The Artist Is Known: Warwick Thornton’s Mother Courage

At the centre of Mother Courage (2012) is a woman painting: she sits in a van, which exists in a film, which plays on a screen, which sits in the van.

When the viewer enters the darkened exhibition space in which this installation stands, they immediately encounter a large, muddy and seemingly incongruous vehicle, on the outside of which have been hung Aboriginal dot paintings and on the inside of which are two television screens (facing front and rear respectively) showing a grandmother-figure and a young man existing on loop. The scene shown on the film is staged in the vehicle in which it plays, thus as the viewer glances into the open rear of the van they find that the space recedes further and quicker than expected. This distortion of scale and dimension is emphasised in the canvas upon which the woman is working, which spills out from the rear screen into the three-dimensional space. Sounds of contemporary Aboriginal music and radio patter also tumble from the looped scene in the film, extending beyond the installation boundary and into the gallery space. The combined effect of these illusory devices is surprising and initially disorienting.

Both the visual format and the iconography of Warwick Thornton’s latest installation at ACMI are exercises in self-reference; one element cites another which references a third which relates back to the first. This practice is partly founded on the artist’s distrust of the art market, which is visually alluded to in the subject of an Aboriginal woman painting Western Desert style canvases in the back of an old white van. The fictional central figure in Mother Courage (played by Grace Ruburitja) produces marketable works of Aboriginal dot painting; Thornton’s own creation in turn encompasses these recognisable standards of Aboriginal art in order to probe the viewer’s understanding of what (and how) Aboriginal art is.

In a brilliantly funny and not a little disquieting short film from 2002 entitled Mimi, Thornton – wearing the Director’s cap that would later propel him to international renown with the film Samson and Delilah – imagines an incident in which Aboriginal art physically rebels against the neat, superficial, money-driven art world in which it finds itself. In the film, a carved mimi (or “mimih”, a slender and playful spirit being) is bought at auction by an affluent and dim-witted young woman. The mimi then comes to life, proceeding to run amok in the bourgeois interior of the woman’s central Sydney apartment. After several calamitous attempts to outsmart the animated sculpture – involving the woman dialling 911 instead of 000 and then dialling someone else to ask whether they know “any real Aborigines” – the mimi is finally sent back to its home country, to the relief of all of Thornton’s players (including the young woman, despite the loss of her $800 investment).

Perhaps the most telling line in Thornton’s short film comes just a few second in, when the auctioneer starts the bidding for the carved mimi and announces: “the artist is unknown”. In reality, the artist is known to be Ivan Namarrkkii. In his latest installation Mother Courage, Thornton places the artist – both the grandmother figure and himself – at the forefront of the work. The scene presented on the television screens is semi-autobiographical, as the artist casts his earlier self in the role of the young man playing air guitar (played by Elijah Button). For Thornton, clearly, the historic anonymity of Aboriginal artists in the Western gaze is a key indicator of the cultural miscommunication between Aboriginal art practice and the contemporary art market. Yet this disconnection is not the product of a reciprocal interaction, but the entrenched misunderstanding of one party by another.

In a recent panel discussion at the University Of Melbourne held to coincide with the opening of Mother Courage at ACMI, Thornton alluded to his inclination to “beat up” the art market in his works. In itself this notion is nothing new: a quick perusal of the history of art tells of the determinedly uncomfortable relationship between contemporary artists and the marketability of their work. Yet what sets Mother Courage apart from the vast body of market-battering art that fills our gallery spaces is the sobering social and political commentary that underpins Thornton’s installation. Initially inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s narrative of the same name, Mother Courage presents to the viewer an Aboriginal woman who has been forced from her home and now has to journey from one exhibition to another, selling her art as a mechanism for survival.

The itinerant nature of this work aligns with Brecht’s story of an old woman in the 17th century trading her wares from a cart, a theme underscored in Thornton’s work by the evident roadworthiness of the van (which is currently registered to April 28, 2013). In fact Mother Courage was first exhibited in 2012 in Kassel, Germany, at the trendy and prestigious dOCUMENTA13 art event, where it travelled from one exhibition opening to another, parking outside of the glamorous venues, appearing to invade the immaculate panorama of contemporary art. Around his own exhibition – which was invited to dOCUMENTA13 like every other work exhibited – Thornton generated the mythology of an outcast, constructing Mother Courage to be a disallowed presence amongst its more conventional peers. Surprisingly, this itinerant identity is not diminished by its current fixed location at ACMI; the viewer is prompted by convention and the medium of the work to understand that this address is only temporary.

Such commentaries available to the viewer in Thornton’s installation are not simply in reference to the commercial and occasionally spurious trade in creative products that the artist sees around him. An effort to discuss the distinct difficulties facing contemporary Aboriginal communities is also distinguishable: a newspaper article sitting on the dashboard tells of six young men removed from their homes; an Aboriginal flag is affixed to the petrol cap of the van. In and upon the vehicle of Mother Courage is represented the social detritus of the imbalanced interaction between Indigenous Australians and white policy-makers. Principal amongst the ravaging episodes referenced in this installation is the Northern Territory National Emergency Response, more commonly referred to as the ‘Intervention’. On the left side of the van is a series of paintings – apparently the work of the woman currently painting inside the vehicle – in which the infamous signs that accompanied the intervention are referenced. Thornton’s motif reads: “Warning, No Grog, No Pornography, No Wepons (of mass distruction), No Jobs”. In this small image the viewer gets a brief insight into the artist’s perception of the injustices experienced by his community. This element of gravity runs alongside the thread of humour and fantasticalness that characterises Thornton’s work, embodied in the figure of the artist’s artist: the indomitable Mother Courage.


Warwick Thornton’s Mother Courage is at Gallery 2, The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), Federation Square, from February 5 to June 23.


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