Looking at Art - July

<strong>Therese Ritchie</strong><br/>Born 1961, Newcastle NSW resides Darwin <i>Johnny Balaiya, Casuarina Beach, Darwin</i> 2004 <br/>Digital print on paper edn 3/3 440 x 1200 mm [image + paper size]<br/>Charles Darwin University Art Collection CDU1254 <br/>Acquired in 2005 <br/>Image © the artist

Therese Ritchie

The scene and its protagonist are at once distant and familiar, as though the past and present have been collapsed, disconcertingly, into a single picture plane.

Early 19th Century art historical images come to mind, such as the brooding, tropical palm-fringed coastal setting for William Westall’s View of Malay Road from Pobasso’s Island February 1803 (1809-12), with its ominous storm approaching from the west.

In Westall’s painting, a Malay chief stands mannequin-like on a rocky headland facing the Wessel chain of islands off the Northern Territory coast, his red cloak unfurling in the rain-laced winds, his gaze averted from ours by a distant fleet of Makassan perau at anchor in an enclosed bay.

By contrast, in Ritchie’s work, the subject’s questioning gaze confronts us palpably and directly, as a real person from the contemporary present, not a distant stranger from the past.

In Johnny Balaiya, Casuarina Beach, Darwin 2004, the picture’s sight-lines form a circuit of interrogative relationships: as one scans the horizon’s vanishing point for signs, one is watched by the figure in the foreground.

He is no visitor, but an Aboriginal man with no doubt about who he is and where he is from. The atmosphere is charged by dark monsoonal clouds lumbering across a leaden sky and the light is microscopically clear. Where to find one’s bearings? A soft delta of chocolate mud and sand, sluiced by pearlescent green rivulets of seawater, and a jagged chunk of headland resting on the rim of a flat horizon, signal that this is the North Australian coastline: a first point of entry by sea and the last of escape by land.

Johnny Balaiya, Casuarina Beach, Darwin 2004 is drawn from the first of a trilogy of limited edition digital prints (“Ship of Fools” 2004, “Beautiful” 2005 and “Peace” 2007) which portray the environment and people who inhabit and make recreational use of the Darwin foreshore and coastal reserves from the Nightcliff Jetty to Bullocky Point – “Long-grassers” and “Short-grassers”, black and white – “living in harmony”, or otherwise, in the Top End.

Balaiya (now deceased) was a senior Burarra man born at Yilan near Ji-marda, at the mouth of the Blyth River in Arnhem Land. For most of his life he worked, camped and fished with his family in the Darwin region – yet his status was that of a fringe-dweller “seen as invisible and without value”. Working with Darwin film-maker Stella Smith, who for several years collected “Long-grass” oral histories, Ritchie began a series of accompanying photographic portraits which included that of Balaiya.

At his request, this portrait was superimposed on a photographic landscape image of Nightcliff beach during the Wet Season, also captured by Ritchie. The portrait bust of Balaiya in this setting – born of human engagement and mutual respect – were then re-worked and painted by the artist, “pixel by pixel” in digital format, into a unified and mesmerising composition.

A resident Darwin artist, photographer and graphic designer of 20 years standing, Ritchie has wielded her camera and trained her gaze across the political and social life of the region with sensitive insight, often in company with her creative partner and brother-in-arms Chips Mackinolty, whose equally powerful and provocative graphic images are also represented in the Charles Darwin University Art Collection.

Ritchie’s finely grained sensibility, born of all she has witnessed and experienced in the “paradise of sadness” that is the Northern Territory, has taken her work beyond photo-journalism or biographical documentary. She goes where other image-makers of the Northern Territory frontier have rarely dared to venture: into a heart of darkness of our own making.

Therese Ann Ritchie graduated with a Diploma of Arts and Bachelor of Fine Arts from the NTU in 1985. She was awarded a Masters in Visual Arts from CDU in 2005.

Her work is represented in the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory Art Collection, Artbank, the National Gallery of Australia, Flinders University Art Museum, the Araluen Collections and private collections in Australia and abroad.

Anita Angel
Curator, Charles Darwin University Art Collection

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