by JOHN MATEER
One of the most vivid memories I have of the trip I made with the Painter and his wife to the Moore River Mission – known by the Aboriginal people as Mogumber – was the drive back. We were talking about the mooja, what the settlers had called “native Christmas trees”, due to their blooming at the end of the year. Those trees were then in flower, their bright orange sparks held still against the grey twilight sky.
The Painter’d said that he had read that the local people, Noongar, believe that spirits can inhabit that type of tree. In one account a settler had brought tragedy to his home by taking some of those flowering branches inside to place in a vase.
The Mission was in a state of progressive ruin. No one was around. Initially we were cautious, going up to one seemingly inhabited house to seek permission to enter.
Then we wondered through the ghostly place. The Painter was videoing ‘the scene’, explaining that it might provide him with material for future work. While in the church his wife found on the walls some old framed photographs that she recalled seeing reproduced in an autobiography by one of the Stolen Generation, one of those people who had been forcibly removed from their families as children and brought to live in places like this.
To me there was another strangeness at Mogumber. Being at the Mission now infamous world-wide as a consequence of the film of The Rabbit-Proof Fence, which was based on Doris Pilkingston’s book of the same name, brought back memories from more than a decade before, when I had been reading extensively in writings about Aboriginal history in the hope of understanding how a poetics might be developed for south-western Australia.
We passed through a grove of large and incongruous pine trees. I then remembered – whether I’d read it or heard of it I don’t know – the playwright and poet Jack Davis, a Noongar elder, talking about these pine trees. He had been brought up at the Mission. He’d said that he had often heard screams, ghostly screams, coming from the area around the trees. A silent screaming was entirely in keeping with the quiet, sinister banality of the place.
We had hoped to have a picnic. The Mission was too unpleasant to allow that, so we left it, stopping a short distance away at a site that memorialises the Mission children, a memorial erected by the Noongar themselves.
This place was quite a different: full of healthy native plants, with a well-tended memorial-wall and an area furnished with a picnic-bench. The two artists started exploring the grounds, thoughtfully identifying the plants. They were entranced by the subtle diversity, the microscopic individuality, of the plants that are endemic to this part of the continent. As they wondered through the Bush, it was as if they became voices almost lost in a text only recently made legible. The Painter had once told me that one of the things that intrigued him about much of the flora of “The West” was that, because so many of the plants are shrub-like, resisting the harsh climate by clinging close to the ground, you – as human, as viewer – move over them. This kind of scanning of the landscape is related to his fascination with Chinese painting and its tradition of the scroll, its rolling and unrolling.
While the first of his paintings I’d come to know were pale landscapes, understated and surreal, their subjects and techniques alluding to his experiences in China, the works I saw him make and exhibit in Perth over the past years were always haunting, consonant with implied tragedy. (Several years before he and his wife had lost a child.) That he and his wife wanted to visit Mogumber was in keeping with this, though, of course, with broader implications. A number of his then recent works were explicit statements of a particular kind of tragedy, the effects of ecological ruin. One was a project that required him to sketch, in black ink on black paper, every single one of the State of Western Australia’s several thousand wild-flowers. Another project had him reclaim discarded backing-boards that had been used to mount Western Australian flora specimens in Vienna’s Museum of Natural History, and display those boards themselves as a conceptual work, a wall of names and absent trophies.
Those works suggest, inevitably, another tragedy that has left its signs everywhere in Australia – the imperial devastation of Aboriginal society, a tragedy that is so much a part of everyday life that Australians can make one feel absurd for simply noticing its evidence.
Accompanying the Painter and his wife to the site of that Mission, a place of pain and cultural displacement, it struck me that Australia is itself a zone of erasure. Neither its culture nor its present politics can easily change that. Although the wonder of the Aboriginal painting movement and its politics might…
The only actions that can reverse this amnesia require an attention to history and the emotional; not the emotional of speeches and demonstrations, nor the utterances of conventional languages, but the emotional articulacy of the Poetic. The erasures that have been the principle subject of the Painter’s art – the denuding of the land, the dramatic reduction of biodiversity and the Western scientific classification of the natural – are each shadowed by the possibility of its opposite, that is of an attention that can be given to what is here, to the life that is here and on the brink of extinction.
When we sat beside the river at Mogumber, I remarked to both of them that it was the only place at the Mission where I could sense calm. The Painter remarked that according to one of the books he’d read recently this was only place where the Aboriginal children had felt safe and free. More than a decade previous I’d heard two Noongar women talking about being on the Mission. They’d reminisced about the happy times, happy because they could now share those memories, memories separated out from others of privation and pain, of beatings and fear.
The novelist Mudrooroo had been present when those women had spoken. So as I sat there beside the river, thinking of reclaimed memories, of the screams muted by the shade of the Moore River’s pine trees, I reflected on Mudrooroo, that writer once the literary voice of Aboriginal people nation-wide and once their most powerful literary critic, a man who had been forced to flee Perth in disgrace after it was alleged he wasn’t a Noongar. He has since been ‘unremembered’. The last I’d heard he was living in Kathmandu, Nepal.
I asked the Painter if he’d ever heard of Mudrooroo. He shook his head.
It seemed to me that his then current project of painting landscapes from which native vegetation has been erased resulted in works that were akin to 19th Century European paintings, if in a range of topographic and Symbolist styles. Trying to reconcile that with my thoughts on the Tragic that I identified in his other works made in this part of the world that he would come to call home, in his way of evoking the razing of the vestiges of history here, whether by the colonisers or by the Aboriginal themselves, I was left wondering about the mere possibility of making any statement about what this country is, that it must require us to observe how we are feeling before we speak: Is the Tragic possible here?
Certain of the Painter’s new works, although this might be more in my mind than rendered visible by his brush, took me into that extraordinary atmosphere of dusk in the Western Australian Bush, that time when in the half-light anyone can imagine seeing ghosts and spirits. When I closed my eyes, expecting to see an after-image of one of the paintings, I saw instead those empty paddocks we’d sped by when returning from the Moore River Mission, those mooja trees with their orange blossoms shimmering like sparks flung into the sky.
In that darkness I saw, and can still see, embers of memory thrown into tinder-dry bushland, a landscape ready to start burning with implacable anger.
John Mateer’s latest publications are The West: Australian Poems 1989-2009, (Fremantle Press), Southern Barbarians (Giramondo, Sydney), Este Livro Escuro/This Dark Book (Averno, Lisbon) and the soon forthcoming Unbelievers, or ‘The Moor’ (Giramondo, Sydney, and Shearsman, Bristol). He is currently curating “In Confidence”, an exhibition which includes artists from Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Iran, for Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts.
This essay first appeared in the in the Lisbon magazine Cão Celeste. Portuguese translation by Inês Dias.