Subverting the Machined Paradigms of Life: Linda Adair reviews ‘Imperceptible Resistances’ -Modern Art Project Blue Mountains

IMPERCEPTIBLE RESISTANCES — Modern Art Project Blue Mountains (MAP BM). At the Everglades Gallery daily 11.00 am until 3.00 pm until the Sunday 23 December at 3.pm. http://www.nationaltrust.org.au/event/everglades-gallery-imperceptible-resistances

Rochford Street Review recommend that any lovers of modern art in the mountains this week visit the Everglades Gallery, Leura, (pictured) to catch the final days of Imperceptible Resistances the first annual exhibition at this world famous site by MAP BM (Modern Art Projects Blue Mountains).

Curator Lizzy Marshall invited MAP BM artists to produce works which would demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit and subvert the networked or machined paradigms of life. In response to this call for works to be displayed in the Gallery within the world-renown Everglades National Trust site, 16 artists worked within their preferred mediums, to create imperceptible resistances to politics, conservation, personal freedom, and public spaces. This has resulted in a thematically coherent yet diverse body of work by the following featured artists: Vivienne Dadour, Frank Davey & Tess Rapa, Fiona Davies, Beata Geyer, Anne Graham, Danica Knezevic, Tom Loveday, Fleur MacDonald, Paul Mosig, Sean O’Keeffe, Naomi Oliver, Ebony Secombe, Rebecca Waterstone, and Gianni Wise.

The finished works play with, and subvert notions of, historical narrative and ownership, memory and power and, to paraphrase the invitation to the launch, posit heritage sites as places of resistance and change. Many works interrogate economies of oppression in surprising ways, creating beautiful or delicately unsettling pieces of art is the case with works by Fiona Davies, Anne Graham and Vivienne Dadour:

Fiona Davies continues her critique of the healthcare industry and its use of blood and plasma with another facet of the Blood and Silk Series Blood Farming/The Producers . (http://www.fionadavies.com.au/default4.asp)

Fiona Davies Blood on Silk: Blood Farming/The Producers, 2018

Anne Graham’s piece (part of a larger series) beautifully explores notions of music, instruments, nationalism and warfare using a bricolage of elements including a pianola roll of the Blue Danube waltz, a keyboard and the delicately arranged pendants that prove to be on closer inspection the gleaming shell casings of bullets. In this silent piece, Graham renders an iconic musical piece as a visual rather than aural experience, whilst summoning associations in the mixed media of the punch card technology of IG Farben’s Hollerith numbers which, via the Nazi  Holocaust fed into IBM and ultimately shaped the world we live in today.

Anne Graham System Hopping, 2018

Three of the Vivienne Dadour works in this show are site specific explorations of the Everglades itself, after much detailed research of the National Trust archive.The works foreground the magnificent and undervalued contribution made by the unknown craftsmen who worked on creating the terraces, walls and vistas that form the grand hard landscaping of this wonderful design by the acclaimed landscape gardener by Paul Sorensen.

Vivienne Dadour A Biography of Place: The — Unknown Craftsmen at Everglades c1932-35

The other works are of uniformly high standard and there are some wonderful pieces that would make great Christmas presents for yourself or someone you love a lot.

Imperceptible resistances builds on the successes of two other shows involving MAP BM artists: Explorers: narratives of site and Kiosk 3×6 projects. As Rochford Press is now based in the Blue Mountains, we were delighted to encounter MAP BM and to learn that it has a great 2019 planned under the guidance of President Fiona Davies, with the support of Vice-President Ian Milliss, Treasurer Beata Geyer and Secretary Alex Gooding with committee members Vivienne Dadour, Naomi Oliver and Rebecca Waterstone.

 – Linda Adair


Linda Adair is a Blue Mountains based writer and critic and one half of Rochford Press.

Contact details for Modern Art Projects – Blue Mountains can be found at https://www.modernartprojects.org/

Commonality & Respect: Linda Adair reviews ‘Home Country’ by Urban Theatre Projects

Home Country, a performance by Urban Theatre Projects. Colo Lane Car Park Blacktown

Billie McPherson as Uncle Cheeky and Shakira Clanton as the Blacktown Angel.

Billie McPherson as Uncle Cheeky and Shakira Clanton as the Blacktown Angel.

Towards the beginning of Urban Theatre Projects’ production of Home Country an indigenous performer (Uncle Cheeky: Billy Mcpherson) welcomes the audience by telling them they are all “ring ins” and explaining “Well, I’m not from around here and neither are you….Unless you’re Darug here or Gadigal over there.” This was a somewhat startling statement to make at a beginning of a performance titled Home Country. Of course for most of us the relationship to place in Australia is a recent one, at most going back a little over 200 years, but even then it has been a transitory relationship with a limited connection and relationship to a particular place.

Any feeling of surprise or discomfit at such a statement was countered by the formal welcome to country and a smoking ceremony performed by Aboriginal Elder Uncle Wes Marne and his grandson in which the audience was introduced to the concept of the cleansing smoke. The audience was given the leaves of the special tree from Uncle Wes’s country up north by Uncle Greg Simms to touch and smell and were immersed in the wafting of the smoke — a generous rite in the process of formal welcome to his home country for all those coming to it and a removal of any tensions or illness between peoples. As Uncle Wes said “anyone touched by this smoke is onto a good thing”.

The audience on the first Friday night of the unfortunately limited ten-night season no doubt included people who had spent various amounts of time in this thriving city of over 350,000 people — which is the catalyst to this site specific piece of theatre that includes three interspersed narratives about place and belonging and identity.

Blacktown is the perfect locus for what the director Rosie Dennis wanted to be an exploration ‘of contemporary perspectives of home’ given it embraced thousands of Post World War II migrants in a more generous era when Australia opened its arms to over 1,000,000 migrants fleeing the chaos and hardship of the Fascism that had torn Europe asunder. To position myself, let me share that this reviewer spent a happy childhood calling this multi-cultural hub “home”. I encountered, in the couple of blocks mum would let me explore without supervision, people from many nationalities and cultures and I am grateful for that positive experience. Consequently, it was a great pleasure to attend this wonderful performance staged in the Colo Lane carpark by Urban Theatre Projects under the artistic direction of Rosie Denis who developed the concept with three writers Andrea James (Blacktown Angels), Peter Polites (Steps into Katouna) and Gaele Sobott (Zaphora and Ali).

The chapter “Blacktown Angels” is performed by Shakira Clanton as the namesake Angel and Billy McPherson whose presence as Uncle Cheeky bookends the experience of the whole performance.

Nancy Denis as Zaphora and Danny Elacci as Ali. Photo Joshua Morris

Nancy Denis as Zaphora and Danny Elacci as Ali. Photo Joshua Morris

The chapter “Steps into Katouna” is immersive with earphones giving us the inside story of a young gay young man who remembers his heritage, his family and the differences between his day to day life and his heritage – the duality of his interior reality.

The chapter “Zaphora and Ali” gives by turns dramatic, humourous and celebratory notes to the necessary debates and conversations which need to occur in this country. Not just between individuals but also communities so as to connect, discover the commonality and respect the differences that comprise each of us.

The experience of Home Country is interactive and sometimes challenging, with a team of Hosts guiding the patrons onto the next experience and where one gets to carry one’s own very light stool from level to level and the performances are staged in various places in the venue which is an open air multi-level carpark. The experience is at times mediated by the mellifluous voice of MC Kween G who also performed with wonderfully talented musicians Mahmmd Lelo and James Tawadros. On a evening of a day with fierce 40+ degree heat, during the interval the large audience shared a wonderful feast curated by Helen Roseberry and supplied by small businesses from the western suburbs of Sydney representing different cultural groups. So whilst we ate amazing African, Afghani and Greek foods, thankfully the scorching heat dissipated somewhat as the southerly blew cooling drops of rain down on the heat retaining tarmac of the upper deck where we experienced the final scenes.

Clearly, the unusual venue itself is a key player, ensuring that in addition to the words and performances, art and life interacting with the land and its climate. As one moves through from the ground level to the upper level the audience experiences the view and the huge open bowl of the sky on these Cumberland Plains — lending a spectacle and power at twilight no closed theatre could lend this piece that embodies a message to modern Australia of the transcendence of the sum of the parts of a society.

 – Linda Adair

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Linda Adair is a Sydney based writer and critic and a founding editor of Rochford Street Review.

Home Country, presented by Urban Theatre Orijects, Blacktown Arts Centre and The Sydney Festival, runs to 22 January. Booking details at http://urbantheatre.com.au/

Defiant gaze: Linda Adair reviews ‘Not an animal or a plant’ an exhibition by Vernon Ah Kee

NOT AN ANIMAL OR A PLANT an exhibition of work by Vernon Ah Kee at the National Art School Gallery, Forbes Street, Darlinghurst, from 7 January to 11 March 2017

Vernon Ah Kee: not an animal or a plant , installation view at NAS Gallery, L to R George Sibley 2008 acrylic, charcoal and crayon on canvas 180 x 240 cm Collection Catherine Elms and Richard Williamson, Bris bane; not an animal or a plant 2006/2016 vinyl text on wall 180 x 201.5 cm; Eddie Ah Kee 2008 acrylic, charcoal and crayon on canvas 180 x 240 cm, co urtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane Photo: Peter Morgan

  Vernon Ah Kee: not an animal or a plant, installation view at NAS Gallery, L to R George Sibley 2008 acrylic, charcoal and crayon on canvas 180 x 240 cm Collection Catherine Elms and Richard Williamson, Brisbane; not an animal or a plant 2006/2016 vinyl text on wall 180 x 201.5 cm; Eddie Ah Kee 2008 acrylic, charcoal and crayon on canvas 180 x 240 cm, courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane. Photo: Peter Morgan

Rochford Street Review attended the media preview of Not an animal or a plant, conceptual artist Vernon Ah Kee’s solo exhibition that includes more than a decades’ work in various mediums, and which opened as part of the Sydney Festival on 7 January. Ah Kee’s first solo project in Sydney since 2008, the title declares the artist’s uncompromising critique of the often covert, or blatantly casual yet nonetheless caustic, racism that is part of the day-to-day lived experience for Aboriginal people in 21st century Australia.

Co-presented by the Nation Art School (NAS) in association with the Sydney Festival, and displayed in what was the former cell block of the infamous Darlinghurst Gaol, it is a stunning and provocative exhibition. At the time of the artist’s birth — just under 50 years ago — his parents were not counted as Australian citizens, hence the defiant text-based installation ‘not an animal or a plant’ in the ground floor gallery which showcases fine charcoal portraits on paper of members of his family who lived under that regime.  In an out-of-the-way alcove on the ground floor, one can also find the provocative ‘Born in the skin’, the found graffiti on doors from a Cockatoo Island toilet block that caused a stir around the Biennale of 2008; presumably because by presenting them, Ah Kee held up a mirror that mainstream Australia would prefer not to face  — articulated in ugly, racist, sexist, homophobic and functionally illiterate language.

Vernon Ah Kee: not an animal or a plant, installation view at NAS Gallery, L to R Lynching II 2015 charcoal and crayon on linen 300 x 200 cm; Authors of Devastation 2016 digital prints on custom-made surfboards (6 parts) 180 x 40 cm; Lynching I 2015 charcoal and crayon on linen 300 x 200 cm. Photo: Peter Morgan

Vernon Ah Kee: not an animal or a plant, installation view at NAS Gallery, L to R Lynching II 2015 charcoal and crayon on linen 300 x 200 cm; Authors of Devastation 2016 digital prints on custom-made surfboards (6 parts) 180 x 40 cm; Lynching I 2015 charcoal and crayon on linen 300 x 200 cm. Photo: Peter Morgan

The vast upper gallery of the former cell block has allowed NAS Gallery curator Judith Blackall and team to work with Ah Kee to present his recent large-scale works. These include paintings, portraits and text-based works inspired by the Palm Island Riot and the stunning 3D installation of competition surfboards, adorned with traditional combat shield designs from North Cairns on the face and excerpts from a James Baldwin’s article (‘Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes’, 1966 ) on the obverse,  through to two extraordinary and enormous drawings ‘Lynching I’ and ‘Lynching II’ which, placed either side of the large picture window, eloquently emphasise the dark side of Sydney’s pre-eminence as the starting point of colonisation in this country.

The view over the school’s grounds summons other layers of meaning over time, as this ridge-top site would have provided the Cadigal people, the traditional owners, a place to survey the harbour and the wetlands and witness ‘a world changing around them’ to quote Wesley Enoch who spoke at the launch as the first indigenous director of the Sydney Festival. Now the view also references the fact that, as it approaches its centenary on the site, NAS is struggling against forces which would resume the land for other purposes.

Leading up to the 50th anniversary in May of the 1967 referendum, this exhibition contributes to contemporary debate — among those willing to participate — about contemporary racism, our problematic history and the need for a way forward for rapprochement to occur.  Politically, it gives the lie to the mainstream pretense that Australia is not really a racist society whilst providing a masterful portrayal of individual Aboriginal subjects who gaze with defiance at the viewer, resilient in the face of a litany of structural oppression that has included, but is not limited to, the stolen generations, skyrocketing rates of incarceration and continuing paternalistic policies of successive governments. Aesthetically, the works provides a master-class in drawing and shift paradigms via exquisitely executed three-dimensional works that communicate at many levels. This is quite simply, a must-see exhibition.

 – Linda Adair

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Linda Adair is a Sydney based writer and critic and a founding editor of Rochford Street Review.

Not an Animal or a Plant runs from 7 January to 11 March 2017 at the NAS Gallery  https://www.nas.edu.au/place/gallery/current-exhibition/

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Standing for Something – the raison d’etre of Julia Gillard: Linda Adair & Lucinda Adair-Roberts reflect on a conversation

The Sydney Writers’ Festival sometimes feels like an election campaign because, just as political parties these days seem to deliver their policy launches a week or so out from the election, there already appears to be a month’s worth of Festival events stretching through May even though Mohsin Hamid is not due to deliver the Opening Address until 19 May. It is probably fitting then that an ex-Prime Minister kicked off events on May Day 2015. Linda Adair and Lucinda Adair-Roberts look back on Julia Gillard’s conversation with Jamila Rizvi.

Julia Gillard SWF images Prudence Upton

Julia Gillard at the City Recital Hall – Photograph Prudence Upton Sydney Writers Festival

The wet weather and long cloakroom queue to check umbrellas could not dampen the enthusiasm of those assembling at the City Recital Hall Angel Place Sydney on Friday 1 May 2015 to hear Australia’s first female prime minister Julia Gillard converse with Jamila Rizvi. Editor in Chief of the Mamamia Women’s Network websites,  on the theme of “Standing for Something”. Director of the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival, Jemma Birrell presided as MC to this sold out ‘premier event’, to ‘pre-launch’ the festival which runs Monday 18 to Sunday 24 May 2015.

Through the conversational style that the interview took, and the scope for the audience to ask questions, one was left with a sense of knowing the author on a more personal and relaxed level. This appeared to stem from Gillard’s personal desire to show her more emotionally adept personality than she was unable to share with the public during her time as PM, due to the stigma associated with women in power showing too much emotion. We listened for one and half hours to her speak very genuinely on topics ranging from pop culture, to education, and gender, strength of purpose, ethics and the kind of world we want to shape. Without a tough and feisty interviewer in the style of Leigh Sales, Jamila guided a conversation among two friends with approximately 1000 “wannabe friends” appreciatively listening in. The audience clapped, and cheered and, at appropriate moments, laughed. Her keen sense of humour and incisive words cut through in a way that, with the exception of The Misogyny Speech on 9 October 2012, we rarely saw reported by the press.

The three warm-up questions related to the typical office kitchen chit chat of TV. The second was delightfully tongue in cheek. When Jamila asked: “Is working in Canberra more like:

  1. House of Cards,
  2. The West Wing
  3. The Hollow Men

Julia’s cheeky reply was that whilst she enjoyed House of Cards, she felt that the idea that someone with Frank Underwood’s public profile could to go down to a station, unobserved, and throw a journalist under the train, no matter how attractive the idea might be,  was  rather implausible! She said that The Hollow Men was fun but extreme, which meant that the West Wing, in the romantic Bartlett era, while portrayed by “impossibly good looking people”, best captured the sense of purpose that, for Julia’s money, should drive people to enter politics. She cited the character CJ’s work for Emily’s List prior to joining Jed Bartlett’s staff as an example, noting that Emily’s List is a real foundation which Labor supports in this country.

Whilst the three years and three days of Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership was the locus of the conversation, it comprised a cool listing of achievements and at times a, refreshingly humble, critical self-awareness of political missteps such as the “real Julia” which she described as a “clumsy lunge at the reset button” in the face of the two contending narratives put forward by the media about Labor’s 2010 election campaign. Illogically, her government’s election campaign was simultaneously criticised by the media as being “too tightly scripted” and “out of control”.

Julia Gillard SWF images Prudence Upton 065

Julia Gillard in conversation with Jamila Rizvi – Photograph Prudence Upton, Sydney Writers Festival

Although the “F word” – Feminism – was not uttered by Julia until it came up in questions from the floor, it was implicit as when she said, as is foregrounded in My Story, that she was always aware that if she showed emotion in the role of the first female prime minister, she would labelled “psychologically fragile” and the threat was that all women in future would be left with that stigma. She declares in the first page of the book that even after losing the prime ministership “I was not going to let anyone conclude that a woman could not take it”. The definition of Feminism she prefers is one where roles are not constrained  according to stereotypical norms for either gender, because if women benefit from wider choices as to the paths they can follow, so do men. Her contention being that, given merit is based equally among the sexes, until there is equality of representation, with equal numbers of men and women in senior roles at all levels of society, we are selling our country short because, necessarily, we do not have the best people in important roles.

During the conversation Julia referred to the dichotomy of archetypes highlighted in 1975 by Anne Summer’s Damned Whores and God’s Police and how, in the media to this day, male leadership collocates with likeable whereas the same qualities for women will be recast as unlikeable; possibly because women leaders are in the minority. Gillard’s observation that with the same characteristics in a leader being interpreted through the prism of gender and gender stereotypes, there is an oppositional relation of a Likeable Male Leader to an Unlikeable Female Leader. This says much about the culture we live in and flags a debate that needs to be had.

Binary classification necessarily privileges the first “A” term at the expense of the second, “not A”, term which is characterised as the absence of,  or “Other” to,  the characteristics of the first term. This is central to the phallocentric logic that has sustained patriarchal institutions since Plato. As a contemporary to Julia, and the first person in a family to finish school and attend university, one of the co-authors of this piece stands in respectful awe of her achievement and applauds the resilience that allowed her to do extraordinary things in spite of formidable obstacles. The other co-author is of the generation that seeks to redress the imbalances. Together, we lament that Julia had to gain this awareness the hard way; empirically. Doubtless as she was working in a domain where women were the minority, with a work load so enormous, on issues so big that by comparison theoretical awareness seemed irrelevant, we consider such analysis and strategy is key to what positive change demands. Whereas Arts undergraduates studying feminist theory would likely be familiar with the structuralist critique discussed above, vocationally specific degrees such as law may not provide the chance for reading feminist theory and, as we know many parliamentarians have cut their teeth working in law. Volumes of theoretical analysis have interrogated the supposedly value-free, common-sense view of the world that privileges male identity and normalises it, but applying theory to developing some enabling practical strategies for the future would prevent a repeat of the negative labelling that hounded Julia Gillard’s tenure. It is a project for progressive men and women be they academics, parliamentarians, activists or simply fellow travellers to engage in, before our next female prime minister is elected only to face the same battles.

As the experience of our first female prime minister attests, it is through practice that things do change. However, best practice would be informed by theory and full of reflection and advice to educate and protect the next generation of women who willl strive to find a path to change the world so that they also look after their own wellbeing. Resilience of the sort that Juliaso doggedly demonstrated, needs to be more than a personal characteristic; it needs to be something that is embedded into the strategy and practices of feminist politics. Thus, devising, evaluating and creating an alternative paradigm for what goes by the label of political leadership is the other legacy of Julia Gillard’s prime ministership. Whilst she continues to work to make the world a better place, through her global and teaching roles, Julia has graciously left the political stage for those who follow in her wake. However, her book and this wonderful conversation provide valuable foundations for those seeking to build a framework for the next generation of politically engaged women, forewarning them of some of the pitfalls awaiting them public life, to stand for something positive for those without representation and lacking choices.

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– Linda Adair and Lucinda Adair-Roberts

My Story by Julia Gillard, Randon House 2014, is available from  http://www.randomhouse.com.au/books/julia-gillard/my-story-9780857983992.aspx

Linda Adair is a Sydney based critic and an editor of Rochford Street Review.
Lucinda Adair-Roberts is studying at Macquarie University and is a Publishing Assistant on Rochford Street Review

The Sydney Writers’ Festival runs from 18 to 24 May (though there are a handful of events before the 18th). For more information and a detailed list of events go to http://www.swf.org.au/

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Expectations – Great and Small: Linda Adair reviews ‘The Recluse’ by Evelyn Juers

The Recluse by Evelyn Juers. Giramondo Shorts 2012.

The title of this short essay hints at, but does not openly reveal, just how little will be learned about Eliza Donnithorne, the subject of Evelyn Juers ‘ investigation in The Recluse.  Juers says she ‘began by wondering to what extent Eliza Donnithorne  corresponded to, or had been subsumed by Miss Havisham’ (page 5). By the end of the 147th page,  no definitive answer is given as to who ‘Eliza Donnithorne’ was, or why she lived reclusively . All that is clear is that the sign is emptied of some erroneous meanings with regards her being a role model for Dickens’ Miss Havisham.  Fortunately, we know where the body is buried and this becomes one of the few certain facts on record and a touchstone for the piece.

Many people living in the inner west of Sydney, have heard the stories even if they had not read the press reports published at various times, stating that the inspiration for the archetypal Miss Havisham had lived in Newtown near Warren Ball Avenue . After dinner conversations about Dickens masterpiece, wherein wine and amusing chat about the latest screen version of Great Expectations prompted conjecture rather than academic rigour regarding the ‘woman on whom Miss Havisham was based’ were a right of passage. Common folklore has frequently claimed that Miss Havisham had been inspired by the unmarried, reclusive and wealthy woman Eliza Donnithorne. It is this hoary old chestnut that Juers most effectively dispatches in the course of her essay.

Like Great Expectations itself, a graveyard figures in the opening scene of The Recluse. Taking the bait of personal account, I was lured in, by the author’s first hand experiences in the early 1970s as a young undergraduate, with the introductory section titled ‘On the Corner of King and Queen’. As a former resident of North Newtown, who had studied  Dicken’s entire works as part of my honours course in  English Literature at Sydney University, I was understandably keen to find out who Eliza Donnithorne was and whether she bore any resemblance to one of the most infamously tragic figures in the canon of English literature. Like Juers a decade before me, the calm greenery of the old graveyard around St Stephens Church and its adjacent park (an open public space reclaimed from the original larger cemetery after the murder of a child during the Great Depression)  had provided occasional respite from the heat and pollution of traffic laden King Street.

The long- disused cemetery was an utterly benign park  by the 1970s, the cool dark earth having long since absorbed its mortal contents and recycling nutrients to the rich vegetation. Unsurprisingly, the known facts of the subject’s life would come from this matter of fact site.  Firstly that Judge James Donnithorne and his daughter Eliza were buried in the same grave, 34 years apart and secondly, according to church records , there had been no marriage planned for Eliza – which suggest no jilting occurred in Australia.  Lastly it is not surprising that two surviving members of a family which had travelled frequently between India, England, South Africa and Australia due to their involvement with the British East India Company, both found a final destination in a booming mercantile centre such as Newtown.

The Donnithornes were a prominent family linked to the British East India Company, and Juers cites Karl Marx’s observation that ‘the events of the Seven-Years-War transformed the East India Company from a commercial into a military and territorial power’ (p10). The subject of her search is therefore a member of a well connected family whose members travelled in pursuit of position and wealth. That said, Juers provides more information about the company’s fortunes from the 1757 (some 15 years before James Donnithorne was born) which seems less than relevant to the subject. Also, we learn a great deal about William Wright Bampton who was a contemporary and possibly a colleague of the yet to be Governor  of NSW, Lachlan Macquarie whilst he was in India. This William Bampton died in Calcutta in 1813 and it was his daughter Sarah (born 1787) who was the first legitimate wife of James Donnithorne, Eliza’s father. Whilst Sarah was Eliza’s mother, it is unlikely that she was the mother of the first two of James Donnithornes children (Henry born 1799) and Agnes Ann (born 1801) unless of course her recorded date of birth of 1787 is wrong, or she gave birth at 12 years of age. Eliza was born in July in  1821 in the Cape of Good Hope  and was the last child born to James and Sarah Donnithorne.

Notably, James Donnithorne’s eldest daughter Agnes was involved in an adultery scandal in India in 1822 within few year of Eliza’s birth.  Judge Donnithorne and his wife were not in India at the time of Eliza’s birth. After years in various postings in India and surviving a cholera epidemic, they had travelled to other posts of empire. Ultimately, the genealogy leading to Eliza’s birth, reminds one of museum curators search for the meaning of an object being defined by it provenance rather than its own use or meaning; such a strategy  works less successfully for human beings.

The cemetery at St Stephen’s Church, Newtown.

Other prominent family connections are made much of by Juers, including social rather than blood lines to the Thackeray and Shakespear families, even a tenuous but possible association with Charles Dickens whilst she resided in Twickenham. This seems little more than a desire to place the subject within a literary constellation. We are told that Eliza lived in Colne Lodge, Twickenham, in 1841 during the Census although, notably, the age of the subject is inaccurately recorded as 15 years of age which is younger than should have been. What is intriguing is that in 1845 Eliza came into a large sum of money bequeathed to her by her uncle William Wright Bampton,  who apparently  suicided.

When James Donnithorne came to Australia in 1838 he assumed the title Judge, just as many emigres gave themselves airs and graces on arrival in a new and naïve country. Given he had only been a judge in India from 1807 to 1808 where he was the Acting Judge and Magistrate of Rmgarh (Ramghyr) with District Headquarters at Chatra, this was a little opportunistic. On page 56 we learn that Eliza Donnithorne arrived on 8 Mary 1846 on the Agincourt and Juers speculates that this was possible following her financial independence. From 1849 until their respective deaths,  Eliza Donnithorne  and her father resided in Camperdown Lodge ( which in 1884 became 36 King Street) a house  leased by them despite their many properties. From the death of Judge Donnithorne in May 1852, through to the time of her own death in 1886 servants and a household continued to run – so reclusion had it limits.

Genealogy is an imprecise discipline at best ; omissions and assumptions abound even in one’s own family, where at least the oral tradition of stories will counteract some of the confusion that can arise when tracing back through historic records. Admittedly, Juers notes lost times in the life of Eliza Donnithorne.

For this reader, there was a vague feeling of deju vu to the extended gag in Salman Rushdie’s Midnights Children which told the story of the partition of India. Having traced a lineage of the fictional narrator for pages and pages, the joke is let out – it relates to nothing at all and I vividly recall laughing out loud on a city bus (the one time in my life I have done this), at the joke that had been pulled on me. Unfortunately, there is no great fun to be had here. It is a matter of wading through tedium and conjecture,  trying to remember a web of names and characters as if to assemble the frame of the jigsaw puzzle for which the central closing piece must forever be missing.

The hook for reading this book was always the borrowed glamour of the literary archetype Miss Havisham and her iconic but original shabby chic ensemble. The most useful question asked by Juers is what if any relationship did the real historic figure buried in the graveyard of St Stephen’s Church, Newtown,  have on the formation of the iconic character Miss Havisham of Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations?  She deftly deconstructs that myth for what it is but allows there are holes in the argument which she neatly reconciles in her use of the  imagery  of lace that is quite appealing on ages 116-7.

Interestingly, Juers cites Rosemary Shephard’s  (curator of Lace at the Powerhouse Museum in the 1980 & ’90s) view that ‘the space are the most important element of lace, that looking through a filter of spaces lends a different perspective to the view beyond’ (p117).

Tilly Olsen’s Silences explored the issue of people marginalized and silence in literature, because of race, class, gender or even status. Here the subject is a single white female from a prominent family with aristocratic pretensions, yet she vanished in plain sight.  Whether this was due to gender or temperament we do not know. Certainly we get to know what Eliza Donnithorne was not: she was not married nor is there any reliable indicator that she was to be married. Juers notes there were no marriage bans registered.  Eliza seems to have been a well read woman who may have had the last laugh – reading of Miss Havisham and hearing talk that she had been a model  for that character. What is conjured is the image of the open -doored house on the dusty main thoroughfare to Newtown village in which a wealthy  woman lived who seldom ventured out but who unusually had the means to live her life on her own terms, lived until she died.

The Recluse is therefore a somewhat postmodern deconstruction of the very inner west sub-urban myth that the reclusive Eliza Donnithorne was the model for the angry vengeful woman  and the fulcrum one of the preeminent novels in the canon of English Literature: Charles Dickens Miss Havisham.

We are never going to meet the chimera of the subject, Eliza Donithorne, who  is,  Juers notes, an ‘irretrievable presence’ (page5) which is not unusual in a time when women did not have the vote, seldom had property and were financially dependent.

The evidence – or lack thereof –would suggest an alternative understanding of what inspired Charles Dicken’s character Miss Havisham. Claire Tomalin’s biography Charles Dickens: A Life refers to the new weekly magazine Dickens launched in 1859 All The Year Round, in which he records that by October 1860 he had begun to write Great Expectations, expected to be published from December 1860 to June 1861.

‘It did not come from research or the theatre but out of a deep place in Dicken’s imagination which he never chose to explain’ (p309). Tomalin notes that  ‘Pip’s narrative is full of mysteries, not all of which are explained: for example his two visions of Miss Havisham hanging from a beam. Nor can he, or we, ever be sure how mad Miss Havisham is. She seems mad enough when he first sees her, fixed in her distress at being jilted on her wedding day, yet she decides things for herself, gives orders to Jaggers and others, controls her money even thought she chooses to let her house decay, and lives a life that is fantastical but deliberately so’(page 311).

In The Recluse, Juers has explored  the misread sign Eliza Donnithorne, and debunked an urban myth whilst giving us a glimpse of the world of colonial Sydney . But above all, she has drawn into high relief Australian popular culture’s need to bind art to real life, to sensationalise the ordinary and make everything personal. (The popular press do this still everyday on any number of topics). And to see Eliza Donnithorne as a model for Miss Havisham is still a furphy.

However, for me, Dickens provided in Great Expectations the clues from the outset; and for the purposes of this review he, via Pip, has the last word on what inspired Miss Havisham:

A childish association revived with wonderful force in the moment of a slight action, and I fancied that I saw Miss Havisham hanging to the beam. So strong was the impression that I stood under the beam shuddering from head to foot before I know it was a fancy – though to be sure I was there in an instant.

 – Linda Adair

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The Recluse is available from Giramondo Publishing http://www.giramondopublishing.com/the-recluse

Linda Adair is a Sydney based critic and an editor of Rochford Street Review.

Hope and Resilience: Linda Adair reviews ‘Bathing Franky’

Bathing Franky. Directed by Owen Elliott, Produced by Michael Winchester and Owen Elliott, screenplay by Michael Winchester. Starring Henri Szeps, Maria Venuti, Bree Desborough and Shaun Goss. For latest distribution details check http://bathingfranky.com/

Rodney(Henri Szeps) and Franky (Maria Venuti) in Bathing Franky.

The independent feature, Bathing Franky is many things, but above all it is a story about love and resilience, both in terms of the narrative on screen and the background story of how that story came to be told. In order to make the film, director Owen Elliott and a group of creative people local to Paterson, Dungog and Gresford in the Hunter Valley NSW, denied the power of the word ‘No’ and their distance to the capital cities and serious funding capital. Like the promotional flier says “With our imagination we make the world”, and it was only through imagination,  determination and lateral thinking, that a world view existing in the  Hunter Region crystallised  as this lovingly crafted film.

By turns hilariously funny, genuinely moving and even, at times chillingly cold, the surprises of the screenplay are always grounded in the emotional truth of the characters. Disarmingly light in touch, it nevertheless pulls few punches as it handles issues seldom considered in bigger budget Australian films.

When Steve (Shaun Goss) is released on parole from prison, he is unable to connect with his girlfriend Susie (Bree Desborough) and his former friends. Needing a job, he takes on a meals-on-wheels delivery job for a community welfare agency run by the forthright Peg (Kath Leahy) and this is how he meets Rodney (Henri Szeps) who cares full-time for his mother Franky (Maria Venuti) .

The story unfolds in magical moments sustained by Szeps’ irrepressible Rodney.  The audience is swept along by the hope and resilience of people whose lives are impacted by trauma in many forms, be it the day-to-day struggle to get by, the after-effects of imprisonment, the endless self-sacrifice of unpaid carers, or the question of palliative care and the right to live and die with dignity in a system geared up for institutionalized care of the elderly and infirm.  Goss delivers a finely nuanced performance in this striking feature film debut; Venuti’s performance as the now ancient but once glamorous Franky is, despite two hours of ageing latex makeup each day, bravely vulnerable and affecting.

It was startling to watch a feature film which looks so good, plays so well, and has such a big heart, only to discover in conversation with Director, Owen Elliott after the screening, the absurdly meagre budget on which it was created. Whilst both Elliott and Michael Winchester (writer) had referred, during the Q & A at the red carpet launch at Dungog’s historic James Cinema on 16 June 2012, to the nano-budget they had stretched to make this film, hearing the actual dollar value amazed me. One can only imagine how extraordinary this movie could have been, had a realistic budget been available! What has been achieved is miraculous and evidence of the generosity of regional communities working to support their own.

Maria Venuti and Henri Szeps on a (soggy) red carpet at Dungog’s James Theatre.

During the Q & A, Elliott and Winchester  alluded to the challenges small budget films face to obtain distribution under the prevailing distribution models. I had travelled up from Sydney to the Dungog screening to see the film, and to enjoy a weekend in the country at the request of John O’Brien who was the Script Editor, First Assistant Director and who worked on the post production of Bathing Franky.  But something happened during the screening of the film; as I  found myself falling under the spell of the amateur magician Rodney, his once-exotic, now-ancient mother, and the influence they have on Steve and his girlfriend Susie (played superbly by  Desborough).

As fresh eyes from Sydney, I came to the view that the struggle to make, and then distribute, Bathing Franky is emblematic of the struggle about what matters in our culture and society where the majority of the population in the cities and know little of the life of  people living  in country towns and the struggles they face. The narrative on screen is about people living on the margins; the story of the making of Franky is about  people committed to telling our stories who work on the margins often without pay. Even if the resulting product was not as good as it is, it would be a shame for it only to be distributed on the  margins.

We sometimes hear politicians talking about the financial and personal sacrifices carers make and the need to support them in a country with an aging population. The message is not sexy and most voters do not care. This film brings one carer’s situation to life with colour and joy and a surreal twist of humour.

A good script,some great camera work by Gavin Banks and some lovely performances make it a special treat. Some high risk moments are handled sensitively and joyously. And although there are a couple of scenes likely to take some people beyond their comfort zones, these are never gratuitous.

Rochford Street Review wants  encourage audiences in Sydney and  Melbourne, and indeed across Australian, to go and see this film because it is both great fun and a story of good faith.  The problem is, where is it showing? Whilst special screenings have been held to sold out houses in Parramatta, Dungog, Maitland and Newcastle,  distribution in Sydney or Melbourne is far from assured as yet; simply due to the way the prevailing distribution models do not favour small, independent film makers.

Hopefully, the Friends of Franky, and some champions too, will take up this challenge and at least  a limited release in Sydney or Melbourne will be made possible. Again lateral thinking and community support may be the only way this can be done because money is a very real obstacle for people who have put their own funds and unpaid time into the project. Crowd funding is one possible way of raising funds for a screening in a capital centre.

Visit the Bathing Franky website, www.bathingfranky.com, for updates and information, and offer to help if you can to bring this wonderful movie to a cinema in a capital centre near you.

Afterall  ‘with our imagination we make the world’ … but a little bit of practical support  goes a long way too!

At the Q & A after the Dungog screening of Bathing Franky (from left to right) Owen Elliott (Director and Co-Producer), Henri Szeps, Maria Venuti and Michael Winchester (Co-Producer and Writer). (Photo Linda Adair).

– Linda Adair

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Linda Adair is a Sydney based critic and an editor of Rochford Street Review.