A force of nature

 

"Flooding water is unpredictable..." Photo:  Candida Baker

                “Flooding water is unpredictable…” Photo: Candida Baker

Deeper Water by Jessie Cole, Fourth Estate rrp $29.99 346pp

 

In literature, and in film, there are some classic plots almost guaranteed to grab the audience’s attention. The Stranger Comes to Town is one, Coming of Age is another and what in England we might call Something Nasty in the Woodshed (a reference to the wonderful novel Cold Comfort Farm) is another.

Like a practiced chess master, local Burringbar author Cole, who grew up in relative isolation on a country property, has used all these themes to create a novel that is as deep, chilling and sensuous as the title itself. Her first book, Darkness on the Edge of Town,(which also used the stranger in town device) was good, this one is not just better, it’s extraordinary.

It’s ten years ago this year since I moved to the Byron and during that time we’ve experienced nature at its best and worst. You don’t need to live in the country to appreciate Cole’s novel, but it’s certainly familiar territory – which she writes about with tender clarity – if you do happen to have suffered from the arbitary forces of nature. At the start of Cole’s novel, we’re introduced to the main character, a young woman, Mema, who, like Cole, has spent all her life living on the family property – she’s trying to get a cow who has started to calve away from the edge of the rapidly swelling creek, when a car is washed off the close-by bridge. Mema rescues the young man, Hamish, with a long branch, bringing herself close to disaster at the same time. When Hamish is finally safe, his 21st century life and all its accoutrements in the bottom of the creek, he takes one look at Mema, and says: “Fuck, you’re just a girl”.

Just a girl. Mema thinks how horrified her mother would be, and in the space of a remarkably short time we get the idea – Mema is a capable 22-year-old, who also happens to have a club foot; her potter mother has alienated all the surbanites in town with her ‘feminist’ ways, and because she’s had children to different men, all of whom have left her. Mema’s older sister already has a toddler, and a baby on her hip; Mema’s best friend, Anja, is as light and as unstable and dangerous as mercury, with a father who is a drunk, and possibly abusing her. Into all of this strolls Hamish, the city-slicker, an environmental consultant who is in the area to asses a proposal to turn sugar cane waste into power. And then there’s Billy, a somewhat brooding presence, who’s had the ‘hots’ for Mema for years.

cov_deeperwater

It’s a volatile mix, but no less volatile than Cole’s actual life, and if a writer is as good as their material, then sadly for Cole, she has been given first-class material in the suicide of her older sister when she was a teenager, which drove her psychiatrist father to madness, and also eventually to suicide. With two young children by the time she was 23, Cole was suffering depression when she first went to see a counsellor who encouraged her to write everything down as therapy, and in an ironic twist of fate, the life that had caused her such deep grief, has become a deep well of complex emotional material.

It’s almost inevitable that Mema, who has never taken much notice of men, should fall for Hamish, but Cole doesn’t take the easy route of giving Mema and Hamish a relationship, instead all of Mema’s longings are stirred into a melting-pot of desire and confusion which, in the end, allows her to notice Billy, and his devotion to her.

There is warm, rather than cold comfort in this novel, in the end, which is perhaps testament to Cole’s growth as a writer. Where her first book was chilling to the bone,Deep Water allows for, in amongst the tragedies, the sweeter things of life – that a local farmer who has been leaving flowers for Mema’s mother at her driveway, should finally be given permission to approach the prickly matriarch, that Hamish should warn Mema that the company he works for does not necessarily have the area’s best environmental interests at heart; that Billy and Mema, despite misunderstandings, begin to see themselves as a couple.

One of the most compelling aspects to this novel is the way Cole writes about landscape. In this book – and parts of it remind me of Peter Carey’s ability to make the landscape a character in itself, in both Bliss and Oscar and Lucinda – the landscape is a living, breathing entity. Mema’s connection to it is visceral, and in a sense it is the force of nature – the flood, her awakening to love in the woods around her house, a potentially lethal fire, her call to environmental action, that create a backbone, or trunk, for the novel. If Mema’s mother is the brooding matriarch of this big, scattered, somewhat chaotic family, then this country of the Northern Rivers is the matriarch of the entire novel, a Kali-esque presence that can switch from giver to destroyer of life in a few minutes, but whom, in her turn must be mothered and nurtured. It’s that unseen compelling Gaia presence that certainly keeps me here, where life is often extreme in surprising ways.

For me a pre-requisite for a novel is that it should transport you to another time and place, and allow you to connect to its characters. I walked around for days imagining myself in the world of Deeper Water and I can’t think of higher praise than that.

This post first appeared in my new publishing venture Verandah Magazine…if you’re interested to read more go to: verandahmagazine.com.au 

Advertisements

Silence is Golden

images-1

Silence is not the absence of something

but

the presence of everything.

   John Grossmannn

 

 My best friend Sally and I could ride our ponies for hours through the English countryside where I grew up.

On the way back home, all of us – humans and horse – tired from our outing, would mosey our way along the grass verge, feet out of the stirrups, dangling our boots through the cow-parsley, while the ponies took the odd snack-on-the-go.

In those moments, life often seemed sweet and almost perfect, and it wouldn’t take much for one of us to burst into the chorus of one of our favourite songs…

‘Silence is golden, but my eyes still see

Silence is golden, golden, but my eyes still see…’

Anybody who remembers the song will know it doesn’t say much for our taste at the time, but it was 1967 and we were 12-years-old, and we were collectively in love with the Tremeloes, who, as it turned out were going to be a one-hit wonder, with not even, as I found out many years later, their own song.

What I remember thinking in those far-off days, and it’s a thought that has stayed with me all my life, is that there are two kinds of silence – an outside silence, which in a sense does not really exist, and an inner one, which arrives on a rare occasion – well, rare to me at least – unbidden, as a sudden sense of quiet inner peace.

I grew up in the country, and I now live in the country, and I still horse-ride – these days through the green macadamia-covered hills of northern New South Wales.

Until recently when we sadly lost my daughter’s Shetland pony, Sally-the-Boy to a brain tumour,  I would take my daughter for a trail ride on him, and  I would walk beside her.  Whenever we did our lane outing, she liked to close her eyes, so, as she said, she could hear the ‘quiet’ sounds. And the quiet sounds were the sounds her pony’s hooves make clip-clopping steadily along, the sound of the breeze, the carolling of the magpies and the far-off hum of the motorway.

If you want to further the argument that silence in a sense is a concept, and not something that really exists – think of the phrase, ‘Silence please’, and where it is used.

Take a school classroom for instance, at the beginning of an exam and the room falls quiet as students begin the unenviable task of working through an exam paper – is it silent in there? Of course not. There are a million little noises: the scraping of shoes on the floor, the occasional cough, the sound of a chair being adjusted, paper being turned – there is almost, in fact, a ‘noise’ of concentration.

images-2

And yet, conversely despite this outside noise that makes the notion of silence not – in any world I know at least – a reality, there is that time when you are in the exam, when your inner world is in silence. Then, if you are lucky and you have studied your subject, a kind of meditative trance falls on you where you become unaware of anything around you, blocking out everything other than that which you are doing.

When we were children we used to play many games in the fields and the woods around my home. One of them, a perennial favourite, involved an attempt to be silent. One of us would hide our eyes into a tree, while another would pretend to be a Red Indian – as we still called native American Indians then – and would creep silently up behind to scare the person hiding their eyes. Sometimes if one of us was feeling cruel, we would all run off and leave the innocent waiting to be startled alone at the tree, and as I know, that produced its own torturous silence – the silence of no response.

For a large part of the past 35 years I have been a journalist working in busy newspaper and magazine offices, and in those offices the ability to call on inner silence becomes absolutely vital. They’re noisy places, newspaper offices. Not quite as noisy as they were pre-computers, but noisy enough. A large open plan-office with telephones ringing and people talking, meeting, arguing, creating is not necessarily the kind of place that you would think would be conducive to writing, but write you must – and so you do – learning to block out every sound, so that you can meet your deadline. Much, dear reader, as I am doing now.

In a relatively quiet, relatively small space in my house, with white desks and two windows overlooking the paddocks below, I am typing an essay on silence. Outside I can hear the sound of the neighbour on his ride-on mower, every now and then my son’s mobile phone pings. I can hear the magpies, crows, rosellas, butcher birds, minah birds and doves that are just part of the noise landscape. One of the dogs is drinking water, each lap magnified by my attempt to hear silence. If I pause for a moment, I can absorb these sounds deep inside, and by absorbing them they become part of the silent interior, the place from which I am attempting to write.

William Penn once wrote: “True silence is the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.” For me that rings true, because the curious thing about turning into the inner world is how energising it is.

Sometimes, although not often enough, I manage to get up in the very early hours of the morning to meditate. Even then, deep in the country at four in the morning, the world is not silent. The creaks and groans of an old house keep me company; the cat appears at my side and grooms herself, if there is rain every tiny drop is magnified by the absence of day noise, and the silence of the night reveals itself as anything but, as I try to empty my mind and find that still place within.

If nature is so noisy, is it ever silent? “See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grow in silence,” said Mother Teresa. “See the stars, the moon and the sun how they move in silence….we need silence to be able to touch souls.” I like that idea that the tree whose branch creaks over my roof, is growing in silence, that silence can be something tangible, if not in fact what we assume it to be. I’ve never thought of the sun, stars and moon as silent, but it’s true, at least from a human perspective. I see its trajectory over my house, I don’t hear it and that somehow reinforces the idea of silence being a sensation, having a presence, rather than an absence.

I have often wondered if wilderness places are silent – if you climb Mount Everest, for instance, do you sit in silence? In the Antarctic are you surrounded by silence? People tell me this is not so, that even in the quietest places there is noise, even if the noise is the beating of your own heart – even the absence of noise can be noisy.

There is a wonderful book by photographer Jeffrey Gusky entitled ‘Silent Places’. This poignant photographic journey through Eastern Europe documents in black and quite the crumbling landscape of the Holocaust. Houses, synagogues, railway lines, a simple corridor, a door, the entry to a Jewish home now used as a public toilet – every image silently tells a screaming story. His work is of outstanding quality, and somehow what he brings to the photographs is even more poignant than those of the time – the absence of people tells us these were their homes, their places of worship, of education and play – and in the case of the railway line to Auschwitz, their journey to death.   You feel that if you stare at them long enough you will bring them to life somehow, that the families will return, peeking out of the shadows, bringing light and love and warmth and noise with them, but until then this landscape bears silent witness to the bloody past.

 

 

'Corridor in Kazimierz', former Jewish district, Cracow, Polan, Jeffrey Gusky, 1996.

‘Corridor in Kazimierz’, former Jewish district, Cracow, Polan, Jeffrey Gusky, 1996.

Battlefields, memorials, cenotaphs, burial mounds, roman ruins – everywhere where man has once existed but is no longer, it is not the silence, or lack of it, in the direct environment of these places it is the silence of the structures themselves that strikes one as being so overwhelming, hinting at one’s own mortality. I am here, I am noise, I am flesh, I am anything but silent, my blood flows, my heart beats, my stomach growls, my joints creak, my eyes see, my ears hear, tongue tastes, in each movement I make, each kiss or cuddle I give or receive, in each angry word, or happy laugh or bossy command I am an active presence.

Perhaps it is this more than anything that creates anxiety for a lot of people around the idea of silence. In a world full of iPods, iPads, tablets, phones, facebook and computers, whether we live in the (supposed) peace and quiet of the country, or the white noise of a city, the idea of silence, without or within, can be laden with fear. I can’t hear, does that mean people can’t hear me? Do I, if I am not constantly in contact with humanity, matter? My lack of silence, my constant interaction reassures me – I am here, I do matter, I am in contact.

The very fact of modern human’s difficulty with silence means that it is increasingly more important for us to acknowledge it, to hold it within and embrace the silence – to give our soul a chance to speak.

Perhaps one of the best-known prose poems in the world is the Desiderata, which far from being written in the 1600s as was commonly thought, was in fact penned by Max Ehrmann in 1927. Ehrmann, a philosopher and writer who wrote six books in ten years and then became a lawyer because he felt he would never write a book that made him enough money to support his family, would be astonished and gratified to know that 84 years later the Desiderata is one of the most widely read poems in the world.

‘Go placidly amid the noise and haste,’ he wrote, ‘and remember what peace there may be in silence.’

What he was speaking of, I am sure, is inner silence – that deep, profound state of being when all is right with the world, so right that one could still be compelled, in the right circumstances – a horse ride along a quiet avenue of trees, a dog or three at my heels – in my case – to sing out loud, ‘Silence is golden, golden, but my eyes still see’. And always to remember, of course the wise words below:

Keep-calm-and-enjoy-the-silence

Stay – the last dog in Antarctica

 

<em>Stay: The Last Dog in Antarctica</em> by Jesse Blackadder.

When author Jesse Blackadder was awarded an arts fellowship to travel to Antarctica to research her novel Chasing the Light, about Ingrid Christensen, the first woman to reach Antarctica, little did she know she was about to meet a character who would demand to have her own book.

In Blackadder’s blog she writes about the odd moment of sitting on a snow-covered hill, a 70-year-old Australian red ensign flag in her hand and a life-size fibreglass guide dog called Stay sitting by her feet.

Back at home, Blackadder found herself thinking about Stay, whose real story is as strange, if not stranger, than fiction. The fibreglass guide dog was ”dognapped” from the streets of Hobart in 1992. Stay’s arrival in Antarctica coincided with the departure of the last of the huskies from the environmentally protected continent, and she was quickly adopted as a replacement canine mascot.

Since then, Stay has been on so many adventures that, according to Blackadder, ”she’s lost count”. She’s travelled around Antarctica on helicopters, aeroplanes, skiddoos, Haggs, quad bikes, tractors and utes. She’s been a wintering expeditioner at every Australian base, and at Macquarie Island, and has visited the Antarctic bases and ships of many other countries. And Blackadder confesses she was involved in a Stay dognapping episode.

These adventures, and the endowment of a real canine personality on Stay, are Blackadder’s starting point for this charming children’s book, which is also – albeit in a quiet way – an educational story for Australian kids about the remote beauty of Antarctica, 3400 kilometres from our shores. This is the first in a trilogy of animal-based books by Blackadder for children aged eight to 12.

Blackadder had not written for children before, but you would not know it. She has created a perfect tone for the book – the language is simple, clear and visual. The plot twists and turns, and we never know exactly what is going to happen to Stay next.

It’s not an easy task to endow a fibreglass dog with feelings and yet stay true to its physically lifeless form, but Blackadder manages it, and for any child who owns a dog, many of Stay’s thought processes will feel familiar.

It’s true that when the huskies first met Stay, they didn’t take to her, territorially peeing on her in protest at her arrival. Did they know they were about to leave their home, and that this strange new arrival would claim people’s affections as they once did? Who knows? It would appear stranger things have happened.

Stay: The Last Dog in Antarctica
Jesse Blackadder
ABC Books, $14.99

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/a-snowbound-fibreglass-canine-warms-the-heart-20130913-2to0i.html#ixzz2f7A65ffh

The Pagoda Tree

art-scobie-620x349

Figuring it out: Claire Scobie took inspiration from carved temple walls. Photo: Karen Hardy

The change of writing genre from non-fiction to fiction is not always easily achieved, but Claire Scobie’s first book, Last Seen in Lhasa, about her search for a rare red lily and her subsequent friendship with a Tibetan nun, already suggested a writer whose evocative prose might make the transition.

Scobie’s first novel, The Pagoda Tree, is an ambitious book set in southern India in 1765 when the British were becoming increasingly dominant. At the heart of the book is the story of Mayambikai – Maya – a young girl training to be a temple dancer, a devadasi.

Pagoda refers not only to a temple in southern India but also to a gold coin – perfect symbolism.

There is a small hint in the first few pages about where Scobie’s inspiration for the book came from, when Maya, roaming near her home in the temple grounds, has flights of fantasy about the dancing girls carved into the temple walls. When Scobie visited Thanjavur (then Tanjore) in southern India, she was struck by the beauty of the 11th-century walls and that the names and addresses of 400 dancing girls are still visible today. It’s one of those perfect starting points for fiction – a visually arresting moment with a story behind it: Who were these girls and what were they like?

<i>The Pagoda Tree</i> by Claire Scobie

Maya is part of this continuum; her mother was a devadasi, and her ancestors before her. Astrologers have foretold that Maya will have an unusual destiny, and as someone born with the mark of the goddess she has been singled out to be trained to the height of her profession, with the ultimate intention that she will be a courtesan for the prince.

When I was younger, I travelled frequently to India and Scobie’s several research trips have allowed her to capture perfectly what I remember of the intensity of the country. The result is a richly textured tale full of the sights, sounds and smells of India, with all its complex beauty and troubled history.

Into the single thread of Maya’s life are woven numerous other stories. Within Maya’s complex relationship with her somewhat emotionally detached mother, Scobie

achieves a delicate balance – both mother and child yearning for love and acceptance. For Maya, much of her story is about loss: The loss of her beloved aunt when she is cast out for visiting a Muslim doctor; her patronage by Palani, the resident but ageing courtesan and dancer who then disappears; the subsequent breakdown of the prince’s power and Maya’s ensuing enslavement to the head of the temple, and her attraction to, and relationship with, Thomas Pearce, a young Englishman trying to make his fortune.

The word pagoda refers not only to a temple in southern India but also to a gold coin – perfect symbolism for the book. Somehow though, this book reminds me more of that most quintessential of Indian garments – the sari. Its layering, the unravelling of the story, the subtext of the fortunes made and lost on cotton and silk, the evocative descriptions of saris themselves are all part of the tapestry of this novel.

But in some ways its very ambition and complexity is where Scobie stumbles somewhat. The creation not just of Maya as a main character, but also the English Reverend Sutcliffe, the corrupt Mudaliar, head of the temple and purchaser of Maya, and her lover Thomas – among others – means the reader’s focus is, on occasions, distracted from engagement with Maya’s story. To my mind, the other characters in the book don’t achieve quite the same emotional depth as Maya.

However, as the story wends its colourful way to an inevitable denouement, through the increasing distress of a country struggling against the invaders, and the tragedy of Maya and Thomas’s doomed relationship, this is a novel to be savoured, in much the same way as the colourful subcontinent itself.

In Last Seen in Lhasa, Scobie wrote of Pemako in Tibet that it was ”a spiritualscape where legend merged with truth.” Scobie has, once more, found a subject matter with a powerful ”spiritualscape” and she does it ample justice.

Purchase Claire Scobie’s The Pagoda Tree here.

THE PAGODA TREE

Claire Scobie

Viking, 384pp, $29.99

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/elaborate-tale-of-india-woven-with-the-intricacy-of-a-tapestry-20130815-2rxga.html#ixzz2ckkaQsPY

The Dreamer

 

 Here Everything Is Dreaming

 

Here, Everything is Dreaming, Robert Moss, Excelsior Editions pp 170 rrp $16.94

I often envy poets.   As a writer, I frequently wish I could let my words go wild – and yet, of course, the dichotomy is that poetry at its best is also highly disciplined, a technical craft it takes years to master.

It’s this combination of technique and wild words that Australian-born, now US based author Robert Moss, brings to Here, Everything is Dreaming, his poems and short stories spanning a twenty-year period.

Take the first two stanzas of ‘If You Spill a Dragon’, for example:

If you spill a dragon,

          don’t think about washing the tablecloth.

Everything interesting happens on the boundaries,

and when you are real, shabbiness doesn’t matter.

 

You can’t see the whole picture when you’re in it,

and inside the soft animal of your body, you forget

that you are a star that came down because

         you wanted a messier kind of love.

What a wonderful visual feast is contained in only those eight lines!  And it’s a feast that is repeated right throughout this enticing volume full of love, life, death, sex – and dreams.  It is also a paean of praise to the natural world, and in particular the earthly and other-worldly animals that accompany us in our lifetimes.

As a dream-meister Moss is well known.  For many years he has taught and practiced Active Dreaming, a synthesis of dream-work and shamanic techniques.  His books include Conscious Dreaming: A Spiritual Path for Everyday Life; Dreamgates: Exploring the Worlds of Soul, Imagination and Life Beyond Death; and The Secret History of Dreaming.  His novels include the three-volume Cycle of the Iroquois – but this is his first collection of poems.  He is also an imaginative and accomplished artist, and perhaps it is this artist’s sensibility that creates the rich vein of visual imagery that runs through these poems and stories….

The cherry trees are disconsolate lovers;

they can’t hold their pink smiles

after the unkindness of that night…

 Or

Before the secret green cells in the leaf

drink from its suncatchers, light walks

all paths through the protein scaffold…

Moss wasn’t always a poet.  He began his career as a lecturer in Ancient History at ANU in Canberra, but after a move to the UK to study for his PhD he joined the editorial staff of The Economist as a writer and special correspondent.  He was an active commentator on international affairs on the BBC World Service and on British television, and also wrote for publications as diverse as The Daily Telegraph and The New York Times Magazine. He later became a full-time writer, publishing a series of suspense novels.

It’s an intriguing combination of erudition and belief in the power of dreaming that gives both his poems and stories layers of meaning.

In his story The Other, Again, Moss uses Jorge Luis Borges’ story The Other as a springboard to explore him meeting a younger version of himself, in what may or may not be a dream.

This story, written in 2010, reveals a writer at peace with the extraordinary, and, it has to be said, his move from the mainstream into his shamanic dream-work was extraordinary in itself.

In 1986, as Moss tells it, he felt the need to get away from the city life and moved to a farm in upstate New York, where he started to dream in an unknown language, which, after investigation turned out to be an archaic form of the Mohawk language.  Helped by native speakers to interpret his dreams, Moss came to believe he had been put in touch with an ancient healer – a woman of power – and that he was being called to a different life.  It wasn’t long before one of his animal spirits – the bear – made itself known to him – and it’s the bear that often guides, reveals and surprises him in his work as a shaman.

Bear

Here too, perhaps is the poet’s courage to charter unknown imaginative terrain – not easy to put aside a mainstream international career for a ‘calling’ into the unknown, but Moss embraced his new life with the same dedication he had put into his previous careers.  His central premise being that dreaming isn’t just what happens during sleep, but that active dreaming is also a source of guidance, healing and creativity beyond the reach of the everyday mind.

It wasn’t long before his work and writing attracted international attention and he was asked to present his method at the conference of the Association for the Study of Dream at the University of Leiden in 1994.

All of this long career involved in words and worlds of so many different varieties come to fruition in Here, Everything is Dreaming – at the height of his powers Moss entices us in; creating a pathway between the worlds, and a way for us more mere mortals to draw closer to the gods, goddesses and animals spirits that wish to live through us.  This is a book full of texture and wonder from a dreamer and poet in his prime.

You can purchase Here, Everything is Dreaming through the State University of New York Press:  http://www.sunypress.edu/default.aspx or directly through Amazon as a kindle or paperback, and, of course from US bookshops!

 

 

Power + Colour

 

Power + Colour – new painting from the Corrigan collection of 21st Century Aboriginal Art

Lifeandstyle-book-6-300x0

To me the main difference between Western art and Australia’s Indigenous art, is both simple and profound.

Western art, no matter how abstract, portrays something seen, digested and reproduced.  Indigenous art on the other hand, is a visual language; it tells of ancestors, landscape, sacred stories, forbidden relationships, and of the creation of the universe.  Even the most contemporary paintings seem often to correlate directly to Aboriginal rock art, or tribal body painting – they have simply become an extension of the way to tell stories, perhaps in the same way that creative writing has taken off in the past few hundred years for verbal-based languages.

Take, for example, the edge of an Indigenous painting – almost always there is none, the eye is led to understand that there is simply more painting, more story, outside the frame of reference – a continuing story – to infinity and beyond as Buzz Lightyear would say.

Power + Colour more than lives up to its name, having chosen as its main theme two elements vital to Indigenous art, namely tribal law and the continually stunning and inventive use of colour used to depict both country and culture.  The book showcases 129 works by 77 artists from more than 20 communities, and includes a biography of each artist. The images are supported by an interview with Patrick Corrigan, the arts philanthropist and collector of these works, and an introduction to the paintings, including catalogue-style notes for each work. The text is written by curator, art valuer, and principal of ArtiFacts, Jane Raffan.  Raffan’s writing is concise, knowledgeable and most importantly, accessible.  She opens a generous window into this massive array of artists and art works, and into Corrigan’s love of contemporary Indigenous art.

The collection of the works in this book began in 2004 after Corrigan visited the NGV’s landmark exhibition Colour Power: Aboriginal Art Post 1984, curated by Judith Ryan.  Impressed by the vibrancy of the exhibition, Corrigan, who was given the Order of Australia in 2000 for his philanthropy and art patronage, began his new collection with works by Tommy Watson and Wingu Tingima.

One notable aspect of this vibrant collection is the ration of women to men, which Corrigan believes is probably in the ratio of 70/30.  Corrigan is one of the, if not the, most important collector of contemporary Indigenous art – nothing in this collection is pre-2000, making Power + Colour a vital and up-to-date picture of the wide variety of dynamic styles, and unbridled colour that dominates Indigenous contemporary art today.

The words of this book are carefully designed not to overshadow the works, which speak most vitally for themselves in this glossy hardback.  To open this book at any page is to be met with an image of such colour, beauty and movement that it is like a visual feast for the senses.  Immersing myself in the book reminded me a visit to a perfume shop, where a thousand scents all intermingle into a tantalizing whole.

There are many familiar names here – Judy Napangardi Watson, Yannima Tommy Watson and Lucy Napanangka Yukenbarri to name just three, but it is enthralling to also discover some newer, younger artists such as the Pintupi artist Eileen Napaltjarri, or Lance Peck and Keith Stevens, or Sylvia Ken and Tjungkara Ken.

What is interesting about these younger contemporary artists, and it’s a point that Raffan makes well, is that even though they may not seem on the surface to be depicting journeys across country, if the paintings are read correctly then the ongoing connection to land becomes apparent, as does the continuing connection to tribal law, which is often present even in the most seemingly decorative of paintings.

To me one of the most appealing facets of Indigenous art is its ability to talk on several levels.  You don’t need to understand any of these complex, colourful, vibrant paintings in order to enjoy them, but what a wonderful joy it is to dip understand a particular artist’s imperative, tribal culture and personal story, so that the sub-text can reveal itself.

One of the most exciting artists in the book, and one whose work reflects the melding of the old and the new, is Sally Gabori – she uses expressive abstract techniques on her large linen canvasses – often as much as three metres wide by two metres high.  Great juicy dollops of paint reflect miniature stories:  ‘This painting is about a story place out to sea.  You can only get there by boat,’ she writes of a green, purple, black red and ochre painting, and as soon as one has read the words, a deeper layer of understanding goes into the viewing of the apparently random blocks of colour.

Lifeandstyle-book-6-620x349

Sally Gabori’s Outside Story Place reflects a melding of the old and the new in Indigenous art

As part of a preparatory course towards an MA in Australian Art History through Adelaide University and the Art Gallery of South Australia I studied Indigenous art last semester.  I wish I’d had this book to hand then.  It’s a powerful tool for education, reflection and pure enjoyment.