Haunting messages

Eve Vincent on Ab-normal

“Since we were children our Elders have told us ghost stories,” write the curators of Ab-normal, Daniel King and Gail Harradine. “These stories told us of our ancestors coming back to look over their grandchildren, of hairy men that would come to take the children, of old women that have the legs of an emu, seen on lonely desert highways at night.”

The 4 Indigenous artists in Ab-normal blend life stories and ghost stories, traditional Indigenous spirituality and post-contact experience (just who are those hairy men that come to take the children?). Stories give us insight into culture and Ab-normal relies on the transmission of knowledge and history through a strong sense of family. The stories in this exhibition are passed particularly through lines of women, grandmothers, aunties and mothers.

Paola Morabito-Tang (Wemba Wemba people) prints black and white photographic images onto giant sheets of paper. I couldn’t help but sneak a feel of the paper’s silky edge between thumb and forefinger; the textures of bark, gnarled wire, and pale grass are so strong. The 4 prints depict fences and trees filtering white, eerie light through palings and branches. The title of each work indicates the spirit layer of each piece; we search for kerratety kurrk (women’s bird), the goon dog, and ngatha murrup (little man). My favourite features a sagging wire fence in the foreground, a tangle of overgrown trees, and a house as hazy as memory in the distance. Ngatha murrup is deep in the shadows, a messy biro scribble. He is the most difficult to find, making this work the most intriguing.

Gary Donnelly (Gunditjmara) paints soft, simple landscapes, infused with a sense of power. The folds of red hill and sky are mysterious and suggestive of a presence, or perhaps an absence. His work is inspired by the stories of his mother, which serve to warn and protect. ‘The Messenger’ reminded me of just how dark it can be in the bush at night; the canvas is a thick inky navy, the stars diffuse behind clouds and the owl that brings sad news sits in the tree hollow, eyes sunk back into the night.

Craig Charles (Yorta Yorta/Mhutti Mhutti) offers a series of small abstract square works, brittle and toffee-like in texture. The series moves from rich glassy rose reds through amber to warm brown, referencing the “red eyed mooky man”. They have a number of layers; torn Easter egg wrappers create lines, like window bars. I could only connect Charles’ work to his story of being trapped in front of the telly, watched by his Nanna Th e torn lines evolve into shapes that made me think of boats and leaves. Perhaps this is the space of play, as Charles sneaks from the lounge room to join the cousins out the back.

Mandy Nicholson (Wurundjeri) has the most distinctively indigenous painting style in the show, employing traditional motifs of southeast Australia. Mindi, the Devil Snake, has a fat red body looped around itself, and a dangerous flickering tongue. Nicholson uses symmetry, fine lines and design to illustrate Wurundjeri stories. Again, these teach rather than simply entertain, “Mindi was always on the lookout for any people who wander from the safety of their camps and families.”

These very different artists indicate the dynamism of contemporary Indigenous culture, and engage the spiritual aspects of experience without reifying or idealising Indigenous traditions. King and Harradine hope that this exhibition gets its viewers a little bit ‘windy’, a little bit scared. At first I found it hard to feel spooked with classic hits cranking in the gallery space whilst I scribbled notes for this review. But I decided to stand with each piece again. I found that ngatha murrup was watching me from the dark before I found him, that the owl touched a deep sadness and that Mindi fixed me with that glittering gold eye. Aaaaiiieeeeeeeee.

Ab-normal, Ghost stories from young Indigenous artists, curators Daniel King & Gail Harradine, Dantes Upstairs Gallery, Fitzroy, Melbourne, Next Wave; May 14-25

RealTime-NextWave is part of the 2002 Next Wave Festival

RealTime issue #49 June-July 2002 pg. 5

© Eve Stafford; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2002