Groggy: Therese Ritchie, Todd Williams

Northern Territory Centre for Contemporary Art (NCCA), Darwin
13 September – 12 October 2013

Northern Territory Centre for Contemporary Art (NCCA), Darwin 13 September – 12 October 2013

Well-known Darwin identity Chips Mackinolty opened Groggy, a collaborative exhibition at NCCA by Therese Ritchie and Todd Williams, with the words: "My name is Chips Mackinolty and I am an alcoholic", a sobering opening gambit and one relevant to the overriding concern of the show. The Territory is indeed drowning in rivers of grog. There is a love affair with booze here that is often hard for people from down south to comprehend. The social and economic cost of this epidemic of drunkenness is enormous. As Chips noted in his opening speech: “Everyone assumes that grog is an exclusively Aboriginal problem. That is simply untrue. Around 50 per cent of Aboriginal people don’t drink at all. If the Northern Territory were a nation, we would have the third highest per capita consumption in the world – and that is not statistically down to Aboriginal Territorians – but to non-Aboriginal people living here”. The intention of this exhibition was to focus not on Indigenous issues with alcohol (although they are there), but rather an aspect of Territory drinking that is seen as much more agreeable ... white people doing it. But after seeing the exhibition, no one is left in any doubt that this is, in any way, agreeable.

Therese Ritchie is a photographer and graphic designer who was instrumental in the political poster movement of the late 1980s. Her early work with graphic design techniques continues to inform her recent digital collages and inkjet prints. Todd Williams is an artist, filmmaker, rock musician and most recently a candidate for the Greens in the Darwin seat of Solomon. Both are long-term Territorians whose work is motivated by social justice issues. Both are committed to addressing topical concerns and it could be said their art springs from the tradition of agitprop, a tendency that remains compelling for a number of NT artists.

Therese Ritchie and Todd Williams draw our attention to "white people drinking’" in a typically humorous, pointed and politically biting way. They have created suites of images, riffing off one another’s wry observations, making jokes, dissing CLP (Country Liberal Party) politicians and creating visual and verbal puns. They parody the language and look of alcohol advertising with titles such as Beer can regretter, Livers of grog, Mandatory Man, Problem drunks on our streets and 4Xangels. These works are largely graphic in nature, humorous and colourful. The artists have had fun with this issue, whilst maintaining the rage.

Some works in the show are more mysterious, referring obliquely to hidden codes of drinking behavior in NT regional towns. The five images that make up the Social Fabric are not humorous at all. This series is comprised of two large horizontal banners River of grog 1 and 2, shot outside the Woolworths bottle shop in Katherine. These bright photographic images on vinyl, frame three dark vertical prints on canvas, Drinking Paddocks, Monkey’s bBood and On the Bitumen, framed in gold and reminiscent of a medieval altarpiece. They feature seductive, enigmatic and menacing images that address the realities of segregated drinking in Katherine, that can lead to injury and death. People, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, are being killed by grog. That is the take-away message from this piece.

Therese Ritchie engages in guerilla photography lurking outside bottle shops and pubs, sites instantly recognisable to locals, such as the Thirsty Camel in Katherine or the Beachfront Hotel in Darwin. Collectively titled Making money out of the suffering of others, these images expose the ugly reality of grog culture in the NT where the role of publicans can no longer be ignored. The river is coming out of the bottle shops and pubs. It flows with impunity. The Northern Territory Government seems to be in the thrall of the hotel lobby, making no effort to constrain or restrict their operations, while introducing punitive measures to punish ‘problem drinkers’ instead. Dave Tolner, Minister for Business, referred to the alcohol industry as an important part of the fabric of the NT economy, leading Todd Williams to represent Dave as a dizzying repeat pattern in brightly coloured shirts that reflect the effects of alcohol, laying the blame on those with the power to address some of the problems.

Therese Ritchie and Todd Williams take on tough issues with humour but also with insight and beauty. They are social commentators holding up a mirror to their community, opening up a dialogue and a space for people to reflect on, not only societies’ problem with grog, but also perhaps their own … more power to them.

Cath Bowdler is Director of Godinmayin Yijard Rivers Arts & Culture Centre in Katherine, NT.

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