Juno Gemes

PROOF

WHERE THE SACRED FISH
   COME IN

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ART & AUSTRALIA Vol 38 #3
Juno Gemes in London

David Hansen

THE LANGUAGE OF
   OYSTERS

Reviews

Art & Australia Vol 38/3 p476Art & Australia
Vol. 38 No. 3 March-May 2001

Juno Gemes in London
David Hansen


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 House’1 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 in Canberra.

One of the earliest works in Gemes’s 2000 London exhibition was Mythic thought, 1978, an awkward montage incorporating images of Wandjina rock paintings, an ethnographer’s photograph from the Tyrell Collection, c. 1900, showing an unidentified (but in all probability secret-sacred) South Coast ceremony; two detais of René Magritte’s 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 figure’s face with totemic body paint or cicatrices. The contrast of focused surface and underwater blur recalls the late Lin Onus’s billabong landscapes. But the primary referent, the informed quotation, is John Everett Millais’s 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 Millais’s Pre-Raphaelite palette. In Millais’s painting, Ophelia floats past a riverbank choked with foliage, pathetic, mad and doomed. Posing in a bathtub for hours, Millais’s 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 Gemes’s 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 Gemes’s 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 Shirl’s ‘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 Gemes’s 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 picture’s right-hand edge. In the centre stands her child, also facing away. Forming the point of the triangle at the picture’s left-hand edge, her man reclines on one elbow like Raphael’s river god and Manet’s dejeuniste. They are all looking out to sea, watching for the sacred fish. The wedge of the family’s 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 women’s 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.

• • •

1 The former Clune Gallery at 59 Macleay Street, Kings Cross, used as an arts space in 1970-71 by Martin Sharp, Bruce Goold, Dick and Greg Weight, Jon Lewis and George Gittoes, among others.

2 We Wait No More, Hogarth Galleries, Sydney, November 1982.

• • •

Where the Sacred Fish Come In
Rebecca Hossack Gallery, London. 3 August 2 September 2000.