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  • Writer's pictureJack Latimore

Through a mask, breathing

Rolling Stone magazine had just released its first edition back after a commercial flatline and the commission its new editor had in mind for me was to commemorate the three-decade mark since the release of Archie Roach’s debut album, Charcoal Lane. I accepted because I'm a fan and I just purchased his new memoir, Tell Me Why, though I had not found the time to read it. The brief struck me as a fine excuse to pull the pin on other things and instead spend hours with his book.

An attachment came with Rolling Stones’ confirmation email: a hybrid article that was part review of the album and part feature profile of the artist. The article had been published by the magazine upon the commercial release of Charcoal Lane in 1990. The article was the winning entry of a writing competition the magazine had run for university students. In addition to publication, the prize included a trip for two to Thailand. There were other notable aspects to the article too.

It was apparent in the writing that its author—one Michael Langslow—was an insider from Melbourne’s thriving music scene. It was also clear in the first two paragraphs that its author was white and that Langslow had a grasp on the issues, policies and institutional structures impacting the lives of Blackfullas. I was impressed and mildly surprised. That level of awareness was not common in 1990.

I tracked Langslow down and called him and over the course of our interview, he explained that his awareness of Aboriginal affairs stemmed from a series of paintings his grandfather did in the 1980s on black deaths in custody, particularly around the 1983 case of John Pat in Roebourne, Western Australia—a former goldrush town in the Pilbara, more recently experiencing a new boom on the back of iron ore and the corresponding influx of white male workers to the region.

John Pat was a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy when he was beaten by at least four policemen and later found dead in a police lock-up. An autopsy of Pat’s body revealed his skull had been caved in, his ribs broken and a blood vessel in his heart dislodged.

There were calls for an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding his death, and for a broader investigation into the suspicious deaths of other Aboriginal people in custody going back several years. Nothing happened right away, but more and more whitefullas began to notice that Aboriginal people kept dying when they came into contact with the so-called justice system, and that there was a failure by authorities in responding to those deaths.

‘They were really powerful paintings. Very confronting. So I had certainly been aware of the politics from that time on,’ said Langslow.

Langslow’s grandfather, Sidney Nolan, is better known for his heavily stylised, iconic Kelly series of paintings, but as an elderly man, the internationally renowned artist was experimenting with spray paint on unprimed canvas.

Many of these works consisted of blurred busts of blackfellas, many deceased with a cord about the neck, or their wounded bodies entangled in bars or wire. They are images at once brutally tangible and ethereal, the subject matter captured mid dispersal.

A day or so after the phone call with Langslow I was out walking around St Kilda. I headed up Grey Street, passed the northern end of Robe Street and peered down its length. After our phone interview I’d started reading up on Nolan. Like Archie Roach, the artist was another former St Kilda local. I’d seen Nolan’s painting Robe Street, St Kilda (1945) on the internet, stared at it long enough trying to decipher what it was doing to be able mentally to superimpose the image on the present streetscape. The work depicted the bottom of the street, where a gentle incline from Acland Street rises towards the St Kilda foreshore.

Born in the inner-city urban slum of Carlton on the north side of the river in 1919, the young Nolan moved with his family to St Kilda later the same year, pursuing the affordable housing and improved living conditions of the 1920s construction boom in apartment blocks in the suburb. The Nolans were working class—the old man was a tram driver and an SP bookmaker—but young Sid always had his head in books of myth and legend, and as a budding artist from his early adolescence, grew increasingly infatuated with the bohemian life.

Upon leaving the family home near Acland Street in 1936, aged 17, Sid shot into the city and a flat-share, joining some hipsters he knew from the local avant-garde art scene. It provided a bolthole where Nolan could indulge himself in the highbrow without the hindrance of Sid snr. reminding him to pull his friggin’ head in. There he continued to pore over literature and art produced by the likes of Blake, Rimbaud, Kant, Auden, Spengler, Rilke, cummings, Kierkegaard, Eliot, Lawrence, Kafka, Joyce, Freud, Jung, Van Gogh, Picasso, Cézanne, Seurat and Klee. There were jazz soirees and painting holidays. It was a heady time for the young bloke.

By the mid 1940s the young artist had produced a whole heap of paintings with St Kilda as the subject, and many more besides with no real fidelity to any one artistic style. Nolan’s early work is a concatenation of experimentation in technique, materials, shape and scale, but most share a debt to the Primitivist aesthetic that was in vogue at the time. His Self Portrait (1943) is a well-known example of how Nolan was incorporating ‘primitive’ elements into his artistic practice.

The bold red, blue and yellow plains of colour are a simplification of other landscapes he was simultaneously producing in other styles at the time. A band of three lines of the same colours is painted across the forehead of the portrait image, evocative of ceremonial ochre markings, while the representation of the artist holds a paint palette and brushes before it in a configuration reminiscent of shield, fletching and shaft.

The St Kilda paintings in the ‘series’ of 1945–46 are the natural progression of the same practice, with added explorations of narrative. There are a few stories about the pier; one about the mysterious fire that burnt down the Palais de Danse in 1926; a couple are set in Luna Park; several more landscapes involving its fun rides, particularly the Scenic Railway; there are bathers and divers and surf lifeguard towers; larrikins fooling on the beach; flâneurs drifting on garden pathways closing in on midnight; a suggestive curve of the upper Esplanade; the footballer bristling in front of goal before a crowd of smeared faces at the nearby Junction Oval. Later in his life Nolan described St Kilda as ‘kitsch heaven’. The St Kilda paintings are an ode to his childhood immersed in that kitsch fairground: a series of reminiscences that each contain a dash of literary conceit.

The 1945–47 period also saw Nolan produce the first 27 of the Kellys, for which the artist would become internationally renowned. The iconic series, and specifically the recurring black mask motif, drew on the same heavily stylised abstract and surreal visual elements and literary devices being finely tuned in the St Kilda paintings, but substituted childhood nostalgia with metaphysical examinations of injustice and the meaning of place.

Fitzroy Street is said to be laid over a path used for tens of thousands of years by the Yulukit-willam to get down to the bay, or narrm, from a camp near where the St Kilda Junction is today. I headed for the Ngargee Tree there, a river red gum that even in colonial documents is recognised as a gathering place for ceremony and celebration.

The tree is said to be around 400-700 years old but the majesty you expect to see in such a living organism is missing due to its limbs having been lopped over a number of decades. Gawking at its gnarled trunk I tried to imagine the red gum’s broad sweeping reach and the exuberant dance scenes held below those boughs just prior to European invasion.

Then the ancestral landscape flickered and the branches were restored. There it was, and not just the Ngargee Tree either. Everything surrounding us was as it was meant to be: the ceremony place, the camp below the hill, the Birrarung wetlands and fresh-water lagoons nearby, bountiful with water birds. Then, with a shiver, the ancestral world vanished again.

I walked through a corridor of remnant coastal scrub around the northern outer edge of Junction Oval, crossed Lakeside Drive and headed for the water, bobbing between the scaffolding of temporary grandstands, still in place months after the cancellation of the Grand Prix because of the covid virus outbreak. Inside the racing circuit, manicured lawns covered the banks of the constructed lake. A bevy of black swans waddled clear as I approached the water’s edge.

I recalled a Nolenesque story about the lake too, told by a neighbour in a village in the Dandenong Ranges once frequented by a youthful Nolan on his painting holidays. Three decades ago the St Kilda municipal council drained the lake to remove a weed infestation and debris dumped in it over the years. To the astonishment of the engineers, once the water was out they discovered the lake’s bed carpeted with discarded false teeth.

More than a month later, the death of George Floyd at the hands of police during a roadside arrest in Minneapolis for his alleged use of a counterfeit $20 bill had escalated into a social uprising around the globe. The parallels of Floyd’s death and the 2015 death in custody of 26-year-old Dunghutti man David Dungay Jr were distinctive, right down to the final, fearful, frantic words of the two men. There were also close similarities to the death in custody of another 20-something Aboriginal man, Wayne Fella Morrison, who was left ‘unresponsive’ after around 16 prison officers in South Australia piled on top of him in 2016.

Dungay and Morrison are two of the more recent Aboriginal deaths in custody of the 437 that have occurred since the final report of the royal commission was handed down in 1991. In that period not one police officer or prison guard or any other official has been convicted over the loss of a life that occurred on their watch.

Demonstrations were planned in cities and regional hubs around Australia to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in North America, but under a placard of rallying against Aboriginal deaths in custody. Then two things caught my ear. The first came from the mouth of the Australian Prime Minister and caught just about everybody’s ear: in a Sydney radio interview, the PM warned against ‘importing the things that are happening overseas to Australia’ and against drawing equivalence between the deaths of black and Indigenous people elsewhere in the globe and people of colour here. ‘We don’t need the divisions that we’re seeing in other countries. We need to stick together and look after each other,’ he told listeners.

Like many Aboriginal people, my reaction was to point at any number of reports from relevant community organisations and academic research that indicated how many of the 339 recommendations of the 1991 royal commission report aimed at preserving black lives that had come into contact with the justice system remained unimplemented: how Aboriginal people were still ten times more likely to die in custody than non-Indigenous people; how 28 per cent of the country’s prison population were Aboriginal people—a 14 point rise since 1991; or how Aboriginal kids are at least ten times more likely to be removed from their family than non-Indigenous kids; and how there has been more than a 40 per cent increase in Aboriginal kids living in out-of-home care in the last 12 months alone; and more broadly about how Aboriginal kids continue to be separated from their family and culture at alarming rates, which has the very real potential to produce another Stolen Generations scenario.

The second thing was a tweet I’d scrolled past in the course of work that was posted by a white woman—an ally to the uprising—that confessed how she and a friend, though both in their mid fifties, struggled to recall the names of any Aboriginal casualties of the death-in-custody epidemic. They knew George Floyd all right, and they knew Ahmaud Arbery. They recalled Trayvon Martin in Miami Gardens, Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, but couldn’t recall the names of any of the Aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia during that same eight-year period. The tweet said the woman was ashamed and would be attending the rally in her city.

Ignoring the warnings of all the chief medical officers regarding the risk of large crowds and community transmission of the virus, and despite my own chronic disease, I packed a fluid-resistant mask, a tube of alcohol goo and headed into Spring Street. The turnout spread across three city blocks, which put the attendance at somewhere around 15,000. I got my face into my mask and drew my black hoodie low, like everyone else.

I was a long way back from whatever was going on in front of the steps of Parliament House and struggling for air with the mask over my mouth and nose. Masked people kept pouring in around me too, which added to my anxiety after so many weeks in social isolation. I looked around for mob and only saw the eye slots of well-meaning white people. Then, somewhere to my left, one of them began to chant.

And the chant began to surge through the tightly packed crowd: ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe …’

And I thought about Roach the last time I’d seen him, in a chair, wearing an oxygen cannula on his face: the smoke from a megafire filling the city and the hot sky hanging low.

And I thought about Nolan’s Kellys: all those masks on horseback, riding to nowhere. •

- abridged version of essay first published by Meanjin Quarterly Spring 2020, Vol 79, Issue 3

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