SPEECH ON OPENING OF “REMINISCENCE”
CELEBRATING 100 YEARS OF AUSTRALIAN VISIONARY JUDITH WRIGHT
FLYING ARTS ALLIANCE EXHIBITION
JUDITH WRIGHT CENTRE 5 DECEMBER 2015
BY MATT FOLEY
I acknowledge the Turrbal and Jagera peoples who have celebrated poetry, song, dance and the visual arts on these lands by the running waters of what we call the Brisbane River since time immemorial.
Let me start with the first stanza of Judith Wright’s poem “Reminiscence” published in 1973 in the collection entitled “Alive”.
I was born into a coloured country;
spider-webs in dew on feathered grass,
mountains blue as wrens,
valleys cupping sky in like a cradle,
christmas-beetles winged with buzzing opal;
finches, robins, gang-gangs, pardalotes
tossed the blossom in its red-streaked trees.
On the thirty-first of May 1915 Judith Arundell Wright was born in Armidale, the eldest child of Phillip Wright and his first wife Ethel. Judith died on the twenty-fifth of June 2000 in Canberra. She spent much of her life in Queensland – at Mount Tamborine, at Boreen Point on Lake Catharaba and just down the road in New Farm on the corner of Brunswick Street and Sydney Street. This splendid arts centre is named in her honour. The Queensland Government named the Judith Wright Calanthe Award for poetry with Judith’s permission after her Tamborine home “Calanthe” where she lived with her beloved Jack McKinney and wrote some of the finest love and nature poetry the world has ever seen. Calanthe is a white orchid which blooms on Tamborine at Christmas and was the subject of Judith’s magnificent love poem “Nameless Flower”.
Judith became close friends with the great Aboriginal poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal also known as Kath Walker who lived at Moongalba on Stradbroke Island.In the poem “At Cooloolah” Judith wrote:
“ Those dark-skinned people who once named Cooloolah
knew that no land is lost or won by wars,
for earth is spirit, the invader’s feet will tangle
in nets there and his blood be thinned by fears.”
Judith was a founding member of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland in 1962. She campaigned hard to protect the Cooloola coloured sands against mining and to defend the Great Barrier reef and Fraser Island, much to the manifest displeasure of the then reactionary, oppressive Queensland Coalition government.
Judith challenged us not only to see the multi-coloured beauty of our land, its flora and wildlife but also to take political action to preserve this beauty against the mindless ravages of unbridled mining and commerce. She dared us not just to see the scalding truth of the dispossession and exploitation of Aboriginal land and society, but also to take political action to redress this grinding injustice. Judith transcended the arid distinction between art and politics.
This exhibition “Reminiscence” put on by Flying Arts captures that very theme. Artists Fiona Rafferty and Frances Smith have used paper, pen and clay to reflect Judith’s love of country and unsentimental grasping after truth.
Fiona Rafferty’s black lines in the drawing “Salinity” form the shape of a hollow tortoise shell, like those Rafferty found when exploring Lake Cooloongup south of Perth. The learned author Danielle Harvey points out in the catalogue that Cooloongup derives from the word “Koolangka”, meaning “children” in the native language, Noongar.It is thought that Lake Cooloongup traditionally represented youth and new life. Today, Lake Cooloongup is shallow at the best of times and the water has become saline. When the lake is dry it reveals a vast, lifeless landscape made up of salt, animal remains and ancient thrombolites. As Harvey has pointed out, “Salinity (2015) is a stark reminder of the devastating effects of European colonisation on both Indigenous traditions and the environment, two areas that Judith Wright so passionately fought to protect”.
Frances Smith has made three vessels “The Reef Series”, thrown and carved in Southern Ice Porcelain. As Smith writes in the catalogue, the white bright porcelain mirrors “dead coral, colour bleached out, life extinguished by the very forces that Judith Wright protested against”.
Judith Wright’s spirit live on. It blossoms in the hearts of new generations and stirs their imaginations. Up on Mount Tamborine now white Calanthe orchids are coming into bloom. I conclude with Judith’s poem “Nameless Flower”.
Three white petals float
above the green.
You cannot think they spring from it
till the fine stem’s seen.
So separated each from each,
and each so pure,
yet at the centre here they touch
and form a flower.
Flakes that drop at the flight of a bird
and have no name,
I’ll set a word upon a word
to be your home.
Up from the dark and jungle floor
you have looked long
Now I come to lock you here
in a white song.
Word and word are chosen and met.
Flower, come in.
But before the trap is set,
the prey is gone.
The words are white as a stone is white
carved for a grave,
but the flower blooms in immortal light,
Being now; being love.”
I declare this exhibition well and truly open.