“A woman cried out, ‘I am dead. Do you hear? My head is made of copper and I have snakes in my stomach. They are burning, burning, burning.’”
Louis Nowra 1
Louis Nowra’s 1980 play Inside the Island is set in the farming district of western New South Wales in 1912. Concerned with the mechanics of power the play follows events on the wheat farm of the Dawson family: matriarch Lillian, her husband George and their daughter Susan. With the arrival of fifty Australian army soldiers on the farm, Lillian decides to host a picnic and cricket match. When Captain Henry requests to purchase flour from the Dawson’s mill for the army cook to make bread and cakes for his soldiers Lillian offers it as a gift, telling her husband to instruct the mill to give the flour from ‘Bin Five’. Despite George’s protestations (‘There’s something wrong with it’) Lillian’s wishes are carried out. At the cricket match the soldiers who have eaten the tainted flour descend into madness, some become murderous, one pokes out his eyes. In the maelstrom Susan is found stabbed to death and George, distraught by his loss, perishes in the fire that breaks out following the picnic. The next morning, once the fire has presumably burnt out, Lillian thinks only of shifting the blame of the poisoned flour to George, selling her land and returning to England. The play’s title, using the metaphor of the island as remote, links Lillian’s attitude to the condition of her life in Australia and her perception of Australia as inferior and lacking sophistication. Despite her wealth and influence, or perhaps because of it, Lillian cannot escape the island of her class and upbringing. As she looks to find her way back to England and far away from her personal tragedy she says, ‘The strong forget, the weak remember’. The ‘strong’ signifying those with power and the ‘weak’ those without.
For a 2013 exhibition at c3 Contemporary Art Space in Abbotsford, Marian Crawford and I borrowed the title of Nowra’s play to explore our relationships to two islands: Ceylon and Ocean Island. Neither of these places still exist. In their place are Sri Lanka and Banaba. In an exploration of my own background of mixed English and Ceylonese descent, I visualized the retrospective angst of growing up without a connection to Ceylonese culture and its attendant ceremonies by combining a misguided interpretation of Yakun Natima (devil dancing) with the theatrics of western glam metal band Twisted Sister. As well as a dual image of archaeologists excavating in the field and an archival image of Sri Lankan asylum seekers made in two of the mineral exports of Sri Lanka – aluminium and graphite. A superimposed vernacular photograph I had taken of tea estates in Nuwara Eliya was pasted onto a tourist brochure image and advertisement of the same landscape. Its overlapping juxtaposed the archive and its attendant fantasies with simply being there. And finally, the chimney and fireplace of the gallery was used as a stand in for the body with its release of graphite as an expression of bursting, pent up emotion.
Crawford’s many drawings were tracings of archival images and photographs gleaned from personal archives and family photo albums. The sensitive line drawings that resulted were like a re-enactment of memory: the pencil operating as a time machine, literally drawing the past into the present in its meditation on identity, history and a personal relationship to an island once inhabited. Our use of Nowra’s title semantically shifted the emphasis of its meaning to an imagined or remade experience of place, contingent on memory, material and the archive. Like Lillian Dawson in Inside the Island we were each concerned with remaking or imagining an experience that no longer exists: we created an image or a tracing because we can no longer remember, or never knew in the first place.
When considered semantically, what might Island Island stand for? To me it suggests the meeting of ideas, the overlapping segment of the venn diagram with its parameters constantly shifting. Their ideas permeable and susceptible to the changing currents and flexible like tall grass. The mirror that reflects its form suggests a way to find another angle. Island Island is a platform for narrative and sharing stories. With so many stories overlooked or missing from current debates it’s founding is critical. We need stories that help us to understand who we are, the history we have come from, where we are going and what we could be: stories the strong might like to forget though they can no longer avoid, and that the weak will continue to remember.
- <p>Louis Nowra, 'Author’s Preface' in <em>Inside the Island</em>, Currency Press, 1981. <a href="#fnref1:1" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>