I first encountered Nicolas Rothwell at Yirrkala in 2005. Not in person; that didn’t happen until almost two years later, in Darwin, at Raft Artspace. Rather, the encounter came while I was visiting the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre just days after the community led the field of winners at the NATSIAA, taking top honors in the bark painting (Banduk Marika) and 3D (Naminapu Maymuru-White) categories and continuing a string of wins that had led strongly for a decade. The August 15, 2005 edition of the Australian carried Rothwell’s annual assessment of the Awards (“The Big Picture, Little Dreaming“) and it was not an especially kind review, beginning thus:
Like a plague-infected city, through which decay slowly spreads, the Aboriginal art industry’s premier event, the glittering first night of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award, colloquially known as the Telstra, after its sponsor, succeeds capably in hiding its degeneration behind a mask of vivid life.
This was the year of widespread grumbling about the Tjanpi Toyota‘s success, and Rothwell railed against the “rage … for novelty” and noted that “only one [of the five winners] can be taken seriously as an artistic achievement” without specifying which he meant. “In Arnhem Land,” he continued, “the northern fastness of sober art tradition, the urge to experiment, to seize the viewer’s eye, is coming to dominate.” Perhaps this judgement was tempered later on in the review, when he turned his attention to Marika’s work:
Some works, though, convince without advocacy. The bark painting award went to Yirrkala-based Banduk Marika, for a spare depiction of her clan’s Yalangbara site. Precise and self-contained, full of sheen and compressed light, this bark refers to the arrival of a pair of creator sisters, the Djanggawul, on the coastline of northeast Arnhem Land. Its designs trace the pattern of salt water drying on the skin. They speak, too, of the order and gravity of a threatened world. It was no great coincidence that the artist, in her acceptance address at Friday night’s ceremonies, spoke the only words recognising the deep social plight of remote Aboriginal Australia today.
There was no mention in the piece of Maymuru-White’s accomplishment. The mood around the art centre was not a happy one.
But I was intrigued, for this was the first serious piece of journalism I had encountered in the Australian press about Aboriginal art, and I wanted to know more about its author. A month later I took up publishing this blog and there is no doubt in my mind that Rothwell’s example had inspired me, for I spent much of that month combing the Australian‘s online archives for other examples of his work.
Soon I discovered not just his occasional essays in the newspaper, but had plunged into the romance known as Wings of the Kite-Hawk (Picador, 2003) and I was enraptured. And although my enthusiasm for Rothwell’s insights and perspectives has waxed and waned repeatedly over the intervening years, I remain convinced that his is an important body of commentary on Aboriginal art and culture to which I remain deeply indebted. And as a friend recently remarked to me, “Ahh, he can write. He can see and express things with such surefooted eloquence.”
Still, when Rothwell’s latest book, Journey to the Interior (Black Inc., 2010) appeared, I did not rush off to my online bookstore to procure a copy. I’d been just a little let down by the previous two collections published by Black Inc., Another Country (2007) and The Red Highway (2009). In part my disappointment stemmed from simply being au courant with Rothwell’s writing: I’d already encountered many of the pieces reprinted in these two books in their original formats. In part, I was weary of the trope of the dying (or disappearing) culture that colored so much of his writing on art.
And so I was more than pleasantly surprised when I cracked open Journeys to the Interior a few months ago and began sampling its pleasures. For although it contains a hefty dose of his columns from the Australian on a broad swathe of Indigenous artists that I had already read and to which re-acquaintance offered only mild pleasure, this book seems in its way to be more of a piece: a mosaic to be sure, composed of smallish fragments shored up against his uncertainty, but a work that still commands a degree of unity in the way that musical motifs–a favored metaphor of Rothwell’s for the apprehension of meaning–weave together to create a structured sonata of significance and interpretation.
According to the way in which I was schooled to read literature and more broadly to interpret art, motifs are concrete manifestations in the work of art–an image, a phrase, a perceptible element–that allow both the artist and his audience to construct meaning and thus allow themes to emerge from the welter of sensual apprehension. Rothwell understands this in a way that few contemporary essayists (and probably no other journalists) do. In this book art itself is a motif that manifests itself repeatedly, be it in the form of modern novels, Haydn’s string quartets, the paintings and sculptures of a dozen Indigenous artists, Eric Auerbach’s critical masterpiece Mimesis, or the songs of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. Endangered species of snakes, eroded rocky landscapes, and dust-dimmed streets are other motifs that fill these pages with themes of fragmentation and disappearance. There is one great work of literature that Rothwell does not invoke, yet its specter haunts these pages and exposes the heart of his matter:
In the middle of the journey of our life,
I came to myself, in a dark wood
Where the direct way was lost.
Since his return from the Balkans and from the Middle East, Rothwell has been crossing the Australian continent on a journey without a destination and if he wanders in the vastness of the desert rather than in Dante’s dark wood, he finds himself circling along paths repeatedly, whether he is on the Birdsville Track or the Gunbarrel Highway. He has companions as ghostly as any Virgil. Mostly, however, he seems to be in search of as well as accompanied by a chorus of Doppelgänger.
In the essays that comprise the opening section, “Pathways,” these companions range from forgotten authors like Billy Linklater to those perhaps only half-remembered like Mrs. Aeneas Gunn or contemporaries like Tim Winton and Andrew McMillan. The lost explorer Ludwig Leichardt haunts him. And beneath or beyond all these manifestations of the search for Australia’s soul lies the Aboriginal consciousness. Even when not explicit and manifest, the indigenous sensibility is guiding the pen in Rothwell’s hand, ever-present in the landscape like the tjukurrpa.
In “Pathways” and in the closing stanzas of “Last Words,” Rothwell grapples with his trade in words, trying to define for himself how he is to write his way out of the dark wood. He despairs of the novel; he finds it an invasive species in the Australian mind and posits the “yarn” as more fitting, more natural, more appropriate and expressive for the great southern land. (No surprise then, that he was tapped to write the introduction to the new edition of David Ireland’s novel The Glass Canoe, which appeared again in print this month and which Rothwell describes as a “phantasmagoria,” a word he might embrace to describe his own “fictive” constructions like The Red Highway.)
Rothwell’s concern for language and for finding ways of telling stories are obvious instances of the craftsman’s care for his tools. They are not ends in themselves but means to an end, the goal being understanding of self, the world, and one’s place in that world. In the last two decades, that world for Rothwell has become Australia. It’s hard for me, coming of age in my own country at a time when everyone from Easy Rider to Simon and Garfunkel set off to look for America, to say with a straight face that Rothwell’s journeys are the story of a man in search of Australia, of the quintessence of the country, but I think that there is nonetheless more than a grain of truth in that assessment.
And this is why his reflections are important to those of us concerned with the place of Indigenous peoples in Australia and in the landscape that Rothwell finds so central, so expressive of the essence he seeks. That is why, even when it remains quiet, the Indigenous Doppelgänger always accompanies him on his quest. The Aboriginal spirit is key to Rothwell, and the embodiment of that spirit in the landscape gives a voice to the country that lies in the plane parallel to his own culture: it is why the essay “Dance” holds a central place in this anthology.
Indeed, in a very literal sense, reflections about Indigenous people are the core of this book. The four sections called “Sketches,” “Sightings,” “Soundings,” and “Portraits” that occupy the middle two hundred pages of Journeys to the Interior are concerned almost entirely with Aboriginal art, culture, and individuals, from the rock art of the Burrup to wise men like Bidyadanga’s late Spider Kalbybidi or artists whose reach extends from the Torres Strait (Ricardo Idagi and Alick Tipoti) to the Indian Ocean (Lydia Baibal and Daniel Walbidi). It encompasses examinations of the role of art centre coordinators and the collaborations of Ildiko Kovacs and Cory Surprise, and chronicles anthropological investigations stretching back to Ursula McConnel on Cape York and Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land. It touches on politics in portraits of Galarrwuy Yunupingu and his father Mungurrawuy, of Marcia Langton and Noel Pearson. And given the importance of music as an objective correlative (in this book, Haydn, or Bach, whose cello suites haunted Wings of the Kite-Hawk), it is no surprise that the most glorious essay in the book is “Gurrumul”: not only is this a jewel among Rothwell’s investigations, it is one of the finest assessments of the musician’s spectacular talent I’ve read.
For all this, there is a silence in Journeys; perhaps silence is only to be expected in the realms of distant country where the author roams, but this is still a surprising silence. There is almost no trace of the political pieces that Rothwell has published in the Australian since 2007. Granted, this is pre-eminently a book about art in all its forms and a book about language, be that the language of words, of music, or of painting. It is, indeed, an interior journey and the hurly-burly of Australian politics as it manifests in Indigenous lives might disrupt the coherence that Rothwell has clearly worked strenuously to architect here out of the journalism he has produced in the last five years. Journeys to the Interior would have been a weaker book if it were merely a compendium of that output rather than the organized investigation into aesthetics that he has crafted in these pages. But I do remember that we are hearing only part of the story when we listen to the voices in this book. And I hope that someday Rothwell will reconcile his brilliant insights into culture with his sociocultural commentary that draws on the events surrounding the Intervention.
For ultimately, I do not think they exist in independent spheres. In the introduction to Citizenship and Indigenous Australians: changing conceptions and possibilities (Cambridge University Press, 1998), Nicolas Peterson and Will Sanders summarize Tim Rowse’s reflections on the narratives of crisis and emancipation that surround the history of Aboriginal people in Australia in the latter half of the twentieth century.
The crisis narrative, Rowse argues, rivals the plausibility of the emancipation narrative. It helps bring back into view the idea that Aboriginal people, rather than being just a collection of individuals, are a ‘surviving social oder’ which is owed some duty of support by the Australian state (Peterson and Sanders, p. 15).
Rothwell has written extensively about individuals, and he has written about the fate of the “surviving social order” among those individuals; he has written extensively, too, about the actions of government that are affecting both emancipation and survival on one hand, and crisis and assimilation on the other. I hope that in future years Rothwell turns his sympathetic intelligence towards a synthesis of the two. For now, he has composed another lyrical investigation into the realms of art and the soul, and I am grateful, for the moment, for that.