Dispatch Review respectfully acknowledges the Whadjuk people as the traditional owners and custodians of the lands upon which we live, work and enjoy. We pay deep respect to Elders past and present. Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.

Reviews:

  1. Death Metal Summer by Sam Beard.
  2. Players, Places: Reprised, Renewed, Reviewed by Aimee Dodds.
  3. Scholtz: Two Worlds Apart by  Corderoy, Fisher, Flaherty, Wilson, Fletcher,  Jorgensen, & Glover.
  4. Partial Sightings by Sam Beard.
  5. True! Crime. by Aimee Dodds.
  6. The Human Condition by Rex Butler.
  7. Light Event by Sam Beard.
  8. Rejoinder: Archival / Activism by Max Vickery.
  9. Access and Denial in The Purple Shall Govern by Jess van Heerden.
  10. 4Spells by Sam Beard.
  11. Abstract art, DMT capitalism and the ugliness of David Attwood’s paintings
    by Darren Jorgensen.
  12. Unearthing new epistemologies of extraction by Samuel Beilby.
  13. Seek Wisdom by Max Vickery.
  14. Something for Everyone by Sam Beard.
  15. Violent Sludge by Aimee Dodds.
  16. State of Abstraction by Francis Russell.
  17. Double Histories: Special Issue, with texts by Ian McLean, Terry Smith, and Darren Jorgensen & Sam Beard.
  18. Six Missing Shows by Sam Beard.
  19. What We Memorialise by Max Vickery.
  20. At the End of the Land by Amelia Birch.
  21. The beautiful is useful by Sam Beard.
  22. ām / ammā / mā maram by Zali Morgan.
  23. Making Ground, Breaking Ground by Maraya Takoniatis.
  24. Art as Asset by Sam Beard.
  25. Cactus Malpractice by Aimee Dodds.
  26. Sweet sweet pea by Sam Beard.
  27. COBRA by Francis Russell.
  28. PICA Barn by Sam Beard .
  29. Gallery Hotel Metro by Aimee Dodds.
  30. A Stroll Through the Sacred, Profane, and Bizarre by Samuel Beilby.
  31. Filling in the Gaps at Spacingout by Maraya Takoniatis.
  32. Disneyland Cosmoplitanism by Sam Beard.
  33. Discovering Revenue by Anonymous.
  34. Uncomfortable Borrowing by Jess van Heerden.
  35. It’s Not That Strange by Stirling Kain.
  36. Hatched Dispatched by Sam Beard & Aimee Dodds.
  37. Fuck the Class System by Jess van Heerden, Jacinta Posik, Darren Jorgensen, et al.
  38. Wild About Nothing by Sam Beard.
  39. Paranoiac, Peripatetic: Pet Projects by Aimee Dodds.
  40. An Odd Moment for Women’s Art by Maraya Takoniatis.
  41. Transmutations by Sam Beard.
  42. The Post-Vandal by Sam Beard.
  43. Art Thugs and Humbugs by Max Vickery.
  44. Disneyland, Paris, Ardross and the artworld by Darren Jorgensen.
  45. Bizarrely, A Biennale by Aimee Dodds.
  46. Venus in Tullamarine by Sam Beard.
  47. Weird Rituals by Sam Beard.
  48. Random Cube by Francis Russell.
  49. Yeah, Nah, Rockpool by Aimee Dodds.
  50. Towards a Blind Horizon by Kieron Broadhurst.
  51. Being Realistic by Sam Beard.



The Human Condition

This essay was written in 2021 as the foreword for a proposed volume of Rod Moss’ writings and art works entitled Luxury & Theft, which unfortunately has not yet found a publisher.

Rod Moss started painting scenes from the life around Alice Springs some time in 1986, after previously living and studying in Melbourne. He had originally moved there two years before to teach drawing and art history at the local TAFE. Of course, like all newcomers to the town, he was struck by the confronting insight it provided into the reality of European colonisation and the terrible conditions in which the majority of the original inhabitants of the country now lived. But unlike many socially concerned white Australians, who are able to think about these matters from a distance and indeed rarely if ever meet an Indigenous person in everyday life, Moss found himself daily surrounded by the ongoing effects of Indigenous dispossession, failed state intervention, the breaking of cultural traditions and the lack of opportunities for Indigenous Australians. The pages that follow are full of stories of Moss taking people to doctor’s appointments, helping move people’s meagre possessions from one inadequate temporary accommodation to another, putting people to bed when they have drunk too much and the shared reactions to life’s joys and tragedies that cross boundaries and the vastly different cultures and life experiences of the people involved. For, as Moss continued to live in Alice Springs, he got to know many of the local Arrernte people well, particularly the five extended families – Hayes, Johnson, Ryder, Webb and Coulthard – who lived in the small outlying community of Irrkerlantye or Whitegate, three kilometres east of Alice Springs, which was unofficially established some time in the late 1970s without any formal agreement with or approval from local government.
        It is not necessary to know when looking at Moss’ paintings, although it is evident from the intimacy and attentiveness with which he paints them, but the Indigenous figures in them are in fact people he knows well. As he recounts here, he either chooses particular people he feels right for the subject or otherwise follows people’s own requests to be included in his work. He recalls on several occasions his sitter’s reactions to seeing themselves in his canvases, and their depiction is something of an exchange or even ceremony between the painter and his sitter, with Moss always showing it to them for their approval before its exhibition. Thus, for example, we have in Moss’ Riverside Gospeller (2000) three generations of Whitegate’s various families, featuring from left to right Edward Neale, Bernadine Johnson and Kaston Hayes. In Intervention (2007), we have Norleen Hayes, along with her newly-born daughter, Elizabeth. In Crow Whisperers (2012), we have two old friends of Moss, Noelly Johnson and Xavier Neale, both of whom are now dead. And with regard to Madonna of the Larapinta Valley (2007), Moss tells the story of Margaret Kemarre Turner coming up and thanking him for the “beautiful image” with tears in her eyes at a retrospective at which it was exhibited.
        Of course, what is truly striking about these works, for an art-literate audience but also we suggest for anyone reasonably sensitive to racial issues in contemporary Australia, is Moss’ decision to incorporate Indigenous figures in them. Now, to the extent that Moss wished to record the reality of the life of Alice Springs, it is obvious he would have to do so, but it nevertheless remains a question of how as a white artist Moss finds it appropriate – or indeed possible – to depict Aboriginal Australians at all. There has been a long history of the European depiction of Aboriginal peoples, stretching back well before colonisation, but at a certain point, it might be suggested, not only Aboriginal people but white Australians themselves began to feel that it was inappropriate, which perhaps in art as opposed to politics expresses itself in the feeling that artworks (and perhaps more generally depictions of all kinds) by white Australians of Aboriginal people were no longer artistically convincing. In fact, we can absolutely imagine an important state or national art gallery show of the history of the artistic depiction of Indigenous Australians. Where would such an exhibition start? Let us say with those engravings by the likes of John Webber and Sydney Parkinson during Cook’s three voyages to the South Pacific. Then we would consider that whole series of works that sought to capture the first interactions between the British colonisers and the original inhabitants of Sydney and Tasmania. We might think here of Thomas Watling’s intimate image of an Aboriginal family having a meal and by contrast Joseph Lycett’s image of Aboriginal warriors fiercely defending – too late, of course – their land. There is the unknown First Fleet Artist’s image of native leader Bennelong being rowed out to meet a British delegation and Thomas Bock’s watercolour drawings of such Palawa people as Fanny and Truggernana.
        Then as we move into the eighteenth century we have more elaborate, complex and seemingly even allegorical depictions. There is John Glover’s extraordinary mythological evocation Bath of Diana (1837), in which a lone Aboriginal man beckons a group of women to swim across a small lake. There is Benjamin Dutterrau’s The Conciliation (1840), depicting George Augustus Robinson, who at the time was seen to have “conciliated” the successful removal of Tasmanian Aborigines to Flinders Island, but who soon after the picture was completed fell into disfavour. There is Augustus Earle’s Wentworth Falls (1830), with its Aboriginal guide helping Earle and his fellow travellers cross the Blue Mountains before pointing to another Aboriginal figure who imperiously faces the viewer. There is ST Gill’s satirical Native Dignity (1858), which depicts an Aboriginal couple dressed up in coloured finery and striking a pose, but by contrast there is also an image from his 1860 Burke and Wills series showing Aborigines attempting to help the lost explorers. It is often then said that there are few depictions of Indigenous people in the second half of the nineteenth century, although with the coming of Federation and the consideration of the question of what the new Australia would be artists again turn their attention to Australia’s original inhabitants. Thus we have, for example, Tom Roberts’ depiction of a Corrobboree at Murray Island in Northern Queensland and series of portraits of Indigenous people (Charlie Turner, 1892, and Maria Yulgilbar, 1894), although some ten years earlier than that we have HJ Johnstone’s Evening Shadows (1880), an image of an Aboriginal family camped at the edge of a billabong, and one of the most powerful expressions of Aborigines as a “dying race”.
        In the twentieth century, things change again with both Margaret Preston and the Jindyworobak poets looking towards Aboriginal culture as a resource for a possible future Australian identity. (Although in fact it was Preston’s late career depictions of Aboriginal people in such gouaches as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (1950) and The Expulsion (1952) that led to the loss of her reputation for some time and the beginning of the sense, possibly not unrelated to the rise of an artist like Albert Namatjira, that such crude mythologising depictions were no longer artistically possible.) The “Antipodeans” and their predecessors, again as part of their claim to be making a socially conscious and identifiably Australian art, also depicted Indigenous people. Josl Bergner, who as a Polish immigrant had experienced social discrimination, depicted Aborigines in Fitzroy in 1941 as though they were recently arrived refugees. Arthur Boyd’s The Half-Caste Bride series (1957-60) is as much as anything about the dream of the coming together of the European and the Indigenous, although it is also the comically told story of its impossibility (and today we cannot but be struck by the ludicrously crouching and bulbous-eyed indigenous figure who looks as much as anything like a native animal). By contrast, we have Noel Counihan’s magnificent black-and-white linocut of Albert Namatjira nailed to the cross like Christ, and Sydney Nolan’s iconic Ned in his black armour is nothing if not a displaced Indigenous figure.
        But as the century goes on and both Australian modernism and the idea of an identifiable national painting fades, there is a sense of the greater difficulty for white artists to depict Aboriginal people. Ian Fairweather, in what in many ways is still an artistic success, paints brown Aboriginal faces in broad strokes derived from rarrk painting and Chinese calligraphy in Two Natives (1955). But Russell Drysdale’s paintings from around the same time of Indigenous stockmen and their families from the Northern Queensland can strike us as inappropriately anonymous, generalising and stereotypical with their bushmen’s hats and deep cast shadow. Margaret Olley’s early 60s kitchen portraits of Aboriginal people she had invited into her house are suffused with melancholy, not only as a result of their sitters’ “otherness” and her lack of connection but also we would suggest from a foreboding sense of their artistic failure. From the 1960s, such “brushmen of the bush” as Pro Hart and Hugh Sawrie continued to produce cartoonish post-Drysdale images of Aboriginal stockmen on their horses. And, finally, as if in confirmation of this, we have someone like Melburnian Ray Crooke, who for decades has been churning out images of Cape York Aborigines as dark exotic patches in otherwise tropically coloured canvases, which have been little criticised because no one takes them seriously.
        That is to say, at a certain moment it becomes impossible artistically if not morally for white Australian artists to depict Aborigines or even to claim any meaningful relation to Aboriginal culture. There are, of course, the well-known debates around Imants Tillers’ appropriation of Michael Nelson Jagamarra’s Five Stories (1984), along with renewed attention given to the unlicensed use of Aboriginal iconography on T-Shirts, flags and coffee mugs. And at some point in the mid 1980s – ironically, at about the time Moss started to make his current style of pictures – a whole generation of contemporary Indigenous artists started to take control of the way Indigenous people were represented. Indeed, they offered precisely a riposte to and refutation of the ways Indigenous people had previously been imaged by a colonising Western culture. To name only the most obvious: there is Gordon Bennett’s version of Samuel Calvert’s Captain Cook Taking Possession of the Australian Continent (1865), with its sidelined Indigenous figures bowing to the right, in Possession Island (1991). There is Tracey Moffatt’s Nice Coloured Girls (1987) and her remake of the feature film Jedda (1955) as Night Cries (1989), which both attempt to overturn stereotypes concerning Indigenous women. There is Julie Dowling’s long series of portraits of distant ancestors and close relatives. There is Christian Thompson casting himself as the hidden gaze in Margaret Preston’s images of native flowers in Aboriginal ceramic vases. There is Vernon Ah Kee’s humanising rendering of anthropologist Norman Tindale’s objectifying photographs of his ancestors on Palm Island. There is Brook Andrew’s similar reanimating of anonymous Indigenous people from British anthropological archives in Gun Metal Grey (2007). There is Richard Bell casting young Indigenous children in the new roles of Minister for the Environment, Minister for Performing Arts and Foreign Affairs and Minister for White Affairs Employment and Industry in Ministry Kids (1992). And, along the same lines, there are Michael Cook’s almost utopian images of a Senate full of Indigenous legislators, a High Court with Indigenous lawyers bustling about and a bus full of white-suited Indigenous businessmen going off to work, one of whom is pointedly not reading the exoticising Walkabout magazine that ran from 1930s into the ‘70s.
        Of course, all of this is merely an outline in the broadest of strokes. And, although there have been a number of important studies of the depiction of Aboriginal peoples – from Ian and Tamsin Donaldson’s Seeing the First Australians to Geoffrey Dutton’s White on Black to Bain Attwood’s The Making of the Aborigine to Tim Bonyhady and Greg Lehmann’s The National Picture – to our knowledge there has been as yet no synoptic history or large-scale museum exhibit that goes from first depictions up to the present. What might such a book or exhibition reveal? What would it have to tell us about how Indigenous Australians have been represented since European contact? As is well known, it would reveal how various preconceptions were projected onto them, from noble to ignoble savage, from Romantic to Neo-Classical, from warrior to peace-maker. It would speak to the European colonisers’ desire to belong to the country and for Aboriginal people to tell them who they were. But also – another tendency often commented upon although harder to specify – the very number of such depictions would tell us about the felt need for this at various moments of Australia’s history, both when such depictions were seen to be especially important and conversely when they were seen to be unnecessary or even inappropriate or impossible.
        There is undoubtedly one day an important book or exhibition to be done on this topic. Obviously, a crucial preliminary question is: can these depictions be made any more and who exactly would be able to make them? But if we could imagine, say, a collection of essays on the topic with a variety of different voices and no definitive editorial position, then towards the end we could easily envisage an entry on Moss. It would have to be an open-minded selection with no predetermined conclusion because Moss’s work is something of an anomaly, if not an outright impossibility. At just that moment when it appears that only Indigenous people have the right to represent Indigenous people, Moss is a white artist attempting to do so. And, in my opinion and in that of a number of others, doing so successfully. It is not so much in art a moral question as an aesthetic one (although this does not at all exclude morality). How is it that we feel when we are looking at a Moss painting that he neither simply misrepresents his indigenous subjects nor exploits them? Through a brilliant and counter-intuitive decision to represent them as representations, or at least to depict various aspects of their lives as though they were representations. How is this to be understood? On a first level, there is the meaning of the selected pictorial quotation and how it might apply to the particular situation depicted (for example, the use of Caravaggio’s Doubting Thomas (1601-2) in relation to white-black reconciliation, Breugel the Elder’s The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind (1568) in relation to the justice system and Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Son (1820-24) in relation to the situation of Indigenous people altogether).
        But there is a more profound and harder to specify level at which these quotations work, insofar as images are the way we relate both to others and ourselves. This is why art historians study the European depiction of Indigenous Australians: not so much because of what it says about the subjects of these depictions as what it says about the way Europeans see Indigenous people. But this is also why contemporary Aboriginal artists re-use or appropriate these images: because in some way they also see themselves through these same images. All of us, certainly not in the same way and perhaps not even equally, are colonised by the image. So that what Moss is ultimately trying to represent is not just the Arrente people of Alice Springs but the way he sees the Arrernte people of Alice Springs. That is to say, in some way the real subject of Moss’ work is the way he sees. Or even more generally the way white Australia today sees Aboriginal people. But it is not simply a critique of this or even a belief that we could finally escape it. Because, as Moss shows us, we would be able to get beyond one image of Aboriginal people only through another image. This is why the late trompe-l’oeil images in which we see a subject in front of or looking at their own depiction (a young man staring at his reflection in Deep Water (2016), but also the cow and Aboriginal stockmen in A Cowboy Fable(2020)), although seemingly eccentric and perhaps less artistically convincing than others, are in some way the key to Moss’ practice. And it is also this that explains Moss’ fascination with Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (1929), otherwise known as “This is Not a Pipe”, because likewise we might understand each of Moss’ images as subtitled with “This is Not an Aborigine” at the same time as we are seeing an Aborigine.
        “Life imitates art”, wrote Oscar Wilde over a century ago in his famous essay ‘The Decay of Lying’, in response to the Australian artist Mortimer Menpes’ well-known “orientalising” images of Japanese people. “There is no such country, there are no such people”, Wilde sternly chided in the same essay. Absolutely one is tempted to say of every European image of an Aboriginal person, there is no such country, there are no such people. But then where else do we live, how else do we see each other, was Wilde’s famous conclusion, except in and through and through the image? The paradox Moss explores is that it is only through another image that we can say what is left out by or what is wrong with any image. It is this that accounts for the striking disparity in his work: everyone is in a coloured pose taken from a European or Australian painting, except for the graphite grey monochromes of the Indigenous figures that, posed or not, quoted or not, also break with or otherwise do not belong to the rest of the image. The reality of Indigenous lives in contemporary Australia, which Moss describes here simply as the “catastrophic condition”, is what cannot be pictured or what breaks with any picture, but this can only be shown in a picture. It is why Moss is an artist and why we continue to look at works of art, even when we think we are not.



Images courtesy of the artist.