Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Roots weeping down to the blue sky – Vincent Serico and saying “sorry”

Oh boy, tomorrow morning’s “sorry” is going to be simultaneously ratified and drowned in an archipelago of weeping. Or that’s how I feel about it now. Shedding tears is a part-visual thing, but weeping is all sound. The sound of sadness being distilled. The sound of shuddering drawn and undrawn breaths.

An article in yesterday’s Australian on terminally-ill Indigenous artist Vincent Serico, vis a vis the forthcoming apology, sets a poignant enough tone. As it happens, I was gobsmacked by a particular painting of Mr Serico’s 12 years ago.

The painting “Yesterday” was hung at Tandanya Gallery, Adelaide in March 1996. Here’s my diary entry of its viewing:

“At the bottom of the painting is a scene of what first looks like an ordered working-class white town, but at second glance is a clearly all-black MissionVille, complete with church. On top of the town’s blue sky is a black line of tree roots, through which tribal Aboriginal figures reach down, precariously and strenuously. The figures dangle branches to pick up people from the white world and take them into the beautiful and dense Aboriginal world above”.

It was and is the saddest thing I have ever seen or heard.

At that time I knew nothing of Mr Serico’s background. Now the painting “Yesterday” seems to me a perfect representation of the stolen generations.

There is an obvious spatial cleft, and incongruity, in the painting between the “Indigenous” top and the mission below. There is also the suggestion of a temporal cleft, in the tribal Aboriginal figures juxtaposed against the mission’s assimilees.

The painting’s gut-wrenchingness is in knowing – as every Australian does, even if unconsciously – how small these clefts really were, which it turn required the persistent and violent policing of the boundaries. At Darwin’s Kahlin Compound, parental and elder hands literally reached through the chain-link fence to their children. But these became the hands of ghosts, as the fence and cleft eventually prevailed. Few of those on the outside of the fence - those who dangled their hands down in Mr Serico’s painting - would now be alive. Their sound can no longer be silenced, however.

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