This Australia Day I am going draw your landscape.
I’m not trying to make a political statement here, nor deny the significance and the impact of Australia day being on January 26th. On that point, I’ll just give my opinion and get it out of the way; I believe that the celebration of “all the things we love about Australia”* on the date of January 26th, is not going to enable all Australians to celebrate, no matter how much we would like them to. Once you understand the trauma from colonisation, you understand.
You will have to excuse my excesses with opinion and I should clarify that I have seen over four decades of life with you, Australia, in which time you have changed and so have I. I have loved you and at times have left you, but I remain utterly convinced that I belong to you.
I grew up as an Italian immigrant boy in country Victoria, speaking only Italian until I went to school. My mother did her best to connect me to you Australia, her new land. I remember when I was little, her encouraging me to collect images of the royals and paste them in a scrapbook. But it was not the royals, or when you were settled by Europeans, or even how big a figure Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser played in my father’s political narrative that formed my sense of belonging to you. OK, being invited to Canberra at the age of twelve to see Malcolm Fraser launch a book of Australian children’s cartoons, which included my cartoon, did have some impact on my sense of belonging, I admit, but now I am name dropping.
It was the way you embraced my mother that first gave me a sense of belonging. My mother, taking my newborn sister to the health nurse when I was seven was the first time I remember feeling cared for by you. I think somewhere in my mind, I was aware that my mother had lost four siblings during their childhood, when growing up in Sicily. It seemed like people here in Australia, checked my sister at the health clinic, because they cared. My mother immigrated here as a young woman because her work as a seamstress in her Sicilian town would often go unpaid. She told me that after she began working for Zara Holt, Harold’s wife who ran a fashion label out of Toorak, she was delighted to receive a regular payslip. Growing up in your schools, or getting work often spoke of fairness and equity to me. Despite what I sometimes have perceived as a lack of empathy, I have generally experienced your laws and administration as fair. (I won’t mention much about your failings here, as I too have a responsibility to fix these.)
In primary school they taught us songs like ‘Kookaburra’ and read Dorothea Mackellar’s, ‘My Country’. I cannot forget her words or the images they evoked. Later your painters filled my mind with images of the bush. Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Arthur Streeton painted at Mentone, near where over a century later I lived and spent the morning of my wedding day swimming alone. I have flown over your incomprehensible distances, driven through you and stood at the edge of the world where the Nullarboor Plain meets the Indian ocean. I have ridden my bicycle across you like Sydney Nolan whose work told me that I could feel irrational in the face of your space. Then there’s Fred Williams, what can I say; his work told me I could be a painter and that I could paint the landscape again. Albert Tucker, who I met in the ‘bargain basement’ of Myer told me to keep painting, ‘paint, paint, paint’, he said. Oh, and Gordon Bennett who spoke of silence through his work and his life, and has now fallen silent. It is not just the space you have to be aware of here, but watch for the silence also.
Your harshness, your heat, Australia, your vague horizons. My memory soaked with the landscape I grew up within. After seeing his father go broke growing tobacco on the harsh ground of Eldorado, my father retreated into town to work as a diesel mechanic, but many weekends and even some weeknights were spent on my families’ tobacco farms, where, he really wanted to be. He didn’t say much, but he once mentioned what it was like to be up through the night running the irrigation for the tobacco. He mentioned the stars. It must have looked like a William Robinson night sky. I worked on the land seasonally from the age of twelve; tobacco, hoe rasping dry earth and the end of the row quivering in the distance. Later, graduating to fruit picking and eventually to working for the state power company, all in the same district. I now count myself very fortunate that I was able to be so immersed in your land.
Your space and your silence. I am seeking the consciousness of Midnight Oil to rage for your heart and to echo your haunting beauty like young Iva Davies’, ‘Great Southern Land’. I belong to you Australia; I have to admit, I don’t think I completely understand you, but as I draw, I will try to.
Written by Marco Corsini