the genius of place

the work of kathleen petyarre
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
9 May - 22 July, 2001

In the notes for his Autobiographies the Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote that 'true poetry had to be the speech of the whole man. lt was not sufficient that it was the artful expression of daylight opinion and conviction; it had to emerge from a more profound consciousness and be, in the words of his friend Arthur Symons, the voice of "the mystery which lies about us, out of which we have come and into which we shall return".'

I turn to Yeats as a clue to discovering a secret about the painting of Kathleen Petyarre because his artistic project, much like Andrei Tarkovsky in the cinema, encompassed the expression of a profound mysticism and a national will. And because his art was founded in a Western canon (of Plato, Shakespeare, Milton) combined with a racial (Celtic) folklore-ism . Petyarre works with a traditional indigenous art form (western desert sand 'painting') and narrative symbology that is represented through a canonic Western idiom-painting on canvas.

Petyarre's painting depicts tribal dreaming stories connected to her home in the Atnangker country. These stories emphasise her own inalienable connection with the land at that place, as well as reflecting a history of struggles for Indigenous land rights in which she has been involved since the seventies-much like Yeats inviolable Irish 'nationalism.' Her dreaming narrative is of Arnkerrth, the Old Woman Mountain Devil or the Thorny Devil Lizard. In the exhibition catalogue Petyarre describes her work. 'In my paintings Arnkerrth is walking, through her country, getting ready for ceremony, for girl and young boys too. A long walk! On her back, carrying everything-special red ochre for ceremony, seeds everything. She's crossing over other Dreaming, all on Atnangker country, Green Bean Dreaming, Dingo Dreaming, Emu Dreaming, Seed Dreaming-all on that countrythis Old Lady Arnkerrth Dreaming-my Dreaming-shows us about the initiation of all the young Anmatyer girls .'

I am not the first critic to make this particular comparison. lrish/lndigenous critical connections have become a !rope of sorts in New Zealand, where the plight of Irish migrants, cleared from their land and exiled by an ascendant British Imperialism, is compared to that of the Maori people. The position has been justified by the use of Celtic motif and migration narratives by certain Pakeha (white New Zealand) artists-such as Richard Killeen 's constant reference to the Book of the Kells. it's an apologist position as of course this rides rough-shod over the fact that the Irish immigrants later became willing colonists possessed with few qualms about killing the natives.

For me the juxtaposition of Yeats and Petyarre is bound to his conviction that poetry could truly be a political language and that its power would be manifest if coupled with spiritualism and the force of dreams. Yeats makes this explicit in his poem 'To Ireland in the Coming Times': 'Know that I would be accounted be/True brother of a company/That sang, to sweeten Ireland 's wrong/Ballad and story, rann and song .. . My rhymes more than their rhyming tell/Of things discovered in the deep/Where only body's laid asleep.' And it seems to me Petyarre's painting is forged at the same crossroads 'sweetening Atnangker's wrong' with the force of dreams, in as much as a European, like me, can understand her dreaming narrative.

I have deliberately turned to poetry as an accomplice to the work as it is a more sympathetic accomplice than the discourse of painting. Art history tends to be constructed as an epistemology of competing and exhausted styles that imposes a rigid set of formal expectations (for example, Cubism is only important from 1908- 1914, minimalism 1960- 1980 and so on) as well as a commensurate requirement for innovation. This underpins critical attacks by white critics, on artists such as Petyarre, critics who conveniently prefer to address the technicality of her work instead of the poetics, and often dismiss it. This particular affect-of modernism-is typified by Rasheed Araeen as 'benevolent racism '.

Meanwhile critics of poetry are still happy to celebrate the minimal(ist) innovations of William Carlos Williams, or Yeats for that matter, and allow younger poets to breathe in their shadows, without demand for formal distinction; emotional force, and a powerful narrative are enough to evince a positive response and free association.

In the midnight blue clusters of a diptych titled Thorny Devil Dreaming at Dusk 1999, along with the topographical striations of Atnangker, I found cloud breaks and star clusters or swirling constellations. The predominantly white coloured triptych Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming-After Hailstorm, 1999-2001 , I fantasised into a room with Cy Twombly, Robert Ryman, and Pollock's Blue Poles-as part of a wishful audience reverie. Importantly, even a mere glimpse at the ochre coloured Sandhills in Atnangkere Country, 1998, pulled me into the vertical rush of its landlines and the sweep of its furrows. My minds eyes cleaved to sense of flight (curator Russell Starer told me later it was painted from an aero-planar perspective) and raced from the bottom to top of the canvas-this is a mark of great painting. I felt like I was caught in a powerful drama and running across a deserted space like Cary Grant in Hitchcock's North By North West in an attempt to find out the meaning of the secret narrative in which I was gripped.