Assimilated Warriors – Foyer

Assimilated Warriors – Foyer

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THE WOUNDED – THE SCAR – THE GIFTED
DjonMundine OAM 8th Feb 2016
The Fisher King story is that of a king disabled
by a very painful wound in the hand or thigh
that causes him and his whole kingdom to
remain in disarray, barren and confused, never
achieving full potential. The wound never
heals until a simple common act of kindness,
treating him with respect as another human
being, that releases him from his bind and his
kingdom flourishes. In an age-old Aboriginal
dispute-settling ceremony called Makarrata, the
offending party has to face off the spears of the
aggrieved party without retaliation, until they are
hit, or the embittered side are tired of the sport.
In the latter case, the ‘accused’ presents their
thigh to be stabbed with a spear that ends the
matter.
‘King Hit by Life-like Liquid’ installation over five
floors is about alcohol, alcohol in Australian
society and its original Aboriginal inhabitants. It’s
the triples ‘As’; Aboriginals, alcohol, and Australia
as a nation. Think of the beauty, the poetry of the
seduction of alcohol we experience every day,
and then the brutal metal hook, the restraints,
the captive nature, and then the crippling and
emotional scar.
Australians often hear of dysfunctional
Aboriginal communities; well, what about the
Australian nation that was born and baptised
in alcohol? We are awash with it still. Positive,
persuasive, images tell us to consume alcohol;
they invade all parts of our lives. The industry’s
political reach into government is embedded
deep. The first political upheaval in the colony,
remember, was the ‘Rum Rebellion’ (1808) where
the corrupt officers guarding the convicts in the
colony deposed of Governor Bligh who sought to
impose the rule of law in the colony and end their
monopoly over the rum trade.
For 60,000 years, Aboriginal people did not have
alcohol of any kind. Karla’s image is of the naked
vulnerable male Aboriginal body holding a finely
industrialised, commodified emblem of alcohol
in the shape of ‘special edition’ bottles of Scotch
in the portrait of Captain Cook. The fragility of the
balancing act, the stark difference of warm living
flesh contrasted with cold inanimate polished
ceramic – think of the possible injuries inflicted
by sharp fragments of broken ceramic. The British
empire is a curious set of fortunate accidents,
and grubby, corrupt ‘smoke and mirrors’ in
history, given the small population and area of
their island to that of their empire.
There are the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics
Anonymous to recover from alcohol addiction,
and, I’m told, Five Stages of Addiction Recovery:
one, Awareness and Early Acknowledgement;
two, Consideration; three, Exploring Recovery;
four; Early Recovery; and five, Active Recovery
and Maintenance. ‘King Hit by Life-like Liquid’
as an installation is set out by Karla Dickens
in five chapters, a form of discursive discourse
concerning her own wounded (gifted) life with
being an Aboriginal woman and her relationship
with alcohol. People’s lives are important and
have meaning but beyond a middle-class fetish
voyeurism of the lower classes they can be
inspiring human conversations to engage with.
I was told by theatre producer Annemarie Dalziel
that American literature is one of stories around
wounded male heroes but really I thought that
it was one of traumatised individuals of both
genders struggling with their moral compromises
and failures demanded by a dog-eat-dog society.
All individuals and societies strive to progress a
structured moral existence and many, if not most,
include rituals that account for human failings and
allow absolution of some kind. The images and
objects are of scattered fragments of a mysterious,
bare, cold, lonely, surreal dream. The contents and
memories of a former traumatised mind. In the
foyer, are three men’s suits and dog muzzles of
the ‘Assimilated Warriors’ and branded woman –
how does one rise in society and not be seen as
a ‘coconut’, a sell-out and scarred in the process?
One must remember that the members of the
Aboriginal political parties of the 1920s and 1930s
held serious jobs, and raised practically all the
funds for the political campaigns. They strove to be
decent, clean and well dressed in clothes, manners,
and speech.
On the first floor, coupled with these are those aids
for the physically handicapped, alluding to those
more broadly challenged emotionally and mentally
but who battle on and make contributions. On the
second floor, a desperate, pathetic drama is played
out of common drunken destruction of people’s
families – of the pointless arguments, waste of
time and monies, and misdirected emotional
accusations titles: ‘Jack Abusing Jill up Shit Creek’,
a large Union Jack flag hanging on a spear with
woman’s hair and ‘shit creek’ boat paddles and
prints. Aboriginal painter Gorden Hookey related
the way in which at art school the first action he
was instructed to complete was to be brave and
honest and look in the mirror and paint whatever
he saw no matter how difficult – to obtain an
honest image of himself.
The third floor is titled ‘Look at Yourself’ where
prints, a beer-labelled large mirror along with
small mirrors, and grog bottles embody this title
and moral. ‘Masks of Dutch Courage’ is set out
on the fourth floor. ‘Dutch courage’ comes from
an observation of English soldiers that their
allies in the Thirty Years War (1648), the Dutch
soldiers, became much braver after drinking gin.
The awkward-looking uncomfortable masks were
made in a workshop Karla ran for the homeless
of the Lismore area at the Winesome Hotel. Many
were homeless through substance abuse and
emotionally challenged or both. Prints, metal
masks, ropes, tropes of fear, hiding, furtive deceit,
but also protective devices, used for actions such
as subduing and restraining. Alcohol itself is a drug
of masking, of allusions and lies but the mask can
also protect.
I was researching the well-known Broken
Bay Aboriginal man Bungaree, with the aim
of making works for the 2012–15 travelling
exhibition Bungaree: The First Australian. The
exhibition initially opened at Mosman Art Gallery
and later travelled to Lake Macquarie City Art
Gallery and The Glasshouse in Port Macquarie.
Part of Bungaree’s story is that he was introduced
to alcohol by colonial settlers and, thereafter, was
often paid in alcohol for services rendered. This
was not unusual in early Sydney, with rum often
being used as an unofficial currency in the new
colony.
Karla Dickens
The series of digital photos comprising ‘Life Likeliquid’
are stills from a short film Karla created
from a pair of workshops around ‘Bungaree’s Farm’
art project at Mosman Art Gallery.
On the fifth floor are prints, Karla’s painting of
Bungaree; ‘No Man’s Master No Man’s King’, tins
and sculptures on the floor. Most probably the
most recognized portrait of Bungaree was of him
and his wife Cora with grog bottles in a basket at
their feet (London engravings 1830 from Augustus
Earle’s 1826 portrait). One should remember that
practically everyone drank in the colony in those
times.
As a celebrity, and to some degree an entertainer
(due to his ability to mimic the early Colonial
Governors and other notables), Bungaree
was often invited to official and non-official
functions where drinking rum was the norm. He
was possibly the first Aboriginal man accepted
into such circumstances and probably one of
the first of his race to succumb to the perils of
drunkenness. …
From first contact until the present day,
introduced drugs such as tobacco, alcohol and
other illicit substances have had a devastating
effect on Australia’s Indigenous people. Alcohol
is widely seen as a harmless social lubricant
by the Australian community and for this
reason a dangerous drug has been normalised.
What might start as a sociable, pleasant and
acceptable activity can easily snowball into
a messy ending with those addicted being
shunned.
Karla Dickens
All of your experiences in life, for good and bad, in
passing should be seen positively – they teach you
to see the world in another way, to live with people
differently and to remember; ‘what does not kill
you, makes you stronger’. Artist friend Fiona Foley
pointed me to this poem:
Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.
Maya Angelou, 1978.
DJON MUNDINE OAM | 8 Februar y 2016

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