Therese Ritchie: burning hearts

The Newcastle, NSW, born artist Therese Ritchie declares ‘a long, deep love affair with the Northern Territory’, where she’s lived for almost 40 years. ‘What art could you make in Sydney that’s real? Where are the real people?’, she demands over the phone from Darwin with typical forthrightness.

In Darwin, but later, hopefully, touring, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) is giving Ritchie the fourth in its series of biennial solo exhibitions featuring ‘prominent NT artists’. And, in the light of the recent Countess Report on the gender imbalance in State galleries, it’s good to note that MAGNT has maintained a 50/50 split since 2014.

Therese Ritchie, We do not have the right to know everything, 2003, inkjet print, ed. 3/3, 39 x 109.5cm. MAGNT Collection / Purchased 2017. © Therese Ritchie. Courtesy the artist and Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin

One of several factors that might have militated against the choice of Ritchie is that she’s a blend of graphic designer, writer, illustrator and artist – though Wendy Garden, Curator of Australian Art at MAGNT, insists that the exhibition has a focus on her photography, a constant presence in Ritchie’s career. She’d begun her career in Darwin working with another radical, Chips Mackinolty, whom Dr Garden believes has tended to overshadow Ritchie. And their collective production of mock Lifestyle Magazine covers for a satirical organ entitled ‘Little Prick’, with exhibition titles like ‘From Little Pricks Big Pricks Grow’ in 2013, may have kept Ritchie in the public eye for very different reasons.

Notwithstanding, for the curator it was her 2004 show ‘Ship of Fools’ which convinced her that Ritchie was ripe for solo exposure. ‘It really operated at a different level of sophistication,’ was Garden’s judgement. As Ritchie’s website puts it, ‘It was the culmination of a 2-year documentation process involving people who use and share public space – in this case, the Nightcliff shoreline in Darwin. [It] consists of manicured lawns, picnic and barbecue areas, an olympic swimming pool, walking and cycling tracks and incredible beaches. Facing the coastline is an inevitable wall of real estate development and high-rise mania. It is without doubt one of the most beautiful places in Australia and possibly the most controversial, as it is the site where the world-views of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people publicly collide.’

It features Ritchie’s delightfully labelled ‘shortgrass people’ – their mown lawns revealing how suburbanites possess and control the land, in contrast to Darwin’s ‘longgrass people’ – homeless First Nations Peoples. It also features First Nations Peoples being escorted away by khaki-clad cops, the elder Johnny Balaiya who gives every appearance of owning Casuarina Beach, and a collaged photo of Bungaree in British uniform attached by bloodline to the flayed skin of a painted-up warrior.

‘Her process at that time’, Dr Garden explains, ‘was to spend endless hours digitally pixillating over each image – elongating time. She’s exceptionally sensitive to the gradations of tone in her images.’

Ritchie’s more recent show ‘Open Cut’ (2017) required no pixillation. It consisted of 18 images of Borroloola people from that area’s four language groups, each emblazoned with a dripping white commentary (in English or language) damning the open cut expansion of the local Macarthur River Mine that’s done so much damage to their Countries. This non-Indigenous involvement in a First Nations issue might worry the politically correct. But Ritchie’s long association with the Borroloola people – with whom she walked 70kms as they re-took traditional land from pastoralists – had lead to an invitation from the community to be its image-taker.

The fact that Ritchie is also offering a powerful rebuff to the 19th century primitivist photos by the likes of Antoine Fauchery and Paul Foelsche by proclaiming agency in her subjects is almost incidental.

Therese Ritchie, Our organs are sacred, 2011, inkjet print, ed. 1/5, 119.5 x 79.5cm. Queensland Art Gallery Collection / Gift of the artist through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2013. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program. © Therese Ritchie. Courtesy the artist and Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin

Similarly, the artist was described as ‘offensive to Aboriginal people’ when she became involved in an organ donation campaign and created the image of beneficiary Jeannie Nungarrayi juggling kidneys and hearts with the benefit of a tantric sextet of arms in ‘Our Organs Are Sacred’ (2011). But she couldn’t care a hoot. ‘Of course I had Jeannie’s permission; having Aboriginal people as collaborators is quintessential to my whole way of working. In fact she loved the image. And it worked; they’re still using it ten years later as a dialysis resource.’

Ritchie continued, ‘The hypocritical and disingenuous nature of Australian culture and how we relate to Aboriginal people is really what my work is about. There are no Dreaming or stories in it. It’s about me and my guilt. Thank god Aboriginal people are here too.’

Influences that crossed my mind as I examined the show’s catalogue included Bill Henson – regarding an island captured off the Papuan coast in a moody patch of sunlight – and Joan Ross’s cartoons of colonial silliness. ‘Oh, I’m not palatable like her,’ responded Ritchie. ‘But I really don’t pay much attention to other artists.’ And curator Garden – not long out of the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery in Victoria – amplified: ‘Therese really exemplifies how artists make art in the NT. Their work is just not inflected by southern artists. It’s so different from Melbourne.’

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.

Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
Until 28 June, 2020
Darwin