‘Optical gyrations’

Our Mob, God’s Story: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists share their faith, Louise Sherman and Christobel Mattingley (eds), Bible Society

In one of last year’s better books, Position Doubtful, Kim Mahood writes about how indigenous peoples don’t just passively receive good and bad elements of introduced European culture. This, she argues, ignores indigenous agency and plays into Eurocentric and anthropological stereotypes of a fixed culture encroached upon by, and unable to resist, modernity. Instead indigenous peoples adapt, innovate, resist and utilise. This ability is on show in the Bible Society’s Our Mob, God’s Story, a coffee table book that celebrates Australian indigenous art with a Christian orientation, as well as marking the Bible Society’s bicentenary. The artists here tell the biblical stories through the style and symbolism of traditional and modern indigenous art, and display a Christian faith as deep as their connection to the land, and as vital as rain. In many paintings orientation is to the fore, in that the aerial view of much desert painting, which highlights orientation to land and community, here also includes the orientation that comes through faith.

There are variations in style, and variations in quality too, I suppose, but that may be subjective. There are paintings here in the Western Desert style, often described as one of the great art movements of the twentieth century, with their dot-patterned ‘optical gyrations’ and bird’s eye view of landscape and history, X-ray paintings from the far north, and paintings that incorporate European art elements. These harmonise with the subject matter – the Bible seen through indigenous eyes alert to story, country, justice and community. This is art with simplicity and depth.

It seems unfair to single out artists, but as an illustration of the breadth of the collection, we move from the easy movement of the dot paintings of Pitjantjara leaders Rupert Jack and Hector Tjupuru Burton to Daphne Davis’s stringy, black calligraphic figuration in vibrant backgrounds that recall Pro Hart. Susan Nakamarra Nelson offers controlled, pared-back scenes that are reminiscent of both colour field painting and Rover Thomas’s use of spacious planes. Julie Dowling’s highly accomplished work combines realism, subtle dot painting background and Renaissance iconography. Margy Adams, like Ian Fairweather, places blurry white stylised faceless figures in tight groupings. Fern Martins reimagines the Stations of the Cross and the Easter story in a bushfire-blackened and eventually rejuvenated forest landscape.

The art and faith here contradict the idea of Christianity as merely a foreign imposition on indigenous culture. The artists here show that indigenous culture can embrace Christian faith, interpret it in appropriate ways, find resonances with traditional beliefs and use it as a resource. In particular, the artists here tell personal stories of the value of faith, away from wider issues of culture. The book also shows that the process is two-way, with indigenous culture able to reinterpret and rejuvenate Christianity for the Australian context. Proceeds from the book fund the work of translating the Bible into indigenous languages, which in turn helps to preserve that culture.

Keeping sane

Albert Camus lived through an era not unlike our own – saturated with a hopelessness about the future, fearful of the other, leading to terrorism from one side and torture and justifications of torture from the other side in order to supposedly safeguard society. Camus himself saw such as a vicious circle, and fell out with his fellow Leftist travellers, such as Sartre, for feeling that violence was somehow inevitable and yet never justified, never a necessary evil for the greater good, in contrast not only to modern Western conservatives, but to those of Camus’s time on the political left with their justification of Stalinist violence.

This is a major theme coming out of Robert Zaretsky’s recent little biography (A Life Worth Living) – though biography may be the wrong word – study might be better: Zaretsky takes five tropes: absurdity (of course), silence, revolt, fidelity and moderation, and writes about each of these affected and were meditated on by Camus.

Famously, Camus thought that it was necessary to confront meaninglessness. One can argue about the supposed meaninglessness of the world, in big and small ways, but it would be flippant not to be at least sympathetic to his outlook that the world is indeed meaningless, particularly based on the situation he found himself in, as an onlooker to the exploitation and violence in his native Algeria. (Besides, talk about meaning in the world at large is, as David Bentley Hart points out, so abstract as to be, er, meaningless – meaning is to be found in a particular thing… or difficult to find in a particular thing, as the case may be.) It’s not hard to have sympathy and admiration for both Camus’s outspokenness and then his reluctance to speak out about violence. He felt passionate about injustice and was torn between a duty to report the truth and a reluctance to offer a voice when there are often no clear answers to moral dilemmas (hence them being dilemmas in the first place). This is not always an easy position for a public intellectual to take – it is easier to make grand pronouncements that leave the impression of black and white.

It is also hard not to admire his attitude to the cultivation of happiness – that it is hard fought for – a long, tiring effort, especially when our society promotes easy answers here too, that are generally mirages. His Sisyphean attitude is sometimes off – Zaretsky suggests that contrary to what Camus says, Homer never says Sisyphus is wise and there’s actually not much to redeem that story, and there’s not meant to be – it’s not about human dignity, but about the folly of crossing the gods – but one can admire Camus’s ‘epiphany’ that one must not neglect injustice or those things that keep us sane, such as, in Camus’s case, taking some joy from nature.

Fence climbers

Violent Borders, Reece Jones, Verso.

Reece Jones’s book contains an arresting image of illegal immigrants high atop a dizzyingly high Spanish border fence that looks over Spaniards doing the rounds at an exclusive golf course. The fence climbers are repeatedly removed by security forces, only to try again a few days later. It’s a microcosm of what is happening at various places along the borders of European countries.

In 2015 3700 people died trying to enter Europe illegally. In the decade previous, 40,000 people, possibly 1 in 4 who stepped on a boat, lost their lives. The answer to this is often touted as deterrence, with much hysterical press attached, but Reece Jones focuses here on a more ideological root issue, and what most of us just take as a given – international borders and their policing. As well as advocating for refugees, Violent Borders amounts to a short history of the border.

Jones argues that international borders, which are a relatively recent invention and which often cut arbitrarily across geography and ethnic groups, are set up to ‘protect privileges’. ‘Border protection’ then naturally invites Trump-like rhetoric and violent defensive action. Jones outlines the international escalation of the criminalisation of illegal migration and the increasingly unempathetic attitude towards refugees.

This stands in contrast to international corporations that are free to roam the globe to secure the cheapest labour. The benefits corporations bring to the head honchos of third world nations entices those leaders, in order to keep the corporations there, to reduce regulations, including those that deal with environmental care, and to restrict the movement of the labourers within their countries.

Jones describes this global situation as ‘broken’. Why, he asks, if we consider people to be equal, do we not allow the poor equal access to employment? The freedom to travel and to offer your labour for a fair price should be a basic human right. He advocates for more open borders, which to many will seem like an invitation for global chaos. But, he says, this is no more radical an idea than giving women the vote seemed in the nineteenth century. Then again, it might simply seem as radical as the early church, whose members ‘held all things in common’.

(Reviewed for the Uniting Church)

Appealing to conservatives and atheists

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard can appeal to conservatives, atheists, fervent believers and critics of the church. He is claimed as a Lutheran and an existentialist. He influenced Karl Barth, Martin Luther King and Bonhoeffer, but also Albert Camus and Franz Kafka. Equally, he could offend anyone, in his own life and beyond, as his critical gaze takes in most of human folly. He was precocious and aloof but also physically impaired. He treated his ex-fiancee dreadfully but also saw and responded to the humanity in all the people with whom he talked in the streets of Copenhagen.

Summaries of his thought and his life can be daunting, which makes Stephen Backhouse’s Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Zondervan) a feat, even though, admits Backhouse, Kierkegaard himself deplored such reductionism. The subtitle, ‘A Single Life’ refers to the ‘single individual’, Kierkegaard’s term for the individual who stands with authenticity apart from the crowd, something that Kierkegaard increasingly came to embody, as he became mired in slanging matches in the press and ultimately became a figure of public ridicule, so much so that he could no longer take his daily walks in the city. Backhouse outlines the scandals and trials, and also, fascinatingly, how Kierkegaard’s thought disseminated across the globe until he reached his place in the pantheon of the greatest of Western philosophers.

Rococo letter writing

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Writer David Bentley Hart calls Patrick Leigh Fermor ‘one of the greatest masters of English in our or any epoch’. One acquaintance described Fermor as ‘a most enchanting maniac’. He is famous for the exuberant narratives of his travels across Europe in the 1930s beginning with A Time of Gifts. Travelogues also fill his letter writing (recently collected as Dashing to the Post, John Murray), which is similarly rococo and attests to a by-gone era when letters were minor works of art, writers could be swashbuckling gadabouts and time moved more slowly (at one point Fermor describes a cafe owner greeting him warmly, remembering his visit from seven years’ prior). This potpourri includes letters to famous friends, outpourings to jilted lovers and beautiful descriptions of countrysides (especially of Greece where he eventually settled).

Adam Sisman, who introduces this collection, describes him as playful, boyish and not particularly interested in politics. He lived through war and communism, could sleep in a barn if he needed to, but also hobnobbed with the rich and famous. He corresponded with the Duchess of Devonshire (their letters have been previously collected), was friends with Diana Cooper and Bruce Chatwin, but found the super-rich ‘colossally boring’. He was liberal in his collection of friends and lovers. There are many outpourings of love here, with coy references in code to sexual adventures. But there are also long descriptive passages just for the thrill of describing, say, a boat trip to an island.

The letters show a deep knowledge of history and literature, as well as surprising insights into Christianity, from his stays in monasteries when he was researching a book on the subject, and where he describes himself as ‘clear-headed’ after having to leave off the alcohol during his stay.

Bush tracks, hunting trips, waterholes

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Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful (Scribe) was included on many readers’ ‘best of 2016’ lists, and no wonder. The title is a mapping term, but it can also refer in a more symbolic way to the relationship most Australians have with indigenous Australia, and also to Mahood’s own experience of having one foot each in the two ‘worlds’ of Australia’s Euro-centric coast and the red centre, as a white person with an Aboriginal ‘skin’ name. She is an artist and describes a long project of mapping and painting with indigenous elders, with constant travel over bush tracks, hunting trips, waterholes and storytelling. The book is also a meditation on central Australia and contemporary indigenous life that goes beyond simplistic attitudes such as Dreamtime idealisations or condemnations of Aboriginal communities as hopeless. Instead, the indigenous communities she describes have a mix of the traditional and the Western. Older ways of inhabiting the land mix comfortably with Christian faith. Both supermarket food and goanna meat is craved. Western technology is incorporated, but unlike the Westerners who flow in and out of central Australia, the indigenous people she describes have a curious lack of curiosity about white ways. They have a comfort in their own wisdom, something noted by visitors who sense something is lacking in modern Western culture. At the same time, Mahood is not blind to the problems of central Australia’s clash with modernity. There is a strong absence of men in the book – drawn away, beset, dying young. The older women are the wise ones, caregivers, custodians. But they are funny too, and sometimes bossily selfish. Complete human beings, in other words, not caricatures, a picture which often alludes visitors, especially tourists. Mahood herself is wary throughout of reductionism, a danger that summaries of the book are susceptible to.

Fifth-rate art books

John Berger’s Landscapes is a companion piece to his recent Portraits – a smaller, jumbled accumulation of essays on art and society with a meandering timeline. Among detailed appreciations of the breach that was cubism, and non-painting related essays, such as one on Joyce, are some enjoyably scathing pieces about the priesthood of curators and the religion of modern art. He castigates curators for their laziness and supposed prestige, as custodians of the sacred objects we call art, while stripping the veils away and pronouncing that we are still living with the old bourgeois idea of paintings as valuable property that helps demarcate between the haves and have-nots. Blockbuster exhibitions are a form of charity, he argues – a condescension to the masses, allowing them access to these valuable objects, revered as well, he says, in ‘fifth-rate’ art books.

He also fires shots at much modern art that he labels as gimmick and rubbish – literally, he says, as exhibitors have a fondness for portraying decay and ‘muck’. Though some of this writing is decades-old, the themes are still relevant. It’s not all negative. He has a fondness for the craft of art, and the artist as craftsperson, and a very personal approach to art, which is why he feels passionate about, somewhat ironically, art’s denigration and commodification in outrageous prices and the genteel business of art museums.