DR TAMSIN KERR, COOROORA INSTITUTE DIRECTOR SPEAKS AT Noosa Regional Gallery, 25 NOVEMBER 2016
Who speaks for local country and what language do they use?
Traditionally that answer might have been easy: in this region, the Kabi Kabi people were part of the ecology of place, in constant partnership with the flow or “mimburi”, forming deep relationships with individual trees and animals and rocks and rivers. The work of elders enlivened the environment into an active sentience, creating a multi-layered friendship with the country they fully inhabited.
Post-colonialism, the answer is confused with the politics of the nation state, the developmental hype of self-promotion, the levels of racism and sexism, and the ongoing requirements of a growing population.
So, I want to start with housekeeping. What housekeeper ever mops the floor knowing her work is done forever? She (I’m using the pronoun advisedly alas) knows there will always be more to clean, messes underpin the family life; she wages a small war against the chaos created by those she loves. It’s not a bad analogy for those who care for country now: a never-ending job of protest and resistance, trying to prevent the worst messes and managing the consequences of expansion and growth.
The Central Queensland University symposium held by Sue Davis last Wednesday as partner to this exhibition, celebrated the friendship and works of Kathleen McArthur and Judith Wright. It was hard not to think on ecofeminism with only one man in attendance. The philosophical dualisms were exposed in this exploration of perception and place: nature/culture, woman/man, humble/hero, curvaceous/rectilinear.
Kathleen McArthur wrote: “we have a problem in the fact that much of our flora is unfamiliar for the reason that it lacks associations in our consciousness’, so they are not seen, and so not preserved for posterity. … It is only when the mind opens that the flower blooms … there is no time available to be patient and wait for natural changes when our heritage of flowers is being destroyed so fast.”[i]
The work of preserving place is always ongoing. Janis Bailey performs country through the Calanthe Collective and the red of Tamborine Mountain; Pamela Greet digs to freedom through poetry salons at REaD Space; Gemma Wright imprints her heritage across the country; Stephanie Haslem and Kate Greenwood show art of place and activism are never far removed; Jill Samspon saves nature reserves through connecting artists and place through the birds of Bimblebox; and Maree Prior uses the energy and humor of art and community activism to expose the development agenda and to protect and celebrate Cooloola Country and the Mary.
Housekeeping of country continues in the provocative and inspirational works of many artists today that protest, protect, and promise: Ulriche Sturn, Anne Harris, Renata Buziak, Donna Davis, and Vera Scarth-Johnson just to name those mentioned at the Symposium. And of course, there are also other artists here in this gallery. Beatrice Prost’s celebration of the wallum and the everglades continues this tradition in her exhibition of work, Watermarks. Christine Johnson’s work similarly combines place and flora in Voyages Botanical. The artist books in Elemental even quote Judith Wright’s words: “Whatever the bird is, is perfect in the bird.”[ii] In this Wild/flower Women exhibition (the fruit of yet another collaboration between women; the (now ex) curator of the Noosa Regional Gallery Nina Shadforth and lecturer at CQU Sue Davis), the partnership between Judith Wright, Kathleen McArthur, and the wallum is observed in detail through typewriter, pen, and brush.
Without such art, such celebration of its minute beauty, the wallum[iii] might be lost to a form of development that forgets the value of nature’s edge places. The wildflowers of the wallum are humble and too often invisible - the smallest of flowers hidden in a swamp’s difficult cartography. We are thankful for those who value and promote such beauty of place.
There are many celebrated women across time and place that depict our Australian flora: botanists such as Georgiana Molloy or Amalie Dietrich, painters such as Ellis Rowan or Margaret Flockton, and more who are local to this wallum country such as Elizabeth McDonald, along with the many sketchbook artists who have painted and admired these small attractors to place. (Although these divisions and categories between botanist, artist, activist, often seem interchangeable.) So why does this exhibition and symposium focus upon Judith Wright and Kathleen McArthur? I think we might unearth the answer to this in their friendship and support.
Judith Wright and Kathleen McArthur’s careful depiction of country was just one tool in their vast hopes for change. When we look at the poems and writings, paintings and drawings, we remember of how much they speak. They speak of art and of place, they speak of the humble and the barely-valued, they speak of protest and of activism, they speak of care and protection, and they speak of friendship.
In Judith Wright’s introduction to one of Kathleen McArthur’s books, she wrote of Kathleen: “She and her goddess Gaia may have a lot in common.”[iv] Kathleen said of Judith: “she combines the sensitivity of the poet with the courage of the protestor… She is a great leader and is admired and eulogized as much by men as by women.”[v]How can we pass on the stories of land without this level of care and respect for each other? How can we not spend our “wildflowering days” together? We continue the ongoing housekeeping of country through support and friendship. This is what this exhibition celebrates: not only a love for country and the small jewels it holds, but also the love we hold for each other and the work we do to keep these always more-than-human connections alive.
In our never-ending housekeeping of country, we support each other. We connect directly (and not just online[vi]) with friends and colleges. We build partnerships and allies with those on the same wavelength, find sustenance and friendship. We build communities not followers. Waiting for an audience or a mass movement is the path of the hero. We housekeepers just do it anyway, however humble and undervalued the action, the art, or the place. A slow and never-ending ripple spreads our, influencing new generations and other places.
So, name your houses after wildflowers – Wright’s Calanthe at Tamborine and Melaleuca at Boreen Point or McArthur’s Midgim at Caloundra - and offer your support and friendship to the other housekeepers of country. And use your creative skills to paint up, poem up, sing up, your local place: to wallow in the wallum! Such things create a living, offer a life, and share the song of the earth through creative practice.
In opening this exhibition, it is an honour to be part of this ongoing raggedy trajectory of the housekeepers of country and for us all to see a small but vital part of this ongoing movement – that speaks the voice of the land in our artistic projection and protection of place.
[i] in The Bush in Bloom A Wildflower Artist’s Year in Paintings and Words, 1982: p8
[ii] Extract from Judith Wright, Gateway 1953 in artist book Elemental exhibition, Noosa Regional Gallery November to January 2016/17.
[iii] The wallum is an edge place, a transition zone – the coastal areas that lie between land and water perhaps offer places too full of minutia for the heroic sweep of the brush. The wallum might not have been a suitable subject in the great place art of a Brett Whitely, John Olson, or Rover Thomas - artists who mostly forsook the edges of our country for its more central drama. But here in these smaller, gentler edge places lies a vital form of embedded art that is tied closely to the patience of craft and the detail of botanical art. Instead the Wallum is celebrated in the fine crafts such as the ceramics of Shannon Garson and the jewelry of Rebecca Ward as well as the careful brush of Kathleen McArthur or the observant pen of Judith Wright.
[iv] Wright in McArthur, Looking at Australian Wildflowers, Kangaroo Press 1986 p8
[v] Kathleen McArthur, Wildlife and Landscape in Weekly Advertiser, 23/12/1976.
[vi] Because online networking informs but does not make change, as Stacey Winch proved in her work testing the (in)efficacy of FaceBook in promoting the re-release of Judith Wright’s Coral Battleground.