Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Position doubtful by Kim Mahood

This month a select group of Minervans read the memoir, Position doubtful. We greatly enjoyed Kim’s writing. It has such fascinating and thoughtful passages on cross-cultural thinking.  We agreed that the general public’s acceptance of Australia’s Indigenous culture is taking a very long time.

We were reminded of a story by Mahood in 'The invisible thread' which …describes herself being in community and being responsible for providing assets/transport/facilities for others. Another book we thought of in relation to this memoir is Bill Gammage’s The biggest estate on Earth, how Aborigines made Australia.

Position doubtful is a combination of memoir, Aboriginal history, European history, Indigenous languages versus English, art of both cultures, geography of north western Australia  (WA and NT) and a story of her relationships with the people she grew up with.  It has many threads and it combines them with lyrical passages of description and philosophy.

Some of the themes discussed by Mahood and by us:
  • maps and landscapes, and interrelationships between the two
  • maps and different perspectives
  • maps and art - for instance with grids overlaying
  • maps and language – abstraction and metaphor  
  • horizon lines and perspectives – First nation people look at the horizon in art very differently from westerners (eg the paintings in the Canning Stock Route exhibition at the NMA some years ago and works from this region held at the NGA)
The mapping impulse was likely one of the drivers of human cultural evolution; and maps, the physical expression of that impulse, come to us freighted with the wonder of burgeoning human consciousness.’ (in chapter (Mapping common ground -- 63% in the kindle) 

(I have never thought about maps in this way—she is quite brilliant!)

As well as learning about these ‘map’ and ‘art’ matters we also learnt a lot about Mahood, herself.

Kim Mahood is very honest by stating her motivation for writing this book is to tell of her experiences working with the local people of the region where she grew up – near the Tanami Desert and the Aboriginal communities of Balgo and Mulan (East Kimberley).

Mahood is an artist in painting terms as well as a writer but can also play the subject occasionally. We discussed her slightly passive aggressive attitude to her friend Pam who ‘used’ Kim as the model in her arty photographs. She had to play a role in the desert as Violet, but she felt that she was a ‘female impersonator …  feminised self who has never existed’ (30%) or as a strange creature (eg covered in red mud). This is not Mahood’s persona at all – completely opposite actually. She much prefers the stockman’s role rather than the farmer’s wife and domesticity.

Mahood has been visiting this region for short sojourns (about 3 months) for over 20 years working, with the local people (especially the elders), offering help with their art or their lives in any way she can. (In her first celebrated book – Craft for a dry lake-- she describes the difficult return to her former home after about 20 years away.) The life up there is in strong contrast to the life we imagine she lives near Canberra as an artist, writer and teacher. Having grown up in this outback community she has certain rights that are advantageous for her work, such as deep knowledge of the culture and a depth in her relationships, including having a genuine skin name from her childhood.  Her skin name of Naparrula is precious for her and the locals. She acquired it as a baby: 'I belong to the skin group with traditional links to Tanami Downs.’ (Chapter Vertigo, 10% ). Such benefits help her navigate the politics of the community. Sometimes the community is very confronting even for a person who grew up nearby and knows the tensions and problems. She is understated in the book about these issues, but it is very clear that there are retribution and violence issues present frequently.

We discussed how Native Title has brought tensions with it, while everybody tries to work out the parameters of ownership. In this Mahood never labours the point. An ongoing issue one of our members mentioned is hearing impairment and the difficulties and problems for children. She has knowledge through her work of this ongoing health, educational and social issue in remote areas of Australia.

Mahood has the right to discuss the environment (in the social sense) because of her affinity with the local people but also because she told them she was writing this book and she actually read out bits of it to them. They obviously trust her and rely on her. (My conclusion is that we can rely on her being accurate in her writing.) We also realized that she is a strong woman – just driving that far by herself in worn out vehicles is testament to that. She is not a pushover in regard to the local larrikins and what they expect of her.

She writes of a visit to Sturt Creek . She initially thinks only a few people will travel with her and it ends up being a huge number. However she copes.

Mahood also talks a lot about tragedies and sadnesses. She mentions the massacre and many deaths of the local people she knows well. She was particularly close to many of the older women and is distressed by the deaths of these friends. Many of these women she knew as a child and she has a deep affection for them. She describes them and their families with great sensitivity, explaining that many of these women are elders in the community and take responsibility for passing on culture and language to the young ones. These women are also the strong ones in the community with a fierce determination to improve lives. White culture needs to own up to the truth of these stories of massacre and violence.

However Mahood does not dwell on these matters for too long but regards them unsentimentally.

We also discussed briefly how Mahood introduces archeology to some of the local people by telling them about the scientific work done by archeologists such as Jim Bowler. She invites him to visit Mulan and ‘to travel gathering and recording both scientific and traditional information’. (31%) Mahood is farsighted in bringing the two views together. Bowler had done some exploring in the seventies in this region so was aware of the possibilities. (See also chapter Dotting the grid, 67%).
We also discussed the differences she observes with the properties now being managed by Aboriginal groups in comparison with the old days of white pastoralists.  Her former home is one such place. It is now called Tanami Downs not ‘Mongrel station’. Managing the country depends so much on personal qualities and skills.

We also discussed the irony of the title – it relates to how white people feel in that remote part of Australia, as well as how many of the local inhabitants feel, and as a position on a map. (Its literal geographic meaning is mentioned in her first book in a more mundane way.)

Another comment made was that Mahood experiences landscape at a physiological level. Place can enter one’s psyche. How do we relate to place? Some people love the desert and others love the sea. Do we as white Australians have the right to love a place where other people live and have always lived? We don’t have Indigenous values or the same relationship with the land but many of us love it. Do we have the right to express this?

One white artist who loves this land is Mandy Martin. ‘Martin has built an artistic oeuvre on painting the Australian landscape, depicting it in Romantic Sublime style as a threatened space and an aesthetic resource.’ (Chapter Mapping common ground, 78%)    

Her writing is superb and thought provoking – eg ‘the names have found their way to you along a whispered thread of folklore’ (Chapter 1,The remembered earth, 1% ). Her thinking about place and landscape is very thoughtful, for instance:

I wonder sometimes if the time I’ve spent in the desert has compromised my access to the deep psychology of my own culture – replaced the collective unconscious with the shadowy glimpses of a place-based collective conscious, and sentenced me to wander in the borderlands between Jung and geography. 

(It is a book to be studied in great depth.)

One small objection we all had whether we read it in paperback form or on the kindle was that the illustrations are terrible. You just cannot see the details of the maps or the photographs. This was a great pity for a book which talks so much about place and maps.

I would also like to recommend an interviewwith the historian Darrell Lewis where he talks about the travels of Leichhardt in the far corner of Western Australia. I found this fascinating.

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