Image: Heathcliff O’Malley
“GROWING UP IN middle-class Australia no one had heard of Aboriginals … In my lifetime Aboriginals were not citizens of Australia. I must have been about nine at school when I saw in the playground this little girl Lisa. She had brown hair and big brown eyes and was being bullied by a girl called Wendy – I was a big girl, I rescued her! And Lisa became my friend. Her parents were really old, they were missionaries. I never understood that. We used to go to her house in the bush, completely wild, with a kerosene lamp on the deck. Lisa was my friend in a school of pretty blonde girls with blue eyes, a school of princesses. Now I realise she was a Stolen Generations Aboriginal. Out of all those girls I had instinctively gone to her, and she stayed my friend. At that time in Australia, this wasn’t talked about – no one talked about it. So it was instinctive for me – it has been something that has been in my soul, I feel it so strongly …
Untitled Anyupa Stevens 2018
I am still amazed at the lack of knowledge of Aboriginal art in Australia; most of my family has never met an Aboriginal, most of my friends never have – they’ve never been to the desert.
You ask me where it all comes from, this love of Aboriginal culture and art … I think it’s to do with my love of the natural world. Even in Melbourne going to school and my conventional life – at night I would climb out of the window and down a tree and walk across railway tracks to a beautiful garden and spend the night there, or to a beautiful old house down by the river; or I would climb into the neighbouring garden and sleep there! I always loved sleeping outside.
Rebecca with her Aboriginal mother Mirriki and Professor Marcia Langton
Katakarri Jimmy Pike 2000
Still to this day on holiday, I will ask if I can sleep outside.
It is a strange thing but on an aeroplane once I listened to a podcast of an American bloke talking about how you can change your brain pattern. He was saying that there are eight types of intelligence: scientific, numerical, literary, emotional, etc. As he was listing them I kept saying, ‘Ah that’s not me!’ He got to the last one – plant intelligence. It’s someone who feels a real presence and affinity with plants. I realised that that’s at the root of everything I do, this love of the natural world. All the time I talk to plants in my head. With Aboriginal people, their sense of the natural world is inseparable from their being – and it’s the same with me.
Rebecca with Cathy Kata – Papua New Guinea’s foremost dress maker
In the late ’80s I was visiting an Aboriginal community in Arnhem Land. We were having a hard day’s work together in their community, looking for mud mussels. This was in crocodile-infested salt waters, feeling in the mud with your toes, pulling them up, then you put them in your T-shirt like a basket. We were wading deeper and deeper in this mangrove swamp. I heard them call the Aboriginal word for crocodile. Only because I was with them did I do it; I trusted them. In the afternoon we got oysters off the rocks. They work so hard. On the beach we camped, ate turtle eggs. You follow the turtle tracks, dig down, the turtle eggs are like ping-pong balls and really soft and delicious. But living with them I realised you are totally with the world, all day – the natural world, the plants and animals. I believe the natural world magnetises you.
Rebecca with her painters
In fact, the first time I went to the central Australian desert was when Halley’s Comet (1986) was overhead. I was staying at this youth hostel – I spent the whole day walking around in the desert landscape not far from Ayers Rock – I couldn’t sit still. I was boiling hot, walking and walking in circles. Many years later when I was working as an Australian attaché at Australia House, I read a report of a satellite image of central Australia and they’d seen all this infrared stuff around Ayers Rock. And it was this magnetic field. I’d been magnetised!
Rebecca and Roy Underwood in London in 2005 for an exhibition of work by the Spinifex people
You’re asking me if I live almost shamanically, this connection with the earth, with Gaia. Yes I do, I love landscape, I connect to all landscapes but I love deserts. In the 1990s I went to Ethiopia for six weeks, with a girlfriend, before the war. We travelled right across, it was unheard of back then, we camped out, very dangerous, all the lions! For six weeks we had no mirrors. We washed in rivers. It was an amazing experience. You change. Such an insight – you don’t know what you look like. You don’t even think about it. You feel very confident, very calm; such a shock to look in a mirror and see yourself later.
Rebecca visiting the Omie people
They’d never seen a reproduction of anything or a photograph. Can you imagine? So I took the Queen
Rebecca with Mavis Ganambarr, one of Australia’s leading fibre artists
Just before lockdown I went to Papua New Guinea to see the Omie people. Somehow they knew what I’d done for the Aboriginal people and they sent me a message through an intermediary. They invited me to look at their textile work. I was the seventh European in the whole history of the world to go there to Mount Lamington, an incredible landscape, a volcanic landscape, you go vertically up and vertically down all the time. If I was a millionaire I’d start an Omie football team – what I did in seven hours uphill they could run in an hour, in bare feet.
Rebecca with artist Michael Nelson Jagamara
I walked in and I thought Jackson Pollock had painted the walls! But it was bat shit
They’d never seen our Queen. So I took a laminated picture of the Queen – and when we finally got there I put it up in a hut. Their village was beautiful, they’d cleared the jungle, and everything they use comes from the jungle. Their feather headdresses, their clothes. But they’d never seen an image. They’d never seen a reproduction of anything or a photograph. Can you imagine? So I took the Queen. And then when they asked me to explain it they were so similar, she had her crown, they had their feathers, her blue sash, their leaf decorations. They loved it. I took the Queen because in my experience tribal people love the Queen: they love hierarchy, looking up to someone.
Omie people and Tapa cloth
All the time I talk to plants in my head
My passion for the last five years is mermaids. Mermaids keep coming into my life. They’ve always come to me. Every single culture I’ve ever been to has a mermaid. Not every country has a centaur or a harpy, but every single culture has a mermaid – even every African nation, even the deserts of Australia with water spirits, the Inuits have Sedna, and there’s Japan, China, India … they all have the same characteristics! How amazing is that? They have the same stories. All mermaids have a mirror. They all have a comb. When she combs her hair it calms the seas. When it’s tangled there are storms. So right now I’m interested in mermaids in art, in all non-Western cultures.
Rebecca in one of the oldest caves in Arnhem Land, exploring the rock art of the Arnhem desert
So I thought where is the place that a mermaid has really impacted in life now? I found out that in West Java there is a hotel built in the 1960s by the first president of Indonesia. It’s such a weird story. The president believed that he had a special relationship with the Queen of the Southern Sea, their mermaid, called Nyi Loro Kidul. He chose this godforsaken place to build this first ever luxury hotel in Indonesia. A room that is locked, Room 308, only for the mermaid. And there’s always an empty throne beside the sultanate of Indonesia – for the mermaid. So of course I crazily wanted to see if these stories were true. I flew to Jakarta alone and I got a driver there and we drove eight hours to Pelabuhan Ratu. No one in the whole world knew where I was. It was so crazy, I hadn’t told anyone. It was nighttime, all those trucks with bright lights in the dark. Finally we got here. The hotel had been modern in the 1960s, but not now. I walked in and I thought Jackson Pollock had painted the walls! But it was bat shit. The staff were suspicious and couldn’t speak English. The manager, though, spoke a little. He told me about the hotel. One night, through this gate, four horses and the Queen of the Southern Sea came. Everything stopped. Time stopped. She went to Room 308. It’s so real as a story. I went to the room. It’s incredible. The energy is incredible. There’s a portrait of her in it, black hair, a chariot, she looks like Elizabeth Taylor. There’s a shrine to her.
Mermaids are the wonder of the world. Maybe they’re the spirit of the wonder of the world!
With Aboriginal people, their sense of the natural world is inseparable from their being – and it’s the same with me
The Rebecca Hossack Gallery, Fitzrovia
If I was a millionaire, I’d start an Omie football team
I’m talking a lot here about walking and being nomadic, but I also like staying still. I love books, culture and music. You ask when I go questing do I know what I am looking for? No! The world is amazing, changing, shifting. I’m guided by something. I’m looking for real art to do with the planet, made from the planet. In South American or North American indigenous art, their cultures are now so removed by over hundreds of years of contact. But in Omie art that’s not the case: for example, their cloth is sewn with the bone of a bat. And the cloth is first peeled from the bark of a tree, then you dye it, then you weave it, then you stitch it. How real is that? I’m looking for art made from the planet, with the planet …”
JULY 2023 Rebecca Hossack MONK