Papertalk Green, Charmaine and John Kinsella. ART. Broome: Magabala Books, 2022. RRP: 27.99, 144pp, ISBN: 9781922613738.
This is the second collaboration between Charmaine Papertalk Green and John Kinsella, following on from 2018’s False Claims of Colonial Thieves. Their discourse is an exploration of the ‘Art’ of the title, in regard to both Aboriginal and Western traditions. The book’s central focus is on a series of ekphrastic poetry relating to the paintings of Noongar artist Shane Pickett. Papertalk Green and John Kinsella respond back and forth to the paintings in relationship to their own history and experience of Noongar Country.
Papertalk Green begins with the theme of sovereignty, addressing what she describes as the ‘white wash’ of Aboriginal people due to past assimilation policies. This is followed by a series of heartfelt poems entitled ‘Data Sovereignty Words’, including ‘VOX NULLIUS: NO VOICE’, ‘RES NULLIUS: NO ABANDONED LAND’ and ‘DATUM NULLIUS / KNOWLEDGE PLENTY’.
Our ancestors steered
The bark canoes across
The milky way for millennia
Our laws and culture handed
Down across generations (‘GUBERNARE NULLIUS / GOOD GOVERNANCE’ 3)
This is followed by the section in which the two poets write and respond one to another on a selection of Pickett’s paintings, beginning with a general celebration of his work. Despite their differing background, culture and ancestry, they view and appreciate his art through a common concern for the protection of Noongar country, its history and truth. Kinsella ‘sees’ though his Western education and family history, Papertalk Green ‘reads’ Pickett’s work through her knowledge of her own Yamaji culture.
An artist shifting the
Layers of country and
Story into seeing […]
Your senses jumping
Or merging into the
Canvas (Papertalk Green, ‘On the Art of Shane Pickett: A Visual Feast of Seeing’ 9)
The morning dew and mist
The mapping cultures
Dotted pathways across
Country and held up
And held together by
the Dreaming (Papertalk Green, ‘On the Art of Shane Pickett: Mapping Culture Celebrating’ 11)
Kinsella responds more slowly, imagines landscape features rather than a story of ‘country’. He sums up the art of ekphrasis in the poem ‘Shane Pickett Opened the Eyes by Our Closing Them—on his “Untitled” (1998) Synthetic Polymer Paint on Canvas Painting in the Western Australian Art Gallery’. This is a reflection on the ways of seeing, of allowing the painting to sing:
but seeing more in letting it
paint its way in (Kinsella 102)
Pickett’s later paintings are large works concerned with capturing the vastness and cosmology of his Noongar world. Alert to the shifting light, he sees the patterns and rhythms, shapes and colour tones of clouds, the movement of the sun, the phases of the moon. Working with his hands to better feel, spread the acrylic washes over his canvas. The (untitled) work on the cover shows this effective technique in detail. Across this seeming emptiness, the artist follows song lines marked in a series of dots.
The horizon becomes a central focus for many of these later works and the subject of the poetic responses in this collection. The enigmatic titles evoke the Dreaming story behind large paintings such as Three Faces of the Sun Dazzling (16) and Hidden in the Grass Trees the Fire from the Moon’s Tail (2006) (49).
John Kinsella responds in: ‘Asking Permission to Connect With Shane Pickett’s “On the Horizon of the Dreaming Boodja” (2005)’
I fell into the lines of this horizon
years after sunset […]
and gasped—I risked seeing through where I was born,
I would like to avow
horizontals and verticals
and the winding paths
of starlight night
tracing the dark
a dreaming I know is there (37–38)
He sees a likeness in technique to the abstract expressions of the 20th-century American artist Mark Rothko, who uses washes of colour and horizontal lines to great atmospheric effect. However, the ‘Dreaming Boodja’ story has two horizons—one for the sunset and one for the sunrise.
In her response, Papertalk Green repeats Kinsella’s first line but continues to reveal other ways of ‘seeing’ the painting in ‘Response to “On the Horizon Dreaming Boodja”’:
I fell into the lines of the horizon from birth because
It is the way to understand direction and country story
On these two horizons celestial stories merged
Important Dreaming of everything into existence (39)
There is also a collection of ekphrastic prose poetry by Charmaine Papertalk Green, commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, and a series of poems in response to her collaborative art works. In the section entitled ‘Art Yarn’, a series of nine prose poems, the tone is quite different. Here the two poets expound their beliefs on the politics of the contemporary art establishment, on museums and galleries from both the Indigenous and settler perspective.
They air their forceful views on art and society, with particular reflections on painting the landscape. This is explored in the poems ‘Landscape Art’ by Kinsella (86) and in ‘Landscape Art Response’, where Papertalk Green leaves us with her First Nations idea of landscape painting, ending with the words of Shane Pickett: ‘“It is from the landscape that / all our culture and beliefs come” / And there is the difference for me’ (87).
‘The Appendix: Interview with Trevor Pickett by Charmaine’ is a worthwhile inclusion to this book. Shane Pickett and Papertalk Green’s son—Trevor—reveals important details regarding his father’s attitudes to painting ‘country’ and gives the reader insights into his unique painting style; insights which both inform and drive many of the poetic responses in this book.
Readers in Western Australia can view the Shane Pickett Collection in the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) in Perth.
Brenda Saunders is a Wiradjuri writer from Sydney. She has published three poetry collections, the most recent Inland Sea (Ginninderra Press, 2021). Her poetry has been published widely in anthologies and journals, including Mascara, Australian Poetry, Best Australian Prose Poems (2021), and Best Australian Poems (2022).