Thank you For the Days – My Teenage Years

Thank you For the Days – My Teenage Years

Two or three old men warmed their hands over the fire and put them to my mouth and talked to me. They said, “You are no longer a baby. You are growing up and going to be a big man. You must not swear at anybody. You must not lie. You must not chase after other men’s wives.
Harry Mahkarolla at Milingimbi, circa1926.[1]

The teenaged years are those in a person’s life from thirteen to nineteen. American anthropologist Margaret Mead posited from her studies that the idea of teenage years wasn’t a universal one. Although people went through these years in age there were many societies where one was a child and then an adult. This is a much-debated statement of course. It’s thought by many however that the present group as we know it, developed in western society from the post WWI-1920s decade. And had certainly arrived in the post WWII-1950s decade where, for better or worse, they were picked up in advertising and marketing circles as a malleable, inexperienced, moneyed, sector of consumerist society to exploit. It’s this times [1950-2000] and resultant issues we look at in this exhibition.

As much as our societies are aging they are also getting younger. In 2001 49% of the Aboriginal population were fifteen and under as against 20% of the general population. The median age of the population was 20 as against 39 in the general population.

With so much personal physical change, personal image and identity is suddenly important.  But what if you don’t’ look Aboriginal, don’t live up to the stereotype. What makes you ‘black’ – what makes you white? If your mother is white does that make you white? If your father is white does that make you white? In Darleen Johnsons Two Bob Mermaid, a young Aboriginal teenager in a country town passes as white to get into the town swimming pool and into the best seats in the picture theatre. The simple but stylish, powerful paintings of Michael Philps here are a great autobiographical story of life here, and book-ended in Bindi Cole’s family and friends photo-portrait.

The northern rivers of NSW, its semi tropical hinterland, beautiful rivers and beaches, and quiet ‘literary’ towns are an appropriate place to see this in movement, to see the positive, lively, contribution of this group to the life of the society. For some [both black and white] it’s as though time has passed by them; most probably they live innocently within this heavenly environment, playing,fishing, hunting, socializing locally, and exploring the wonder of the northern rivers. Its this quiet low level existence that Aboriginal people have always lived despite the comings and goings of others – to know your world as appears here in the paintings of Digby Moran and Fergus Binns.

And the sun is shining up in the end of the road
We don’t even know where it goes
We’re outsiders without even knowing why
And I’ve got the blue bay blues
I’ve got the blue bay blues.
Blue Bay Blues, Richard Clapton, 1975.

The surfing youth classics the Endless Summer [1966] and Morning of the Earth [1972] both included the north coast of NSW as one of the world’s most heavenly places. Surfing was a free pastime with its own mythology, as distinct from Surf Life Saving Clubs where some teenagers also gathered and socialized.

I used to drink too much, way too much. Anxiety, I really suffered from the anxiety of passing my exams.
A friend.
Surfing came to Australia early in the twentieth century but Byron Bay on the north coast of NSW came to prominence from the 1960s as a surfing mecca. People in Japan still spoke to me about it in 2005. It was a must visit on any sojourn; any ‘surfing safari’. The whole length of the east coast is a ‘surfers paradise’ both here to the north and Bulli on the south coast.

I went to a boarding school –I can’t remember much but I remember sexual experimentation – an ‘emo’, dark depressive period.
A Friend

Teenage boys are innocent, naive, thoughtful and sensible but are young and can be extraordinary. They can be vain, stupid and incredibly self-centred. The boys in Gary Lee’s On the Verge [2009] are all avid surfers, and part of the beauty is not only their youthful innocence, but further, their search for mystical truth in the natural innocent surfing past-time. Only one of the boys in this series was eighteen and finished school at the time of the shoot. The admiration of the beauty and youth of these young men doesn’t need to be sexualised, nor need to be homoerotic. For older viewers there’s an identification, an identifying with the young. To them you show affection through care – you see yourself in those young men, you can relive your life in their images.

Even by 1975 the year of Clapton’s honoring of Byron Bay, it was already changing from the sleepy hippy, surfy town into a busy uglier tourist ‘hot spot’. In the 1970s changes to the marketing of dairy products meant many dairy farmers sold up and moved away. This ‘cheap land was taken by the hippy alternative live-style generation, disaffected middle class and a new, numerous, young, teenage generation. The Aquarius Festival was first held in Canberra in 1971 but then moved to and became synonymous with Nimbin and the counter culture movement of the region.

My art is about the human condition.
Tracey Moffat, personal conversation, 2010.

Tracey Moffat covered an elder generation and a peculiar Australian beach culture male surfers  modesty in her voyeuristic 1997 Heaven [1997] moving image footage of male surfers getting changed in a beachside car park. She produced two series of Scarred For Life in1994 and1999; turning old photographic images or humorous pictographs on the awkward, inferior position feeling one has as a teenager. Attempts at being cool, but embarrassed by your parents, being discovered by your family, exploring your changes and sexuality, both physically and personally. We’ve all been there. Tracey’s photos remind one of similar colour and style of teen, Christian lifestyle, instructional books of the 1950s-60s. On Becoming A Man, A Book For Teen-age Boys, by Harold Shryock, MA, MD, Karla Dickens found in a second hand bookshop is typical of these in story and images. Other publications by the same author apparently included Happiness for Husbands and Wives, Happiness and Health, and On Becoming a Woman. With these images she plays with actual teen experience stories from friends and just comic labeling to create a ‘book’ of doorways into our past years.
You don’t realize what you’ve got
People used to say; ‘Karla’s got so much potential’. And I didn’t have much confidence. I guess these compliments just put pressure on you.
Karla Dickens, 2011.

The physical almost overnight growth of teen-agers is astonishing. There are advantages to being a teenager, it can be a time of great exciting potential. The possibilities for youth on the threshold of adulthood are unlimited. Within their capabilities they can be master of their own destiny. The physical growth is one thing the hormonal change and struggle to define your new ‘adult personality, Aboriginal identity, and newly arrived sexuality is another.

What boy has not experienced the thrill that comes when the downy fuzz is on his face?
Harold Shryock.

After decades of research the female oral contraceptive; The Pill, was released onto society in 1959 in the USA and soon after in Australia in 1961. Initially only for adults over time it lost it’s halo of sin and filtered down to teenagers and generally completely changed attitudes to sex, especially liberating women from the fear of pregnancy. It remains with us.

A crush doesn’t mean you’re easy or to be taken advantage of. Having a normal healthy sexual appetite doesn’t make you a mole/slut or a abnormal. I guess that despite all the tension, your parents don’t want you to be seen to be a person of lesser integrity or substance. Finding your peer group assists with personal identity and developing the values you look for in others enabling you to make better decisions.

Within teenage gatherings, a foreign anthropologist suggested to me, name-calling and gossip can be about group identity? But I thought it also can ‘scar you for life. So many people spend so most of their energy trying to be the ‘alpha male’, or the most popular girl in class.
I know what boys like
I know what guys want
I know what boys like
Boys like, boys like, me
The Waitresses, Polydor Records 1980.

In The Year My Voice Broke [1987], the narrator’s coming of age story is set in a small Australian country town. It concerns his unrequited love for a young girl; Freya, who unfortunately loves another. More centrally it describes the hypocritical social life and how people who want to be free, try to escape the gossip and stigma of their open liberal life.  In this scene is it better to be a hippy or poor white trash, town slut, or a boong? Karla Dicken’s  Luck Lust and Love’s  stylish but marked, stigmatized dresses talk to Freya’s story. The mixed true love versus slut thing. As Karla says herself- You don’t realize how gorgeous you are. I felt hunted as a teenager – when you have that sexual power – it’s something wanted but everybody wants to rip it to pieces. In the end, my dog and my bong were my best friends.

That was half a lifetime ago. I go back when I can, and in the years since, the place has become a kind of gauge for me. I measure myself against it the way children measure themselves against height markings on a wall. Have I grown? Have I changed?

Coming of Age in Kamakura, Skye Hohmann.[2]

Roy Mundine [b.1940] of the Bandjalung people, was born at the end of the decade of real change in Grafton, when a bridge crossing the Clarence replaced the former ferry service [1932]. It was the time of the first Jacaranda Festival [1935]. He left school in 1956 and, joined the army and left Grafton immediately after. John von Sturmer was born in Lismore in1943, had left high school in 1959, and then left Lismore to go to university soon after. Both men never really came back.
In some ways I always saw this viewing of the subject as a reminiscence on previous time – the good old days perhaps? And so in the conversation of two men; one black, one white – one military, one academic. I think perhaps life is really just in the end a conversation, and about people, and the socializing we do and the times we remember.
Thank you for the days,
Those endless days,
Those sacred days you gave me.
I’m thinking of the days,
I won’t forget,
I won’t  a single day,believe me.[3]
Djon Mundine OAM, an independent Bandjalung curator, writer, and sometimes artist.