THERE WAS A time when, if asked what I did, I could reply without hesitation that I was an artist. In recent years, writing has taken up a greater proportion of my creative energy, but visual art is still the activity that gives me the deepest pleasure, and in which I find the simplest and most direct engagement with the world around me. When I draw, paint or make sculpture I enter a pre-literate, sensory part of the brain. The noisy conscious mind that wants explanations and answers is diverted into the job of solving problems - how do I make this object stand up? How do I join one material to another? How do I get raw ochres to bond with the paper? How do I stop the moisture-deprived bush flies crawling into the paint before it dries? - leaving the inarticulate perceiving mind to its own devices.
Making art is an exercise in trust, risk, fortuitous surprise, a willingness to spend a lot of time doing something that may not work and a peculiar faith in your own vision that may not be shared by anyone else. This applies to writing too, but with visual art the conduit to intuition doesn't have to pass through the barrier of language. Art takes me to places I can't reach via the conscious process of writing. It's the place where meanings are transparent and multiple, where contradiction transforms into ambiguity, where the inchoate becomes visible.
Every couple of years I commit to an exhibition as a means of keeping a space in my life dedicated to making art, and every couple of years I find myself with an exhibition looming, wondering what hubris possessed me to think I could produce a body of work in the time and under the circumstances available. The circumstances are my part-time life in a remote Aboriginal community; the time is crushed into the interstices between the competing demands of work, extracurricular obligations and staying sane, healthy and moderately functional. Gone are the days of making large-scale sculpture, filling galleries with sand and barbed wire fences, even painting in oil on canvas. I've been reduced to the simplest and most portable forms of art: pencil and watercolour and gouache, making work the size of postcards that are distilled reflections of daily life. They are predominantly landscapes but text infiltrates them, gnomic fragments that infer the presence of the people I don't paint.
Monica said to me, ‘You know that Brother Michael? He used to love Aboriginal women. I said to him, hey, you brother, you supposed to love God.'
Julie said if they ran the community like a card game it would work better.
WRITING ALLOWS ME to analyse the articulate and cross-cultural world I inhabit, to describe its complexities and contradictions, to tease out the human layers that elude the simplifications of social and political agendas. This is one of the purposes that motivates the juggling act of the life I lead, and it is driven by an addictive curiosity about the way the land itself constructs human consciousness, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and how those differing forms of consciousness act on each other. When I write, I'm thinking - framing ideas, shaping language to communicate with a literate audience. That audience is predominantly white, predominantly urban and accords considerable value to the written word. The written word doesn't have much status out here, where half the population can't read. Those who can expend their literacy skills on the baffling incoherencies of government paperwork. The Aboriginal residents don't care that I write, and the white ones are suspicious.
‘So you're a writer. I hope you're not going to write about me.'
To which my standard reply is, ‘Only if you turn out to be interesting.'
Painting, on the other hand, is one of the most viable forms of currency in the local economy, along with gambling, royalties, work and welfare. A competent painter can knock out a substantial work in a day if there's a market for it. When I tell people I can't take them hunting or swimming because I have an exhibition coming up and I have to paint, they accept it as a legitimate excuse. That I need solitude in order to do it is respected as a characteristic peculiar to whitefellas, but it doesn't stop people from dropping in at regular intervals on the off chance I've changed my mind.
My living quarters are part of a complex enclosed by a three metre fence topped with barbed wire. Although designed to protect a lot of very expensive vehicles and equipment, the effect makes one feel like a threatened species surrounded by predators. Since I find it humiliating to talk to people through wire mesh, I frequently leave my gate open - for which I pay the price. The first predator of the day is my friend Serena, to borrow some diesel so she and her husband can go out and hunt down a bullock for meat. If I loan something I spend too much time being anxious about getting it back, so I either refuse or do a deal, in this case diesel in exchange for meat. There are positives and negatives about entering the local economy and one has to regularly renegotiate the boundaries, but it opens up a world that is otherwise entirely hidden, and the rewards are both rich and dangerous.
It's the weekend - two precious days to focus on painting. My show is three weeks away and I have too many unfinished projects to be able to leave the community as planned. It's not the first time I've had to fly south with the exhibition as hand luggage, for a brief encounter with my other life before flying back to complete my commitments here. I'm excited about the work, inspired by the recent archaeological dig on one of the ancient lake shorelines, an eroded rim of impacted soils and gravels that has been regurgitating artefacts from the belly of deep time. The contradiction between the dirty, windy, back-breaking process of excavation and the precision and detail of the material recorded on the tidy grids of graph paper intrigues me. It's another kind of representation at the interface of science and landscape, another kind of storytelling that creates as many mysteries as it unveils. It parallels my own preoccupation with the grid, that Western means of imposing structure on the imaginal realm, of bringing the inaccessible under control. The failures and inconsistencies attract me as much as the pattern and order; there is something reassuring in the way the country continues to evade our best efforts to interpret it.
I've been making colour grids, small squares of saturated colour on which I plan to superimpose the eroded profiles of the archaeological site, or aerial perspectives of the watercourses and brumby pads that trace the lines of least resistance through the sand dunes and ancient lake gravels. The discovery of some partially exposed bones near the creek has sent a frisson of excitement through the community, triggering recollections of an ancient revenge killing. On closer examination they turn out to be the remains of a horse skull. It's one of those anecdotal fragments I can't resist, that will find its way into the work somewhere. The gorgeous transparency and unpredictability of the watercolour (somebody once described painting in watercolour as a series of controlled accidents) turns the colour grids wobbly and asymmetric. I'm absorbed in the sheer pleasure of the process, slipping into the anxiety-free domain of experiment and play, when my concentration is broken by a summons from the other side of the wire.
This time it's Serena's sister Maryanne, her two younger children huddled behind her, heads peering around like flowers on long-stemmed necks as they check on the whereabouts of my dog. Constant teasing by kids has made the dog suspicious of children and these two have been among the worst offenders.
‘They followed me here like, what do you say, like a bad smell,' Maryanne says. ‘I look around and there they are, like two little farts.' The two little farts grin like angels.
‘What you doing?'
‘I'm painting. Go away.'
‘It's really hot. All the kids crying, "We want to go swimming, we want Auntie Kim to take us to the lake".' This is delivered deadpan, the Auntie a deliberate reminder that I've been hunted and gathered into the local economy of mutual obligation. I ignore the bait.
‘I'm sorry, I can't. I've got an exhibition in three weeks and I haven't got enough work for it. I just can't do it.'
‘That's okay.' She's gracious in accepting my refusal but she hasn't finished with me. ‘You got any diesel we can borrow so Kumunjayi can take them?'
‘Your sister already came and borrowed my spare diesel to go out and get a killer.' There's a flash of annoyance, not directed at me, that she's been beaten to the post by her big sister.
‘You should make them give you some meat for that.'
‘I have. They are.' A hint of frustration enters the conversation. There's a principle at stake now: she needs to extract something useful to compensate for the energy she's spent on me.
‘It's hot. You got any cold water?' The trio file past me and into my kitchen, where Maryanne checks the contents of my refrigerator.
‘What mangarri you got? I can have that cheese?'
‘No you can't have the cheese, I only bought it yesterday. You can have the bread and that packet of corned meat. It's a bit old, it mightn't be any good.'
‘Can you loan me fifty dollar?'
‘You still owe me fifty dollars.'
She gives me the sleek complicit smile that indicates we both know she isn't going to pay me back, but that she will expedite her debt in more valuable and meaningful ways. But I've won this round. She takes the bread and meat, and delivers a parting compliment on the paintings.
‘That's really beautiful. You a good painter.'
I MANAGE A couple of uninterrupted hours of work. The temperature in the demountable rises, the air-conditioner producing a great deal of noise and a stultifying stuffiness without any noticeable cooling effect. The small pans of watercolour I've mixed evaporate in minutes and the gouache dries into curled fronds that resemble a rakish set of white eyelashes. As I open the door to see if the hot air outside is preferable to the hot air inside, a vehicle pulls up and Dulcie heaves her bulk out of the passenger side and waddles to the gate.
‘Napuru, you got any munju?' Dulcie doesn't use tobacco, but she's one of my stalwart co-workers, so she's been delegated the job of asking me.
‘Sorry Dulcie, I'm trying to give up, so I didn't buy any more when I ran out.'
‘Okay.' She lingers, plump fingers curled through the wire mesh, and drops her voice so the other occupants of the car can't hear what she says.
‘Napuru, you can loan me hundred dollars? I got no mangarri in the house, got to feed my grandkids.'
I know she's telling the truth. She doesn't smoke, drink or gamble, and although she frequently manipulates me in other ways she doesn't lie about what she wants money for.
‘I've only got sixty dollars in cash,' I tell her, ‘and I won't loan it to you. I'll give it to you as down-payment for a painting. I want one of your little Muntun paintings.' I get the money, a couple of tins of tuna and some apples and pass them through a gap in the gate. She secretes the notes somewhere in the folds of cloth and flesh and returns to the vehicle, relaying the bad news about the tobacco. Everyone leans out and waves as they drive off.
Dulcie is the senior painter in the community, and we are collaborating on a painted map that will be used as a fire-management tool. I paint the topographical details of lake and landforms, and draw the outlines of last year's fire scars from satellite maps that translate the information in grid form. Dulcie fills these unlikely geometric shapes with dots, creating a transparent shimmer over the topography of shifting lake boundaries, grasslands and dunes. The plan is to update it each year and create an instantly readable history of fire activity so that a properly managed burning regime can be established. This visual play between the grid and the dot has infiltrated my artistic vocabulary; another layer of representation that teases me with its conceptual implications. I watch Dulcie paint dots for hours at a time, indefatigable and precise, utterly concentrated, radiating alpha waves like a cosmic generator.
It's now about 40 degrees inside the demountable. If I rest my hand on the paper, it leaves a dirty stain of sweat. Dots swim into my vision, ubiquitous, iconographic, impossible to ignore. Spinifex, the burnished lake and river gravels, artefact scatters, leaves and pods and animal droppings, termite mounds and the scoured sandstone flat tops of the remnant plateau. Prints of satellite imagery pinned to the wall show the delicate weave and play of dots that indicate changing vegetation patterns. Micro or macro, the country is mantled with dots.
It's a curious process, having your mind colonised incrementally by a different way of seeing. I've been negotiating that particular process for many years now, looking for alternative ways to create the shimmer of energy, the compound of light and heat and repetition and time-compacted stories that illuminates the desert, while staying true to the non-Indigenous traditions of painting and mapping. The map-making exercises have produced the simple iconographic device of dotting the grid, and I can't improve on it as a means of describing the conceptual conundrum in which I find myself. I like the reversals it implies, the organising structures of the settler culture infiltrated by the embedded and embodied aesthetics of the first people. This is the point where something genuinely creative happens, something without precedent because the conditions for it haven't existed until now.
A few days earlier, working on the map with Dulcie, Lizzie and Gracie, I asked them how they felt about me using dots in my paintings. They were surprised I should ask.
‘You painting dots with us, all the time.'
‘I know, but that's part of the work we're doing together. Those white people down south will ask me what I'm doing, who gave me permission.'
‘Yuwayi, you can paint dots. You tell those kartiya we said okay.'
Gracie drops by with two of her daughters and three of her grandchildren. The mother of the children - a surly young woman who regularly absconds and leaves Gracie to look after the kids with no resources other than her pension - is on one of her extended absences. The other two daughters are shy and charming, the older one showing the promise of her mother's dignified intelligence, and the kids are delightful - probably because they spend more time in the calm, reliable care of their grandmother than with their unpredictable mother. Their father is in prison. We go through the protocols of a cup of tea and some gossip before Gracie brings up the reason for the visit.
‘Kim, you got any spare mangarri? I got nothing to give these kids for their supper. And munju. I'm starving for smoke.'
‘No munju, sorry. But I can give you mangarri.' I gather a bag of vegetables, flour, some tinned tuna, scan the back of the fridge for leftovers. The kids' eyes light up when I hand out mandarins.
‘Thank you Kim. Well, we'll go now,' and they take their leave with tonight's supper in a green enviro-friendly Coles shopping bag. I feel like the local supermarket. There was a time when I would have felt exploited by such an encounter but that was before I properly understood the nature of the local economy. When the need is acute Gracie asks me for necessities she knows I can provide, and gives in return access to an extended network of privileges and knowledge, much of which I only half understand.
THE PAINTINGS COME directly from the ground in which I work, but this year I've been over-extended with too many projects, dragged into the vortex of proliferating demands. There's an irony here. My reasons for being in this place are fundamentally selfish. The place, the people, the dynamic friction between differing cultures provides the fuel that ignites my imagination. At the same time, they consume more energy than I can sustain. The pressure is on in small remote communities to justify their right to exist and the focus on Indigenous issues has brought a plethora of sticks and carrots into play. It's a rare opportunity for real change but the personal cost of being involved in it is high. I'm determined that it won't become too high.
Across the bottom of one of the paintings, a bleached grid that locks together a scatter of burnt turpentine wattle and termite mounds, I scribble the words: ‘In the space between two ways of seeing the risk is that you see nothing clearly.'
The sun that has been roasting the western side of my demountable all afternoon has dropped to that point in its trajectory where it transforms the country into a luminous play of extended shadows and saturated colour. I abandon the creative hothouse of my tin box and join the clusters of people walking to the top of the hill to watch the sunset. Lately there have been more people than usual taking part in this daily ritual, the result of a drive to encourage walking as a healthy activity. Pedometers have been distributed to measure the distance walked each day, with the prize of a refrigerator to the person with the highest score after three months. White people are not eligible for the prize. The early enthusiasm has waned but a hard core have settled into the challenge. ‘I really like walking,' one of them tells me as I join the march up the hill.
‘I might keep doing it even when this competition is finished.'
My meat arrives in the shape of a bleeding rump and half a rib cage, favoured cuts that indicate the loan of the diesel has been appreciated. I can't resist showing them off to my vegetarian neighbours before cutting them up into meal-sized portions. Maryanne asks me if she can put her share of the meat in my fridge because her power card has run out and she can't get the power back on until her next welfare payment. She informs me that it's what she wanted the fifty dollars for this morning.
I work in the slippage between ways of reading country - the art I make is part of a dialogue the language of which is only half-understood by all of us who participate in it. Part of this process involves being in the thick of it, which has its moments of epiphany, but is also a test of physical and psychological resilience. You can't think or write your way through it, you live it and you use whatever resources you have to survive and make sense of it. For the moment I accept that this is the best I can do. I would like to spend more time making the work but it may be that if I had more time I would have less to say.