Moussa on The Unquiet Landscape

With the launch of CAM's new website, we have included an exhibition archive, documenting as many of CAM/CAGHM’s past exhibitions as we can. This archive is still in development, and will grow over the coming months.

As a museum and gallery, we have a responsibility to collect and share stories reflecting the world outside CAM, but it is also important for us to reflect on our institutional history. CAM's exhibition history is a narrative within itself, reflecting changing social tastes, beliefs and values. The temporary nature of exhibitions also means that the dense curatorial content of exhibitions can be lost in the folds of time. You can explore our past exhibitions here. If you have further content, installation photographs, or stories to add to any exhibitions, please get in touch.

To launch this exhibition archive, local writer and performer Wahibe Moussa reflects on an exhibition from CAM’s recent past - The Unquiet Landscape (11 October 2019-11 October 2019); an exhibition that refuses to be forgotten.

Installation view, The Unquiet Landscape, Castlemaine Art Museum, 2019. Image: Ian Hill.

The Unquiet Landscape
"Pssst, we're having a really interesting conversation here. Wanna listen in?"

I came across The Unquiet Landscape over a year ago at the time of writing this Reflection. I was spending a day feeling for the artistic lay of the land in this region. COVID-19 was in full rage, and there were loud whisperings of an eminent national lockdown. My life was in a period of change, and while my visual memory of the exhibition is patchy, its impact has remained with me. I think the exhibition mesmerised me. It was totally unexpected. I stood and studied the work along one wall in the Whitchell Gallery for so long that it stayed very clearly in my mind - as if I’d taken a picture of my experience.

When it comes to 18th and 19th Century portraits, I rely heavily on the curator’s notes to tell me why I should care. I don’t like the formal poses, the stylised settings, the subjects’ bland expressions. I usually dismiss these paintings and walk away.

But this wall and its Colonialist era portraits are my main recollection of The Unquiet Landscape. Jenny Long’s treatment of this section of CAM’s collection held me for a very long time. Her interjection of curious texts forced me to look and look again. On first glance, I gathered these paintings were to do with Castlemaine’s goldfields history. This history represents for me one of the most devastating examples of colonialist interjection on this land and its people, and a part of Australia's history that should be left in the past. We have to come to terms with the past, no question, but I worry that we still hark back to it through the tinted lens of nostalgia. We overlook the devastation wrought on the land and the First Nations.

Installation view, The Unquiet Landscape, Castlemaine Art Museum, 2019. Image: Ian Hill.

I was about to walk away, but something held me in front of that wall and I’m pretty sure it was large piece of text on the bottom half. Thinking it was going to tell me something about the portraits, I stepped closer and began to read. It was actually a beautiful piece of text a kind of meditation on the Australian landscape. There was a line in there about the white gaze and its inability to comprehend the land’s true beauty. Oh. That was interesting. But what was it doing here? I stepped back to look at the portraits again. Someone was trying to tell me something. What was it? The text had a gentleness, a sympathy I wouldn’t expect from the portraits. They were self-assured, dressed to the nines with a pride that comes with wealth and position. It dawned on me that I wasn’t in full possession of this exhibition’s background. I had entered the room the wrong way round, so I walked to the entrance and retraced my clunky steps, reading and wondering.

Jenny Long had painstakingly chosen text from the book Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence. She had made her decisions very carefully and very consciously to open a conversation between that work of fiction, and the real-life portraits of pillars of Castlemaine’s pioneer society. So, these disparate pieces of Art, that were never meant to be together, were placed in proximity with each other, provoking a new conversation where none had existed before. For the most part, the text was placed next to each of the paintings, a clever twist away from the traditional “accompanying details” we’re so familiar with. So, I had to move in to read it, inviting an ever closer and, dare I say, intimate, interaction with the artwork.

Long, it seemed to me, had purposely chosen the words of a writer whose sympathies lay with the working classes, who was all too aware of the problems with Empire as he had been witness to its hegemony most of his life. The texts I began to understand were interjections that at times highlighted and at times contradicted the genteel brushstrokes of the accepted history of Castlemaine and its surrounds. They were a polite tap on the shoulders of Castlemaine’s genteel forebears, an “Ahem, sir, madame, may we have a word?”

The Kangaroo wood carving, on its plinth, within the protection of its perspex cover stood in front of the paintings, in what I could only interpret as a place of honour. She stood separate; present but not attentive to the conversation among the Whitefellas. She was a gracious hostess, even when, for her own safety and due to the neglect of said Whitefellas she was forced to live under protection.

Installation view, The Unquiet Landscape, Castlemaine Art Museum, 2019. Image: Ian Hill.

I left the Gallery aware of a physical sensation I couldn’t put words to. Something on a very cellular level, had been touched by the exhibition. I guess the take-home for me was, maybe it was time I allowed room for all the different realities or histories of this country to co-exist. Because as a migrant settler that’s my inheritance and I had to accept it in order to help redress the wrongs.

Wahibe Moussa
March 2021

Wahibe Moussa

Wahibe is a writer and performer who has storytelling in her blood. She is passionate about facilitating storytelling and engaging with her audience. She’s an actor of 20 years experience in theatre, film and television. Wahibe began reading/performing poetry around Melbourne in 2019. Most notably she was invited as feature poet at iconic Melbourne Spoken Word events Girls On Key (2019) and Mother Tongue (2019/20) and the Melbourne Spoken Word Gala (2020). She was shortlisted for the Melbourne Spoken Word Prize in 2019.

Womindjika Woorineen willam bit
Willam Dja Dja Wurrung Balug
Wokuk mung gole-bo-turoi
talkoop mooroopook

Welcome to our homeland,
home of the Dja Dja Wurrung people
we offer you people good spirit.
Uncle Rick Nelson

The Jaara people of the Dja Dja Wurrung are the Custodians of the land and waters on which we live and work. We pay our respects to the Elders past, present and emerging. We extend these same sentiments to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander First Nations peoples.

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