One Thousand Cuts: Life and Art in Central Australia
A book of the dead?
Yes, explicitly so.
Names are named, a violation of all norms, all practice in both whitefella and blackfella Australia.
Rod does this by virtue of trust, explicit consent, indeed the command of Rod’s friends.
Rod Moss’ singular role – to witness, to record and transmit.
Rod Moss grew up in the country. Well, in the 1950’s the Dandenong Ranges were country-ish. But he was never “in country” until some time well into his long apprenticeship under Edward Arranye Johnson, in and around Alice Springs.
Moss’ first book, “The Hard Light of Day” recounts that apprenticeship, which began with a spontaneous act of neighbourliness and evolved through friendship to become a connection of spiritual father to son. The building and the losing of that bond are the subjects of that first book, winner of the Prime Minister’s Award. It might sound like a large statement that the second book builds on and exceeds the first in its power. It does so by the swelling sorrow of loss after loss after loss, of the weight of pain.
The present volume is unique in the way it illuminates the experience of being “in country” – an opaque expression that whitefellers who work outback hear often from blackfellers. Subtly, delicately, in a characteristic Moss undertone, being ‘in country’ becomes luminous. The light is shed by Moss as he moves around Arranye’s hereditary domain as his named spiritual heir.
Moss gives us birdsong, birdflight as he walks beneath. He breathes the breezes and tempests that flutter or flatten foliage and carry mood or prophecy.
He names and describes the fauna – from grub to reptile to marsupial – that create the country.
Moss does all this in the same manner as in his painting. His colours are florid, his verbal sallies frequently outrageous, his attack fearless. But in all this bravura there’s nothing flash or glib, as Moss walks and paints and photographs the lands of his spiritual patrimony, bearing the loss of spiritual father (and of many brothers and sisters), accruing more and more losses until their weight becomes unbearable.
Most of the losses come abruptly. Each comes with the force of a thump to the solar plexus.
Moss, with his reader at his shoulder, absorbs blow after blow.
At this point we have Moss Agonistes, crying: “It rains in my heart. One drop at a time.”
Moss misses a much anticipated funeral: “I find myself crying on Saturday morning …Though I was sad at the gravesite, it has taken until now, opening the brochure and studying the commemorative words…for me to be sobbing.”
And after further deaths: “They continue to die and I am still here…”
He continues: “This passing (of) senior men, seventy plus years: grandfathers and great-grandfathers, a great legacy spreading from them.
Suddenly, it seems, I am the old one among those surviving. Teenagers who’d once exchanged pleasantries with Raffi and Ronja (children of the author) now have children, criminal records, flecks of grey in their hair.”
Moss has been there, stayed there, bearing witness to the generations, an epitome of constancy, trusted to witness, to record, to paint, to recount, to be a friend, later a son, finally a posterity for a clan that loses its young.
Here is the testament of pain of the survivor, the witness to the raft of the Medusa, that is cut loose, adrift, in all its anarchy; and in its moments of redemptive beauty.
The book is everywhere about the power of story, its necessity and its sanctity.
But there is much more in ‘One Thousand Cuts’ than grief and regret: we find nobility and nurture (Arranye, Magdalene Johnson), we find humour –
Shakey and his brother Brushy disagree over who should go and when (the author suggests a trip to an ancestral site of the Hayes’), and with whom, who’d show me what, and who had the authority to do so.
‘I’m the oldest’, says Brushy. ‘What you fuckin know? My father told me about Uyitye, not you.’
Next thing Brushy, who has conducted his side of the argument from an inverted flour drum next to the fire, stands and delivers a king hit. Shakey throws a feeble retaliatory blow. before a second hit from the more robust Brushy lands him on his seat. Fight finished. Argument decided. Little discussion has transpired. When those few words failed, fists did the talking.
Shakey whimpers a little as he regains his feet and wanders off for a pee in the bush. I recoil in horror from what they’ve done to each other and feel guilty…and return to my car. I regret raising the idea.
As I turn the ignition, Shakey comes to my side, apologetically gurgling blood from his ruined mouth. ‘Jus brothers. Always fightin.’
At home a mudlark harasses its reflection in the lounge window. Crows croak over the chicken coop, their tough heads swivel left and right.
The phone rings. A friend has a double mattress that someone at Whitegate might like. When I drive out with it to the purple shed, Julie Hayes tells me that she dreamt last night about a bed.
‘More likely you had a dream about someone on it, with you, Julie’, I say.
‘No, not that old husband, Lawrence.’
Eva Hayes asks me if I’ll hoick her and Patrick to Amuoonguna. On the bitumen to Ross Highway Patrick admires the height and verdancy of the grass stretching to town on one flank, to Emily Gap on the other.
‘All my fat country now. Too much rain, I like, my boy. My country looking fat. Take me Antulye, any time’, he adds, ‘Get me kere akhere (kangaroo).’
‘I have no gun,’ I remind him for the umpteenth time.
He grins, a glint in his eyes. ‘You got this one’, he says, leaning forward and gently tapping the dash, a road kill in mind. ‘Big gun you been got.’
For me ‘One Thousand Cuts’ contained a revelation – the power and penetration of Rod’s photographs. Here are faces and places and events, rendered in archaic black and white. The effect is archival: we gaze at an image and we see history. The photos enlarge upon and comment on the paintings and all the images interact with text. The reader comes closer to Moss and his world – our world – the Australia where whitefellas must still place ourselves.
When I look at Moss’ photos of faces, I see ungrinning, uncomplaining veritas – ‘this is how it is, this is how I am’. Xavier Neil, old Arranye, Big Rose and Magdalene Johnson.
And Eva Hayes – that unforgettable face of the mother who loses her sons – I look at that face, stolid, ‘sheer as the sea’, and recall the episode in the Bible where the sons of Aharon the high priest enter the Holy of Holies, offer ‘strange fire’ and are consumed in a moment by the conflagration of the Absolute. The text follows – two Hebrew words – va’yidom aharon – and Aharon was silent.
These are the photos Rembrandt might have given us. Moss has the Rembrandt eye for character.
How does Moss stand it? How can a friend bear the losses, the wantonness? How to reconcile the stone-hard contradictions?
After enduring most of the One Thousand Cuts Moss knows he needs healing. On page 198 he sets out on a series of healing trips. To country. With traditional owners. To heal. And he does heal. Country regenerates itself and regenerates the indigenous self, the self to which Moss has been drawn, has moved for three decades.
Among all the wrecked lives, among the human wreckage, the degradation, Moss witnesses a moment of intimacy between a soft-spoken spouse and a deaf husband. He writes:
If only I could live in the grace of spontaneity and the elegance of fearlessness.
What violence do I emit by gazing into another’s eyes
with acceptance or rejection?
How often do I depend upon their recognition or rejection of me?
How often have I suppressed my feelings to maintain harmony
and bind others to me through my exploitation and fear?
At first reading these lines feel at once obscure and clear, a longing, an envious regret, a feeling of the lack of wisdom. Many readings later, they feel the same. The poetics are passionate as Moss strips himself bare.
Rod shows himself literally naked in a number of the paintings.
The naked artist appears in Expulsion: Once Upon a Time in the Centre, reappears in Reconciliation Walk, as in Eternal Recurrence: the Yard Went on Forever; and in Enigma of the Whiteman.
Moss offers images of himself as a curiosity. Like the bull in This is not a Bull, this white Mossfella is a stripped being, surrounded by gazing Blackfellas.
Mutely they gaze and wonder, Whitefella, what are you doing here?
Who are you?
What are you, here, in the land of the Blackfella?
The questions are pertinent, urgent when Moss first arrived, still urgent today. Moss’ images help us to picture ourselves as the Very New Australians we helplessly are. Moss’ two-headed naked self-fighting himself is the Whitefella writ clear, a paradox emerging from a contradiction.
At the centre of the volume the reader comes to a section headed, Where Art and Life Collide. In fact this theme underlies the entire work in which paintings, portrait photographs and doublespread landscape photos in blazing colour punctuate the author’s prose, all alternate, illuminate and comment upon each other.
Moss anatomises the situation in Alice: What with the extreme weather, the systematic retributive crime, with the rages and ecstasies they induce, the closeness of families, the ready availability of knives and liquor, violence is inevitable.
Another Whitefella reviewer has missed the point of these remarks, dismissing them as ‘generalizations’. That point is the inescapable question, universal – that is to say – a general question as much as a particular one: What happens to a human being during these sudden rushes of annihilating strength?
(It is precisely this question that prompts another recent book, “The Long Weekend in Alice Springs”, written by Moss’ Jungian psychologist friend Craig San Roque and illustrated by Joshua Santospirito. It is the same question that nags and erodes my being as I bind and dress and stitch the One Thousand Cuts in my work as doctor to remote communities.)
A casual browser encountering ‘One Thousand Cuts’ might wonder – is Moss a painter who writes or a writer who paints? The question would be idle.
As Moss writes in this section: This unravelling of post-colonial strife is all the more poignant being enacted in an environment of quintessential beauty. The paints, pencils and pens I daily use, what evidence of this do they proclaim? What do they preserve or violate? Has my vision opened, narrowed or deepened? Can some balance be struck through this art I make, something teetering between the beauty and the terror?
Moss concludes his book with a reverie: “How do I draw from the void and relax in it? I rest on my pillow; my left ear hears a plane ploughing the corridors of night, mice rustling in the roof, the pulse of my wrists.”
He hears these sounds – the aircraft, epitome of the shifting, shiftless, impermanent Whitefella; the mice and the pulse, the domestic static of insomnia.
But the passage moves on: “The breeze moves the citrus leaves by the bedroom window. In ten minutes I know where it will blow, further east. And where it will rain even later, and how that falling water will polish stones as it runs its swift course to the river.”
Moss knows his country, and, however ambiguously, inhabits it.
“Each day I measure myself.
Each day I find the same self. Others seem larger. More here.”
I read this book, I fall into its poetic rhythms, traversing country, guided by Moss, chosen son of Arrenye’s Johnson, traditional owner of the country in question – and I find myself asking, “How here am I?”