DATES & VENUES
LIST OF WORKS
Actions On Film... So Much More Than Words
For Hands In Each Other's Pockets
Portraits from The Movement 1978 2003
For Hands In Each Other's Pockets
The pocket in question is a small pocket of resistance. A pocket is formed when two or more people come together in agreement...
~ John Berger
Resistance. Agreement. And then if the pressure is too great or too complex the pocket gives way and what we hoped for so much falls to the ground, and has to be picked up, all over again. Unless.
Begin with two laments. Activist movements in Australia have never really had their photographer. There must be countless graphic pictures taken of this or that protest, but where is the powerful photographer who has substantially pulled them together, or the major gallery that has put such a collection on show? It is astonishing, when you think of the resources of the Labor movement, that it has never seen fit to consistently document its main events, relying instead on the élan of photojournalists whose images so often subtly or not so subtly condescend to those who have taken their political intelligence into the streets. Bad enough that the camera can so pacify its subjects as to sometimes murder them, as Susan Sontag long ago remarked: worse that the purport of so much photo-journalism of civic action has been to distort militancy as a dangerous species of mob rule, and patronize mass action as democratic spectacle that is essentially futile.
The second lamentable truth is that most of us born since 1945 have only intermittently attended to the long struggle for Aboriginal justice. Even when the landmark events come to mind the 1967 referendum, the Woodward Commission, the enactment of the N.T. Land Rights Act (1976), the Mabo Judgement, whatever memory blurs with other political events that were non-Aboriginal, so that the result can sometimes be a vague feeling of remorse that the urgency has been sidelined, or deferred or perhaps suppressed. There have been too many good causes from which to have to choose with a clear conscience, yet the Aboriginal issue has been with us as long as the wide brown land. Being able to say this much is something, of course. What has happened, as the last thirty or forty years have passed, is that those two notions have become vitally synonymous to decent Australian hearts and minds. Aboriginal and country inhabit the same spot in the semantic field. There are written records of this process: an extensive literature, in fact, one that is both scholarly and partisan. But a visual record, a photographic record of this profound social process? Where is that, exactly? Who has been stepping up to the mark? Whats there to help us recover our historical focus?
Crucially, there is now the work of Juno Gemes, who has, over the last thirty years, had the heart and the stamina to stay with the Aboriginal Movement. This exhibition is both an honouring of that movement and a visual essay upon it akin to the work of Walker Evans or Richard Avendon. The latter, I happen to know, is one of Junos mentors, and he comes to my mind because of the luminous intimacy of his portraits, the quality of perfection his eye brings to the ordinary. Walker Evans I mention with a mind to his implacable sense of document, and because his images worked in conjunction with the great, love-filled intelligence of James Agee. Historically and aesthetically, we are in Juno Gemess debt.
The precise nature of that debt varies, naturally, from one set of eyes, from one memory to another. It will vary according to our age, our gender, our various habitats in this country, our different narrative histories, most of all our narrative histories especially if they have been determined by being Aboriginal. Here I am shocked into another plain statement: like it or not this is a collection of images about people who are not me. I say not me rather than other because other, I have come to feel, is an alienating reification. Junos pictures help one say this. We the white spectators of this gallery of pictures now see everyone portrayed on these walls, not as other but as individuals who simply happen to be not ourselves. That is to say, it is the implacable individuality of each person that looms here, and which warms the room, thanks to the distinctive receptivity of Junos camera.
At the time of writing I am imagining the room into which all these pictures will bring their body heat. I have not yet seen the pictures hung, but last night at Junos place she unwrapped each picture one by one from their white tissue paper as the wide dark Hawkesbury River flowed along outside the studio. Face to face with each person taken by Juno and taken is instantly wrong, many images are in the realm of exchange, of gift I felt a range of emotions, not all of them comfortable, as I have been suggesting, since we all look out from our own imperfect moral histories. But overall I felt confirmed. I felt joined. For one thing many of the men reminded me of my uncles and father. I could smell the nicotine and Brylcreme. See that man resting his hip on the grass, his legs out and shoes still on; or the way that bloke stands in the polling booth; or that one is listening with head down as his mate goes on, gesticulating, the makins of the democratic listener burning short. There were one or two moments when I could smell the beer and envisage the blue not a nasty one, mind you, a fight with fists only and one that would pull up with puffs and laughter. I was looking at warm men, men more hurt than they could say, men who can argue, men who can stand up for themselves as well as others, men shy of women or, if not shy, rather too brash until a woman put her foot down and a good thing too. Men who know how to throw their hat into the room when theyre late, and they are often late, since everyone has a right to be late. Men who did not always wear a watch. Men not hopelessly bound to capitalism.
I know I am running several things together here, indulging a slippage between the history of the labor movement and the very different (but often connected) Aboriginal struggle. The connection will irk those who have lost heart in the Australian left as many Aboriginal lives have continued to deepen into tragedy, theirs, and therefore ours. That tragedy is mutedly present in some faces here: sullenly, angrily present, inevitably. Our knowledge of that continuing tragedy is the given of our white spectatorship of them, but then, as we meet each face, and face after face, it is a knowledge joined by at least an introduction to this person in the photograph, one who might be disposed to trusting relationship, if we are worth trusting. What these pictures generally enact, in fact, is friendship, often particular friendships formed by Juno in the course of years in and around the Aboriginal Movement. They are loving domestic photographs, outside and inside. Here, a picture seems to announce, this was snapped just as the kettle boiled.
The women. I wish I had aunts and a mother like some of these women. Their corporeal lustre. Their depth of contemplation, a contemplativeness that seems to be animated, as strange as that may sound: how much silence can speak worlds and the female world, once spoken, leads back to the generative pool of silence. The women seem to exude an enormous capacity for sustenance, and that was affirming too, as Juno tuned the pages. And then, of course, there were the younger women, about whom it is harder to speak, as, but for a twist or turn of ones own life, they might have been kissing cousins. Junos delight in the beauty of faces is itself a delight. As one young woman passed by in the folio I teased Juno about her eye for the glowing nobility of some of the older men, for she loves their faces, their hearts. As for the younger Aboriginal men brothers and cousins of the girls I might have kissed as a young man myself they were harder for me to locate in this emotional field of potential, personal friendship. I could not feel brother, and do not know why; this worries me. I could imagine sharing the punching bag at the gym, or playing on the same football team, or hours of walking in silence. But saying this feels more like an intellectual proposition, something out of my own pocket, so to speak, rather than an utterance with a social base.
In any case, as Juno and I murmured our way through the images, many of my flickerings ceased to matter. Increasingly I was aware of being looked at as much as looking. There was Jimmy Little: I knew him, have heard him sing: he croons with beams of moonlight. Now here he was, really, looking straight at me: full on in broad daylight, just like that. And so with many of Junos pictures: they turn the tables on subject and object so that you give way to the gaze of the individual the photo has brought so intimately to hand. Then, creating an extra dimension to this potency of individual presence, individuals stand up in witty performance, the wit being not the wit of the comic (though there is humour running through things here) as the wit of totally cognisant. Self-parodic, mimicking, playing possum, just mucking about you name it, and the stance caught in many of these pictures might be seen as part of the long colonial history of Aborigines putting on one thing or another for the white gaze, all the time being steps ahead of it. Juno, with her intuition for the dialectic of the pitch, knows this well, most startlingly when she leaves the face of a young man half in shadow, or when she revels in the painted eyes of two Redfern girls who know they are playing with urbanity itself. Much freedom springs forth from these photographs, even as a white narrative frames them.
Then there are the performances of utmost ceremonial importance. The shots of the Handback Ceremony at Uluru in 1985 record a defining tableau. There they all are, the well-meaning white men who will go down in history, and the crowd of activists and well-wishers among the freshly entitled desert people. Some are on platforms, looking here and there: others on the ground, looking in many directions also. The pictures have a focus, naturally, but their energies are dispersed, complex in their power. I felt most at home in these photographs partly because I have spent some years coming and going from writing projects out of Central Australia, and also because I had met some of the leaders there, among them Yami Lester, a man whose beauty of presence is profound. Juno conveys, as she does in all pictures of the important public events, a sense of events very slowly unfolding. Yes, there are high action shots here, too: passion loudly assembled under banners. But the main feeling I get is of slow time, and of a strange and agonizing political paradox. The paradox is that despite the tragic urgency of the Aboriginal cause, the glacial momentum of progress, and there has been some progress, is in time with the culture that first civilized this continent. There is a kind of tautology here, which need not be pernicious. I remember one of my first thoughts on encountering Aboriginal culture and its life in death in Central Australia. One wept for those continuing to suffer. At the same time one was in awe of the indomitable patience, the deep grace, of the men and women who could see what was happening and were still acting to change things.
That noble strength will fill a room when Junos self-effacing photographs are hung in Canberra, where they will draw upon the time of citizens and besieged leaders in the national capital.