In his hands: the multidisciplinary practice of Robert Fielding
by Marie Falcinella
Earth pours into his hands, simultaneously resting in his palms and slipping through his fingers. The downpour continues, only this time earth is replaced with streams of sugar, tea and flour.
In Our Hands 2016 is Western Arrernte/Yankunytjatjara artist Robert Fielding’s first moving image work and it is one he has wanted to make for quite some time. With its palpable reference to the iconic moment of Gough Whitlam pouring earth into the hands of Vincent Lingiari on the handing back of Wave Hill station to the Gurindji people in 1975, an entry in the 2016 Vincent Lingiari Art Award seemed the fitting impetus for this work’s creation.
Viewing In Our Hands we are led to wonder just how much has changed for Indigenous Australians since that time. On 23 August 1966, some 200 Indigenous stockmen, house servants and their families walked off Wave Hill station in protest to appalling pay and living conditions. This included being paid in rations of flour, sugar and tea. The Wave Hill Walk-Off was a landmark event inspiring national policy change for Indigenous Australian workers and the implementation of the Land Rights Act, which this year celebrated its 50th anniversary. For Fielding, the representation of ration staples in In Our Hands is a direct reference to this history as well as a comment on the current conditions and challenges still faced by Anangu people living in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in the remote north-west of South Australia, where he lives in the community of Mimili.
“The symbols of tea, flour and sugar are the rations imposed from above – like so many policies that greatly affect Indigenous people”, says Fielding. “It’s important to know your history, to know about the hardships of the past. It’s also important to be able to learn from these lessons in order to move forward”. For Fielding, moving forward is about education and agency for Anangu people over their land, their decision-making and their own bodies. “What we hold in our hands and what was handed to us for many years to put in our bodies can make us suffer, so people need to be educated to now be able to make the right choices”.
Fielding speaks with such pace and energy that there is little wonder his multidisciplinary practice has expanded and developed with unstoppable force. It’s all there, stories waiting to be told and bursting to the surface. An accomplished painter for more than a decade, Fielding came to new media four years ago through the Desart Art Worker Photography Prize. He cites Rhonda Unrupa Dick, from nearby Amata community and winner of the inaugural 2012 prize, as an inspiration to him in exploring new modes of storytelling. Seeing the photographic work coming out of other communities and recognising the camera as an important tool for communicating his ideas, Fielding soon pursued and mastered the medium with portraiture his initial focus. “It’s about empowerment, both for the person in front and behind the lens”, says the artist. “To have them staring straight out at you, and for other people to see that image and think what’s this person’s story? In just one image there can be a lot of power conveyed”.
Combining mediums of paint on photographs as well as screen-printing techniques, Fielding creates works about the connectedness of his subjects, which include himself, to country and culture as well as sending a message of unity. In 2015, he was named winner of the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards Work on Paper Award for his screen-print work Milkali Kutju 2015, a double self-portrait overlaid with traditional design and emblazoned with the words YOU SEE BLACK. I SEE RED. Intentionally provocative and inherently political, Fielding assures us that the feelings of anger from his youth at the racism he experienced as an Indigenous man growing up in Quorn, SA, are firmly behind him. Milkali Kutju means ‘One Blood’ in Pitjantjatjara and Fielding invites us to look beyond our initial impressions. “A negative interpretation of that artwork is only seeing the surface. I’m going below that, and asking other people to look below the surface too. We inherit ignorance and anger but underneath everything, we are all the same. If you cut us we all bleed. We are no different”.
Cycles of Life, Death and Rebirth 2016 is a found object installation and photographic work which brings a forgotten and discarded object back to life. For Fielding, these objects are artefacts of the inventiveness and adaptability of the Anangu who reuse, repair and repurpose discarded objects. Embellishing a rusted bicycle frame with gold paint and placing it in an exhibition context is the artists’ comment on what we find worthless or precious, and pays homage to the great Anangu innovators.
Most recently, Robert Fielding has drawn inspiration from his time wandering the outskirts of Mimili community, walking in the footsteps of his ancestors through harsh desert country in order to reconnect with country and culture. Fielding’s father never lived in Mimili; he was one of the Stolen Generation, forcibly removed from his family and country at a young age. For Fielding, returning to Mimili, his Grandmother’s country, in his adult years was about reconnecting a cycle that had been broken. He was taught the culture, stories, songs and dances of country by senior elders and custodians of knowledge and in retracing their steps finds evidence of places they inhabited during ceremony. “I notice things that people would overlook or think is rubbish, objects that my Elders left behind after being at sorry camps and ceremony. For example, the steak and onion camp pie tins which Anungu use as makeshift saucepans for cooking on campfires. I pick these things up and look at them, the jagged edges from where it has been opened and I think, who held this tin? Who ate from it, and how long ago? These objects are artefacts for me. They all have history and they all hold stories”.
The humble Fray Bentos brand camp pie tins are transformed into what the artist calls his ‘desert pearls’, precious artefacts that allow him to reminisce and follow the history of his Elders. Inscribed in each are the words they taught him and the rules he lives by- love, peace, joy - his pearls of wisdom.
The earth stops pouring, the hands wipe clean. One cycle ends, another begins. “The struggles and hardships of the past that we have overcome are part of this cycle, but our connection to our land is eternal”, says Fielding. “Our past, our present, our future, is in our hands”.