Today, more than ever before, an imperative exists for artists to engage in rapprochement with Aboriginal people, to bridge the cultural divide between black and white. Rod Moss and Therese Ritchie are two such artists.
It is intriguing that Moss and Ritchie have independently arrived at the same ethically driven cultural practice. Consider for a moment their different trajectories. Rod Moss, a painter and a teacher, arrived in Alice Springs in 1984 eager to establish closer relations with Aboriginal people. Several years elapsed before he began working with the Hayes, Johnson, Neal and Ryder families – members of the Eastern Arrernte mob living in the town camp of White Gate. Ritchie’s connections with Aboriginal people in and around Darwin evolved through her work as a photojournalist in partnership with Chips Mackinolty.
Over a period both Moss and Ritchie have immersed themselves in the day-to-day lives of their Aboriginal friends, involved in relationships of reciprocity as part of an extended network of kin. Engaged in dialogue with Aboriginal people their art has evolved in similar directions: photography’s indexical truth to reality is the basis for gritty, large scale, life-size images that command dignity and respect. But let’s be very clear, the Aboriginal people with whom Moss and Ritchie collaborate are not those living in “remote” communities but the town camps of Alice Springs and Darwin. Located interstitially in the space between the “town” and the “bush” these Aboriginal people occupy what Ritchie terms, “crash sites”, war zones that are the outcome of the cultural collision between colonised and coloniser.
In recent years with the move to self-determination, the struggle for land rights and national and international acclaim for contemporary Aboriginal art, a paradigmatic shift has occurred in black/white relations. In a postcolonial world Aborigines are generally more admired than reviled. Nevertheless there is a sense in which Aboriginality continues to be represented through popular stereotypes as a romantic primitivised Other. The reality of Aboriginal lives is usually invisible – except for the (often sensationalised) media reportage of inner city riots, rates of infant mortality, death by suicide and incarceration.
For almost twenty years Rod Moss and Therese Ritchie have been engaged in a collaborative process. Since the completion of his first portrait of Xavier Neal Moss has provided transport to collect firewood, participated in ceremonies and witnessed daily tragedies: the drive-by shooting of a family dog, illness, old age and sorry business. As Arranye Edward Johnson’s niece Kemarre Turner says, “Rod's paintings aren’t anything special. Only ordinary life. People going about business.” Ritchie similarly works on commission. To produce the portraits of her friends Bob Bunba and Nathan McKenzie at Bullocky Point, Darwin (2004) and Johnny Balaiya, Causarina Beach, Darwin (2004), she has followed explicit instructions photographing her friends exactly as they have requested, standing before the shoreline that encompasses part of their traditional country.
Negotiating this cultural practice was no easy matter. For Moss and Ritchie it was imperative to create some distance from existing models. Both sought to avoid the romantic subjectivity that has long conflated Aboriginal people with the landscape and the voyeuristic tendency of the documentary process. At the same time, both artists sought to make visually palpable the tension that exists between black and white – denoted as two different regimes. Moss builds up complex tableaux from individually posed photographs. He uses only graphite for the Aboriginal figures. The landscape is depicted in a lyrical, high-keyed neo-pointillism. Ritchie’s digitally manipulated images are underpinned by a similar tension. While the portraits of Bob Bunba, Nathan McKenzie and Johnny Balaiya are painstakingly constructed in palpable layers, the landscape (their country) is represented as a single, seamless photograph.
Moss and Ritchie call upon history as witness to these contemporary realities. Initially Moss used the model provided by earlier “painters of modern life”, Gericault and Courbet. Invited to document initiation ceremonies, Moss began to stage fictional re-enactments, scaling up the photographs of individuals (himself included) following the format, composition and stylistic devices of European church frescoes. Ritchie’s style is more overt. In an exhibition seen last year in Darwin’s Karen Brown Gallery, aptly titled Ship of Fools, the well-known cultural icons Bungaree, Balloderee and the cricketer Nannultera are entwined in a pulsing, visceral skein of blood vessels and bodily organs. Living in Harmony: Nightcliff Shoreline 1 (2003) transposes Brueghel’s brooding gallows onto the peaceful Nightcliff foreshore.
Of course representation is no easy game. We now understand that representations are implicated and indeed lend support for colonial power relations. Moss and Ritchie are “white interlocutors”. There are those critics for whom any form of collaboration is automatically dismissed. But the danger is (as Said’s Orientalism demonstrated) that such critiques may only serve to reinforce the very relationships of colonial dominance that they seek to condemn. In so doing, they can effect a double erasure: first, overlooking the historical agency of Indigenous people; second, denying the symbolic significance of the collaboration.
In effect Moss and Ritchie are engaged in a form of history painting, like Alberti’s istoria, intended to impart a moral lesson to the audience. It is ironic that postmodern writers were so quick to announce the death of history. In reality history is now, more than ever before, crucial to our understanding of identity politics. Until we understand the past, it is argued, we cannot move forward to the future. Since the 1980s a great many artists (Gordon Bennett, Brenda Croft, Tim Johnson, Stephen Bush to name a few) have appropriated as a radical postcolonial strategy. Arguably this work parallels, in visual form, the writings of Rowley, Reynolds, Read et. al. and Indigenous life histories which offer more complex and contested readings of Australian history.
Nevertheless this does not necessarily determine how such projects will be interpreted. Representations generate an endless array of meanings and give rise to many questions. In order to fully appreciate this work do we, as Joan Kerr has suggested, need to have an understanding of the original source: be it Caravaggio, Augustus Earle or Baldwin Spencer? Is it the case that appropriation “privileges those who hold the original”? Mieke Bal would argue otherwise. For Bal such “preposterous history” relocates the past alongside the present. In so doing it changes the past image forever. It is “a way of doing history” that carries productive uncertainties and illuminating insights.
Let me return to Moss and Ritchie. I have argued that each is aware of the complicity of their own negotiated position and the profound incommensurabilities separating black and white. How else can we interpret Moss’s Reconciliation Walk: Doubt (2004)? Leading the reconciliation walk across the bridge Xavier Neal kneels down and points to the crack that has appeared across the road, like Caravaggio’s Doubting Thomas probing Christ’s wounds. The fissure in the road creates an insistent horizontal, effectively creating a barrier between the Aboriginal protagonists and the viewer. Perhaps through the act of representation, the visual arts are able to realise that which has proved impossible to achieve in the wider political sphere?
This begs the question, what do these photographs mean to the Aboriginal people involved? Far from being the hapless victims of colonial stereotypes, the Aborigines with whom Moss and Ritchie are engaged are shown to be resilient and resourceful, prepared to collaborate in the projects devised by white artists, but on their own terms. For example, leading figures in the White Gate mob have asked Moss to paint initiation ceremonies to demonstrate cultural continuity, so that the “stories keep rolling”. But the first painting of ceremony, based on a photograph by Baldwin Spencer, was rejected. In the second version, History Rolling II (1991), Moss uses photographs of a Pitjantjatjara ceremony taken by Charles Mountford.
Humour is vital: a means of retaining dignity in the midst of tragedy. Ritchie in Shortgrass people 2 (2003) employs the simple expedient of race reversal enabling the much-maligned long grass people to stage their own ridicule of white appropriation. Likewise Moss in the Big Rooster series confronts touristic expectations of Aboriginality. Moss has also been commissioned to represent stories that relay an Aboriginal philosophy on prison. In the Big House (1988) Moss depicts his friends in the old Alice Springs gaol. Pushing Up River (1994) which depicts Aborigines “assisting” police to push the bogged paddy wagon out of the sandy river bed (a regular event) might be viewed negatively as coercion and humiliation. But in this case, it is the police who are parodied and humiliated.
Another way to view these artworks is through the idea of performance. In his book The Anthropology of Performance. Victor Turner suggests that performances occur in a liminal zone outside the discrete frame of ritual life yet separate from the quotidian world of the everyday. Here the image is the space of representation, the frame in which both Indigenous performers and audience participants are involved. Such cultural performances embody a form of intersubjectivity. They are both “reciprocal and reflexive, in the sense that the performance is often a critique, direct or veiled, of the social life it grows out of.” Bound together in dialogue the actors in the drama participate in the action. As witnesses to history they look to the viewer for our response.
At the very crux of these artworks is the paradox of representation. On the one hand Moss and Ritchie actively re-(en)vision their own history in the light of contemporary postcolonial realities: on the other hand, the artifice in which they are engaged signals the fiction of realism. For example This is not a Bull (2003) (replete with references to Magritte) is a painting within a painting. Depicted is a prize Brahman bull framed either side by classical images of contemporary Aboriginal art. Like patrons in a Renaissance fresco, members of the White Gate mob flank the painting. The men point as witnesses to the self-evident truth of this revelation while the boy looks out to the viewer. As audience participants we cannot but be implicated.
It seems that the Aboriginal performers appreciate the verisimilitude of these artworks: like photographs they provide indubitable confirmation of presence. They also understand and take delight in the artifice that underpins these artworks as illusions of reality. At the same time portraits may be called upon as a substitute for the real person, as a surface “shield” of power. Thus Rod Moss and Therese Ritchie explore the space between fiction and verisimilitude that is contained within the idea of mimesis – in Taussig’s words, “a colonial space par excellence”. Engaged in the effort to cross the cultural divide of difference created by colonisation, they negotiate a situated form of cultural practice.
Sylvia Kleinert is Associate Professor of Australian Indigenous Art at Charles Darwin University. Previously she was an ARC Postdoctoral Fellow and Research Fellow at the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research, ANU. Working across art history and anthropology, she is General Editor (with Margo Neale) of The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture (2000).