though they are dressed in 'our' clothes, naked in a tragic way. There is no other word but tragic. Of course, not all Aboriginal people in Alice drift around the town bedraggled and drunk and begging and wounded. However the dominant visual reality, on arrival, is one that confirms our sense that tragedy is the case. In Sydney or Melbourne we hear the statistics on health, poverty, mortality and substance abuse, so we think we might know something of the tragedy. But we don't really, until we walk along the Todd River, or sit outside the supermarkets, or stroll down the mall, or go near the casualty ward of the Alice Springs hospital at night. Only then do you get your first sense of a pulsation inseparable from death and dying.
This is not an easy thing to say. The last time I was at an opening of Rod Moss's work was in Alice Springs four years ago when the man doing the speaking was Craig San Roque. The exhibition, larger and more comprehensive than this, was called, Where Do You Come from Brother Boy? Craig is a Jungian therapist who had been working in town for several years. He'd been working out at Injatnana, in the James Range, between Alice and Hermansberg, where adobes had been built for people to dry out. Some good work was done out there. But not enough good work to make any difference to the overall death rate. With regard to grog, nothing has made any difference to the death rate, which has been getting worse in the fifteen years I have been visiting the place. So Craig's talk was harrowing and unapologetic and many people in the room did not want to hear it.
He was saying to the audience;
Look, this is work that draws upon some of the archetypes about life and death. Like it or not, this work, out of the guts of Alice Springs, is about the living death all around you.
Craig's remarks had a profound truth. But they were not the whole truth – as we can see around us in this exhibition. For one thing, Rod's work has the creative pulse of the centre's landscape. He uses light to illuminate a whole range of things, from rocks and waterholes to back lanes and petrol bowsers. The glare of the Centre's light produces a kind of gaiety of statement. And in keeping with that mood is the narrative content of many of the paintings – the scenes of kids at play, the family scenes, the groups out bush who are not at funerals. What comes through, at a glance, is the web of social life, its grittiness and awareness. The figures in these paintings are individuals living their lives strongly as agents. Rod's social sense incorporates our sense of the tragic, but they do not represent Aboriginal people as pathetic, passive victims. There is something else going on.
It's crucial to say here that you and I, living in metropolitan Australia, can never know what is going on. Rod knows and his paintings know. But we can't know, and it would be an outrageous extension of colonisation to think that we could, even if the painter is using some post-modern and post-colonial gestures to help us. A substantial virtue of Rod's work is that it does not lull us into the conceit of knowing. Rather, they stage a scene that we are invited to interpret. And their importance lies in this: that the artist had not just made the scene up. The characters are real; the situations, posed and photographed though they are, are real. In this fact lies Rod's unprecedented importance as a painter out of Alice Springs. For his work is a dramatisation of the lives of Aboriginal people he knows personally and who have trusted him not only to portray them realistically but also to stage recreations of their lives, including moments that show them sad, defeated, enraged, derelict.
As scenes, Rod's paintings invite the charge of voyeurism. Surely these paintings - some of them at least – exploit the tragedy? I've talked at some length to Rod about this possibility. In reply he says several things that go to the heart of the complexity of life in Alice Springs. He says, for one thing, that the man we see drunk on the ground in the painting Riverside Bottleshop is not uncomfortable with the portrayal of him.
'So they don't care', I asked him one day, 'or don't they see themselves as we see them?'
'Not either/or', Moss replied.' When the aggressive images have been reproduced, they've cut them out and carried them around in their wallet.'
I still don't understand this matter. But it emerges from what Rod has to say that one of his regular subjects, Xavier Neal, is a long time friend. Whole groups in most paintings are friends and have become so over many years of Rod's non-judgemental contact with them, contact that has included an open door policy in his home, and all that can flow from that: good times out bush, as well as harrowing times at the jail house, at the town camp and at funerals. What I'm saying is that despite the theatrical quality of these works – and the clever and amusing way they reverse roles and play with concepts of the Other and so on – they arise from years of communal relationship: Rod's family with Aboriginal families, for better and for worse. And the power of this fact made sense when I sat down with some of the older women of Xavier's family. What did they think of Xavier's figure in these realist paintings? Yes, the women told me, they were embarrassed. But they were prepared to live with such paintings because it was Rod Moss who had made them.
Twenty years ago, when Rod came to Alice Springs, he wanted to get away from what he calls 'the Ainslie Roberts mystical Dreamtime kind of thing'. He speaks of his 'in your face' painting as an antidote to that kind of romanticisation. Or to put this another way, his is the kind of dirty, ugly realism for which Courbet, his favourite Realist painter, became famous.
The reference to Courbet may be resonant in several ways, and not simply because his great paintings of rural life were condemned as 'vulgar' because they were matter of fact, and 'stupid' because they seemed to affirm a notion of innocence. Courbet's key works could confound their political enemies because they so impassively yet enigmatically expressed the social dislocations in the French countryside after the failed revolution of Paris in 1848. the scenes that Courbet painted – a picture of work, the tableau of a funeral – disorientated the bourgeois and aesthetically driven viewer with their lack of affect. But in actuality, Courbet was, in himself, full of social allegiance with his subjects. The ungainliness of his paintings was part of the point, which was to represent rural subjects to themselves in ways that employed pictorial conventions familiar to them while subverting those of the salon. All this at a time when all rural revolt was being put down.
It is of course a great distance from revolutionary nineteenth-century France to the present crisis in Central Australia. But I can imagine that, when historians come to contextualise Moss' work, they will see that he fits into a poignant moment of its social history. For he started painting there ten years after the flush of optimism about the social health that would be ushered by the Land Rights act of 1976. but this 'revolution', as we now know, failed, as education and community issues were neglected. What followed was the extension of rural poverty and misery, the results of which were increasingly obvious by the end of the 1980s. At that stage, when it was still assumed that Land Rights would directly translate into spiritual health, not a lot of people wanted to speak otherwise. But Moss's paintings were doing so, not unlike the way Courbet's mysterious works after 1848, the work that challenged, as John Berger puts it,' the chosen ignorance of the cultured'.
Moss's realism is both confrontational and intimate. The paintings are life size. The horizon is raised and tilted so that you can step into the scene. Everything is in technicolour – except the Aboriginal figures, which are invariably charcoal grey. Why?
Moss says: I didn't want to make them at one with nature. Plus I wanted to be able to make with my finger that burnishing thing with the pencil, and rub the skin, to touch the skin. With the Xavier works I was fascinated with his skin. I could do that with the pencil – the slow touching – what I couldn't do with the brush.
One of Moss's strongest images is Wrestlers in the Simpson Desert, which shows two naked white men fighting.. The two figures are in fact one – himself. He is in a ring of Aboriginal spectators who are fully clothed. It is a classic reversal: the white as the naked savage, the black as civilised spectator.
He speaks of primitivising himself in the painting. It's as if, having exposed his friends so much, he wanted to rebalance things with the gift of his own nakedness. At the same time, the painting suggests his own yearnings to 'go native' – a prospect he 'toys with', especially around initiation time, when he gets 'pushed and pushed to go through'.
'They push and push', he says in his quiet meditative way. The initiated men say they can 'tell him a lot more' if he goes through. Moss's fear is the extra levels of responsibility initiation would bring. 'But I can't imagine how much more responsible I can be to what I am.'
And: 'I have worried about what more can impinge on my family if I went through ceremony. But it is there in my thinking. Sooner or later they'll get me.'
Rod told me this a few years ago. To my knowledge he has not taken up the pressing invitation. Meanwhile he is still making the paintings that are revolutionary in the social life of Alice Springs, which has always been a racist town. As he sometimes says, he is probably the only unpaid white man in Alice Springs who has consistently chosen to befriend Aboriginal families on their terms. His work arises from this extraordinary capacity for unromantic acceptance.
Acceptance, and nakedness, a nakedness that has, in Alice Springs, several deep layers. These include; the body in the pulsating space of the centre: the social identity disrobed and communalised in the context of difference; the artist laid bare in the act of representation – thus divesting himself of much cultural power. Put these dimensions of nakedness together and what do you have? A brave, generous, intelligently self-conscious and loving individual – who is also an artist – enacting the ethic of reciprocity.
There is no other painting like this in Australia. Over the years, various writers, some of them famous, have made art via their relatively inside relationships with Aboriginal people. But no painter I know of. No one else has so shared their living space and then dared to dramatise the truth, as well as their own mirroring role in the truth.
I have to mention one other thing. It is a detail that qualifies what I said about tragedy, and one that is a reminder that there may be some grounds for hope. One family dominates Rod's paintings: the Hayes family, who happen to live in the town camp nearest to his place. That was just by chance. Not by chance, however, the Hayes family have played a momentous role in the history of Alice Springs. For it was on behalf of the 'Hayes Family and Others' that the Central Land Council mounted the Native Title Claim in Alice Springs, a case that was, a few years ago, successful in many ways. So we can say – looking back on Rod's work of two decades – that he was recording not simply daily events that are part of a tragic situation, but family events that flowed towards some promising political victories.
Perhaps that's the note I should end on: Rod Moss's work has a strength of statement and involvement that goes well beyond itself. These bright, strong, complex paintings resonate backwards and forwards. Against all the odds, Rod has given 'us and them' history paintings about human continuities. This is where any aesthetic judgement should begin.
Barry Hill delivered this essay at the opening of the exhibition, 'Big Country: Small Histories' at ARC 1 Gallery, Melbourne in Melbourne, June 2004
He is the author of fiction and non-fiction writing including, Broken Song; T G Strehlow(2002), The Rock: travelling to Uluru, and poetry volumes, The inland sea, Ghosting William Buckley and As We Draw Ourselves
Arena Magazine 75 Feb-March 2005
The Disasters of Aboriginal Australia
Dr Philip Batty
Rod Moss follows in the footsteps of a long line of intrepid artists who refused to offer the art lover as easy way out. The work of Francisco Goya (1746-1828) represents an outstanding example here.
For much of his career, Goya turned out portraits of the Spanish Royal family and easy-on-the-eye scenes of Spanish recreational life. However, following Spain's catastrophic war against Napoleon (1808-1814), his work encompassed subject matter that even his admirers found unpalatable. In his print series the Disasters of War (Los Dissasters de La Guerra) 1810-1814, Goya depicted horrific scenes of massacres and mutilated bodies that were so confronting that they were only published after his death. Nonetheless, these and other 'difficult' works by Goya had a significant influence on the development of modern art, offering insights into the dark recesses of the human psyche that few other artists have matched.
Of course, Moss does not deal with the horrors of war. But like Goya, he offers us insights into a dislocated society, racked by violence and despair. Few if any, other Australian artists have tried to deal with this festering sore at the heart of the national soul. Similarly, his interest in depicting this home-grown 'disaster', coincides with Goya's overriding desire to document unpalatable realities, regardless of any aesthetic values that his audience might demand. Most importantly, Moss works against our hidden desire to turn away from these calamities and rest our gaze instead on something beyond this desperate landscape.
Indeed, if you live in Alice Springs for too long, you develop a certain blindness. You don't see the Aboriginal man beating his wife in the main street or the Aboriginal kids sniffing petrol outside the supermarket. You don't notice the drunks fighting in front of the bottleshop or the Aboriginal woman sitting in the gutter, nursing a fractured skull. When you first see such things, you find them extremely disturbing. But as time passes, nothing seems to change. The violence and drunkenness continues with monotonous regularity and the rivers of grog continue to flow. Despite the best efforts of Aboriginal organisations, government agencies and numerous social workers, it gets worse. So you adapt. You go about your business around the town; working, socialising and shopping until these shocking aberrations become normal and finally, invisible.
Moss not only makes the tragedy of Aboriginal life in central Australia painfully visible, but forces us to confront our inability to deal with it, not just on a personal level, but as a nation.
And it is not as though we don't know about this catastrophic situation. The endless reports about child abuse, the 'diabetes epidemic' and alcoholism in the town camps of Alice Springs – and in many other Aboriginal communities – are reiterated ad nauseam in the national press until they are all too much information about a problem for which there appears to be no solution.
So we look at Rod Moss's paintings and ask; do we really want to know anything more about these intractable problems? And why turn them into art? Shouldn't art be like 'a comfortable armchair in which one relaxes', as Henri Matisse put it, rather than something that reminds us of our inadequacies and failures?
Whilst I do not subscribe to such sentiments, it is more than apparent that most people would prefer to hang an Aboriginal 'dot painting' on their wall, rather than one of Moss's images of the people who actually produce dot paintings. In fact, the extraordinary demand for Aboriginal art in Central Australia appears to be fuelling an increase in alcohol consumption. Such ironies should surprise no one: art lovers rarely allow a social conscience to get in the way of aesthetic pleasure, and few artists have the courage to present disturbing subject matter in their art, as Moss does.
Yet, unlike Goya's brutal images of war, Moss offers us some relief from the awfulness. Moreover, his friendly relationships with the Aboriginal people he actually portrays, provides a more accessible and humane dimension to his work. In House on the Hill, 2005, two Aboriginal men sit outside a shed. One has a young child sitting on his knees while the other pats a dog. The barren landscape and the austere dwelling behind them – which serve as homes in some camps – is slightly menacing, yet the men have an air of calm about them. In sharp contrast to the violent scene depicted in Riverside Bottleshop, 1997, in which an injured man lies sprawled across the road, the Aboriginal men in this painting seem welcoming. Something similar is at work in Le Dejeuner sur Teppa Hill: Xavier's Camp, 2005. Here, a group of Aboriginal people sit in a make-shift camp across the road from a 'home improvement' centre. While such a site underlines the extreme living conditions of blacks and whites in Alice springs. Moss not only conveys a certain humour in this incongruous scene, but manages to give the Aboriginal campers a certain defiant dignity, many of whom he knows personally, as indicated in the painting's title.
It is perhaps his direct engagement with the campers of Alice Springs that is the most important aspect of Moss's work. Life is grim in the town camps of Alice Springs and is indeed, 'a National disgrace' as the Aboriginal activist Noel Pearson recently declared. Yet, Moss's warm relationship with the Aboriginal inhabitants of these 'hell holes', and his unrelenting campaign to present their life in all its horror, incongruity and humour, offers some hope that things might improve.
Other writers have tended to concentrate more on the form and technical attributes of Moss's work as an artist. Much has also been said about his practice of referencing Western masterpieces. I have preferred to focus more on Moss's subjects. His depiction of their situation not only constitutes the more powerful aspect of his work, but I think, will ensure it gains an important place in the history of Australian art.
Dr Philip Batty,
Senior Curator, Anthropology, Melbourne Museum
(from the catalogue introduction for the Uber Gallery exhibition, Even As We Speak, 2007)
Rod Moss's Royal Portraits
Rod Moss is an Alice Springs based artist who in the 1990s began an extraordinary series of images of the itinerant Aboriginal population living around the town. What is so extraordinary about these images? Today in modern Australia it is difficult for a white artist to make depictions of Aboriginal people. After two centuries of colonisation and the forcing of the original inhabitants off their lands, it seems too much to deny them their right of self-representation. As well, after long and inglorious pictorial tradition, it would appear impossible to make an image of Aborigines that would not be accused either of primitivising or exoticising them.
It is in this light that Moss's images must be seen: as the revival of a tradition that was previously thought impossible. Indeed, it might even be argued that Moss paints this very impossibility, that he does not so much paint Aborigines as the problems involved in painting aborigines. But he does this in an extremely intriguing and fascinating way. Moss shows the impossibility of painting aborigines not simply by not painting them but by depicting them as already painted or already as paintings. To put it in the form of a paradox, it is only by showing them as already painted and not otherwise that Moss is able to reveal the impossibility of painting Aborigines in Australia today.
That is, if we look at a series of Moss's works – at first sight realistic depictions of Aboriginal people engaged in inconsequential activities in and around Alice Springs – we can see that in the overall composition of the pictures and ion the poses of the figures within them Moss replays any number of great masterpieces of western art. His Raft(1990) borrows from Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa: his Law Courts Alice Springs (1999) from Piero della Francesca's Resurrection: his Funeral at Santa Teresa(1993) from Courbet's Burial at Ornans: his Road to Arltunga(1996) from Courbet's The Stonebreakers and Tom Robert's Shearing the Rams: and so on.
What is going on here? In one sense, it is not so surprising. If we believe in the simple realist pretext of the images, that figures engaged in similar activities – for example, building a road – would adopt similar poses. Thus the labourers of the road to Arltunga can be understood unconsciously to be repeating the gestures of Courbet's Stonebreakers and Robert's Shearing the Rams. It is undoubtedly also possible to read Moss's allusions as an allegorical commentary on the activities undertaken within the paintings, conferring a kind of 'high culture' respectability upon the events of everyday life they depict, for example, Courbet's Burial at Ornans being used to provide a symbolic resonance to the Funeral at Santa Teresa.
This is so far the way these quotations in Moss's work have been interpreted, to the extent they have been noticed at. They have been seen as an attempt somehow to dignify the impoverished and marginalised lives of the indigent people they represent. It is, of course, a profoundly patronising and paternalistic point of view, as though these people need the gloss of European culture, when it is arguably the very thing that continues to oppress them . And this interpretation does not even seem correct with regard to the specifics of Moss's paintings themselves. For one thing, for all of the effort to read these quotations allegorically, there is often no apparent connection between the activities undertaken within them and the work chosen to be excerpted, for example, Raft and Gericault, Law Courts and Piero. For another, this reading relies on the presumption of a realist intention on the part of Moss when the thing that strikes us about the work is the unnecessary or even ostentatious quality of his use of high art sources. Finally, this reading cannot take account of something that Moss constantly stresses in his statements about the work: that it is made in collaboration with his subjects, who must approve of their depiction before his paintings are allowed to leave his studio.
So what is going on in Moss's paintings? Why this strange and seemingly willful insistence on taking scenes and figures from them from other works? ....Moss is indeed telling us something profound about the status of Aborigines in contemporary Australian society, as what we might call the 'sublime objects' of Australian ideology. It is the 'perverseness' that troubles us about them – there is a kind of ostentatious 'posing' by these Aboriginal figures that introduces a split within them: they are not merely seen by us but already as it were incorporate, identify with, a certain look upon them. (We might say that not only does Moss not let his paintings go until after his subjects have approved of them, but that he is also trying to depict a whole series of white stereotypes and preconceptions concerning Aboriginal people.) this 'pose' functions as a sort of obscene body within these figures, dividing them between their lowly human status and a powerful and mysterious presence, something in them 'more than themselves'. And it is just this discernible, sublime thing that we would want to call their Aboriginality.
To put all this another way, the fact that these paintings by Moss are also paintings of other paintings makes it impossible to decide whether what we are looking at is reality or only something standing in for it. At once there is no model for these Aboriginal figures, nothing before them, and they make us search for something behind what is explicitly declared to be merely representation. ..Moss's work at once suspends our belief in some real Aboriginality only to make us believe in it again; through a process of self-reflection, something real is brought about that is in aborigines 'more than themselves'. (It is something that we would associate with the strange enjoyment or even jouissance we see in these figures, which at once seem rigid and mortified and stiffened and made erect by some invisible pleasure coursing through them) this is the fantastic ambiguity of moss's paintings: they are fetishes seeking to end the fetishisation of Aborigines. Like all royal portraits, they both expose and replay this fetishisation, show how it is brought about and repeat it yet again. They reveal that there is nothing behind our contemporary Aboriginal kings, the holders of sovereignty in Australia today – no original model, only our look upon them – only for this to become their ultimate mystery. Moss at once breaks with the long tradition of depicting Aboriginal people through clichés and stereotypes – going all the way back to one of the first depictions of an Aboriginal man as the classical Dying Gaul – and continues and perpetuates this tradition just as it was thought to be impossible.
Rex Butler author of A Secret History of Australian Art and An Uncertain Smile. He is a senior lecturer at the University of QLD
These extracts are from Rex Butler's essay in Art Collector, issue 28 April/June 2004 where he develops the notion of the royal pose with reference to the French art historian, Louis Marin
The Art of Rod Moss:
Returning to the Core of Culture
Review byGrady Harp
In a global pandemic of instant communication via the growing armamentarium of sophisticated cell phones equipped as near computers jabbering in fragmentary symbols and inundated by input from the infinite number of blogs and twitters, the speed of current living seems to be approaching that of light. In this raucous atmosphere, where history is not only discarded but nearly negated, the presence of artists who keep us in touch with the flow of life is ever more important.
Rod Moss is an Australian artist who, though well known in his own country, remains too little known in the international art field, and the reasons for discovering the art of this gifted painter go beyond admiration of his canvases. Moss has devoted his talent to focusing on the origins of life in the vast land of Australia by returning to the Aborigines. Rather than using the neglected and abused Aborigines as canvas fodder for his paintings, he has moved into Aboriginal territory, making his home in central Australia in a place called Alice Springs, distant in proximity and cultural diversity from the sophisticated major cites of Melbourne and Sydney. Here Moss witnesses the people who retain their affinity for the past – a people whose lives depend on survival within the day, not the collection of possessions or the luxuries of, say, ‘planning for the future.’ While many view these ‘backward creatures’ as poverty stricken drunkards whose attention to the law and to the white man ethics estranges them from society, Moss among others has grown into these families, learning their simple views of the cosmos, their own sense of dignity, their being at one with the earth, and it is this uniqueness that Rod Moss celebrates in his paintings by calling our attention to the differences as well as the similarities between these ‘primitive, original folk’ and the ‘civilized’ world.
Each of Rod Moss’s paintings has a dual meaning: each represents an event he has observed and many reference imagery and ideas from famous Western paintings, often those with a biblical reference, as inRAFT (Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa ) and in INTERVENTION (Caravaggio’s Nativity ). Moss also pays homage to the now popular Aboriginal art, art that is created from dots and rapid color wisps and references to primitive renderings not unlike cave drawings: these techniques he uses as his backgrounds for his figures and like the Aborigines, the constancy of the earth/time provides a contrast to the activity of the message of the people depicted in the paintings.
Paintings such as CROW WHISPERS concentrate on the Aborigine people as themselves. A remarkable artistic technique is the manner in which Moss subtracts color from the skin of the Aborigines, electing instead to paint faces, hands and feet in black and white.
In BIG ROOSTER these differences are marked: white men are in full color while the Aboriginal figure is in black and white. And when Moss elects to make a political statement, such as pleading for correcting the neglect and abandonment of abuse of the Aborigines (as in the portrayal of the supposed RECONCILIATION WALK ) the poignancy of his commitment to his adopted family of man is most powerful.
It is the obvious wealth of art history background always at work in the mind of Rod Moss coupled with the unique manner of painting the near indescribable quality of light found in the areas where the Aborigines live and the painterly choices he makes in visually describing what he sees and feels that makes this art so important. It is difficult for the viewer to be in the presence of a Rod Moss painting without absorbing at least some of the responsibility for the manner in which civilized man has pushed indigenous peoples into the background, all in the name of progress. Seeing what Moss sees, those basics of existence in a world so preoccupied with climbing success and possessions and gadgetry, reminds us of one of the important roles of our artists - preserving our history, even perhaps expanding our attention and concern for the neglected ones that exist in every society of this globe.