The Art of Blackfella’s Young Fella.

23 Jul
On The Road To Nowhere

Paper given at St John’s Cathedral, 15 July, 2018 by Rev’d Glenn Loughrey, Wiradjiru, Artist. ©

 Yuwin ngahdi Glenn Loughrey 

Ddyiramadilinya badhu wiradjuri

I acknowledge the sovereign land on which we meet, the country which gave birth to and continues to nourish and flourish the Thruabal people. I acknowledge their elders, past present and future, and the elders of all nations here tonight. I also acknowledge that this land was stolen and that those who stole it have no intention of given it back anytime soon.

Am I an artist? I am a scratcher of the ilk of the magpie – I approach the canvas aware that somewhere in there is a tidbit, a delicious morsel to be savoured. I scratch, wrestle, sweat, walk away, return, roll up my sleeves and scratch, make a mark and make some more, take my shirt off, get serious, put my shirt on, turn up the music, turnoff the music, go for a walk, get a coffee, return and scratch some more; expectant, fearful, rarely hopeful, just held in a wrestling move I cannot escape.

The canvas there, I here. We need each other, perhaps to complete, destroy, resurrect, annihilate, caress, bludgeon or ignore each other. It is a toxic, frustrating, endearing, destructive relationship. There is no time for others or other loves. There is only the silence of the canvas as it screams its need for attention, to be scratched, etched, evoked, poked, brought to life, put to sleep.

Each canvas has its own private life, revealing itself in its own time. How long? As long as it takes; as long as you have the inner resources to remain in its embrace. As long as you are an artist. On average a 6 foot by 4 foot canvas takes me some 3 months to complete, not finish. It is never finished.

Viewers rarely give the completed piece the same time. We know what we like, we know what is “good” art and we browse the gallery walls like shoppers at Aldi seeking to find that one “good” piece to complete our interior decorating project, a piece that will look good on the wall above the cowhide rug and the gaudy vase you brought cheap on line from that factory in china, holding the plastic flowers you found at a local garage sale and wondered why anyone would part with such beautiful kitsch.

This UK Daily Mail headline says it all: “We know what we like, and it’s not modern art! How gallery visitors only viewed work by Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin for less than 5 seconds”. It goes on to say that people spend, on average less than 6 minutes in front of classical pieces such as art by Whistler and Sargent. Hardly does justice to the trauma we artists go through to produce pieces for your viewing!

It has been suggested that we ought to adopt as our own a piece of art in every exhibition and learn how to look at it. Perhaps we should sit, still, and allow it to permeate us; visiting it often, at different times of the day and mood, developing a relationship with it and allowing it to expose its secrets over time. Thomas Merton, the Trappist mystic writes; “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” I might add, if so bold, over time, often a long and turbulent engagement and only if we are courageous.

These ideas suggest art and its work takes time. Sitting is not just what a sitter does for a portrait. It is what the artist does in collecting together all the elements of his/her craft and seeing what they see, not just what is there on the surface. It is the act required by the viewer if the viewer is to get behind the surface images and find the painting itself.

John Berger, writing on Valdequez and the Spanish painters of that era, speaks of a landscapes address, what is immovable and permanent in its being. Trees, grass, flowers, fences are simply transient visitors to a permanent address, the country.

This is the ancient aboriginal way of becoming country, of seamlessly joining self with your country, your permanent address, the place where you were born and reveals language, wisdom, culture, kinship and ritual as you listen, look, breathe; deeply.

This takes time, much time; a wrestling of the kind the artist endures; the wrestling Abram experienced, and walked away deeply transformed, a human with a limp.

Becoming country unsettles whiteness,  disrupts the urge to fit in, to become one with the foreign culture threatening to imbue all beings. Becoming country slows life, calling one to stillness and silence, a way of being appearing as it is and when it will. It is what it is, what it is is a mystery to a whiteness committed to its fragile sense of goodness.

Some years ago I was part of a group of Naval personnel participating in a leadership seminar given by an academic form the ANU. It was a short time after the Abu Gharib incident involving US military personnel in the Middle East. The academic stated categorically that this could not happen with Australian defence personnel because they were too well trained for that.

As the only person in the room who had been shot at and held hostage, I interrupted and challenged his assertion. My position was, and is, that no amount of training or education will be sufficient when you are faced with a life and death situation. What you will do under extreme conditions cannot be predicted, especially by yourself. I finished by saying such atrocities will and have occurred at the hands of Australian personnel, and that goodness is not a protection.

In the last few weeks I have been in dialogue with leaders of our church regarding the need for redress for the victims of the original or foundational sin of this country – the stealing of country and the subsequent ongoing genocide of aboriginal people. I asked what percentage of funds raised by the sale of church property goes, or would be going as reparation to Aboriginal people. I was specific – reparation, not funding for aboriginal ministry run by the church.

Two replied in the negative, although one did allude to giving it some thought. Others simply have ignored the question.

What was significant was that the two who replied added a “but”. “But” I was the first priest to do an acknowledgement of country in a parish; “but” we sold a property once and put the money to an Aboriginal project.

It is this “but” that is significant, not just because it was used in this context, because it occurs in almost every conversation I have with white people. Instead of hearing what I am saying, what aboriginal people are saying, those listening go immediately to defend their whiteness, their goodness. 

In the movie, “Hidden Figures” about 3 ground breaking African American women who play key roles in the space journey of John Glenn we hear the following from Vivian Mitchell, the white supervisor to Dorothy Vaughan: “Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all.” To which Dorothy replies; “I know, I know you probably believe that.”

James Baldwin and Thomas Merton, heroes of the civil rights movement in America in the ‘60’s, wrote about the primary sin of the American people. That sin? Whiteness. They both asserted it would, in the end, destroy the nation.

Whiteness, like the ANU academic and the church leaders, sees itself as moral and good and moral and good people can not sin, cannot commit war crimes and do not continue to carry out genocide on Aboriginal people.

The failure of whiteness to address the blackness in its heart, past and present, ensures that violence will continue to be repeated in this country. Australian composer, Calvin Bowman asserts that violence is in and rises up from the soil. Whiteness has put that violence there in the blood of aboriginal people and only whiteness can take it out by truth telling and redress for the 10’s of thousands who have died at it’s bidding. The art on the wall depicts the extermination of Aboriginal people in the Mudgee shire in NSW, a shire that aboriginals refer to as a midden, shire wide burial place due to the extent of the genocide at the direction of the likes of the family of William Cox who went on to fund the building of St John’s Anglican church.

Art is how I scratch my way into this story and into country, tradition, the Dreaming, the song-lines of my father; not into the song lines from the far distant past but those present, near, as close as yesterday. It is a tragic song in the Greek tradition, the ultimate eradication of blackness from the landscape. It is the all-encompassing mass of whiteness consuming all before it. No tribal person alive after 1876. All that remained was an odd assortment of black people huddled together for safety in what was eloquently named a blacks camp. Last week it was revealed that Peabody Mining has purchased all but 1 house in the township of Wollar where the blacks camp was. The camp will become like my fathers birthplace and other sacred sites, black holes of whiteness.

It was here my grandmother was born, a little known mother and an unknown father. Except we do know who he was and what he did. Jimmy Governor. Killed 9 people and went on the run for 14 weeks in 1900. You know him as Jimmy Blacksmith. He was hung for his crimes. Those who killed the local tribal people went to church.

It was here my immersion in whiteness began, an ignorance of my real self powered by a need to survive, to avoid the possibility of be coming another victim of its horror. Grandfather forbade the telling of Grandma’s story and our true identity. We became white, never white enough. My father was “Blackfella” or “Darkie”, I was “Young Blackfella”, “Young Darkie”, “Darkie’s Young Fella’ or “Blackfella’s Young Fella”. I am still known by the latter today – a blackfella with no name, just the son of a drunk bush black.

Living white, educated, altar boy (becoming an Anglican priest was the whitest thing a black fella could do) and aspirational hid what could not be hidden. Standing on top of the volcano only delays the eruption. Sometime, somewhere one will be blown sky high by its force.

I was unprepared for this. We always are. Knowing the truth does not immediately set you free. It takes time.

Art is the process I use to engage whiteness, to scratch a space in it’s enveloping presence for the other; for me, my father, my grandmother, my great-grandparents and all who have been whitewashed from the canvas. Art allows me to play, scratch, etch, create a sense of oneness, one-ing of people lost in a nation committed to separate-ness and privilege, a country with no colour in it’s past, just the pale mist of whiteness.

John Edgar in his book, “Portraits” writes “Artists can not change or make history. The most they can do is strip it of pretences.” Art allows me to pry open the myth of whiteness as goodness, as unable to do wrong-ness in any way. Art allows me to challenge the defences offered – “Don’t blame me for my privilege, I wasn’t there when they were stolen from the sovereign owners; don’t blame me for the massacres, stolen children, mission crimes, that happened a long time ago and its time to let it go and move on”.

Yet the truth of that continuing history stands stark and direct in the scratch marks of art, my art. Stand long enough to hold its gaze and it may reveal both itself and what is hidden in yourself, your continuing complicity in its ongoing creation.

Like the idea of the dreaming for aboriginal people as an everywhere, when experience, a meta-spatial event bringing the past, present, future alive in every moment; the doctrine of discovery and the myth of whiteness is everywhere now with us. We are held in the grip of inherited sin and the subsequent inherited responsibility to paint a new image to save us all.

Art, art with a compassion, seeing the other as real, holds this dreaming up before us just as it holds up the unending tragedy we are trapped in. It pleads with us to do justice, act justice, to put legs on love and repent of our original sin, seeking forgiveness, not of God, but of those we have sinned against. A 9 year old student recently suggested to me that “National Reconciliation Week is the time we ask forgiveness from those we stole this land from.” She is almost right. There is more.

The statement from the heart asks for more and I ask the church for more. We both ask for a voice, a treaty and truth telling and reparation. We are over what Chris Sarra calls the toxic stench of low expectations which promises us much and delivers little. I call them blue esky experiences. In the late sixties my father was working on a farm and part of his jobs was growing wheat. He was promised a significant percentage of the crop if he reached a certain yield. He did and he was full of expectation when bonus time came around. For all his hard work he was given a blue esky, not the promised money. Giving Blackfellas money would only see it wasted. He kept the blue esky referring to it as the most expensive esky in Australia.

I have experienced many such blue esky moments as have our people. We, I am out of patience. My experience in the church mirrors wider society and I have watched as Bishops and Archbishops respond to the statement of the heart and our call to be at the centre of government and church life exactly as Malcolm Turnbull did, with a resounding no. I no longer participate in the feel good about yourself by being nice to Blackfella plans or being the token Blackfella at negotiations or events to validate whiteness. I will not save the church. It has to do that itself.

Art seeks to tell the truth. Good art, if there is such a thing, is brutal, personal, political, destructive of illusion, complacency, denial and privilege. It should leave you transformed, or at least, disturbed enough to approach the truth expressed. It calls you to a truth telling required for repentance, forgiveness and reparation.

The art in this series tells of the complete destruction of a culture and the devastation that trails behind, the tail that continues to wag. If you stay with each piece it is my hope you will find the place of makarrata, of true reconciliation, and take on your inherited responsibility to relinquish privilege and allow us to invite you into a new dreaming, together, as equals.

Mandung guru (thankyou).

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