I shall never become a Black Woman
The notion of place has always been a significant part of how I experience life.
And this has fed in to my art making practice.
It wasn’t until I moved to northern NSW from Melbourne, as a 16 year old, that I learnt about the true history, or rather, a more factual version, of Australia, as part of my ‘Society and Culture’ studies in Year 11 and 12.
Shocked and horrified by what I was learning, it shifted my awareness of myself, as a daughter of European ancestors, born in Australia. A stolen country. A country of shame, denial and perpetual racism. It became a large part of my discomfort with being in this place.
I had never really belonged anyway. I was the only child in my primary school’s early years who didn’t know what everyone was doing when they all sang “Up there Cazaley”.
Moving from Williamstown to Wooyung, from a probably haunted old house by the graves of hundreds of convicts and probably Aboriginals in a seaside suburb of Melbourne, from which I would draw portraits on the train ride to an exclusive public girls’ school in the city’s centre, to a small brick farmhouse flanked by cane fields, three other houses and a mile to a deserted, tropical, warm, glowing ocean beach, where I would wait for the school bus to take me through Billinudgel and Ocean Shores, to an ordinary country high school; my place had changed significantly.
It wasn’t just the subject ‘Society and Culture’ that changed me. It was the skinny dips that brought to life a young woman from a child, that told my cells that I’m a creature of nature and its perfectly natural and normal to be alive. It was the country air, the slow meanders through the floodwater to the beach and the lazy afternoons rubbing an even lazier large cat’s belly, whilst watching the neighbour’s cows eat grass.
I had turned my drawing exercises from trying to get portraits of commuters right to the cows in the paddock. I deemed myself rather unskilled in drawing, unlike my mother, who seemed to be a natural from a young age. I enjoyed it nevertheless so continued.
The drawings of Mary MacQueen inspired me to take risks and I grew more confident with line as I created contour drawings of my friends and family, the cat… whatever I saw.
I really know nothing about MacQueen except that her drawings were inspirational to me. I had a wealth of books on art to peruse at my leisure and a mother who also was a wealth of inspiration and knowledge. I selected intuitively what drew me to in and whole stories about artists and movements were only important if they were important for the context of that which I was to do with them, and usually they weren’t.
In Melbourne I had made a decision to take a sensible career, such as architecture, as long as it earned an income, so that I could pursue art without the stress of it being the income earner. But by the time I had graduated from Mullumbimby High School, the two years I had up there, had had its way with me. I was had!
Dreamy, inspired, already eclectic and prolific as a young art maker, I was exhibiting and selling and my path was laid. I went to Sydney College of the Arts to fulfil my life’s path, in a natural progression of what seemed inevitable, that this was to be my life’s love and journey.
What happened after that is another story… and it has been a long journey for me to come back to this path. I remember having the feeling that I could easily make art of one style or another and make it work as a career, but I wanted intuitively for it to mean more to me than an arbitrary choice. And so, I needed all these years of meandering around my insides, career sidelines, other studies, and explorations of lands, rivers and seas.
Amongst these explorations I came upon an exhibition which moved me deeply, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney’s spectacular circular quay. I was living in Miller’s Point (The Rocks) at the time, in a small attic with a view of the harbour and its magnificent bridge and when I wasn’t at art school, I was waitressing on the Sydney Showboat which also docked in that area. It was my hood.
In those days I loved to traverse the old English built landscape, as it slotted so beautifully on top of those stoney hills, creating stairs and alleys, layers of texture, line, pattern and shape to delight my young romantic artist self.
I ended up writing about this exhibition during my studies at SCA: Tyerabarrbowaryaou II: (I shall never become a white man) was its title.
Like with the work of Lee Mingwei (The Letter Writing Project – see post) the artists in this exhibition were “using their own lives as subject matter”. 1The fact that this is mentioned is bizarre in a way, but I guess there are artists who do make art about something other than their own lives or psyche. But in some way it always has to include the artist does it not? Even if its just a reference to the fact that the artist conceived of it and its through the layers of their lens that they see the world.
As I grappled with the discontent with being a white woman in a land that was stolen, I infused this artwork as medicine. I felt somewhat comforted that the artists were taking it in to their own hands (no pun intended) to paint their truth; as urban artists, as desert artists, as artists, as humans, as people. The message I read from it as a whole was: we are who we are, and no amount of categorising and story telling (and lying) from you (white fella) will change that. As the website explains: “The works in this exhibition were selected for the direct truths they conveyed.”1
It took me back to the days of my Year 9 and 10 history lessons in which we were taught from the text book, encouraged to learn the names of English colonialists, names of places they conquered, names of their ships, dates of all this and other trivial details. There was a complete absence of truth and humanity in this version of history. Apart from drawing penises all over the text books, my friend and I had no interest in this class.
If only we knew at the time, how post modern and conceptual those drawings would be in a frame in a gallery.
In all the years I lived and worked in remote Aboriginal communities following on from those first glimpses of the hidden layers of stories, I have never found a comfort with being Australian. In the context of being Australian I feel that I shall never become a white woman even those I suppose I am.
I am a Jewish, Celtic, Scandinavian hybrid, with ancestors who have taken advantage of the fact that this land was stolen, and settled here not knowing they were also unwittingly partaking in the stealing by being here.
And so it is. And so my journey continues. I am here now. But I shall one day probably return home, to Europe. Not without loving this land. And giving what I can to seeing its truth, if that is possible.
And so it is, that I return to art. I return to it as a crusader of my truth. Which is not so focussed now on being a white woman in a stolen land, but it sits there anyway.
And the many layers of what it means to be human are all popping up in my art. The layers of being a mother, in a culture which has no idea how to bring up children or support families, let alone mothers.
As a woman who has experienced over the years of my fertility, many pregnancies and one surviving child, the inner world, that of my womb, my cells, the roles and experiences of women not only in my immediate timeline and location, but that of my ancestors… all comes in to my work now.
All of this and more, is infused in my art making. No longer though am I grappling with so much uncertainty, what I am, who I am. I am now standing with deeper roots. Deeper than the land we stand on, but more connected in with the centre of the earth and also all those planets out there.
I am heralding in the energies of the universe and taking that as my anchor. No longer do I deem my country to be my nest, or delineator of identity, any more than I need my parents for this. My anchor is my deeper understanding of what has always underpinned my art making and way of being in the world, my spirituality.
And yet I do need people. I do need connection. And it is through creativity that I find this.
And here I am.
I find nuances of life interesting to me.
Moments and momentos.
I have learned that its with an open hand, palms facing up, as if about to scoop water over my face, from a clean, crisp river, that I engage myself in art making.
It is fluid. And free.
I shall never become a black woman.
And that’s ok with me.
WEBSITE: Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Tyerabarrbowaryaou II: I shall never become a white man.(1994). [online] Available at: https://www.mca.com.au/collection/exhibition/17-tyerabarrbowaryaou-ii/
IMAGE FROM WEBSITE: Charles Nodrum Gallery. Mary MacQueen Pelicans (c. 1975). [online] Available at: http://www.charlesnodrumgallery.com.au/artists/mary-macqueen/pelicans