Review / ‘Moving’ art captures Australian tragedy

visual art / “Black Mist Burnt Country”. At the National Museum of Australia – until 18 November. Reviewed by JOHN LANDT

‘OneTree’, by Paul Ogier, carbon pigment on rag paper

THE photograph by Paul Ogier shows a familiar Australian scene. A dusty track through the scrub, a few straggly bushes, tufts of native grass, the tyre marks left by the vehicles that made this track. 

One tree stands out above the horizon. One would look at the photography and see the early morning mist bracing, while the dust is still dry from the heat of the previous day. But the title next to the photograph reveals that this dust would be radioactive – this is the former Emu Field atomic test site.

The works in this exhibition have been touring Australia since 2016 and unveils the sad history of the numerous atomic tests conducted in Australia during the 1950s and 1960s. The exhibition has been curated by JD Mittmann for the Burrinja Cultural Centre and includes work by a wide range of indigenous and non-indigenous artists in fields such as photography, painting, video and new media, printmaking and sculpture. It also includes folded paper cranes made by grade four students from the Ashburton Primary School in Melbourne.

Hilda Moodoo and Jeffrey Queama, Destruction II, 2002 synthetic polymer paint on canvas, Art Gallery of South Australia

The works span a 70-year-period. The earliest are the paintings of Hiroshima in 1946 by Reginald Rowed. There is a sense of inexplicability in his works, of not knowing how to respond to one of the horrors of the twentieth century.

Amongst the most recent works is the back-lit 3D photo of Yami Lester made in 2012 by Belinda Mason. Titled “Maralinga”, it reveals that the black mist that blew across his home from the Emu Field testing site robbed him of his sight. He faces the viewer and I am confronted by the full impact of what was done to him.

The paintings by indigenous artists Yvonne (Tjintjiwara) Edwards, Mima Smart and Terence Edwards depict the removal of indigenous communities from their homelands at the time of the tests. 

The nearby painting by Hilda Moodoo and Jeffrey Queama captures the heat and full force of the atomic explosion.

This exhibition is moving and important. In the midst of the clamour of contemporary life, the difficult stories of Australia’s recent history need to be told, and re-told. It shouldn’t only be grade four students who are reflecting on these events.



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