Poem For My Mother

30 Oct

morning sun stings my eyes

crucifix on a pink wall magpies

in the macrocarpas my mother

in the washhouse poking

clothes into hot water with a wooden stick

Ave Ave Ave Maria she sings round the beat

of the machine down the passage they fly

into my ears Ave I echo back from bed

in the kitchen by the toaster swinging legs

as she irons I love the flap the slap

as she shakes steams shirtstowelshand


places them in the ironing tabernacle

the piles her offerings cleanliness

is next to godliness my mother says baptising

shirts with bright water anointing

every wrinkle flattening each edge these rites

sacraments singing her grace

church her parent and teacher


arms to hold in a lonely world

a wraith for a mother she wore

a blue dress was tall I waited

by a gate every woman is tall

to a child and blue the colour of sky

and Mary most beautiful among black

veils flickering candles bells

and air raids what kind of gate

how long how often did a nun come look

into her eyes hold her chin in her hand

lock her hand in hers when the gate

click-closed no mother came

my mother’s hands cold from waiting

in touchfree childhood

in the afternoons my brothers and I

walk home by freesia-fringed oaks

to our mother in her green chair

beneath Rembrandt’s mother

bent over a book hands caressing

words my mother cannot speak

her language gives her my father

a house of bricks high on a hill

family a word she’d never lived

her chair by the window to watch

and wait for us not faraway mountains

heavy with books from the library

her ring knocks against glass

we hear she’s seen us the world

is a dangerous place take care

when we leave always she stands

at the door wraps her hands

round our faces you must be cold

come let me measure

your arms on the green chair

round pearl needles wool spilling

from a green suede bag to keep us warm

White light

17 Apr

2014-06-10 10.37.37

Attitudes of Prayer

After Beethoven, Quartet in C sharp minor, Op 131

One hundred and thirty-one approaches

to the problem of God.

Imagine it:

over and over rehearsing what you don’t know,

Letting yourself transcribe
what no-one’s said before –
in your greatcoat,
in the freezing study
where you take bitter tobacco and coffee.

Occasionally, through the pall of tinnitus, hearing –

I feel as if heaven lay close upon the earth
and I between them both,
breathing through the eye of a needle.

Early December.
Grey on grey, grey annealing grey,

except light, catching the high
notes of a fiddle
(quick quick said the bird):
Your breath
like smoke on the window.


Light glints on a door-handle,
draws parallels on the carpet.

When you were a child
those voices in another room seemed far off.

Under the covers, in darkness
you drew your knees up to your chin.

Lamplight on skin, on a polished table:
laughter lit up your mother’s voice.

It made you think of honey;
slipped away
like the muntjac you see sometimes
browsing beyond the Service Station –

half-dog, half-deer,
caught on pause
before neural pathways catch
and it flickers off
like something you can almost taste

but are afraid to;
let slip
into shadows and trees.


Light against dark. The way you remember Nazareth –
the cave house
in the basement of its hanger-church

and the meal at a long table,
where the light from arched windows
was white
and absolute

each dish – a basket of pitta, long-leaved lettuce,
pastel swirls of hummus and tahini –
clear as a still life.

Fiona Sampson

James Tylor – hybrid cultural identity

23 Mar


Self-portrait as Hohepa Te Umuroa

In 1770 Captain Cook landed on the east coast of Australia at Botany Bay where men were fishing from bark canoes. The Tahitians had greeted the Endeavour in elaborate outriggers, the Maori had performed haka and thrown stones. But these men were different. They ignored the English sailors who landed after firing a few shots which sent men on shore scurrying into nearby bush.

Cook left some beads in a humpy near the beach where children and women huddled. They refused to touch them. Cook wrote, “…We were never able to form a connection…They seemed to have no curiosity, no sense of material possessions…All they … want[ed] was for us to be gone.”[ii] For seventeen more years, no other English eye saw this land’s waters, rocks, or grey green gums, where for nearly 30,000 years, a ‘thin membrane of [Aboriginal] culture’[iii] had spread itself over the continent in an elaborate, but to the Western mind, utterly alien web of tribal and familial relationships.

Cook’s observations and Joseph Banks’s description of the geography of Botany Bay and native ‘cowardliness’ (compared with Maori bellicosity) persuaded Pitt’s Cabinet to establish a penal colony there, and in 1787 the First Fleet of over six hundred convicts sailed into Sydney Cove, under the rule of Captain Arthur Phillip, to turn this Spartan-like Eden into the world’s biggest prison.

But what about the incurious vanishing locals? They seemed so few; they hunted and gathered with spears and stone axes, lived in caves or under sheets of bark, wandered naked over the land in tribes; owned nothing, lacked any recognisable hierarchical structures. They were nomads indeed, unlike the land-hungry new arrivals for whom property was the basis of their coming. This land, to all intents and purposes, was ‘empty’. Thus, by 1835, the doctrine of ‘terra nullius’ – land belonging to no one – was established by Governor Bourke of NSW which determined that indigenous Australians could neither sell nor assign land, and that its distribution was the Crown’s prerogative. So the scene was set for whole-scale dispossession because one of the ‘rewards’ at the end of a convict’s sentence was the acquisition of his ‘own’ land. An ancient pre-existing culture of sung myth in which every tree, hill and animal were sacred – intimately bound to the peoples who walked among them in ‘dreaming-tracks’ – was inconceivable to the colonists. Restriction of movement over ancient tribal territory, confiscation of land, or relocation to different parts of the country meant inevitable spiritual death. This has ongoing consequences culminating in annual Invasion Day protests every Australia Day.

This is the historical backdrop of Adelaide-based photographic artist James Tylor, a descendant of the Kaurna people whose traditional lands include the Adelaide plains of South Australia. He is also an ‘Australian-Maori’ whose family moved to Australia in the 1930s. His father was ‘very much a Maori’, and James grew up as a ‘Maori boy’ which he pronounces with a colonial inflection because that was his experience and is his identity. And he has English forbears. He knows some ‘Nunga’ which he describes as a kind of ‘contemporary (Aboriginal) language from South Australia.’

His work captures both his examination of his own identity – Voyage of the Waka, the Origin of the Dreaming, and most recently Aotearoa my Hawaiki, and the chronicling of the erasure of indigenous sites and practices as a result of land clearances.


Self portrait, 2013 Daguerreotype from Voyage of the Waka


‘twinkling eyes of cunningness and ferocity’,2013 Daguerreotype.

In the Waka suite Tylor steals phrases from Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle to illustrate the attitude of the white man towards the Other. He also makes himself the subject of some works. This deliberately unsettles the viewer’s assumptions about the nineteenth century predilection for taxonomy (and judgement), and whether or not it still prevails. As a self-portrait, the artist also meets himself – in the photograph of his face, he stares unflinchingly through the frame; and his tattooed, or branded, hand could either be reductive classification or affirmative personal statement. That this hand is open suggest acceptance of the blending of his three cultures.

From an Untouched Landscape with its two categories: Deleted Scenes and Erased Scenes, Tylor questions European notions about the Australian landscape. Because so many indigenous people were removed from their lands and corralled into government reserves, and their artefacts razed in the settlers’ quest for land for forestry and farming, a perception – still maintained – has developed that the Australian landscape was always ‘untouched.’

In a series of quietly devastating photographs Tylor has cut dark voids into landscapes that were once significant cultural sites and backed them with velvet. Some voids are tomb-like, their implacable blackness denying forever the possibility of return, others are circles which ripple away into the distance suggesting an ongoing history of loss.


(Erased) From an Untouched Landscape #7, 2014, Inkjet print on hahnemuhle paper with hole removed to a black velvet void.



(Deleted scenes) From an untouched landscape#6,2013, Inkjet print on hahnemuhle paper with hole removed to a black velvet void.

 Un-resettling continues to question absence. Although environment and heritage organisations respect significant Aboriginal sites and acknowledges traditional ownership, it is illegal to remove objects or disturb the landscape. Tylor believes that this restriction prevents indigenous people from hunting, gathering or building structures in public reserves. Un-resettling is a series of photographs in national parks where he has erected dwellings to show that they once existed as part of the landscape. The absence of people in these images emphasises the practice of relocation and dispossession.


Un-resettling (half dome hut on desert plain)2013, Handcoloured Digital Print.

When James was studying in Tasmania in 2012 he heard about gravestones on Maria Island – off the coast of Tasmania – where the words were in Maori. Until then he’d always believed that penal settlements in Van Diemen’s Land were for white convicts only. Research led him to Te Umuroa and six Whanganui Maori who had attacked a farm in the Hutt Valley in 1846, and under George Grey’s orders, were subjected wrongly to a court martial. The men spoke insufficient English, their interpreter was inadequate and they were denied legal counsel. They pleaded guilty. Their crime was ‘rebellion against the Queen and possession of one of Her Majesty’s firearms.’ They were sentenced to be ‘transported as Felons for the Term of their Natural lives’, banished from their own island and incarcerated on another.

Displaced Rebellion is a series of self-portraits in which he represents himself as Maori who were sent to Van Diemen’s Land. As an Australian of Maori descent, Tylor acknowledges the significance of their story to his own historical connection to Australia.


Self-portrait as Te Kumete, 2013.

His most recent work is an investigation of his mythological origins. Names are important to him for what they reveal about identity and culture, and this series is entitled Aotearoa, My Hawaiki. ‘There’s always a place where your ancestors come from. I prefer to call mine Aotearoa for what it means – New Zealand is just a Dutch label.’ It is fourteen black and white disarmingly serene invocations to the clouds which hover over landscape and acknowledge the significance of Aotearoa. The bottom third of each image, however, is dark and unknowable, and slicing through the darkness is a tear, a separation between land and sky. ‘Ripping the landscape is,’ he says, ‘about not having a connection to these places – about displacement brought about by colonisation. Most of my work is about my mixed race and heritage – this is the first time I’ve really thought about being a Maori-Australian.’


Aotearoa my Hawaiki #11 2015,Inkjet print on hahnemuhle paper.

James Tylor’s work is meticulous, considered, and beautiful. Because his practice is grounded in history, he works with historical photographical processes from the 19th century especially those used to document Aboriginal and Maori culture. Before he studied photography, he was a carpenter and a coexistent part of his art is the making of hybrid artefacts: in Past the Measuring Stick, 2013, he makes a kauri boomerang, a manuka gidgee, a harakeke dilly bag.


Tasmanian blackwood patu. 2012. Ambrotype on black glass with clear glass mounting.

James Tylor is currently walking around Kangaroo Island, the third largest island in Australia after Tasmania and Melville Island, and once a border of Kaurna territory – their name for it was Karta, or Island of the Dead. When it gets cooler, he plans another longer walk along Kaurna borders – from Cape Jervis to Port Pirie – and he wants to learn more of their language. ‘You have to be in a place to understand its history and you want to speak words rather than decipher.’

In June, July and August, his work will be shown in Some Australian Photographs at the McNamara Gallery in Whanganui. His website is Jamestylor.com


This essay first appeared in ArtZone 58 2015.







[i] http://www.captcook-ne.co.uk/ccne/timeline/voyage1.htm, Joseph Banks recorded the fishing party observed at Botany Bay on 26 April 1770. He wrote: ‘Their canoes… a piece of Bark tied together in Pleats at the ends and kept extended in the middle by small bows of wood was the whole embarkation, which carried one or two…people…paddling with paddles about 18 inches long, one of which they held in either hand. (Banks, Journal II, 134) retrieved 10 Feb 2015

[ii] Hughes, Robert, The Fatal Shore, London, Pan 1987, chapter 3, p59

[iii] Hughes, Robert, op cit, chapter 1, p9




19 Mar

rothenburg st james


Now we are going to talk about the Route of the Pilgrims. The pilgrim route is a very good thing, but it is narrow. For the road which leads man to life is narrow; on the other hand, the road which leads to death is wide and spacious. The pilgrim route is for the good people: the lack of vices, the mortification of the body, the increase of virtues, pardon for sins, penitence for the penitent, the road of the just, love of the saints, faith in the resurrection and the reward for the blessèd, distancing from Hell, protection of the Heavens. It takes one away from succulent foods, makes voracious obesity disappear, restrains voluptuousness, contains the appetites of the flesh which attack the fortress of the soul, purifies the spirit, invites man to the contemplative life, humbles the haughty, raises up the humble, loves poverty. It hates the censure of the man dominated by avarice. It loves, on the other hand, the person who gives to the poor. It rewards the austere who do good works; and, on the other hand, it does not snatch the miserly and sinful from the talons of sin.

Liber Sancti Jacobi; Codex Calixtinus c1350





Camino preparation


On Sunday, Simon, his daughter Anna, and I catch a bus to church. He thinks I should meet his friend Father Carlyle, who comes from Edinburgh and knows about the Camino. He thinks I should talk to him before I go —and afterwards. ‘He’s hugely good,’ says Simon. ‘Often runs retreats for nuns.’

There is a holy water font inside the church doors and a gold statue of Mary holding rosary beads. Simon dips his fingers into the water, genuflects and lights two candles at her feet. ‘Camino preparation,’ he pronounces. A small choir sings O Magnum Mysterium by Victoria. Simon and Anna kneel for a few minutes and lower their heads.

I watch the congregants.

They arrive, mostly in pairs, and sit in shoulder-nudging huddles — men in navy jackets, pale trousers, and pink shirts with white collars. They push their hair back from their foreheads and signet rings flash on their little fingers. They wear flesh-coloured socks and suède shoes embroidered with fleur-de-lys. Small bright-eyed dogs peer out from their jackets. The other couples seem to be red-lipped, thin-legged older women borne up by young men. A few solitary women with strong noses and sensible coats. No families. The dogs are quiet except for the occasional high-pitched yap. Their owners smile, stroke their pets’ heads, shove them back inside their jackets and wave at Simon who’s now smiling and waving and telling me who they are. ‘Very interesting person, that man with the cane. Walked in the Himalayas at seventy…’ ‘She was one of the first Jungian analysts, you know, but doesn’t remember much now, poor thing. Sent me three silk socks in a Waitrose bag yesterday. And one had a hole.’

Five priests in birettas and green and gold chasubles sweep on to the altar. Simultaneously they bow, genuflect and cross themselves. They take off their birettas in a flourish and present them to the servers — round men in linen albs with badger hair. One bows again and gives a priest a small brass thurible. As the incense twists towards the ribbons of the Gloria, another winking ruby light flickers beside other angels at another altar: my brothers, their striped school socks sticking out beneath their cassocks, kneel beside green-robed Father Geaney. We are near the front of Our Lady of Lourdes Church. I’m leaning against my father whose eyes are closed — he’s very tired from working late the previous night. ‘Let’s make this a day of no fights,’ our mother has sighed as we’ve squashed into the car on the way to church and pushed and shoved for a window seat. My youngest brother is driving his truck along the pew humming softly, my mother is holding my sister and rummaging in her bag for rosary beads.

‘Simon,’ I whisper, ‘I think we’re in the wrong church; this is my church.’

‘Nonsense,’ he says staring at me over the top of his spectacles and swaying slightly. ‘You are Roman, We are Catholic… Oh good, it’s Father Sebastian to preach. He’s very good; brilliant in fact. Says God can only be approached by the intellect.’

He puts his glasses in his pocket and leans back into his pew, arms folded, a faint keen smile; someone certain of his pleasures.

‘As we know from our Ovid,’ says Father Sebastian, blond, blue-eyed, blade-thin, and looking as if he’s stepped out of Castle Howard, ‘passion effects transformation.’ He speaks of Metamorphoses — Daphne, Apollo, laurels, the Passion of Christ, the fear of being loved, its transforming power. He speaks about the sacred and the holy, the impulse to experience the beyond — the ‘telos.’ Telos is Greek for ‘far away’, the distant thing, the final end.

Sometimes his words are lost by rumbling as if there’s an earthquake. The little dogs bark, the signet rings glitter, the flags flutter, and the white roses in their brass vases bow their heads.

‘The Underground,’ whispers Simon. ‘I told you he was good.’

Afterwards he leads me towards Father Carlyle, who’s standing on a small bright lawn outside the church holding a cup of tea. ‘I was pleased,’ he says to Father Carlyle, ‘that Father Sebastian omitted ‘men’ from the final prayer. He said, “Let us pray for all.” Very good I think.’ Father Carlyle sips his tea and says Father Sebastian always says the right thing. Simon introduces me and explains that I’m walking the Camino, that I’m hugely brave, and that I may need to talk to someone. His voice leans momentarily on ‘talk’. Father Carlyle’s eyebrows flicker.

‘Have you got your “scallop shell of quiet and staff of faith?’’’ he asks.

shell way mark

in the inner west

11 Mar


When I walk round here, I see walls and trees. It’s a place of warehouses and cottages with bars across doors and windows. Curtains are usually closed but you can hear voices as you pass each door. Trees burst from small walls or straddle along the outer perimeter of high walls as if to provide a careless lace to their grey density. Some trees’ trunks remind me of how much longer they’ve been here than we have. There are beautiful things on the ground.


solo treeIMG_5009




squashed treesIMG_4980


mother treeIMG_5056

white gumIMG_5043


tree orange wallIMG_5143


lacy wall&rubbishIMG_5126


urns and windowsIMG_5118

house and treeIMG_5010




what I read in the Sydney Morning Herald today

7 Mar

1 Bali nine duo adjust to harsh new life inside ‘Iron’ prison


2 Indian government bans BBC rape documentary


3 Nauru police hit back at brutality claims


4 Productivity assumptions ‘overly optimistic’


5 Why so hard to see black and blue? #TheDress used in domestic violence campaign

6 Report ‘ignores’ climate change


7 Dole, disability spending to drop


8 Pace of change for women’s equality is glacial


9 MH370 pilot’s family lash out


10 Baby Boomers put the boot in to young people


Michael LeunigIMG_5035


At the NSW Art Gallery

4 Mar

Our Spirits Lie In the Water

This place, the creek, and water, we love this country, we Aboriginal people. We love it. The old people were the same, attached to this land. The old people, our grandfathers and grandmothers, great grandparents, our ancestors, they lived here in this place, put here for them. That’s how we talk about our land. Our spirits lie in the water. When we camp by the creek, it soothes our spirits and keeps us cool.                                           Ivan Namirrkki 2003


Macassan Prau on bark 1948. Sam Barramba Wurramarra.

Dugong huntIMG_4933

Dugong Hunt, 1948

Jabarrgwa (Kneepad) Wurrabadalumba, 1896-c1969, Arnhem region

abo 2IMG_4938

Djowuy 2005, natural pigments on bark. Manman Wirrpanda b 1955.


Untitled, 2005


Maku inmaku pakani 2014

Ngupulya Pumani, b1948

Yukultji Napangati


Yathikpa, 2013

Nonggirrnga Marawilli

‘This Yirritja painting I’m doing is coming from the heart and mind. But it’s not the sacred Madarrpa painting. It’s just an ordinary fire, tongues of fire, fire burning backwards. A painting with no story, only flames.’

Steph Matuku

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