Making tracks from Down Under

What have we and the Australians in common?

RAINFOREST SHIELD designs and text by Vernon Ah Kee (photo credit: Courtesy)
RAINFOREST SHIELD designs and text by Vernon Ah Kee
(photo credit: Courtesy)
What have we and the Australians in common? On the face of it, not a lot. But when you dig just a little deeper, you find that some of the fundaments of the two countries, and some of the formative events of the respective societies, are very similar.
For starters there is the British connection, with much of the substratum of contemporary Australia established in the late 18th to mid-19th centuries, when Britain shifted over 150,000 men, women and children – many of them convicts – Down Under, ostensibly as a means of relieving overcrowding of British detention facilities. And, of course, the British ruled the roost in our part of the world for almost three decades, prior to the founding of the State of Israel.
The Mandate period here began in 1917 when the Allies, led by Gen. Edmund Allenby, defeated the Ottoman forces that had been ensconced here for four centuries. But the Brits didn’t overcome the Turks on their own, and made invaluable inroads into the Ottoman army’s defenses at the Battle of Beersheba, in October 1917. Much of the crucially strategic victory in the Negev was thanks to the bravery of members of Australian mounted troops of the 4th and 12th Regiments who overran the Turkish lines in double-quick time, armed only with bayonets.
In the last few months several commemorative events have taken place to mark the centenary of those momentous military developments, including the “Tracks and Traces” exhibition of contemporary Australian art, currently in progress at the Negev Museum of Art in Beersheba. The exhibition, which was curated by Emily Rolfe and Dalia Manor, with the support of the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, and closes on February 10, features the work of a culturally diverse cross section of exhibitors, each with his own take on the evolution of life in present-day Australia.
Another elemental common denominator between Israel and Australia is our immigrant melting- pot core. Like us, Australians hail from a multitude of nationalities and cultures, and have experienced the domineering and enduring presence of colonial powers.
THAT EXTRANEOUS influence is cited in the work of Danie Mellor, who, like most of the nine exhibitors, feeds off a rich swath of cultural roots. Forty-six-year-old Queensland-born Mellor is a descendant of the Mamu and Ngadjonji indigenous people of his home state, but also has American strains in his genes. That broad formative bedrock was enhanced by spending time in Scotland and South Africa as a youngster, which makes Mellor a good mouthpiece for his country’s multi-stratified narrative.
His works at the Beersheba Museum portray the unnatural confluence between the West and Australia’s natural habitat. Mellor’s circular pictures show vignettes of clearly tropical vegetation. The rotund format suggests a select or blinkered view of the country, which may have been the way 18th-century British explorer James Cook and his ilk got their first glimpse of the island continent. The bluish tint of four of the prints conjures up thoughts of Delftware – which references the Dutch colonial presence which began in the early 17th century – or, possibly, the similarly hued china and pottery made by 18th-century English potter and entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood.
The sea and marine sports are also an everyday idiom shared by Israel and Australia. Unfortunately, we are no strangers to military activity either, and Vernon Ah Kee’s expansive offerings, “Authors of Devastation,” marries the two topics with a spread of surfboard/ shield objects strewn across the display space. Ah Kee, who traces his genealogy back to four Aboriginal peoples, often weaves textual elements into his creations, and the snippets of words in his Beersheba exhibit allude to expressions of a confrontational, freedom-fighting nature.
The most obviously “indigenous” contribution in “Tracks and Traces” comes from Shirley Purdie, a descendant of the Nija people of the East Kimberley area of Western Australia, where she still lives. You get a palpable sense of 70-year-old Purdie’s roots in her locale from her paintings, which tend toward the earthy-sandy end of the color scale. Her bond with the land is front and center in her natural ocher-based paintings, which feature such endemic flora as a red-flowered kurrajong and a snappy gum tree.
MOTHER NATURE has a strong presence in Christian Thompson’s exhibits. The 39-year-old is possibly the most eclectic of the “Tracks and Traces” bunch, in terms of both disciplinary approach and heredity. Thompson is a photography and conceptual and performance artist who explores identity and history, leapfrogging cultural delineation in search of what binds us together, rather than what sets us apart from one another.
His noteworthy statements of artistic intent include the snappy definitive declaration “I seek to engage, not to enrage.” That sounds like a peace-loving, inclusive approach to life, but I wondered whether there may be circumstances in which even Thompson may be moved to adopt a more aggressive stance.
Not a bit of it. “I’m interested in subversion,” notes the now-London-based artist. “I think this is what attracted me to being an artist. I’m interested in beauty, lyricism and poetry in my work, things that lie just beneath the surface of popular culture. I’m not a pundit, but I aspire to be part of the zeitgeist, to impart an experience that can enter someone’s psyche, come back to them and evoke in a positive way.”
Thompson certainly has plenty of baggage to draw on, taking in a scarcely believable ethnic ambit that incorporates Bidjara heritage as well as English, Irish, Scandinavian and – yes – Sephardi Jewish origins.
Thompson says his primary formative backdrop fuels his view of the world. “I feel so grateful to have spent so much of my childhood in my traditional country in outback Queensland, where my family comes from. This really laid the foundation for so many ideas that permeate my practice to this day.”
Having so many strands allows Thompson to see life from all kinds of perspectives and to express this in his art. “I am always looking into the family history; and this mode of research, this auto-ethnographic approach, really drives much of my practice. I think it has also allowed me to move through the world in a very fluid way. When I’m in England, people think I’m from Brazil; when I’m in Canada, people think I’m Native American. When I am in America, people think I am Latino. I get it all, and I think people see what they know and recognize.”
Three of Thompson’s works in Beersheba show the artist with local flora arranged, wreath-like, around his head, and covering his eyes. Does that make the self-portraits less about him, thereby proffering a more objective vibe?
“I think, because there is performative action or gesture in my work, I am just an armature to present the objects that I am drawing a relationship between,” Thompson posits. “The photographic frame is like an immaterial studio space that I work within and can take with me anywhere in the world. Yeah, I don’t think of them as portraits; it’s about the ideas that are being performed, if you will.”
The photographs have a structural aesthetic to them which, presumably, owes something to Thompson’s background in sculpture.
“I consider things from a sculptural point of view,” he says. “I think about materials and space. In this sense, even with my photographic work, I tend to build images rather than take photos in a traditional sense.”
Thompson feels that having such a broad cultural hinterland in his personal locker makes his work accessible to people of varying roots and mind-sets. “I think we are always trying to orient ourselves to the world around us. This is always changing and never static. My work is very intertwined with my experiences, and I think many people who are interested in my work see this development and how one body of work folds into the next. I hope people are able to connect to this universal exploration in my work and bring something of their own experience.”
Thompson came over for the opening of “Tracks and Traces” and says the visit helped him join up some more dots in his personal profile.
“It was quite surreal to think, on the first night in Beersheba, that I was in the land of my maternal ancestors. I feel grateful for my Jewish heritage, and I am proud of that part of my background, as I am of all the different parts of my heritage. I felt connected, yes!” 
For more information about “Tracks and Traces”: (08) 699-3535 and