Leah King-Smith: Untitled
Leah King-Smith is known principally for her 1991 series Patterns of connection. This work had its origins in a project for the State Library of Victoria for which the artist was invited to select images for publication from the library's collection of nineteenth-century photographs of Aboriginal people. Most of these photographs were taken between 1860 and 1910 by professional European photographers for ethnographic or commercial purposes. 'I was seeing the old photographs as both sacred family documents on one hand, and testaments of the early brutal days of white settlement on the other, the artist has written. 'I was thus wrestling with anger, resentment, powerlessness and guilt while at the same time encountering a sense of deep connectedness, of belonging and power in working with images of my fellow Indigenous human beings.
The Work of Art
The image, Untitled #3 comes from a series of works known as Patterns of Connection, created in 1991. Like many of her works, Leah has used multiple layers to add to effect, for example, take a look at the dog. It looks quite transparent, as does the series of buildings in the background. Here, Leah is combining and contrasting the two landscapes for effect. Parts of the photograph has been painted over to add to the rather haunting atmosphere. According to the Potter Museum of Art, contra to the reductions of anthropological classification, the artist remystifies the land by literally haunting it. Yet while the images seek to animate the equation of land and self that is so central to Aboriginal culture, they do not so much present 'patterns of connection' as of alienation. The figures that ghost the landscape—Aboriginal people dressed in rags and mission whites—fade at the edges, are just out of reach. The closed space between the figures and the landscape, between the received image and its resuscitation, contains a past that is ungraspable, an abruption of memory. The unpeopled landscape may host a natural religion, but in King-Smith's scheme it is one without practitioners: the darkness from which the images emerge is the darkness carried by one born without a mother tongue.
The intention in recontextualising historical photographs is a form of resuscitation, or rescue. However, these works have been criticised for romanticising Indigenous suffering—for decorously remythologising historical Aboriginal identity.