Rabbit holes and Country


That’s the thing about a good rabbit hole – you never know when you might get drawn into it, or just where it might lead…

This adventure started with the story in Australian Wood Review about Melbourne based woodworker Damien Wright (I wrote about it earlier here).  Still curious, I googled ‘Damien Wright woodwork’ and found Gideon Haigh’s story (essay) in The Monthly magazine.  While the AWR article touched on Wright’s collaboration with Gumatj Corporation from Nhulunbuy, Gideon Haigh’s article discusses the nature of the collaboration in depth.

In the same issue of AWR, there was a story on Manapan furniture, a different kind of collaboration between Millingimbi based Yolgnu people and Melbourne based university trained designers.

These stories resonated and rattled around in my brain for the past few months.  They lead me to wonder about ‘connection with the land’, what it might mean,  and how that connection might relate to Australian art and design, and even what that might mean for any furniture or sculpture I might make…

Shortly after that, a friend of Su’s recommended a book – Kim Mahood’s ‘Position Doubtful’.  I checked it out on line – and found that ‘Position Doubtful’ was Mahood’s second book.  Curious, I ordered both ‘Craft for a Dry Lake’ and ‘Position Doubtful’.  A good thing I did, because the first book was a great read, and the second book draws heavily on her first.

Google Kim Mahood and you might find:

Kim Mahood is an award-winning Australian writer and artist. Her 2000 memoir, Craft for a Dry Lake, won the NSW Premier’s Award for non-fiction and the Age Book of the Year for non-fiction. Her artwork is held in state, territory, and regional collections. Position Doubtful was shortlisted for the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Award for non-fiction and the 2017 Australian Book Industry Award for the Small Publishers’ Adult Book of the Year.

‘Craft for a Dry Lake’ was a beautifully written memoir, a story of revisiting the Tanami area where she had grown up on a cattle station, and the need to understand more of her father’s story.  But the book has more layers than that – there is her father’s story, the white history of the land, her connection to the land, her connection to the desert aboriginal people, and their connection to the land.  Mapmaking is a cohesive theme in the book, the threads that draw it all together.  Mahood is a writer and artist, importantly for the books, Mahood is a mapmaker.

In the second book, Mahood explores the nature of connection to country through projects to build multi-layered maps of the land of desert aboriginal groups.  She also maps out, in words, some of the issues arising from the relationship between white and aboriginal, and the impact of the cattle industry on aboriginal life and culture.  The book’s title ‘Position Doubtful’ is drawn from maps of the Tanimi region where the locations of landmarks were uncertain, and also calls to uncertain and fluid boundaries of aboriginal culture and politics, and uncertain times ahead as a generation of knowledge holders and story tellers passes.

In her second book, Kim Mahood devotes a part of a chapter to placing this sense of place on a theoretical footing.  She pointed to the 2014 Nobel Prize award to neuroscientists who showed a physiological connection within the brain between emotion, memories and spatial location.  When these parts of the brain work together, we get an emotional connection to the space in which we move, and when the connections are lacking, we feel out of place.

Maybe all that goes to explain why, on the few occasions I get to visit, I feel ‘at home’ in Western Victoria.  Maybe why I feel at home on the flat plains country that others find boring or even terrifying.  I find mountains and hills and trees to be a little claustrophobic.  That may explain why I feel out of place in cities, especially big cities.  It may explain why, when I visit towns where I grew up, I keep looking for faces I recognise – but expecting them to look like they did 45 years ago… But then I wonder what a ‘sense of place’ means to a modern young urban Australian, bombarded with global media and stories not bound to place?

What does it all mean for me?  I have always felt a connection to the wind and sun and rain of the basalt plains or Western Victoria, and the farm I grew up on and knew.  Connection to country is real.  How that connection matters to involuntary wanderers like Su and I is still not clear.  The other questions relating to the impact of a sense of country on Australian artists and designers are also not clear.  (If art and design flow from four emotions memories and sense of place, from our culture and environment, we could expect a design style that is identifiably Australian.  What might look like?

For now, I’ll settle into this one acre block in the Clarence Valley, and build another set of memories and emotions and build a sense of place until we face the next round of dislocation and renewal.  I might think some more, read more, and maybe write about Australian art and design.  Or maybe just make something…


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