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RAIN SONGS IN ALICE SPRINGS
The subject of Ruark Lewis's works Water Drawings: Red, Yellow and Blue-the Arrernte and Loritja 'rain songs' have brought about, maintained, and celebrated rain and rain ancestors of the Central Desert Dreaming down through the ages. The subject matter is also the translations of these oral traditions, first by Carl Strehlow, the early Lutheran missionary from Hermannsburg in Central Australia, and later his son Ted, the linguist, patrol officer, academic and meticulous ethnographer of the desert ceremonial traditions.
Water Drawings: Red, Yellow and Blue is part of a broader collaborative project by Lewis and Paul Carter titled Raft. lt includes a book titled Depth of Translation: The Book of Raft, which I found extremely interesting in terms of its prose though less accessible than the art itself.
The spoken and sung words of the rain songs were transformed into a written Arrernte and Loritja orthography and in turn translated into German and English texts by Carl and Ted Strehlow respectively. Many can be accessed through Ted's authoritative tome Songs of Central Australia. The paintings are accompanied by Carter's 'soundscape' of the Strehlows' heroic and tragic death-march down the Finke River, where an ailing Carl was to die in a vain attempt to get to the railhead at Oodnadatta. lt was perhaps a 'man-making' initiatory adventure for Ted. He retold the saga in Journey to Horseshoe Bend, a novel rich in its portrayal of the Arrernte people's totemic landscape of Dreaming ancestors and Ted 's own negotiation of European and Indigenous religious traditions. Lewis has taken the translations and transformed them into a series of crayon works that are, like desert art, simple yet complex. That is the irony of Indigenous art in the desert. lt has the ability to appear merely as a series of geometric motifs punctuated by the odd figurative element, yet its structure under formal analysis reveals a social organisation of Indigenous groups bounded and bonded through the travels of the Dreaming ancestors.
Lewis, like a number of artists and scholars in Australia, is increasingly fascinated with the Strehlows, and has developed a substantial knowledge of the their work. His art tells us that there is more to the Strehlows than mere controversy over ownership of cultural material and betrayal of trust. Lewis's art replicates the rain song's translations but weaves them into a complex of increasingly less-legible texts that have a resonance with Central Desert art without appropriating it. The work asserts the multi-valent capacity of desert art systems in its progression from less colour to more: from few motifs to many; from the recent work of Ted to the earlier translations by Carl. From a distance these works could be construed as Indigenous yet a closer look suggests a structure totally of European linage. We are privileged to Arrernte and Loritja people's songs but they are recorded here with a European methodology. The art is free of the cliches we are so used to experiencing when the 'coloniser' is touched by the exotic 'other'. The soundscape produced by Carter is of footsteps through dry river gravel and sand. The steps move fast and then slow. Birds can be heard from time to time, making us wonder how anything survives out here, yet we know that life thrives. And the intrusive clatter is the banging of the planks of the buckboard wagon as Carl approaches his death. The canvas is long and plank-like. But the art is neither deathly nor wooden. lt is not sombre. lt is beautiful to look at. Stand back from it...come closer ... listen to the 'soundscape', and think about the rain-the giver of life to this land.