From Van Diemens Land to Video Land

Colour Laser Prints by Sue Ford

Australian National University

Institute of the Arts

Canberra School of Art Gallery 1993

Catalogue essay

by Helen Ennis ©

A Shared Future

In mid 1988 Sue Ford went to Bathurst Island to assist with a photography workshop organised by Emmie Tipiloura as part of the Adult

Education programme. Emmie Tipiloura believed that' photography would be a valuable tool in respect to making a record of people and

activities on the island.The photos taken from a Tiwi point of view would be useful to record artwork before it was sold'. 1

By all accounts the workshop was a great success: the four younger women who participated in it took photographs, slides and made

asuper 8 film. (Some of the photographs will be exhibited at 24 Hour Art in Darwin later this year). The Tiwi women invited Sue Ford back

to Bathurst Island in 1991 to participate in a video workshop.

While up north in 1988 Sue Ford was also able to attend the Barunga Festival, an annual gathering of aboriginal people held on the

Queen's birthday weekend in June. (Barunga is in the Northern Territory, approximately 400 km south east of Darwin and near Katherine).

The 1988 festival was an historic occasion, described as 'a central part of a special year of ceremony to celebrate Aboriginal people's

survival, the culture and the land, the mother of our culture'. Sue Ford was asked by the Northern Lands Council to make a record of the

proceedings which included a meeting between then Prime Minister Bob Hawke and senior Aboriginal law men. At the end of the day

Hawke gave his government's commitment to negotiating a Treaty with the Aboriginal people.

At the time of Sue Ford's stay on Bathurst Island and her visit to Barunga she was preoccupied with the ' significance' of the Bicentenary

- in particular, issues of white cultural history and identity - and her own response to it. When I had seen her in Canberra a few months

earlier she had with her dozens of tiny 35 mm contact prints; as I remember it, the photographs depicted some of the events mounted by

white people to celebrate their arrival ' a mere two hundred years ago'. 2

The next time I saw Sue was late in 1988 at her studio in Melbourne. I was surprised to

find that nearly all the photographs I had admired had gone - including those whose

formal qualities or subject matter had been most striking. As a result of her recent

experiences Sue was experimenting with possible structures, looking for one which did

not give single images dominance but which achieved an overall effect. The

photographs were eventually organised into three groupings - NAIDOC Week, the

Barunga Festival and Bathurst Island - that served to affirm the vitality of contemporary

Aboriginal life. The exhibition title A Different Landscape came ' from my experiencing

the Australian landscape in a totally new way. During the hunting and bush education

trips that the women took me on, the landscape became alive with their history and

meaning'. 3

Although superficially very different, From Van Diemens Land to Video Land can be seen as a further response to the ' questions of

history and identity' Sue Ford had begun to explore in A Different Landscape.

If I had met Sue in the seventies I imagine that the camera would have been right there with her. That was when she took most of the

photographs for Photo-Book of Women (eventually published as A Sixtieth of a Second), when photography was part of her everyday

life. 4 In 1978 she said that ' one of the really valid ways to use a camera [is) to record your own personal life'. And yet I have only once

seen Sue with a camera. It is not that she stopped taking photographs during the eighties but, rather, that her ways of working have

changed quite markedly. Nonetheless, linkages to her previous practice have been maintained. Still conspicuous, for instance, is the

interest in photography as a means of recording contemporary history (this is not to say that Sue Ford uses it exclusively in this way -

she doesn't), and the use of photography as an act of subversion.

Sue Ford doesn't regard photography as a closed category whose uniqueness and separateness she must uphold, it is 'just another form

of expressing yourself'. 5 When she was awarded an IIford Scholarship to study at the National Gallery of Victoria School in Melbourne in

1973 she' started photographic silk screen printing and spent a year at that.' 6 A specialisation in photography, so often accompanied by

a valorisation of technique, has been of little concern.

Throughout her career Sue Ford has worked with

different media producing paintings, drawings, films

as well as children's books (unfortunately none

have been published but The Witches Letter has

been exhibited at the National Gallery of Australia).

She has also created mixed media works: some of

the laser prints in From Van Diemens Land to

Video Land were taken from hand-coloured photo-

collages while the starting point for others was a

video that she had taken up north at Kakadu and

on Bathurst Island. When From Van Diemens

Land to Video Land was first exhibited at Watters

Gallery, Sydney, and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne,

it included fourteen paintings which formed 'a visual

diary of a response to questions of history and

identity'. 7

The social and political dimension to Sue Ford's photographic practice have always been obvious even when it was based on her

personal life. She described the faces of the friends she photographed in the 1970s as ' maps': ' Everybody's face tells you about the

society they live in, and what they're feeling inside', and revelled in photography's ability ' to record fairly objectively'. 8 Feminism

provided a contemporary context for this work from the 1970s whereas the most recent work can be seen to contribute to the current

debates on Australian identity or, more broadly, ' post-colonialism' (not that Sue Ford has theorised her position in such terms).

In this essay I have paired A Different Landscape and From Van Diemens Land to Video Land because I cannot see one without the

other. I consider their similarities to be of great importance though it is the differences that are initially most striking. Both series are

informed by two unequal but real-life events - the Bicentenary and Sue Ford's experiences on Bathurst Island; they also have in common

their public scale and their didacticism. But most significant, in my view, is their engagement with contemporary life and their treatment

of ' history'. History itself becomes the subject.

In A Different Landscape Sue Ford insists on getting the facts

right, a strategy that may seem old-fashioned and naive to those

affected by the postmodern tenet of disbelief, but Ford clearly

believes that her photographs have a social and political role. That

is why she takes them and exhibits them. Thus, the photographs

in A Different Landscape can be read as 'accurate' records of

contemporary Aboriginal history. 9

History is overturned and re-thought in From Van Diemens Land

to Video Land. The series is arranged into two groups of works,

four in From Van Diemens Land and three in Video Land. The first

comprising For the Term of Her Natural Life, Off to Van

Diemens Land and Landed at Port Arthur reinvent Australian

colonial history.

For the Term of Her Natural Life (an inversion of the title of Marcus Clark's classic novel) depicts a courtroom in eighteenth-century

England in which a young woman is sentenced to transportation to the colonies (the reconstructed courtroom was part of the

Bicentennial exhibition at Darling Harbour in 1988). Haunted, the

fourth work in the group imagines the relationship between the past and the present, in it 'One People', the slogan of Federation, is used

ironically - the manacles are thrown off and the statue of an old colonialist thrown aside. This is to suggest that aboriginal voices are only

now beginning to be heard.

Realism is irrelevant in these works: the photo-based images are not records of something that exists in the known world so much as

symbols of a reinvented situation. Nor is the colour naturalistic, it varies according to the mood of the individual pieces. Dark tones are

predominant, broken by ascerbic passages of lemon and lilac.

The works in the second group - Yellow Cake, Bima, Brenda and the

Madonna and Video Land - reconstruct a contemporary electronic

landscape. Although the images are more naturalistic and the lurid

electronic colours are familiar there is little comfort to be found in

recognition. The strikingYellow Cake includes an aerial shot of a now

disused uranium mine in Rum Jungle in the Northern Territory.

Sue Ford has stated that in From Van Diemens Land to Video Land

'both the electronic landscape and the convict landscape are reinvented

from a European cultural and historical perspective. The relationship

between the two landscapes is their sense of containment and control'.10

The grid format used to arrange each work underlines this sense of

control - like the camera frame or the video screen it is another way of

representing the world.

Many cultural commentators believe that re-imagining the past i  a crucial cultural task. In a recent issue of Island magazine, for

instance, David Tacey argued that: ' our foundation myths must be reworked, updated, and dreamed onward to ensure that past and

present are brought together in a meaningful way.' The aim is not to make the present more secure but to ' overthrow stereotypes, to

disrupt our self-knowledge, and to expose new possibilities where before there was dull agreement about our

' history'. 11

Sue Ford's most recent work makes a passionate and partisan contribution to the current debate. When she looks to the past it is with a

concern for a better future: in her words, 'we all live here on this island and will necessarily have a shared future'. 12


1.Exhibition broadsheet Sue Ford 'A Different Landscape',

Melbourne Contemporary Art Gallery,

19 April-9 May, 1989

2 Sue Ford, '1988 - Who's History?' (sic)

Letter to the editor, Art Monthly.

May 1992, p18

3 Exhibition Broadsheet

A Different Landscape, op cit.

4 'Photography is a cool blue line' in

Geoffrey de Groen, Conversations

with Australian Artists. Melbourne:

Quartet, 1978, p 36

5 ibid.

6 ibid.

She produced large silkscreen

prints of faces whose whereabouts

are unfortunately unknown.

7 Artist's statement, exhibition broadsheet,

Niagara Galleries, Melbourne, June 1992.

8 ibid. Janine Burke has perceptively

noted, with regard to Ford's Time Series,

that 'Personality is made anonymous'.

See Janine Burke, Self Portrait I

Self-Image 1980-1991. Melbourne:

Australian Gallery Directors' Council, 1981

9 Sue Ford donated prints from the series

to the Northern Lands Council, the

Aborigines Advancement League, and

the Tiwi Museum. For discussions of

A Different Landscape. see Terence

Maloon, 'Nine Australian Photographers' in

From the Empire's End Nine Australian

Photographers' On the Shadow

Line Ten Spanish Photographers,

Circulo De Bellas Artes, Madrid,

University of New South Wales,

Sydney, 1991 , and Anne Marsh,

'My1hs and Narratives' Art Monthly,

March 1992, p22

10 Exhibition broadsheet, Niagara

Galleries, op cit.

11 'Dreaming our my1hs onwards',

Island #53, Summer 1992, p58

12 Sue Ford, Letter to the editor,

Art Monthly op cit.