We seem to be in a season of memoirs. Some might say it is a season in hell, but all of these memoirs, despite the sorrows they chronicle, offer hope. Whether it is Howard Goldenberg’s Raft (Hybrid Publishers, 2009) with its discoveries of courage or Andrew Stojanovski’s stirring refusal to be vanquished in Dog Ear Cafe (Hybrid, 2010), these whitefellas’ stories of blackfella lives prove the wisdom of E. M. Forster’s dictum, “Only connect.”
Rod Moss has delivered a tour-de-force with The Hard Light of Day: an artist’s story of friendships in Arrernte country (University of Queensland Press, 2010). Moss is a well known artist who had lived in Alice Springs for over a quarter of a century and who has exhibited his paintings of Aboriginal life in the Alice Springs town camps in venues ranging from Melbourne’s Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi to the Kluge-Ruhe Collection in the United States. His paintings combine hard realism with a surreal invocation of nineteenth-century French masters and Goya drenched in pointillism. They hover mysteriously between portraiture and allegory, and I will confess to never having known quite what to make of them until this extraordinary new book by the artist found its way into my hands. And while the book contains reproductions of over fifty of Moss’s paintings, with commentary, it is not an art book. It is a story, a personal history, of life in and around the Alice town camps.
Much of the story that Moss tells here takes place in the 1990’s but it is all the more poignant for that. Reading it in 2010, one can’t help but overlay the incidents he records with the Tangentyere Council’s struggles with Mal Brough in 2006 or with the killing of Kwementyaye Ryder little more than a year ago. Not that Moss intends to provide political commentary; his is a personal story, but one that informs much of what appears in the pages of the Alice Springs News or The Australian almost every week.
Despite the fact that the author is a visual artist, he is as accomplished with words as with paints. Still, The Hard Light of Day feels almost like a grand symphonic tone poem in which themes appear and submerge, develop, burst forth, subside, resolve. It certainly has the most dramatic and telling of overtures. Past the dedication (“For the fathers”), past the epigraph from Ortega y Gasset (“Art, all art, is a highly respectable matter, but it is superficial and frivolous if it is compared with the terrible seriousness of life”) and the brief table of contents, comes a half-page portrait of a group of young, muscular, vital Aboriginal men, kneeling and standing in a pose that makes them look like a football team. On the page opposite, they are identified, row by row.
Turn the page; begin to read. The next pages are a catalogue of deaths. All of these men save two or three, including the young boy perched on a relative’s knee, are gone, fallen to pneumonia, cancer, alcohol, the blade of a knife, a vengeful ritual singing.
These men wander in and out of the pages of Moss’s memoir, and we come to know them and their families, their struggles, griefs, and triumphs. Chief among them is Xavier Neil, the first Arrernte man Moss became friends with after moving to Alice Springs to teach painting in the mid-80s. Xavier and his partner Petrina lived in a gully near Moss’s home: “just a blanket, billies, a dog and a transistor radio.” Moss, noticing Xavier’s morning ritual of trudging off with an empty billy for a half-hour’s return trip to fetch water, began pushing a garden hose under the fence for Xavier and Petrina to use for morning tea.
Xavier is one of the survivors from the photo that primes the opening pages of the book. In some ways he becomes Moss’s semblable, his frère: they are men of an age. Xavier is a canny guide who insinuates himself into Moss’s world by conversely opening up to the artist the ways of the Whitegate settlement and the heretofore unseen country of Arrernte life.
But the grand theme, the father, the animating spirit of Moss’s adventure and this book is the old man known as Arranye. It is with the old man that Moss truly begins to experience the land he has come to call home. Moss takes him out to places where Arranye can sing the country’s stories for him, capturing bits of the Dreaming on a portable tape recorder, shoring up fragments against the ruin. The old man is the pivot around whom Moss’s memoirs turn, the reference point that helps him chart his own path through the country.
Moss’s story is not just that of his friendships with various members of the town camps, his discovery of a brother and a father amongst the Arrernte. It is his own story as well, his growth as a teacher and an artist, and although these roles are inevitably shaped by the environment of Alice and the Central Desert, they are not totally determined by his immersion in Indigenous lifeworlds. He chronicles the growth of a family, its stresses and fractures and joys. Indeed, the complexity of his own life in all of its messy allegiances is as much a dominant narrative in the book as the stories of Xavier or Arranye are.
For me, one of the real delights of the book, though, is precisely the insight into small corners of the Arrernte lifeworld that Moss’s long involvement affords him. He encounters a kangaroo freshly killed by the side of the road, and hoists it onto his vehicle to take to the camp for dinner. The gift is accepted gratefully, but only after Moss is thoroughly examined as to where he found the beast, on which side of the road and at what exact point in his travels. Once his friends have determined that the animal came from proper country for them to eat, they set to with gusto, but not until they have satisfied themselves that it is proper by their law to do so. Similarly, Moss is an acute observer of the mechanics of payback, and I’ve never before read anything quite so nuanced about the aftermath, in Arrernte terms, of an automobile accident, and the dangers and demands it imposes on those who survive.
I have long been bemused by Moss’s art, with its elaborate stagings out of Gericault, Caravaggio, or Breughel, its odd cross-breeding of Central Desert and French Impressionist stylings. The Hard Light of Day gives meaning and coherence to the body of Moss’s paintings, which in itself is unusual for an artist to achieve in the medium of prose. Far better it provides that meaning and coherence to lives lived in Alice Springs and the town camps, both Moss’s own and those of his Arrernte friends. Whether or not you know Moss paintings, or like them, are a first time visitor to Alice Springs, a frequent traveler there, or even resident in the suburbs, The Hard Light of Day will enrich your experience of it all.
The video below offers tantalizing glimpses into what the book explores in greater depth, but its final moments, filmed at the opening of one of Moss’s exhibition in town, offers the best testimony–from the children of the camps–to what the artist has achieved.