The Rod Moss Hard Light of Day book and exhibition has received considerable media attention, a feature article by Rosemary Sorenson in The Australian 21/5/10, a review by Barry Hill in The Age 29/5/10, The Sydney Morning Herald 5/6/10, various ABC radio interviews including Alice Springs & Darwin Regional Radio and Late Night Live with Philip Adams on Radio National 7/6/10 (repeated 8/6/10).
Alice in the Hard Light of Day - Does art have rights to travel where it likes? Does its value reside mainly in the painful questions that it prompts? Few painters visit the polarization, the strife at the heart of our country: our sickness, with anything approaching visual veracity? The wall-papering that's continued down the years, the ideologies, the veil of fashionable isms, these denials inspire me. How can the aesthetics of any art tally with the brutality of fundamental neglect? I've tried to remain open to what happens in Alice Springs and honed my skills to paint a parallel of my cross-cultural experience.
A constellation of events drew me to Central Australia in the early 1980s and, to friendships with Eastern Arrernte families. They were my nearest neighbours, living in appalling poverty on the bush side of a tall tin fence in one of the town's many fringe camps. And I’d landed a job, lecturing art in the small post-secondary art college (absorbed into Charles Darwin University in 2003). My rented flat was on the other side of that fence.
I was enmeshed in a leftist sort of mood swing which included a re-appraisal of indigenous cultures and their languages, reviewed colonial malpractice, and the exploitation of the environment. To speak of the mid seventies to eighties, regards art history, the glaring absence of the human figure was at least a remarked upon fact. Although the acrylic art of indigenous desert artists was in its infancy, it would soon supersede any non-indigenous trend on the national and international scene. But images of indigenous people were not part of this mix. I wanted to say something about the quality of cross-cultural experience I was having. So a double challenge presented; to go in the face of late modernism’s discounting of the human figure, and to re-figure, redeem, if you like, the Aboriginal figure in the nation’s image bank.
It's almost two decades since indigenous writer, the late Kevin Gilbert claimed, 'Life for Australian blacks is far too real, too raw, far too close to the knuckles of oppression in the ghettos in the cities, the fringe camps in the rural areas, for abstract interpretation'. Nothing has changed. I still agree.
I tried to avoid the precedents that existed; the idealised Dreaming of the male Aboriginal, pictured like a thought bubble swirling in a cloud around his portrait; Gauguin-like idylls; Primitive man at one with nature. None of these approaches approximated my encounters which ranged through humour, gentleness, togetherness, to gross dysfunctions caused by displacement, domination, and a lack of dignity. The available art gave no articulation to these things.
A quarter century on, the juice in our relationships guides material for painting and my strategies and processes remain. Photography continues to play its role. Whether the narratives are complete fabrications, re-describing actual events, or using earlier, realist artists’ work as leverage, the look of documentation is abetted by the camera. The issues between non-indigenous and indigenous cultures continue to confound and splutter through the land. Some kind of personalising of indigenous people, might go a small way towards recognising the dignity of our shared humanity.
'Welcome everyone to Arrernte country. My name is Veronica Turner, I have known Rod Moss for many years. He has been like family to us. Rod was very close to my uncle Edward Arrenye Johnson. He was like a father to Rod. My uncle would tell stories to him about our country and culture.
I remember when I was a young girl, my cousin(Xavier Neal) would pinch oranges off his tree over the fence. He would take off down the lane way and share them with all of us. We always wondered if Rod saw us or knew about it. Thank you Rod.
Rod has always supported our family during sad time and been a great friend to us over the years. Rod is very understanding. In all of Rod's paintings are people that I know. These people are my families. Even though the pictures are made up, the people in the paintings are very real.
I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Rod for the launch of his book and celebrate his paintings. Rod is an exceptional painter. Our families are very proud to be a part of Rod Moss and his families.
The Hard Light of Day
I swigged down Rod Moss’s book in one long gulp, sitting out in the cold hard light of a dazzling, dazing Alice Springs autumn day. I couldn’t get enough of its bitter, sweet taste, drowning myself in the sorrows of the Whitegate mob, down to the last drop, thinking if I keep reading then this misery might go away. But it didn’t. The more of this book I drank the sadder we both got. Like when you decide to knock off the rest of the bottle, wishfully thinking you might start feeling better for a change, after just one more charge.
Rod Moss has been unflinchingly staring into the hard light of Alice Springs days for a quarter of a century, and for a quarter of a century he’s been unflinchingly recording what he sees when he stares. He’s not a sentimentalist or a moralist or a demagogue or a ratbag or a rabble-rouser or a romantic or a cynic. He’s an artist. First, he is a technician of light, extracting its shards from the sky and, by some extraordinary alchemy affixing them to canvas like his enduring heroes the French impressionists, flushing out ‘the deep colours found in shadows’, and ensnaring the ‘shimmering atmosphere’. But unlike the impressionists, who were drunk on the plein air they painted, and painted in, Moss is engaged not just with the marks he makes, but also with what, and more importantly, with who he sees in the hard light of day. His children, ever-present on these canvasses and these pages, and, more discomfortingly and confrontingly, the Arrernte families who, long ago, he almost inadvertently got mixed up with.
This book is like only one other I know. Ted Strehlow’s Journey to Horseshoe Bend was an unforgettably poignant memoir of his father’s last, agonising passage, through the valley of the Finke River, saturated with the altyerre – the dreaming – stories that vivified all the natural features they passed through. Moss’s memoir is hauntingly similar, an extended elegy for a dying Arrernte man who affectionately calls him ‘sonny boy’, and who fathers him through his country, from the Eastern suburbs of Alice Springs all the way to where the Todd River floods out at the edge of the Simpson Desert. But Moss stresses that ‘when you are embraced by an Aboriginal family, it is the whole family you embrace’, and this book isn’t just a sorry-song for Arrenye, it’s a sorry-song for all the Johnsons and their kin, it’s a sorry-song for all Eastern Arrernte people, and therefore it’s a sorry-song for all of us, at this particularly sorry time here in the this particular corner of the country.
The book begins with a cocky snapshot of a footy team’s worth of young proud tough-looking Johnson guys. It was taken 25 years ago. Almost every one of these fellas, including the cute little kid in the front row, is now dead, chopped down, almost to a man, by grog. As Moss, agog, witnessed this unfolding calamity over the ensuing decades, he didn’t flinch. He watched, he painted, and he wrote. For a time he was at a loss how or even whether to paint what he was seeing: the squalor, the violence, the toxicity, the intoxication; but also the grim humour, the cheerful defiance, the intimacy of shared grief, the power of ceremonial ritual. Then some fancy art critic from New York gave Rod a poke: ‘Make the bastards squirm’ he said, ‘bear down hard, even if it scares you’. And so Moss took a deep breath, and bore down hard. What he’s been painting ever since isn’t rosy or pretty or easy. It unsettles us politically correct whitefellas. The Whitegate mob themselves, however, ruthless realists out of dire daily necessity, see this work for what it is. It is work made in their memory, in their honour. This is art as testimony.
And if this is testimony, then we’re all in court, embroiled in a case in which we are all parties, and witnesses, and, yes, judges. As a lawyer, I suppose it is only to be expected that I tend to see things through a legalistic prism, but there’s been an awful lot of law-talk around town lately about the very issues Rod Moss has been quietly testifying to all these years. The first of what I would call his testimonial paintings, done back in 1987, is of a group of three black kids with their slingshots, pelting stones at whitefella property. One of these kids was Ricky Ryder, first cousin of Donny Ryder, who last year did much the same thing to the property of five whitefellas driving past. As you all know, Donny paid with his life, and the fellows in that car are now paying for their crime. I know. I was the lawyer for one of them. Ricky Ryder himself died in 2006 after being attacked in his own home a hundred metres or so from where Donny was to die, by three brothers who were also his own relations. Those fellas too went to gaol, to pay for their crime. I know. I was the lawyer for one of them, too. The year Ricky died, Rod Moss painted ‘Confrontation’, in which he depicts his own teenage son being bailed up, taunted and menaced by a mob of five young blackfellas, roughly the same age as the five whitefellas who fatally confronted Donny Ryder. It’s impossible to look at these paintings now without seeing in them the seeds of the tragedies which have since enveloped us, and shaken our community. If indeed one can even call Alice Springs ‘a community’ any more, so deep and troubling are the fissures which now yawn beneath our feet, threatening to swallow us all up. As Moss writes, ‘the silence between cultures seems greater than ever’. But he insists, through his art and his life, that we start communing again, to make for ourselves the community we have to become if we are to have a common future.
In legal parlance, we have no choice but to settle. We must settle up, and we must settle down. To settle a case, first you have to agree on the facts. Here are some facts, for starters, that I propose we agree on. In this town there is a great sorrow, the sorrow of lives thrown away. We must grieve together. This sorrow is the product of great violence, violence of action and violence of thought, born of despair and frustration and ignorance and fear and bleak memories. We must stand up against this violence together. And this violence is fuelled by the prodigious quantities of grog we swig down in great gulps. We must change this, together. There is no grog here tonight. So that’s one little thing we have done from which a big thing might grow. Like the countless little things Rod Moss has done ever since he first pushed his garden hose under the fence a quarter of a century ago so that a black man he didn’t know could fill his billycan. From that little thing, a big thing has grown. Let’s let that be a lesson to us.
21 May 2010