green line

Catalogue Essay

Pip McManus
I have never suffered the indignities of displacement or dispossession. Everybody though is vulnerable to a feeling of dislocation in their lives. We all seek a sense of belonging in community or place. For some the sacred geography of place is indistinguishable from their interior or spiritual life. It is inseparable from their innermost concept of self.

The psychology and power of ancient myths at the heart of a people's search for soul or inner reality are often reinvented and validated by "facts on the ground". Whether in the form of new settlements and shrines or the excavation of archaeological sites, contesting parties passionately invoke "scriptural evidence" to defend their claims to sacred land. In Australia, myth, law, and anthropological evidence are tendered as evidence of special attachment (and attendant responsibilities) to land. In this country there is no argument about who was here first. Questions of contemporary ownership, justice and past wrong doings however still engender bitter debate and resentment. Migrants and refugees seeking safety, security and a new place to belong also face considerable antagonism from some of those who arrived before them.

As with people, each of the plant intaglios common to nearly all pieces in this exhibition has a unique imprint, even within the same species, and at the same time a shared reference. These indelible imprints echo our common histories, and offer a concentrated way of seeing in which the viewer's gaze is focused on the luminous detail and beauty of the natural world. The delicately veined trace of each leaf impression underscores the issues raised in the more overtly political works. They also reiterate our need for a more lucid connection to our environment, for tolerance and co-existence in the face of a fragile and uncertain future.

In the small Jordanian hilltop town of Madaba, on the floor of the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint George, there is a sixth century mosaic map of the Holy Land. Just fifty kilometres from modern Jerusalem, one can make out in the mosaic, features of the ancient city still recognisable today. Israeli writer Amos Elon notes, "It is still sometimes said, hopefully, that the city is a mosaic. In a mosaic, the divergent parts at least combine to make up a design; in Jerusalem, they do not. There is not even a common theme." The city of sacred geography, source of the world's most dominant cultures, still hovers in the background like a biblical palimpsest.

Perched between desert on one side and the land of milk and honey on the other, her rocky hillsides and valleys are home to olive trees and oleander, both of which flourish in this stony terrain. To come upon the city for the first time, particularly if you happen to approach from the east, passing through the stony monochrome hills of the Judean desert, is to be suddenly confronted with a scene of devastating beauty.

I visited Jerusalem in December 1994. An accord with Jordan had just been signed. Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein were still in power. The first steps towards some Palestinian autonomy were visible in Jericho and Gaza. Despite sporadic terrorist bombings there seemed some cause for optimism.

My Jewish partner and I visited relatives in one of the apartment blocks built in Israeli occupied territory on the hills around Jerusalem. We spent Christmas Eve in a hotel on the Mount of Olives run by Ibrahim, a Palestinian. As we listened to his bitter account of the first intifadah, the sense of optimism was immediately eroded. A Muslim, he invited us to Christmas dinner he had laid on for his evangelical American Christian guests, who seemed oblivious to the daily tensions. The Mount of Olives, which looks down on the old city and her disputed holy places, is, in the apocalyptic mythology of all three religions, the site where the faithful will gather for judgement on the Last Day. However justifiable the genesis of contemporary Zionism nothing, save obliteration or redress, can erase the despair of a people living under occupation.

Throughout the Middle East one sees everywhere, in Muslim and Jewish quarters alike, the ubiquitous icon of a hand, the universal imprint of humanity. Hanging from taxi mirrors, on door knockers, around windows and doorways, it is often of turquoise ceramic with an open eye in the centre, a talisman against bad luck, a magical charm to ward off the evil eye.

The clay tablets with photographic images have evolved out of response to archetypal and religious iconography. Access to the divine is often evoked through holy texts, ritual objects and sacred places which are symbolic of transcendent experiences which may lift us beyond mundane temporal realities. Parallel to this interest in shared symbols I was engaged in a continuing examination of the disturbing universal tendency to categorize "other" as alien and thus subject to persecution or annihilation. In sourcing material I have necessarily drawn on my encounters with others who have experienced displacement.

The provenance of the "hamsa" (literally meaning "five") hand motifs which are displayed as good luck charms, recall histories of displacement. The Jewish hamsa is from Essaouira, a small town on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, once home to a thriving and predominantly Jewish mercantile population. I bought the hamsa from one of seven Jews still remaining in Essaouira after the mass exodus began in the 1950s.

The Islamic hamsa comes from the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. This image is part of a larger graphic which abounds with text from the Koran invoking God's protection against bad luck, warning against the evils of greed, envy and wrong thinking. The Arabic inscriptions were translated by a Christian refugee from the Christian civil war in Southern Sudan who is now living in Alice Springs. As it happens, the stationary shop where I found the hamsa sticker was on the edge of Aleppo's prosperous Armenian quarter where I came across another shop selling good luck trinkets similar to the hand icons. Many of these were from the beleaguered Jewish community who had departed the area only six months before - having finally gained permission from then President Hafez Al Assad to immigrate to Israel.

As for the image of the boy in front of the veiled mannequins, this photo was taken in the main tourist bazaar in Cairo in 1985 during the period I lived in Egypt. At this time it was almost impossible to escape Communist Roumania. Valentine's father wrote up to twenty letters to the government every day until he was finally granted a tourist visa.

"The Poisoned Well" was conceived over many years - beginning with the Rwandan genocides of 1994. First exhibited at the Alice Prize in 1999 and more recently in conjunction with a Human Rights Conference at the John Curtin Gallery in Perth in November 2000, the work originally comprised one hundred hands to mark major episodes of twentieth century annihilation. Regrettably the work has continued to grow with additional hands produced to mark ongoing human rights violations.

"But all of us, beneath our apparent normality, belong to a lost tribe. We can all become minorities. We are all potentially irrelevant."
Riccardo Orizio. Lost White Tribes.