Ushpizin*

The last time I took a photo in a public toilet it was to record the visit of unexpected guests. The occasion was a visit to the Men’s Banios at the Alhambra, in Granada in 2010.

Twenty years ago when I made a maiden visit to the toilet in my cabin in Broome, the gleaming green frog sitting contentedly in the white bowl caused me such aesthetic delight that it overthrew, for the time, the excretory impulse. I never took the beautiful creature’s photograph. Instead, like D H Lawrence chucking a stone at the snake drinking at his well in Sicily, I flushed away my serene guest. I never forgave myself; it was, as in Lawrence’s ‘Snake’, ‘something to expiate/a pettiness.’

These reminiscences surfaced a few moments ago when I visited the Men’s at my work. The cubicles, until now separated and enclosed by timber miniskirts, were guarded by maxis. I sat and mused. It felt how I imagined solitary confinement in the Kremlin, a dark, quiet, a place where man is alienated from his fellows. I missed the collegial sight of a pair of shoes arriving in the next cubicle. I missed the moment when the orientation of the newcomer’s shoes declares his intention and his need. Gone were the sounds, wordless but declarative of the action. I was alone.
I took some photos. Such a spiritually potent change in decor called for some record.
My workmates informed me the changes were made following the arrest by the police of a gentleman seated in a cubicle in the Ladies. It appears that the gent was an habitue of our female Conveniences, spending whole mornings in aesthetic delight, enjoying the reflected details of his lady neighbours on either side.

The opposite occurred to me in October 2010 when Nature summoned me to the Banios. There was one door for ingress and another at the far end for egress. On my right a number of cubicles with opal grey doors concealed their tenants; on my left a series of white porcelain appliances gleamed their welcome. I stood facing one of these, enjoying the slow movement that is the lot of a man in his sixties. I had reached that stage when the greater part of the volume has been discharged but the bulk of the time is still ahead. In other words I was still committed when the unmistakable tinkling sound of laughter announced the arrival of three teenage girls. The young ladies entered. They sighted us men and advanced. As they neared us it was every man for himself, one breaking off and hurrying away, the rest of us burrowing closer to the porcelain in some anxiety. The girls formed a line behind us and stood still. No-one spoke. Was this a quaint local custom? A welcome, perhaps? My Spanish was not good enough for me to essay an enquiry.
Eventually my hands were free, my clothing decently enclosing all, and I turned around. I found the new arrivals standing with backs resolutely towards us, facing the cubicles, waiting until one should be free. The arrivals behaved as if their presence were unremarkable. I turned to leave, looking back from the exit to gaze on the scene. I remembered I carried a camera. I took a shot of the males and the females standing back to back in that narrow rectangle and departed.

Five minutes later a ringing voice challenged me at the kiosk where they sell gelati. A girl’s voice, it shrilled its plaint in Spanish, then in English, with excited hand movements for emphasis: Why you take picture? You delete!
I didn’t reply. I didn’t delete. I lacked the skill to do either. But I’ve never opened the photo, never shown anyone. The ethics of lavatory photography come to one, like wisdom, slowly.
*Honoured Guests. Google if curious.

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A Review of One Thousand Cuts, by Rod Moss

One Thousand Cuts by Rod Moss

One Thousand Cuts by Rod Moss

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.”

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Robert Hillman’s ‘Gurrumul’ – Review by Howard Goldenberg

Gurrumul by Robert Hillman  Publisher: ABC Books

Gurrumul by Robert Hillman
Publisher: ABC Books

If autobiography is the least reliable genre in fiction then the authorized Life sits at its flakiest edge. That this is not true of Hillman’s “Gurrumul” is on account of the slipperiness of the subject.

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunipingu emerges as shy, remote, elusive, cryptic, mischievous – an outer island in an archipelago of tongues. He does not so much emerge as submerge himself. Blind from birth, Gurrumul seems at times to be mute by choice. At others he makes himself perfectly clear to a whitefella, especially when working with his intimate collaborator, Michael Hohnen.

By book’s end Gurrumul remains hidden; only his music and the beauty of his features – a beauty we can enjoy and he can never perceive – speak to us.

No biographer could truly represent this life, (nor for that matter could he successfully misrepresent it). Wisely, Hillman does not attempt either. Instead he places the artist in his context. Chiefly that context is the complex of family (especially his bevy of aunties), community, land and Dreaming: in short, culture.

“Culture”, a term used promiscuously in conversations between the races, embodies meanings that are layered and expressed in dance, in music, in painting, in song, in storytelling and in land husbandry. The meanings are traditionally expressed obliquely, which is to say they are in part obscured. What Gurrumul does with these enfolded meanings appears to be a risky enterprise of his own, with calibrated departures from liturgical norms, a sort of jazz move in which he improvises within a theme and extends it beyond the limits of permitted custom.

Such a variation on a theme must be perceptible only to a tiny number of the millions who respond to Gurrumul’s music making. In this sense it is a secret, yet another, in  practice that skates ever along the outer edge of theunshareable.

When Gurrumul sings, whitefellas listen, enthralled. Literally, we are in a thrall, under a spell cast upon us by the spellbinding singer. We scarcely hear the words, we cannot parse them; and when we read their translations in Hillman’s book, the words in English are so simple as to appear banal: a profoundly false impression. And yet, and yet, we are transported. If beauty be truth, then truth is shown to us precisely as it is withheld. The subtlety of all this magic is clearly rendered in Hillman’s book.

To those who have read “My Life as a Traitor” and “The Rugmaker of Mazr a Sharif”, Hillman’s skill in rendering an alien culture will be familiar. It is in his later work, “The Honey Thief”, that Hillman manages to capture the artist in the act of working his art, in this case the sublime art of the Afghan (Azari) storyteller.

In the present volume Hillman attempts the extremely ambitious exegesis of the utterly untranslatable term, “Dreaming.” He succeeds, in this reader’s view, brilliantly. In twenty five years and over sixty working visits to remote Aboriginal communities, I have never felt I came so close to apprehending (I doubt any whitefella will ever comprehend) the Dreaming, as in Hillman’s “Gurrumul, his life and music.”

Hillman has succeeded remarkably in penetrating the life of art and ceremony (the two amount to much the same thing) on Elcho Island. Seven years ago while I worked on Elcho ceremony was active but off limits for whitefellas. Clearly Robert Hillman won the trust of capable cultural brokers on the island, who ‘let him in’ wherever this was permissible. In return, Hillman repays trust with respect that neither fawns nor condescends. In this his text avoids the vapid tone of comments on the book’s photographs.

Which leads me to the one regret I have about the book, a quibble perhaps, but an important one. In an important sense Hillman’s publisher subverts the author’s enterprise, which is to render in words an art that is ineffable. It is the format of the handsome volume that works against the writing. You look at the book, you find the cover images arresting – and to one familiar with the singing – quite new. The book itself cannot be held in the hand and read: it is biography in a coffee table format. You open the book, you start to read and you find yourself distracted repeatedly from the text by beguiling photographs which tell their own story quite compellingly, but quite out of sync with Hillman’s theme at any point.

Better justice might have been done to both text and photos by physically separating them.

In the end the book succeeds to a remarkable degree. Importantly, it demonstrates how, as whitefellas embrace Aboriginal culture, Australia is becoming more Australian.

Hillman’s book is bound to succeed beyond these shores as Gurrumul’s audiences around the world drink deeply in their thirst for some understanding of his life and his music.