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A number of interrelated Eastern Arrernte Aboriginal families have peopled the art and life of Alice Springs artist Rod Moss for the last twelve years. Known informally as the 'White Gate mob', after the distinguishing feature of their squatted camp on the outskirts of town, the families have come to call Moss "their painter" and to participate with enthusiasm in the creation of the works. Relationship, accumulated experience and knowledge are the foundation of this body of work.
Where Do You Come From, Brother Boy?, an exhibition drawing on Moss's output of the last four years, was striking for the fullness of the life experiences represented. There were many images of people, both adults and children, going about everyday life, at work and at play, and mostly together. They were the same closely linked group across three and four generations, variously exuberant, amused, ironic, proud, matter-of-fact, thoughtful, sombre, depressed, and anguished. Images of Aboriginal people at the positive end of this emotional scale are rare, in whatever media, if we exclude the clichés of laughing children and romanticised views of "Indigenous people in harmony with nature". At the negative end, on the other hand, we are presented with only too many, and usually within a "them and us" framework. Moss's images of suffering amongst the White Gate families avoid this kind of delineation. This is evident even in the earliest painting in this exhibition, a portrait of Xavier Neal. It is not an image of suffering but of friendship. These Neals, Johnsons and Hayes whom we see suffering from alcohol abuse, from the calamity of relationships or their loss in death are the same Neals, Johnsons and Hayes whom we see elsewhere, engaged in the other parts of the business of life. They are not archetypes but people with a most certain identity and context. Their suffering can be understood in its particularity as well as in its commonality with that which all people come to face, sooner or later, by various degrees. This is not to suggest, however, that Moss presents a positivist gloss of contemporary Arrernte life experience. The contrast between "black" and "white" experience has always been acknowledged in his very medium, the graphite used in the representation of the Aboriginal people in contrast to the paint used for "Europeans". Graphite also separates the Aboriginal people from the surrounding landscape, in a conscious refutation of the clichéd representation of them "as one" with the natural world.
New to Moss's subject matter in the last four years are traditional ceremonies. It is only within this recent period that he has been asked by the White Gate families to paint these occasions, and that he has felt sufficiently confident to do so. The most outstanding work in this area is Negrido. The title, a Spanish word, refers to the last hour of darkness before dawn, a time when a certain stage has been reached in an initiation ceremony. Two versions of this work exist: a graphite drawing and a painting. As initiation occurs over time, rather than in a single event, Moss borrowed (from Roman Catholic liturgy) the concept of the "Stations of the Cross" to show the progression of the young initiate around an empty central space, suggestive of a church's nave. This strategy is not new for Moss. Many of his works borrow elements from Western traditions, in particular from the well known compositions of the nineteenth century French artists, Courbet, Manet and Seurat. The viewer does not have to be consciously aware of this strategy to be susceptible to its effect of renewing images in our cultural memory with unsuspected possibilities.
With the events recorded in the two versions of Negrido, the old man Edward Johnson (second from left) has fulfilled his traditional obligations and can face approaching death with peace of mind, at least in this regard if not in others. It is perhaps this circumstance that imparts the sense of grief these works evoke, a sense not inappropriate to their subject matter as the ceremony is about death and dying as well as creation, regeneration and perpetuation. The works have a powerful solemnity which, as Moss says, "gives one heart" that, a century after the first publicising of the Arrernte by scientist turned anthropologist Baldwin Spencer, some defining aspects of their traditional life endure.