Claude Carter, a Gooniyandi/Gija artist, is a man who walks in two worlds, deftly bridging the gulf between traditional aboriginal culture and white society. Although he is 4,500 kilometres away from his country near Fitzroy Crossing, he looks very much at home in Salt Contemporary’s gallery, in the southern seaside town of Queenscliff. Dressed in a warm woollen jacket, bought especially for the trip, he is here to discuss his unique ochre paintings of Goonboorooru, a cave deeply significant to him and his community.
In a conversation facilitated by co-curator Susan McCulloch, and Red Rock Gallery director Kevin Kelly from Kununurra, Carter explains he has been painting for six years. He was inspired to start painting after a trip to his ancestral country, the Mimbi Caves on
Mt Pierre Station in the Kimberley. These caves have been occupied by Indigenous people for around 40,000 years and one of these caves is the birthplace of Carter’s great, great grandmother. Another cave, Goonboorooru, contains a deep waterhole which has sacred healing powers and his first visit to the cave had a profound effect on him.
“When I visited this place, my spirit sang out. My people are there today, their souls, and that’s where I got my gift from,” says Carter. “They gave me a gift in my fingers, my heart, my mind and my soul. When I went back home I had a lot of dreams about this place. Once I have the dream, I bring my painting out.”
Carter, 40, now paints his dreams of country in a style that is distinctly his own. Using
ochres sourced from the land, Carter’s palette is muted compared to the brightly coloured paintings of the western desert area. He uses rich blacks, whites, greys and browns and he creates different colours such as orange by roasting yellow ochre in the fire. The ochre is mixed with a polyvinyl acetate binder and applied with a brush, giving his work a gritty texture, like sand. Carter prefers this earthy medium to acrylic paint. “I feel more free with ochre.”
He employs an aerial perspective of the landscape as well as x-ray views of the limestone hills. Strong, contoured lines and bold shapes define the country’s geological formations but also embedded in his designs are stories of the rainbow serpent, a powerful snake that created the cave, and continues to live in the ground and swim through the water.
Carter gestures to a striking painting, a large powerful work dominated by black ochre. Pointing to the rocks displaced by the rainbow serpent and the restorative water in which it lives, Carter describes how his great, great grandmother called it holy water. “The water is a healing water. It fixes you up. If you have sores, it will heal them.”
With his deep spiritual connection to the land, it comes as no surprise to learn that Carter is not only a painter but also a healer and leader in his community, Bawoorrooga. He is committed to maintaining his culture and believes it is important to learn traditional knowledge from his elders. The artist practices healing customs and offers other services to his community such as taking troubled youth on field trips so they can experience a connection to country. “I take them out to the desert and show them a different life. I tell them that life in town is too fast and to always come back to country,” he says.
Carter hopes that his paintings will help his own people understand where they come from, as well as give non-Indigenous people an appreciation of his culture. He also paints his country to protect it. “There are a lot of mining people coming. White people have more power than us. If they can understand what I am painting, my area can be protected.”
Kevin Kelly, who has 19 years experience working with indigenous artists in the Kimberley, says that painting can be a way of protecting the land from development, particularly from the increasing pressures of mining. “If you are trying to establish your position of ownership over country, painting can be a good way of doing it. Even if the painting has gone to Brisbane, it is an archival record of a statement of ownership over that country.” He cites the precedent set in 1996 when Queenie McKenzie’s paintings were used as evidence in opposition to a mining application on Texas Downs Station.
Carter is an artist driven to protect and nurture his culture through his art practice. “Painting is the strongest way we can tell our stories, keep our communities healthy and our young people focused,” he says. “It’s not only the way of the past for us, it’s also the way of the future.”
Goonboorooru – The Cave Series is on until 19 June 2011 at Salt Contemporary Art,
33 Hesse St, Queenscliff. Ph: 03 5258 3988 www.salt-art.com.au.
It is co-curated by Susan McCulloch and Emily McCulloch Childs in association with
Red Rock Gallery, Kununurra.
RELATED POSTS ON AUSTRALIAN INDIGENOUS ART:
• Salt Water to Salt Contemporary
• Paintings of the Western Desert
• Auction of Water Dreaming Painting for Flood Relief