Charting the moves for justice

Sydney Morning Herald - 9th July 2003
Author: Angela Bennie

Juno Gemes's respect for Aborigines is based on 30 years spent documenting their political awakening, writes Angela Bennie.

It is the human being who makes history, says photographer Juno Gemes. Occasionally history then makes some of them heroes.

Documenting the heroes of a certain slab of Australian history has been a lifetime's work for Gemes.

She didn't know at the time that that was what she was doing. Nor would she call it that herself. All she knew was that she found herself in the midst of something important happening in Australian history and she wanted to be part of it.

Gemes came to Australia with her family from occupied Hungary in 1949, when she was five.

In 1969 she was an active member of the Yellow House's artists' movement, researching a film being made about Uluru.

"I had read my [anthropologists] Strehlow and Stanner; I realised we couldn't tell the story of Uluru without including the ancestral stories. So I set off by myself to find the original custodians of the ancestral stories of Uluru."

Her journey took her into the Central Desert, where she ended up living with the traditional custodians of the Rock for five months.

"I found the whole experience deeply shocking," says Gemes. "In fact, you could say I was traumatised by it. I was in real shock at the way Aboriginal people were treated and had to live.

"I saw the strength of these people, yet they were invisible to most Australians.

"I loved being there with them, their generosity to me, their patience, the sacredness of their duty to their land. I was powerfully affected by the experience. I realised I had to get a grip, had to rethink what I was doing with my life."

Gemes left for England, to put some distance between her experience and her country. But the political side of her brain wouldn't let go. "As I churned it round in my head, I began to see the whole thing not as a film, but as a series of single-form images. Still photography could be a powerful mediator in this, I thought; besides, I was also very interested in photography per se. I knew the power of the photo image."

Gemes studied photography and when she returned to Australia in the early 1970s found herself once again gravitating towards Australia's indigenous artists and performers, thinkers and elders.

But she immediately sensed something new in the air, a mood, a shift. Gemes said she sensed it immediately. "I felt it, everyone felt it, `the move' was on. That's what they called it, the Movement . . . What was different was that people with vision now coalesced around this idea that justice was achievable," says Gemes.

This was the time of the audacious, in-your-face Tent Embassy outside old Parliament House, the new articulateness and determination in the indigenous leaders, the emergence of a cohesive thrust in Aboriginal art and politics.

But it was not just a one-sided activism, Gemes says. "The Movement was about getting recognition and respect for Aboriginal culture, but it was also about what they in turn had to offer the nation."

From then on, says Gemes, she was working with them. "Chicka [Dixon] would ring me, and he'd say, it's on, can you be there, and I'd go and photograph what was happening.

"I wanted to create images from an informed position. I would say to myself, what do we want to show? The general coverage of Aboriginal people until then and to about 1988 was generally always negative. It was about despair, hopelessness.

"But I saw something else. I saw tenacity, I saw strength, commitment, I saw determination, and that's what I wanted to capture."

Gemes's archive of photographs of this sea change in Australian history now extends over the 30 years of her involvement. Two things mark the collection: Gemes's decision to shoot mainly in black and white and her decision to shoot the events in terms of portraiture rather than narrative.

"I decided to use black and white, because I felt it had more emotional power. But I also knew it was capable of creating a powerful, distancing effect. In that way, its resonances are magnified and the moral drama revealed. I only started to use colour somewhere around the mid-'80s, when some `wins' were starting to come through."

The accumulative effect of the collection certainly has emotional power, both from the moral drama taking place before the camera and the inherent lyricism and grace of Gemes's photographic eye. The poet Lionel Fogarty leads an illegal march in Brisbane in 1982 at the time of the Commonwealth Games, with arms gently and vulnerably open, as if embracing the world. Oodgeroo Noonucal is in shorts, leaning almost sensually against a doorframe, smiling, her eyes lit as if by fire. Chicka Dixon lies on the grass, his long limbs sprawled like a lion resting between hunts.

The faces of history are recorded in their idiosyncrasies activist Gary Foley, philosopher Marcia Langton , actor Bob Maza, tennis champ Yvonne Goolagong-Cawley, artist Wandjuk Marika, community leader Mum Shirl.

An exhibition of 70 portraits and images from the archive opens at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra on Saturday.

Andrew Sayers, the gallery's director and the exhibition's curator, says he first saw Gemes's work in London in 2000.

"I was inspired by what I saw," he says. "What struck me was that it was clear that Juno was engaged with her subject matter at different levels. There was the obvious political engagement; but what comes out as well is that there's a deeper kind of humanity evident here, that she is engaged as a human being with other human beings."

Sayers says that the question of empathy in portraiture is always an issue. "Is empathy necessary to portraiture? I am not convinced that it is. Distance has its benefits. But what marks this portraiture out is that is quite clearly and unambiguously an engaged body of portraiture. In some senses this is a portraiture of a collective, the Movement, which is a kind of collective consciousness, I suppose you could call it."

This collective consciousness is expressed not just through the political activists and leaders but through poetry and plays, films, dance and art. This is what Gemes captures.

For Gemes herself, the exhibition is proof. "I have edited about 30 years' work for this exhibition. It is proof of the struggle; it irrefutably proves the tenacity, the strength, the courage of two generations of people committed to a just Australia.

"Why did I choose portraiture? How do you know your heroes? You know them by their portraits."