celebrating the flightless phoenix

kate cooper: this is cassowary country

Cassowary Dream, Arone Meeks

Cassowary Dream, Arone Meeks

Cassowary Dream, Arone Meeks

A sharp rustle of leaves disturbs the gentle drone of distant traffic. A lithe, nimble figure emerges from the shrub. She darts ahead, disappearing into the distance; a woodland nymph in white trainers.

Steady footsteps tracing a barren path are the initial, glaring feature in Barbara Dover’s video, Looking for Blue Arrow. The slightly shaky handheld camera brings forth a toxic rush of adrenaline and a subtle, sickly claustrophobia as it navigates a swirling track of dry, crunching gravel and bare, wooden stairs carved into the landscape. Surrounded on both sides by sparse vegetation, the unseen subject slows and breathing intensifies, capturing a vivid sense of that desperation and fear felt by hunted prey.

The walker, with camera, is on the Blue Arrow Walking Track in Mt Whitfield Conservation Park, north of Cairns—Cassowary Country. Etched in a sign is the word BLUE and an arrow symbol. The letters are like markings on a gravestone, but the name itself has become irrelevant, obsolete. All that remains is a sad irony. Blue Arrow, the last cassowary of a population which once inhabited the area was attacked and killed by two pet dogs in 1996.

Dover’s work is part of a Cairns Regional Art Gallery exhibition, This Is Cassowary Country, a vibrant hive of visual splendour, drawing from a diverse range of artists and media to explore the conflicting relationships between humans and the creatures with whom we share our environment. There are finely crafted ceramic and glass pieces from Mollie Bosworth and Terry Eager, as well as a series of woven works from Susan Doherty. Gerhard Hillmann also exhibits a colourful collection he describes as an “organic photo montage.”

Local Aboriginal artist Arone Meeks draws from traditional history and artistic techniques in creating his own striking, spiritual manifestation of the cassowary, titled Cassowary Dreams.

The regal bird gazes out from an acrylic portal contained within a mythic realm. His crest of bone and skin sits upon him like a crown. So otherworldly, yet humanized, this majestic beast could be an ancient hieroglyph of an Egyptian god. But he is a god that bleeds. A dark, crimson stain oozes from his chest like a scar on the canvas or a crack in a cave wall. Meeks injects a surreal, almost sci-fi ambience into his work. The electric blues and lava-like brush strokes place his mystic, archetypal characters in a distorted, volcanic landscape which transcends time and space.

If the Cap Fits (from column installation Follies), Margaret Genever

If the Cap Fits (from column installation Follies), Margaret Genever

If the Cap Fits (from column installation Follies), Margaret Genever

Margaret Genever contributes a significant portion of the exhibition. One of her works is a three-piece collection of mixed media installations in which circular windows open onto complex, re-generating worlds.

View from the Heavens is a mish-mash mosaic of shoes, painted black, jutting out from a spherical base, and looking like ashen, post-apocalyptic rubble. At second glance, flecks of blue and red peer shyly through the slick, oily veneer, like rare cassowaries in a desolate urban wasteland.

There are gumboots, grandma’s sensible pumps, the iconic Aussie thong, a strappy pair of heels, a child’s slipper, the cartoon face of a dog still prominent under the thick paint. Connotations of carbon footprints confront the viewer at eye-level. These are the stiff, mundane shields which we don each day to protect ourselves from the earth, eliminating the sensation of touch, allowing us to tread without pain or awareness.

Directly behind this work is an installation titled View from the Centre of the Earth. Layered on shoe soles is a fascinating and fragile ecosystem. The skeletons of leaves are exposed and imprinted on the earth. Intricate debris and delicate remnants of butterflies dwell below the surface. A dragonfly is perched precariously on one sole, perfectly formed and preserved despite the weight of the world balanced tenuously on tiny wings.

The third work, View from the Future, is on the floor. Leaves like snowflakes lie undisturbed and frond prints in charcoal dust dance on a forest floor. There are no shoeprints stamped clumsily without care and thought. No trace of humanity. Just as there are no arrowed footprints planted softly in the earth by a flightless phoenix of red, blue and black.

Genever articulates a prophetic sentiment which resonates throughout the exhibition. Our existence and the survival of the cassowary are directly entwined.

9 July 2009