This morning Maggie and Ella go off to the Adamstown Markets to meet friends; we agree to rendezvous later at the Newcastle Regional Art Gallery, where there’s a show on called Desert Country, drawn from the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia. It’s raining lightly as I walk across the wet grass, through the long lines of Phoenix palms and out onto Darby Street, which is packed this Sunday morning . . . does anybody in this town do anything other than eat, I wonder, as I thread my way through the crowds spilling out onto the pavements from the nosh houses. The only one I ever go to, Raj’s Diner is, as usual, empty.
The downstairs of the art gallery is closed off while they install the next exhibition and, again as usual, the paraphernalia used in the hanging or otherwise displaying of art looks to me like the humdrum arcana that so often passes for art these days. I blame Julian Dashper, among others, for this. Upstairs I make a quick pass of the room, avoiding reading any of the copious information posted on the walls in order to come to my own decision about the ones I want to look at properly . . . while I’m doing this I spot Maggie on the other side of the room and when I go over to join her, the three little girls – Ella, Emma, Antonia – are sitting side by side in kiddie’s corner drawing with three Hermannsburg watercolours on the wall above them.
An Albert, an Oscar and an Ewald Namatjira, respectively. The Albert is wonderfully calm and composed with a muted harmony to the colours that is deeply affecting, especially when you get a fair way away from it. As so often with his work, it is impossible (for me anyway) to explain how something so seemingly ordinary can have such a powerful aura. I think again of my seminar topic, which is gradually coming into focus . . . have gone from characterising his and Battarbee’s landscapes as ‘elemental’ to ‘embodied’ to ‘anthropomorphic’ and, today, am wondering if ‘haunted’ is too cheesy a word to use. The Oscar and the Ewald are, by contrast, expressionist in their simultaneous espousal and rejection of conventional representation; and when I see, on the wall opposite, a work by Elton Wirri, its bright colours and formalised composition seem a million miles from Albert’s naturalism and his soft greys and greens and blues – though you can detect, in the bright orange of the pile of rocks under the gum tree in the foreground, a source for Wirri’s electric colours. I haven’t exactly met Elton Wirri but have been in his presence a couple of times when he and Kevin Namatjira, whom I did meet, came down to Sydney for an art opening and a theatre show in 2010. He is a chubby young man with sleepy eyes and, with Kevin (in my opinion at least), among the best of the younger Hermannsburg painters.
The Desert Country show is made up of fifty odd works by a similar number of artists and I find myself focussing on some of the bigger, more abstract and detailed paintings – of sandhills, of laid-down spears, of a devil lizard tracks, of a place where a wallaby rested on the ground. The way these large, intricate, patterned works are built up from a repetition of tiny motifs – usually, but not always, the famous dots – is really quite remarkable, especially when you consider they are almost always made with the canvas spread out on the ground and the artist sitting cross-legged over it, working in close up. How then did they compose patterns that only become apparent when you see the works upright on a wall from the other side of a room? There are a few works from Papunya in the early 1970s, where the desert art movement began, and they too are fascinating – humble, battered objects, usually on board, with paint flaked from them, corners bruised or missing, finger marks and ash stains across their surfaces. These early works often mix the abstract and the figurative in a way that looks surrealistic now; they are rich and strange and resonant of a moment when a new mode of expression opened up before displaced, broken and hitherto silent peoples. Even now, it’s not widely known that Albert Namatjira spent his last few months of life at Papunya – first as a prisoner, later, after he’d done his time, as a free man – and that his example was a major catalyst for this movement. Turkey Tolson and Clifford Possum, for instance, both represented here, saw Albert paint and perhaps also imitated him in their early days.
The other works I love are those from the Kimberley in the northwest – Rover Thomas and Paddy Bedford are perhaps the most famous names and, while there’s no Bedford here, there’s a fabulous Rover Thomas painting which consists of a vast black centre with pale ochre surrounds. He’s painted using natural pigments and when you go up real close the black is grainy and textured, like coarsely woven cloth, and it’s hard to resist the urge to run your fingers across that rough veil as if to draw it back and enter some nether world beyond.
After the gallery we go back to Maggie’s for a while and then, around two, over to Woz and Janine’s for a bite to eat. It’s been quite a while since we caught up and it’s good to have a yarn while the little girls play in the next room. Woz is a cab driver too so we always have stories to swap; but he’s thinking of giving it up and taking another job, delivering food orders for a farmer’s co-op. I’ve never really thought about this before but Janine is a driver too – trucks, for the Post Office – so perhaps we are part of some fraternity. I think of the post horn that features as a secret sign in The Crying of Lot 49, which I want to re-read but can’t locate my copy of. Janine is acute and insightful, she spends quite a bit of time talking family matters with Maggie and, every now and again, rolls me a tubular cigarette to smoke outside. They are drinking beer; we finish a bottle of wine then Woz brings out the port; then, soon enough, it’s time to go down town for the screening.
For the first time in public I tell the story of how the film originated and then go on to describe a little of the process of writing it. I’m careful not to make any remarks that could be construed as critical of anyone but do say a couple of things I think needed saying – eg the suggestion, by a New Yorker I met at IndiVision, of a strapline for an early version: Hello Kitty Meets Chopper . . . just to remind myself of how it used to be a much tougher story that it is now; and the fact that the Chinese co-producers demanded we take out the sequences that showed the female lead working in a Sydney foot massage parlour . . . as if Asian girls ending up working in such places doesn’t happen. I also say that the final draft, the shooting script, was not my work but manage (I think) not to make that sound like I’m disavowing the results. And, after all, on a third viewing, the film doesn’t seem as bad as I thought it was; even Maggie, who’s seen it twice before too, is tearing up next to me. I also think again that its slightly stagey, almost cartoonish quality is probably designed to appeal to Chinese audiences – and wonder if in fact it did.
Afterwards there’s a Spanish band set up in an arcade across the road, a portable black and white checked dance floor, a food cart where you can buy coffee and soft drinks but no bar. We dance for one number then slip away to collect Ella from Woz and Janine’s. The door has been left open for us, Ella’s top and tailing on one couch with Antonia, Woz stretched out on the other. Nobody wakes up as I hoist Ella into my arms and take her out to the car. Who would have thought child-stealing was so easy? I whisper to Maggie as we drive away into the night.