WHERE THE SACRED FISH
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ART & AUSTRALIA Vol 38 #3
Juno Gemes in London
THE LANGUAGE OF
Vol. 38 No. 3 March-May 2001
Juno Gemes in London
Photographer Juno Gemes began her involvement with Aboriginal people and politics
forty years ago. Working with Mick Glasheen on the 16mm film project Uluru,
Gemes spent six months meeting and consulting with the Pitjantjatjara, Luritja
and Arrernte Central Desert communities. She brought to those initial encounters
an almost innocent engagement characteristic of the late 1960s counterculture,
a heady mix of Mircea Eliade-inspired mythomania and Yellow House1
libertarianism. Invited in, she made friends, and pictures, and she continues
to do so. She has shown her work in exhibitions, published it in magazines, journals
and on posters, conducted Koori photographic workshops and carried out research
for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders Studies
One of the earliest works in Gemess 2000 London exhibition was Mythic
thought, 1978, an awkward montage incorporating images of Wandjina rock paintings,
an ethnographers photograph from the Tyrell Collection, c. 1900, showing
an unidentified (but in all probability secret-sacred) South Coast ceremony; two
detais of René Magrittes The raw nerve, 1960, with a cloud
resting in a champagne glass; newspaper clippings about Jack the (Aboriginal)
Rainmaker being called in to break a drought; polemical statements; and a quotation
from Claude Lévi-Strauss. In its simultaneous scruffy appearance and potent
signification it captures the character and aspirations both of the artist and
of the cause that she was attempting to represent. A few years later, in the catalogue
for an exhibition of photographs and textures,2 Gemes put
it simply: The initial impulse and intension [sic] of this photographic
practise [sic] was to make visible the reality of the people from within a true
cultural context. The work was produced in conjunction with the communities and
individuals represented and is a wotking participation with the people in the
struggle for Justice.
By contrast, at the nearer end of the London time frame was a series from 1998, A turn around (after Millais). In keeping with the broader and more complicated relationship between Indigenous and settler art which has developed in the postmodern fin de siecle, these recent photographs are interculturally loaded. The pattern of reeds and rushes, their angles and reflections, is a background rrark. The shadows of the stems stripe the figures face with totemic body paint or cicatrices. The contrast of focused surface and underwater blur recalls the late Lin Onuss billabong landscapes. But the primary referent, the informed quotation, is John Everett Millaiss celebrated Ophelia. Gemes successfully hijacks the image of the drowning woman, the idea of the tragic heroine, the mythic resonances of immersion in water. Even the bright algae-green of photographic chemicals in the blurred foreground reeds exactly matches the unnaturally bright verdure of Millaiss Pre-Raphaelite palette. In Millaiss painting, Ophelia floats past a riverbank choked with foliage, pathetic, mad and doomed. Posing in a bathtub for hours, Millaiss model (the pale English rose Elizabeth Siddall) caught a severe cold, and her father made the artist pay for her doctor. Such abject outcomes seem most unlikely for Gemess model (Batjala activist and artist Fiona Foley): this Aboriginal woman is robust, confident, at home in the Fraser Island sun, playing.
In between these temporal brackets lie two decades of close engagement with the practices of photography and politics, and the crossing over of the two. In Gemess images of protest and survival can be found an important part of the visual history of Aboriginal Australia in the late twentieth century. There are people (among them Gerry Brown, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Essie Coffey, Lionel Munro Junior, Gary Foley and Lily Crombie) whose faces are deeply familar to particular tribal groups, the wider Aboriginal community and to some whitefella supporters. There are events (the first national Land Rights action in Brisbane in 1982; one of Mum Shirls Black Santa picnics at Redfern; the Uluru handback ceremony; and Louise Williams in her White Australia has a black history T-shirt standing above La Perouse Bay on 26 January 1988, the Tall Ships tiny in the background) that will likewise not be forgotten.
Such content-rich and contingent work fuses elements of the family snapshot, the archival wide angle and the revealing Magnum moment. Following Lisette Model, an early mentor, Gemes prefers to compose in the camera, keeping darkroom adjustments to a minimum. While some images are thus occasionally untidy, the weight of the narrative subject usually protects their integrity against such fissures the subject, and Gemess formal inclination to a stable, pyramidal structure. The triangle is there in The lads from Borroloola and Mornington Island standing strong on their bora ground, 1978, its base the feet of a line of young warriors, its apex the top of a flagpole with the Aboriginal flag; in the angles of a stockyard frame and the disposal of figures across its face in Calvary, Brewarrina, 1998; and in Park n spears, campsite, Uluru handback ceremony, 1985, where a stack of leaning spears converges to a point, which is then mirrored by the inverted cone of the tree branching above.
The triangle is used in right-angle form, too. In We wait for the sacred fish (dunna and wanna) to come in, Mornington Island, 1978, the back view of an Aboriginal woman seated on an old petrol can makes a vertical form running the full height of the pictures right-hand edge. In the centre stands her child, also facing away. Forming the point of the triangle at the pictures left-hand edge, her man reclines on one elbow like Raphaels river god and Manets dejeuniste. They are all looking out to sea, watching for the sacred fish. The wedge of the familys bodies conveys both patient stillness and sharp attention.
In another photograph from the same Mornington Island series,
Fairshare (when the dunna and wanna come in), 1978, the triangle ia a long
isosceles, but again with the base along the right-hand edge of the composition.
The tall, standing foreground figure of a woman presides over the scene. Opposite
her on the left-hand side middle ground is a child with a bicycle, a small fish
(his share) just visible below the crossbar. Between these two, between the generations,
between point and edge, apex and base is contained or implied the whole perspective
of Mornington Island culture: the dreaming stories and totemic affiliations of
the sacred fish, the ritual waiting for their arrival, the so-easy netting by
the men, the womens businesss of sharing out according to protocol (the
single man stands behind, now redundant), the obligatory camp dog, the outback
surrealism of a bike on a beach. Past the foreground sand, past the bay water
behind, is another right to left wedge: a distant headland running out to sea,
a shadow of the people, the land itself.
Where the Sacred Fish Come In
Rebecca Hossack Gallery, London. 3 August 2 September 2000.