Art Monthly Australasia, Issue 324 Winter 2020 pp. 52-53
Arresting the touristic gaze: Therese Ritchie and the art of representation in a transient place Koulla Roussos, Darwin Recently I wandered through Therese Ritchie’s ‘Burning hearts’ exhibition at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT), explaining the works to my young nephews in a language they could understand. I have assumed the role of storyteller, spinning art object-related narratives to ensure that their relationship to Darwin is shaped by images, texts and ideas that artists and museums consider worthy.
‘Burning hearts’ is the fourth in a series of temporary exhibitions developed and presented by MAGNT to showcase local artists who have shaped cultural memory about place. Curated by Dr Wendy Garden, MAGNT’s Curator of Australian Art, the exhibition presents Ritchie’s creative practice, examining the role photography plays to her practice.
Suffering from a hyper-transience typical of the postcolonial experience, Darwin has struggled to mature as a city confident in its ability to present its rich cosmopolitan local identity. Resources and experiences are extracted by a parade of ‘temporary locals’: public servants, FIFO workers across all industries, globetrotting arts and culture types and tourists alike who collectively contribute to a kind of pathological amnesia.
Myths, caricatures and stereotypes of the Northern Territory as a far-flung wild frontier, framed by films such as We of the Never Never (1982) and Crocodile Dundee (1986), and their most recent variants, Australia (2008) and Top End Wedding (2019), have circulated ad nauseam. The Northern Territory News as the only local mass-media daily further perpetuates the illusion of the arcadian exotic, underscored by an anti-intellectual ‘croc-shock-sport-jock’ larrikinism.
Traversing an art practice steeped in the agitprop traditions of photomontage and poster art, Therese Ritchie’s photojournalistic art of representation foregrounds the Top End’s sociopolitical discourses the mainstream media chooses to ignore or simplify.
‘Not Dead Yet’, the artist’s 2010 retrospective exhibition curated by the late Anita Angel (then curator of the Charles Darwin University Art Collection and Art Gallery), situated Ritchie’s influence alongside Chips Mackinolty, a business partner and fellow agent provocateur. Their Green Ant commercial design and publication venture produced posters, screen prints, T-shirts, postcards and other widely distributed images/texts which shaped a distinct and alternative Darwin aesthetic.
‘Burning hearts’ builds on this legacy, presenting Ritchie’s photographic gaze and combined feminist/queer/environmentalist/progressive sensibility as it bears witness to and documents the Top End’s complex psychogeography. Through her practice, the region’s tangled and often divisive political dialectics have been made explicit.
The insidiousness of the ongoing colonial project is laid bare, with works such as Cry (2005), Resurrection (2006) and Our organs are Sacred 2 (2011), which detail the links between the displacement and defacement of country to the poor health of its inhabitants, unmasking the hypocrisy of settler religious and political institutions in managing the fall out through clinics and incarceration.
Certainly, this was not the language I employed to communicate exhibition meanings to my nephews, though I did point to veins connecting kidneys to water to patients attached to dialysis machines to make the point about dispossession and sickness.
Standing before the work Shortgrass people 1 (2003), I posed the question: Can a stranger ever tell a true story of who you really are? This is what tourists do all the time with people from another culture, especially with Aboriginal people. As I was privy to Ritchie’s process which produced the exhibition series ‘But you’re not ugly’ (2016), I explained to my nephews how legitimacy to represent another is gained when informed consent and collaboration are employed, and by sticking around for long enough to deal with any of the impacts that may occur.
‘Burning hearts’ is a celebration of a radical agitator who came and stayed. Ritchie’s politically committed photographic eye and methods of engagement are the antithesis of the touristic view. She provides a counterintuitive reproach to the colonial, neoliberal, globetrotting peripatetic gaze. Far from an irresponsible flâneur, her firm perspective valorises the local.
Kudos to MAGNT for celebrating this controversial Darwin artist, and paying tribute to her role in representing her interpretation of the contentious issues shaping her era. This exhibition is testament to the fact that artists, activists and provocateurs are part of the Top End tapestry, playing an important part in shaping the collective archive. To my nephews, these are the stories that have shaped their aunt, which in their circulation and appreciation may go on to enrich their own storytelling about the place they call home.
1. The other featured artists have been Rob Brown (2014), Winsom Jobling (2016), and Franck Gohier (2018).
‘Therese Ritchie: burning hearts’ is at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin until 28 June 2020.