Thursday, 31 May 2012

After MIRCI Mothers and History conference, Toronto

By Ruth Skilbeck


Silence ran in my family like a dark underground river.
If I can symbolise this silence as a river, it would be the river Lethe that, in Greek mythology, is the river of forgetting. But perhaps this would be too kind, too distant, and too academic.  Qualities that also run in my family
The silence was personal, it affected me personally, it ran through my family; but it was also cultural and historical, the silence was a tributary of the river of cultural amnesia that ran through the colonial culture of Australia, as it runs through the cultures of colonies around the world, and their metropolitan centres.
Recently I have been writing about the experience of finding out about my secret hidden grandmother and the affects of the impacts of discovering her after several decades on this planet, that I was never told about my real family history.

As I am writing this I am flying at 32, 000 feet in an Air Canada jet flying back to Sydney from the international conference on mothers and history: histories of motherhood, that I attended as a delegate, in Toronto.

I gave a paper* on this very experience.

And my mind and body are full of the dialogues and conversations and impressions and powerful thoughts and words and actions of that conference, most affective of all the stories of the (Canadian) Aboriginal women and their oppression, subjugation and struggle for identity against the official policies of assimilation. That astounded me as so similar to Australian stories. I had not even known that indigenous women people in Canada refer to themselves and are referred to as Aboriginal (as if that were only an Australian term). This alone showed me the shared connectivity of the struggles of indigenous aboriginal people across the world, aboriginal women struggling for their identity and sense of self, against the ‘dominant patriarchal culture’ that has subordinated and subjugated them as historically and none more so than mothers, especially ‘illegitimate’ mothers, mothers who have children as a result of the underground strategies of ‘assimilation’; there was in some cases secret love, but sadly there was more often rape.

But Identity and the struggle – for mothers- to regain a sense of self against loss of awareness of identity through trauma and circumstances was a major theme that I detected and picked up on in the conference,

In Art, in reports on health, activism, and in matricentirc feminist theory; the focus in ‘third wave’ feminism and matricentric feminism is on diversity,  the majority of papers I heard were from diverse voices of indigenous  mothers, immigrant women, women who are doing the hard work of cultural  and psychological healing in their art,  working through  losses and traumas of childhood experiences of  contexts of ‘illegitimacy’, the  so-called ‘absent mother’.

Juxtapositions or points of comparison

Listening to the stories and research findings of the women at the conference, made me realize that in some ways we are better off in Australia – and in other ways worse off. How we are better off is to do with the  -seemingly- more egalitarian, less rigidly class segregated society in Australia, and the health system which allows poorer citizens subsidized access to health care.
Why I say seemingly is that scratch the surface and the egalitarianism falls away. There is nothing egalitarian about the ongoing Northern Territory Intervention. The Racial Discrimination Act had to be suspended to put this racially prejudice act into being, and keep it there years later. And who is racially discriminated against? Aboriginal people, the First Australians. In the Northern Territory traditional homelands, which after a century of assimilation policies, or rape and breeding out a sense of identity has –hardly surprisingly to a rational human mind- created massive personal and social problems of shattered identity. In this way the assimilation polices have sickeningly ‘worked’. Now what? We all have a huge problem to deal with- of curing the diseases caused by these policies – they were not there before white people landed in Australia.
Yet the river of forgetting is far more pleasurable and easier to bathe in than seeking to tackle the apparently insurmountable problems of Aboriginal disadvantage and destruction.
Here the way forward is to be positive and to see what Australia does have in its favour, over other colonial countries That is that at least in Australia aboriginal mother are not blamed overtly in the media and society for the behavior of their children.
However they are punished by the policies that suspend their centrelink payments if their children don’t go to school.
What is perhaps, thankfully, lacking in Australia is a harsh media voice that points the finger of blame at Aboriginal mothers.
But in the Australia way of the river of silence, this is done silently, covertly, by the withholding of benefits and punishment, by silencing.

As if by not drawing too much attention to “the problem”, it will just go away.

And as if what’s implied these people –US – are not worth writing much about in terms of identity.

That strategy of silencing and denial has not worked; it has got us to where we are now, a situation of unacknowledged apartheid.
We who live in Australia and ‘call Australia home’ have to all take responsibility for this situation, we have to all take it upon ourselves to become aware and conscious of the appalling life situation, facing OUR aboriginal people in OUR culture and society, and start to activate, actively do all we can to help those who are not only our fellow citizens but who are in far more families than will admit this, are also our (too long hidden relatives), our family. And welcome each other as all part of the human family, as mothers and sisters and daughters and fathers and brothers and sons and grandparents going way back,  in the human race.

© Copyright Ruth Skilbeck, 2012

 I will post  passages and images from my paper and the trip, on The Skilbeck Scrolls in the near future.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Art Writing Is Not Dead (It's Just Gone Online)

By Ruth Skilbeck
Over the last couple of years there have been reports, in the mainstream and even online media, of the supposed demise of arts journalism. These reports have come not only from publications in Australia (homebase of Arts Features International)– which had until  relatively recently tended to take the back foot in the art world as connoted in the antipodean moniker ‘Down Under.’
Sure, there have been a number of reports from here about this. But notes of change have also rung out from the former heart of the art world: the UK. A long feature article in The Art Newspaper in 2009 spelt out a mixed prognosis, “let’s be clear: arts journalism has never had it easy.” * What the discerning reader may note in reading these pieces is that they have more in common than the doom and gloom, they were all written in 2009. This was the year of calamity in the world of art journalism, when art periodicals  folded all over the place.  But now, it seems the winds of changing are blowing back again, and what is returning is a new rush of interest in art writing and arts journalism.
After years of neglect arts journalism is finally making its way into university courses in Australia, as well as in the US, Canada and the UK along with new forms of cultural journalism. It would be even more surprising if it were not so. The meaning of art journalism is wider than art in and of itself; it correlates to art as culture, and art as the new cultural language and form of visual communication in the global art world. Over the last 10 years social and economic changes in the  region, around Australia, have seen countries that formerly were hidden behind a curtain now openly participating in the art world, for example as seen in the new gallery scenes, Biennales and art fairs in countries such as China, Singapore, the Philippines.
At the same time contemporary art museums and art galleries around the world have, at least in the fortunate peaceful zones, become cross cultural melting pots and meeting points, safe cultural havens where people of the world can communicate through the medium of contemporary art, and come to appreciate and understand each others cultural heritage (and not seek to blow it up it, as has been a sad warring counterbalance to peace communication in this century).
The spread of Biennale and art fairs, and the ever-expanding programs and institutions of contemporary art museums in virtual and life modes, are evidence of the effects of ongoing global social change and mobility.
Other movements are occurring around the world such as the new mothers art movements (M.A.M) a new form of feminism in arts which rather gloriously continues the work of the Women s Art Movement (W.A.M.) of the nineteen seventies.
These are all positive signs of art as the currency of global cultural communication. And all these rapid changes also bring into focus the incredible need for art writing and arts journalism that is investigative and clear. Not only in reporting on and analysing the new trends but in building up the relational aspects of understanding and cultural exchange through dialogue and discussion which are processes, exemplified in artist and arts journalist interviews.
The doom and gloom reports, in recent media, are however counter-balanced by acknowledging that the demise of arts journalism in newspapers is not a sign of the demise of arts journalism.  (If anything it is a sign of the demise of newspapers and their financial inability to support as large a staff in this era of crisis: digitization and cost cutting for traditional media). Moving with the times arts journalism has gone online, as have communities of artists, and audiences of viewers and readers who form the international contemporary art world. Emerging in new forms and modes of online art writing.
As a further sign of the changes of the last few years, that have affected all journalists, and arts journalists in very specific ways, blogging has now been recognised by the UN as a form of journalism.

© Copyright Ruth Skilbeck, 2012
First published in

Monday, 28 May 2012

The Hidden Mother

By Ruth Skilbeck

In the late Victorian and Edwardian era, in the early days of black and white photography, there was a popular photographic portrait practice – now know as The Hidden Mother.

Babies and young children were photographed in images where their mother was both present and absent, literally concealed – hidden, often (to our eyes) hilariously clumsily, or eerily, under a spread, which could be carpet or a curtain.

The hidden mother was a covered-up, obscured shape that, in some shots, the infant was sitting on, in others the hidden mother was a strange standing presence shrouded in a patterned bedspread standing next to or behind the child. In each of the images the mother was completely ‘hidden’ – no part of her protruded from the covering, yet in most of them the hidden mother was impossible not to see.

The rationale behind covering up the mother – which overturned the Madonna and child genre of painting representation of mothers and their children was that, the sight of the mother distracted the eye from the image of the child. Yet the child felt more secure in the photographic studio having their photograph taken if the mother was also ‘there.’

This strange solution of absence and presence was surely disturbing for the child- let alone the mother under the heavy stifling carpet or curtain- and the expressions on the faces of the children in hidden mother portraits show their distress and bewilderment. None are smiling or relaxed, they all look disturbed and haunted by the knowledge of the absent presence of their hidden mother.

The popular photographic portrait practice of  ‘the hidden mother’ now in retrospect serves as a reflexive visual metaphor for the highly ambivalent ways in which mothers were regarded in late Victorian and Edwardian society, and in Australia in the twentieth century decades known as ‘the stolen generations’- when under an official White Australia Policy children of “part Aboriginal” mothers were routinely taken from their mothers and their mothers’ existence was erased from official and family records; this was a practice that affected not only “part Aboriginal” mothers but also the children of mothers who for a multitude of reasons were not considered socially or officially acceptable (or perhaps the mothers had died, in childbirth or when the children were very young.) Rather than remembering these mothers, official policy erased their memory and presence from the record, so that their families were supposed to never know who they were (as was the case in my own family history). Yet, like the shape of the hidden mother under the carpet or the curtain, the mothers’ presence remained, in a way that was disturbing, eerie and impossible to ignore and not be aware of, for those who started to search. Like looking at the photos of the hidden mother. The shape of the concealed mother remains in the picture frame.

The images of the hidden mother have a great resonance and have struck a chord with hundreds of thousands of users in the blogosphere

The Hidden Mother flickr photo sharing group started 32 months ago (0ctober  2010). Here’s a link to the first entries:

The Hidden Mother group rapidly gained hundred of members and hundreds of images of children with ‘hidden mothers’.

What is most interesting is the level of interest in the group. The images of the hidden mother- that most have not known about- have spiked a huge response in the blogosphere.  Some photographs have received thousands of hit per day. The members report in the discussion pages on their surprise at the popularity of their photographic curiosities.

I came across this site through a link to another photographic archive on Retronaut that a friend posted on Facebook. When I looked it up my eye was immediately drawn to the archive of the Hidden Mother, on the menu next to the rules on dating.

When I clicked on it I was astonished to see these images - that add another dimension and context to my own research into Australia’s forgotten mothersin the decades known as ‘the stolen generations’.

Was this a style of photography that was practiced in Australia?
I will put this onto my research project agenda to find out.

© Copyright Ruth Skilbeck, 2012

Friday, 18 May 2012

Call Out for Australia’s Forgotten Mothers

When I return from Canada I realize that I must do it.  I must make a memorial for Australia’s Forgotten Mothers. I must actualize the idea that came to me in a rite of empassioned writing on my mother and my forbidden unknown grandmother
whose presence came to me through the mists of absence and forgetting

I must make a plinth and cover it with the names of Australia’s forgotten mothers, erased and lost from official records.
 I will call out for people to send the names of mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers who were lost and hidden and eradicated from official records in the 20th century decades of the stolen generations.
The decades that the returned and fallen soldiers from the world wars were memorialized and remembered, and returned, over and over again.

This will be my research project for the next 3 years, culminating in 2015, the hundred-year anniversary of Gallipoli, birth of the ANZAC legend.  The erection of the plinth -could it be a more female shape, say, an oval, or heart shape that can be walked through like a doorway or shell or grove, like Persephone’s grove…with a spring bubbling up from the underworld…
Covered with the names in tear shaped, fertility-symbol shaped, plaques.
Accompanied by a book of names and stories: stories of the mothers lost by their relatives.
A book that recounts the birth of the project, from conceptual idea to fruition in materialized form, the progression from the personal dimension of vision, dream, inspiration, ideation to the social realm of language and culture.

I have made a drawing of the shape of the structure, which includes a central figurative statue of a mother and child. My first thought is that it should be constructed at Balmoral, in the park on the esplanade, or perhaps on the oval, on the edge of the trees, or as I keep thinking, on top of Georges Heights up with the artists’ studios… with the 360 degree view of the harbor, although it’s windy and unprotected up there,
I think I like the idea of the grove or grotto most of all on the (edge of the) oval, and I could bury Mum’s ashes there… or at least some of them…like a blessing, her blessing.
The shape of the memorial would echo the shape of the caves at Balmoral, the caves where the first nation’s people lived… looking out over the placid stretch of water now known as middle harbor.


© Copyright Ruth Skilbeck, 2012