A browning map, heavily creased and slightly torn along the fold. A black line, ruler-straight and angling sharply, dissects the topographic record of dunes and waterways, crossing from Western Australia to the Northern Territory almost at the journey’s heart. The hand which scored the line belonged to a white man traversing the Tanami Desert in search of a useable stock route, and the document is a record of his journey in the country where he eventually settled. To his daughter, artist and writer Kim Mahood, the map is a source of inspiration.
The desert feels a world away from Melbourne, where Mahood is visiting the Writers’ Festival to discuss her recent book, Position Doubtful. Its name is taken from her father’s map, where landmarks are labelled (PD) to indicate uncertainty in their placement. The phrase captured Mahood’s imagination as a wider articulation of ‘the way in which white Australians move through and occupy the country, especially the less accessible parts of it… it seems to me that our position in relation to the remote parts of the country is more doubtful than it has ever been’.
In her book, Mahood highlights the separation between the worlds of the ‘urban, Eurocentric, aspirational, heavily populated south-east corner of the continent and the remote, predominantly Aboriginal, barely sustainable, thinly populated pocket of desert’ between which she has been travelling back and forth throughout her life. For Mahood, the art she creates, both painting and sculpture, is a means of exploring her place in the country and her role in it, set up in contrast to the work of her friend and fellow artist, the late Pamela Lofts. Both deal with their unease as white Australians by creating art, but their differing approaches are a source of both inspiration and tension between them.
The book is a further adjunct to Mahood’s exploration of the place of white Australians in the country; in her words, ‘How do we make sense of this place that we all share?’ In her talk at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, she described Australia as a palimpsest. Like a manuscript which has had its contents erased and altered, traces of the original still clinging to the paper, Australia is constantly being rewritten. The landscape is burned, flooded, renewed; waves of colonisation and settlement have re-created the population makeup of the country.
Interweaving art and mapmaking allows Mahood to acknowledge and come to understand the layers of meaning given to the landscape of the Tanami. Travelling with the traditional owners through the desert, she records place names and dreaming stories for the areas her family once incorporated into their cattle station. In one of her works, Mahood overlays the names the settlers gave to the area with the traditional names, combining new and old.
This book is not only a record of the author’s annual visits to the Tanami to live, work and practise her art; it is a poetic love letter to the landscape that shaped her. Her annual pilgrimage with a dog and a ute is both highly anticipated and ultimately necessary. It is a country where she is intimately familiar with the plants, the trees, the soil, and the ephemeral waterways. The landscape informs her artwork, and knowing it deeply is important to her sense of selfhood; as she says, ‘I believe geography shapes who we are and how we think’.
Having been born on the station then known as ‘Mongrel Downs’, Mahood has a unique place in the community among both white Australians and the traditional owners. At birth she is given a skin name, Napurrula: an identity she sometimes embraces and at other times feels distant from. In a memorable episode, she watches two elderly indigenous women, laughing, dodge a fire started by a third, and wonders how three elderly white women would have responded in the same situation. The people of the Tanami are part of the reason Mahood is drawn back, again and again. In its exploration of geography, her book examines not only how different people can interpret a place, but how our perception of a place is shaped by the people who inhabit or once inhabited it. As relationships grow and friends pass away, her Tanami is irreversibly changed.
Even reading this book on a mild day in the early Melbourne spring, it isn’t difficult to be transported, through Mahood’s encompassing prose, into the dry, cracked bed of an ephemeral lake in the north. But when the final page is read and the cover closed on the desert, the springtime city can be viewed through a new lens. There are layers of history, social and environmental, beneath my feet. As I walk through it I am shaping it, and being shaped by it. Mahood’s book invites us to look around; to embrace the impact that our environment has on our identity, and to never stop challenging and re-examining our place in it.
You can purchase your own copy of Position Doubtful from Scribe Publications.
Alex Mullarky is a writer and environmentalist from the UK who has called Melbourne home since 2014. She is a graduate of English Literature and is particularly interested in the connection between language and landscape.
You can find her on Twitter at @saesteorra.
Banner image: 'Balgo Horizon', Kim Mahood 2004.