‘I’ve worked too hard for people to think I borrowed it all from Rosalie. Our use of corrugated iron is the only thing we have in common.’
Waradgerie (Wiradjuri) woman Lorraine Connelly-Northey has a 20-year career behind her now. But the fact that both she and the late Rosalie Gascoigne (1917-1999) went out and about collecting stuff left on the land and repurposed it into art means that many have connected them even before the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) brought them together in exhibition – ‘Found and Gathered: Rosalie Gascoigne | Lorraine Connelly-Northey’.
So, Connelly-Northey is ‘a bit anxious’ that her Indigenous originality won’t be recognised.
One point of difference is their location. The New Zealand-born Gascoigne was more New South Wales, Monaro orientated, with its bleached paddocks stretching to the horizon. Though based in Swan Hill, Victoria, Connelly-Northey identifies with her mother’s Country on the other side of the Murray, and rivers come into much of her work – including a brand new 16-metre-long duck net woven from fencing wire that she has made for this show.
And weaving is a key to her work. For that’s what she wanted to do until her father insisted she take home a piece of rusty old corrugated iron they found on a dump, then added an old axe head, which she used to beat the metal into shape. ‘I realised that I’d actually made the shape of what could be a gatherer’s bowl, a kooliman,’ she told me. ‘Suddenly, I was a sculptor.’
Connelly-Northey also beats metal into narrbongs, traditional women’s bags. Not soft and cuddly bags, though. ‘Any edge in those bags will bite,’ she explains; ‘it’s the roughness, the unevenness, that bites you. And by doing so, it reminds you that we Aborigines have been hurt and hurt, over and over, and you will too; this bite will piss you off. I designed the bags to keep biting because things haven’t been sorted in Australia.’
Gascoigne was also untrained in art – though she did study Japanese ikebana with its emphasis on line and form over colour. So, she too was concerned that her late start – she was in her 50s – as a landscape artist reusing found objects might not be acceptable. But then her son Martin found a catalogue for the American William Seitz’s ‘The Art of Assemblage’, and she had both the language to explain her work, and credibility.
Gascoigne would go on to make 692 works before her death in 1999, according to son Martin’s new Catalogue Raisonee. Most familiar, perhaps, are her reformed Schweppes drink crates collected by the truckload from the company’s old Queanbeyan factory. NGV curator Beckett Rozentals tells me that there are 230 drink crate and road sign works in all, and the exhibition will feature more than 30 of her creations. ‘She loved the flickering effect of the lettering on the signs. And by the time she’d cut and reshaped them into grids, they’re almost like paintings.’
‘But as much as possible,’ Rozentals continued, ‘we’re mixing and matching the two artists to reveal the synergy between their works, which is so poetic. In one room, we’ve put Rosalie’s Feathered Fence with Lorraine’s feathered narrbongs – a play of weathered wire with swan, emu and pelican feathers, from the intimate to the pastoral. Both have a great capacity to disconnect objects from their original function.’
‘I guess I’m the only one around to talk at the opening.’ Connelly-Northey commented wryly. ‘I hope I do justice to Rosalie. But with her by my side, it’s bound to be a success.’
Jeremy Eccles is a specialist arts commentator who has been writing, broadcasting and filmmaking in Australia since 1983, with a special interest in Indigenous culture.
The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia
30 October, 2021 to 20 February, 2022