by Kay Lawrence
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The early morning – that space between waking and beginning the day’s work – is the most important time for thinking. I gaze at the sky, hear the magpies warbling outside the window, thoughts drift in and out of consciousness as the clouds float by and I idly note the particular quality of the air. Today, utterly clear, still, a sky of the palest blue fading to white at the horizon.
This is the space for reflecting. Thoughts catch, coalesce into ideas, and if I’m lucky, into insights. One thought leads to another to create unexpected conjunctions, strange relations. But they must be caught, fixed to the pages of my journal with words or drawings, before they vaporise into the atmosphere.
Thinking and making
The process of making can also create a space for generative thinking; a kind of thinking that emerges when body and mind seamlessly interact. To say “body” and then “mind” implies a division that does not exist in the slow rhythms of making.
Stitching a button to a blanket, the needle unerringly finds the holes, in and out three times, the thread twisted in a loop to hold the button fast. Or consider the rhythms of weaving: laying in the thread, tapping it down, building the rows in a slow rhythm, instinctively turning on the right warp so the edge of the weaving grows to match the shape in the mind’s eye. An easy rhythm when all goes well, but an anxious struggle when the process goes awry – the colour wrong, the shape awkward, the transition clumsy. Stopping and starting, putting threads in and pulling them out. Trying to remember which solution was the best when you have tried three or four, running on the spot, and then suddenly, the rhythm returns, the decisions are right, hands move with unconscious certainty and the mind drifts free again.
Creating a mosaic with buttons or broken shell requires the same systematic thinking involved in weaving a tapestry. To create a subtle transition from one hue to another or from light to dark requires careful preparation. Before beginning to weave you carefully dye or mix the coloured threads on the bobbins. Before stitching, buttons must be sorted by size, by colour, by value.
In a tapestry, shapes are marked on the warps to guide the weaving as it is built systematically from bottom to top, cloth and image constructed simultaneously. For the button mosaic, the outlines of shapes are tacked onto the blanket in coloured thread. As the buttons are first arranged on a board they can be moved around, enabling infinite adjustments before they are finally stitched to the cloth.
In ancient glass and tile mosaics shapes were drawn onto wet plaster and the tessera were swiftly and unerringly embedded in the ground before it hardened. From a distance the rhythmic patterns sprang magically into focus as the folds of a gown, the features of a face, light tessera against dark creating the illusion of form. Sureness of purpose and hand was essential, the pattern set by mind and body working in unison, just as a watercolour drawing records the trace of the hand brushing pigment on paper, fixing the thought and gesture in an instant. Sewing buttons onto cloth lacks this urgency and proceeds at a more leisurely pace, the work may be picked up and put down, even carried around and worked on in snatched moments of time.
In August 1997 I walked with Diana Wood Conroy to the edge of the dry lake bed at Lake Mungo, a remote site in the far west of New South Wales. In the early morning light the kangaroos stood motionless, their gaze fixed on our movements before they slowly loped off to stand and look again. We walked into the rising sun, the long shadows of trees and plants silhouetted against the light, their colour bleached out. As we looked towards the lunette across the dry lakebed, a band of mist floated across the surface catching the light like water, as though the memory of the lake had risen and appeared before us.
I began thinking about drawing and the implications of using European conventions to record this landscape. Does the use of perspective, with its parallel lines converging on a horizon line, always signify the control of space? What about the media? Must watercolour on paper always suggest exploration, observation and classification? Are there other ways of responding to this country that acknowledge Aboriginal ways of working, using your body and materials gathered on site to perform a relationship to country that acknowledges the present moment while evoking the past? Perhaps this could be accomplished by drawing on the processes of textiles, using dyes from plant material gathered on the spot. Or perhaps by working on the ground, organising your material from the centre out, building fields of repetitive units not bound by the page or the horizon line. The materials themselves become the work rather than their representation on paper.
Later, back at the camp, l played with discarded dyes, recording them on gridded paper, thinking of the maps that brought the country into existence for the settlers, measuring and re-naming a place that, unknown to them, contained the evidence of habitation for over 40,000 years. The edge of the gridded paper recalls the vast horizon; the fugitive colour of the dyes fading in the sunlight is an apt metaphor for a fragile country swept by wind and the excesses of the pastoral industry.Translated into tapestry two years later, this ephemeral document becomes fixed in time. The translucency of the dyes, pooling at the edges and seeping across the coordinates of the grid is captured in the density of woven thread. Along the length of the tapestry the Paakantyi names for the plants paired with their English counterparts offer another translation, and a reminder that naming, like mapping, is a form of possession. This is a narrative that cannot be encompassed in a glance but must be read slowly as if moving across unfamiliar terrain.
In September 1998 I travelled with three friends, north of Perth and beyond the wheat belt to Thundellara in central Western Australia. One day, fossicking around the abandoned mining town of Fields Find, we found three rusted, enamel vessels: a cup, a jug and a plate, which I took home to Adelaide to draw and weave.
Finding, drawing and weaving. Three shifts in time, space and meaning.Woven tapestry in the European tradition has often been used to mark the momentous events of History. These small tapestries, however, focus on the everyday, on vessels used in endlessly repeated domestic routines, routines centred on the body, routines which are so often a part of women’s work. The processes of drawing, weaving and writing these objects could be understood as marking a moment in time, a momentary arrest in the slow process of disintegration to which bodies, as well as vessels, are subject.
I began collecting mother-of-pearl shell buttons many years ago, not in order to find rare or highly crafted examples, but with an interest in the infinite variety of their simple functional forms and luminosity. A disc drilled from shell with two or four holes. Some are thick cut, some wafer thin, holes precisely centred or hand-drilled and off centre. Many are deeply lustrous while others are white like bone. They can be heavy and cold in your hand or light, like flakes of shimmering light. Many retain bits of cloth and thread, while others are still stitched in rows on card just as they were sold decades ago.
Listening to the radio one day I heard the writer John Bailey talking about the development of the pearling industry in Western Australia. I subsequently read his book The White Divers of Broome, a story about the introduction of white labour into the pearling industry in Broome in the early 20th century, that, in Bailey’s words, ‘exposed in a stark way issues relating to the Australian identity and racial attitudes towards Asia.’1 A reference in his book to the skulls of Aboriginal people killed by a pearler2 made me think about an image I’d long kept, of an 11th century mosaic of The Last Judgment in the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta at Torcello in Italy. Human skulls and the burning bodies of the dammed were laid down in marble tesserae on the back wall of the church, a reminder of the dissolution of the body before resurrection in Christ.Buttons are like tessera and shell was once living skeletal structure like bone.
I stitched images of skulls with mother-of-pearl buttons onto old cream blankets. Folded and stacked, they now lie under a desk, out of sight (and out of mind) while on the desk lies a book called White, a glossary of terms for the power of whiteness, a power evident in the crisp white suits fastened with buttons made of pearl worn by the pearling masters. In this work, the book and blankets are a reminder of white complicity in the deaths of Aboriginal people during the early days of the pearling industry.
No work for a white man
Prior to the Second World War 80% of the world’s pearl shell came from 400 luggers working out of Broome. Much of this shell was exported to Great Britain to be made into buttons for the textile industry in centres like Birmingham. The Kimberley pearl shell industry, dating from 1860, was first built on the labour of local indigenous people and later on the labour of Chinese, Japanese, Koepanger, Malay and Manilamen. In the wake of the White Australia Policy in the early 20th century, an experiment to introduce white labour into the industry failed, giving credence to the popular belief that diving for pearl shell ‘was no work for a white man.’3 The work entailed great risks, and during the early years hundreds of men died from beri-beri, from diver’s paralysis and from drowning. The pearl shell buttons used to adorn the clothes of ordinary people were the product of an economically volatile industry characterised by difficult and dangerous working conditions.
To stay warm in their cumbersome diving suits as they collected shell in the deep waters off Broome, divers wore under-trousers sometimes made from old blankets. A pair of trousers, covered with pearl buttons shimmers like the sea. Its weight would drag a man down to his death rather than keeping him warm. Now it hangs on the back of a chair, a mute reminder of the past.
This everything water
The Church of the Sacred Heart at the former Aboriginal mission of Beagle Bay, 127 kilometres of red, rutted road north of Broome, is decorated with pearl shell. The dim interior of the sanctuary gleams with refracted light from the pearl shell altar, an echo across time and continents of 6th century Italy, where the great Christian Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna created ‘an epiphany of light’ to the glory of God and his representative on earth, the Emperor. It is the play of light on the glittering surface of the glass and stone mosaics, as well as their iconography that creates a sacred space, the mystery of light held in darkness.4
In the Beagle Bay church, the sacred space is created by the soft, luminescent glow of pearl shell mosaic on the walls, floor and altar of the church. Likewise in Broome, an altar and the baptismal font in the Our Lady Queen of Peace Cathedral are lined with gleaming pearl shell. The empty font seen from a pew appears as an ellipse of shimmering light in the dim interior of the church, reminiscent of pools of water left by the tide, gleaming in the moonlight on Cable Beach, or the shards of broken shell, remnants of the pearling industry, glittering in the red sand near Streeter’s Jetty on the Broome foreshore.
The early Christians considered the baptismal font to be a sarcophagus, the site of death and rebirth. ‘By the rite of immersion the natural man … dies in Christ, then rises and ascends out the water, symbolising the resurrection, the renewal to eternal life in the spirit.’5
A watery ellipse; the conjunction of life and death.
Outside the cities, Australia is dotted with dams to catch the rain and run-off and provide water for farms and pastoral leases in the settled areas. Glassy at noon these sheets of water shimmer under a breeze at dusk. In dry years they are often empty and in some parts of Australia these glittering ellipses may instead be saltpans, the result of excessive irrigation, which has caused salt from ancient seabeds to rise and poison the land. When Ernestine Hill flew from Perth to Broome in July 1930 she saw below her salt lakes ‘translucent as alabaster … bitter as brine and solid as marble.’6
Echoing this bitter conjunction of sea and land, a shimmering ellipse of broken pearl shell is laid out on the cement floor of the gallery. Salt lakes for Hill, symbolised the ‘dream and bitter reality’ of the changes made to land by the pastoral industry. This crisis, compounded by drought is even more compelling in 2008 where, in a dry continent, all life depends on water.
Water is everything.
These notes are taken from texts written between 1997 and 2008, some of which have been published previously. It was through the process of writing that I began to more fully understand the five bodies of work presented in this exhibition.
1 Bailey, J. The White Divers of Broome, The true story of a fatal experiment, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 2001, Introduction p. xv
2 ibid. p. 40
3 ibid. p. 223
4 In one of the great halls at Ravenna a mosaic text states ‘Dut lux hic nata est, aut capta hic libera regnaut’ (light either born here, or held captive here, reigns free), L’Orange, H.P. & Nordhagen, P. J. Methuen’s Handbook of Archaeology MOSAICS, Translation, Keep, Ann E.
Methuen and Co Ltd, London 1966, p. 11
5 ibid. p. 24
6 E Hill, The Great Australian Loneliness, Robertson and Mullens Ltd, Melbourne,1940, reprinted 1948, p.19