This evening I was listening to an interview on Radio National's Awaye with artist Brian Martin.This collage, Methexical Countryscape Wurundjeri #3 is by Brian.
Brian claims membership of both the Bundjalung and Muruwari Aboriginal language groups. That's actually a slightly unusual mix, for while both groups come from Northern New South Wales, they are a long way apart in distance terms, from the North Coast to the far west.
In talking about his work, Brian made a distinction between the traditional European approach to landscape painting and that he tried to adopt. In traditional European landscape painting, he suggested, the painter is an observer who tries to capture the landscape as spectacle. By contrast, in painting he tries to capture the landscape as life, for to the Aboriginal peoples with their sense of country the landscape was their life.
Like all these things, such distinctions are not clear cut. However, it got me thinking about varying concepts of country. All human beings have a sense of country in the sense of the familiar, the patterns of life. You can see this in a conference or meeting, where people quickly establish their positions, the place where they sit, where they return to. In all aspects of life, we establish routines across our landscape; there is our favourite coffee shop, the routes we always walk, the places where we buy groceries, the buildings we recognise.
If we live in one place for long enough, those familiar patterns become imbued with a sense of history, part of our own past. This was where my grandparents lived, this is where I went to school, we have been coming to this beach for many years, and so it goes on. Modern Australians are relatively immobile, unwilling to shift from familiar locales. They are also clannish in a geographic sense. You can see this in Sydney very clearly with its geographic divides. Those from the Eastern Suburbs see themselves as different from those coming from, say, the Northern beaches. The Westies and the inner suburb metros are separated by a vast divide that is is only partly based on geography, for different areas develop their own cultures.
Most Australians now live in an urban environment. To them, their country is marked by its built landscape. This changes all the time. Normally this goes largely unnoticed, although sometimes the changes are big enough to attract notice and consequent comment or even protest. One side effect of this pattern of constant change is that country is personally populated, illumed through direct experience or memories of immediate past generations. Despite the popularity of local history societies, very few urban and especially city people have a feel for the history of their own areas. The concept of a steady landscape populated by the stories of multiple generations carried down through generations is alien.
I think that this is the real difference with the Aboriginal sense of country or indeed that I hold in terms of my own area.