Marie McMahon - Printing in Three Registers.

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Marie McMahon - Printing in Three Registers.


Ewington, Julie.


Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.



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Julie Ewington: I’ve called this essay, which is about the print–makerMaria McMahon, Printing in three registers, which is a pretty appalling pun asmost print–makers here will appreciate

Marie McMahon - Printing in three registers.
byJulie Ewington


I’ve called this essay, which is about the printmaker Marie McMahon, Printing in three registers, which is a pretty appalling pun as most printmakers here will appreciate.

Marie McMahon has been known as a printmaker since the mid-1970s, principally through her posters as a member of Sydney’s Earthworks Poster Collective between 1976 and late 1979 when the group disbanded, and later as a worker with Redback Graphix, one of the poster workshops formed in the diaspora of Sydney print poster makers after Earthworks finished up shop; finished business.

To introduce the artists’ work, two early images. On this side a work screenprinted on vitreous enamel, a technique that Vivienne Binns and Marie McMahon developed together called Mother, which is from 1976. On the other side a screenprint called Falling, from 1977.

Now, this image will examine one aspect only of Marie McMahon’s recent work, her relationships as a white artist with Aboriginal art and artists. McMahon has explored images of women, including images of Aboriginal women, as the major focus of her work in the last four years.

To indicate McMahon’s work with other subjects in posters and for unions, and also her interest and expertise in the needle arts, just two images from recent work in other areas by Marie McMahon.

This is a ceremonial banner for the Australian Metal Workers Union done in collaboration with Nola Taylor, the needle work which was done in 1984. This shows the front and this the reverse of the banner, being carried in a parade in Sydney. This is also a good reminder that Marie McMahon was a leading member of the Sydney Women’s Domestic Needlework Group which devised and showed The D’oyley Show in 1979. She has a history of involvement with the needle arts.

To bring you up to date, McMahon’s work has been carried out in three distinct contexts and three registers, as I said. First, through her work with Redback Graphix as a commissioned artist working with a small commercial workshop responsible to workshop policies and ethos and, most importantly, to the client. Secondly, as an individual artist, and thirdly as an occasional employee of Bima Wear, the women’s screenprinting and clothing cooperative in Bathurst Island in the Northern Territory where McMahon, in her capacity as a design consultant in late 1988, acted as a facilitator of other artists’ designs, and she’ll be working there for another three month period in the middle of this year.

These are, as I said, three entirely different contexts of production and three distinct registers of artistic work. The artist Marie McMahon has moved in these last years between different practices, each of which brings different possibilities and constraints in its train. Against this emphasis on the different ways a printmaker may work in Australia, I place the continuity and connection that McMahon herself embodies; her interests in history, her images and methods, her needs and desires.

This complex of relationships between context and artist forms the framework of this paper as a contribution to understanding the richly different ways the print medium, or print media, are practised in contemporary Australia.

So, the first section, which looks at Marie McMahon’s recent posters. This is an image called You are on Aboriginal land. This is the fifth edition, which was printed in 1988. On the other side, a photograph taken from the artist’s own documentation of the same view in Bathurst Island. It’s standing on Bathurst [Island] looking across Apsley Strait to Melville Island.

This statue of the Virgin, Stella Maris, the Star of the sea. We’ll come back later on.

You are on Aboriginal land is a very interesting image, I think it is known to many of you. It’s been in continuous production over seven years and five editions, with a total of approximately 3,500 posters printed to date. A further 20,000 postcards have been printed since 1986, making this perhaps the most reproduced image by a contemporary Australian artist.

This is a commercial print. So, different artists in Redback have worked on the colour separations for the last several editions, leading to slight but interesting variations in the colour values, ones that the artist herself finds quite interesting as the original designer.

A percentage of the profits, by the way, for sale of this work goes to Aboriginal organisations. It’s currently $15 at the recommended retail. A percentage goes to the original financial backer, who is a Sydney member of the Left. Returns are also made to McMahon herself, as the artist.

Another very successful poster by the Redback group.

I have to go back now. Okay, this upside–down poster is by another member of the Earthworks Poster Collective. It’s called Beat the grog and it was done in 1986 by Michael Callaghan, another member of the workshop. It, like the other work, is a screenprint. I’ll occasionally give you sizes. The image size is 92 by 61 centimetres.

This immensely popular poster was commissioned by CAAMA, the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, and won the advertising industries award in 1986, for community advertising.

The avoidance of any text or language in the poster is important, since it was designed for areas where five or six languages are commonly spoken, with English often being the last language acquired or used by the communities.

Now, the success of these two earlier posters by McMahon and Callaghan led to a later project commissioned by the Department of Community Service and Health, a special team within the Department working on issues of Aboriginal health.

This was a set of ten posters, part of a national campaign to campaign alcohol and drug abuse amongst Aboriginal people, under the general heading ‘The drug offensive’. After an intensive process of workshopping the content and the approach to be adopted in the posters, which was carried out by the community health workers - approximately 100 community health workers were consulted, and they were located in Aboriginal communities and bureaucracies — this feedback was coordinated through the Department’s Indigenous Consultant, a man called Philip Mills, and Redback was briefed on the commission.

Marie McMahon undertook the greater part of the posters, eight out of a total series of ten, and I show you two here. This on your left, Don’t let grog drink you, and Enrol and vote on the other side, both from 1988.

Now, in doing these posters McMahon drew on several visits to different areas of the Northern Territory and of Queensland, and from working with Aboriginal communities to develop images which stress the desirability of harmonious family life on the one hand, and of political participation in the democratic process, so–called, on the other.

Other subjects include sport. This very nice one here is called Grog kills skills, and on the other side some football and images of family life in this one called Caring and sharing without grog.

I’d just like to make the point here that there is an influence here from an Aboriginal artist. I’m sorry that Jeff [Samuels] isn’t here to hear me talk about this, and see what his feedback would be. There is an influence here from Aboriginal art with in image here. The influence is from the artist Dick Roughsey and concerns his traditional, habitual construction of images, many of which are published in his autobiography The moon and the rainbow, which came out in 1971, which McMahon owns.

The wavy line which you see down the middle of this work on the left relates to the characteristic devices of Roughsey’s barks and to McMahon’s wish to segregate men and women in this image, as they would be segregated in sport on Bathurst Island and other Aboriginal communities at the moment.

I’d just like to make the point in passing that this is the only device that Marie McMahon has ever borrowed, that I can tell, from Aboriginal works. She does not appropriate either traditional stories or images, or sacred secret designs. This device is a tribute, I guess, to her great fondness for Dick Roughsey who she knew personally, but also appropriate to the image as she saw it.

Other images are directed towards more specific groups in Aboriginal communities. This one, on the other side, actually by Michael Callaghan, was not in the original commission of ten but was associated with the same kind of community health work.

Condoman says ‘Don’t be shame, be game. Use Frenchies.’ And, you can see that it’s a poster which has got a wider reference, and it’s appeared in our own art school.

On this side, a very interesting work called Pregnancy, and these are both from 1988. Just again, to give you an idea of the size, the image is 73 by 47.5 centimetres. Pregnancy won the 1988 advertising industries award for the best community poster of the year and the entire series, of which I’ve shown you only five or six, was judged the best single advertising campaign of 1988.

McMahon’s meticulous research and observations of community life are conveyed in this series through her strong, simple shapes, often in silhouette. It is important, she thought, that in images using Aboriginal personae, that none should be identifiable from the original documentary photographs, lest certain prohibitions on the viewing of the dead be violated at some stage in the future.

This is a problem that she incurred with one of The D’oyley posters of 1979. A photograph originally taken by [Charles P.] Mountford turned out to be of a person since deceased, and caused embarrassment to the communities and to the artist, I’m afraid.

The colour in the posters is vibrant, and the mood of happy purpose, I guess – well, reasonably happy purpose – said by the decorative elements from local plants and flowers which you saw especially in the Groote [Island] pictures.

After a final approval of the rough designs by the commissioning body, these posters were produced in runs of thousands and have been distributed throughout Aboriginal health and community organisations, as we will see in a later slide. They are sold in bookshops, and are available from Redback in Sydney. But, the principal audiences, however much the posters are admired in the cities, are in small Aboriginal communities across the country.

One last commissioned work, this one. I’m afraid this is the one slide which doesn’t represent the colour very well. This work is called Resistance from 1988, and it’s a chromolithograph. Its image size is 66.5 by 47.7, and it’s much too, sort of, yellow and much too pale, and is far more beautiful in the original, I assure you.

And on the other side, the artist’s own documentary photograph of a cycad, taken on Bathurst Island last year. We see the same plant reappearing in the poster. This chromolithograph was printed commercially in Queensland, by the way.

The poster was initiated by the Northern Lands Council Publication Group, where ex–Earthworker Chips MacInolty works and it’s part of a series with 12 artists contributing, most of them Aboriginal artists which included Jeffrey Samuels, whose had to go, Bede Tungatalum, the leading Tiwi artist, Sally Morgan, Lin Onis, who’s a Koori artist, one of whose posters Jeff showed you before.

The Central Lands Council also contributed to the funding. 350 signed prints on more expensive paper were produced which sell at $30, and a further unlimited edition which sell at $10. They’re available through Redback, which is also the distributor.

Details about life on Bathurst Island, seen in this poster, were gained from McMahon’s personal experience and observation on her four visits to the island since 1980. They included using these photographs as reference material though the work was drawn from memory, in Sydney. The landscape is the tropical woodland with is typical of Bathurst and Melville Islands, and much of Arnhem Land.

One other additional note, which I think I want you to keep in your mind as we look at some of her later prints, the cycad is given the feminine gender in the Tiwi language, and is called quokka, and features in an extremely ancient and important Tiwi myth about how the Tiwi learned to harvest the nuts and roast them to grind them into flour.

Shellfish, which are called paranga, are being roasted in the embers. Of course the guitar isn’t indigenous, but people like Country and Western music there a lot, so it seemed reasonable to include this, she said.

Set against the peaceful domesticity of this scene we must keep in mind, and I can’t resist telling you, Chips MacInolty’s original suggestion to McMahon that an appropriate image would be of Kalkadoon warriors.

This is an altogether different form of resistance, the one that she has proposed, based in the maintenance of traditional cultures and around the fire.

McMahon’s visit to the Top End and to the Centre as an adult were not her first in her life. As a child she had spent three years in Darwin, visiting Bathurst Island several times as this print of 1986 attests.

And here we pass on to the second register in my typology, which is the artist’s prints as an individual artist. The print on this side is called Marwin Tarwee; White people, Northern Territory 1955, and it’s a screenprint. On the other side, the artist’s photograph taken on Bathurst Island in 1988. That’s Claudia Kantilla, and you can just see obscured behind her a little boy called Capper, and he’ll come into the story a little bit later. Once again, it’s looking across Apsley Strait to Melville Island.

The woman in the image is McMahon’s mother, the small girl the artist herself and the photographer, as is usual in family photographs, her father Wing Commander McMahon. The aeroplane is an addition to the original photograph standing, perhaps, as the airman absent from the image.

The crocodile links both images, by the way. McMahon had gone down to the water last year to watch out for crocs while Capper went in for a swim and Claudia rinsed out the basin. So, 33 years later she took her camera too. The artist now considers that this earlier experience of living in the Northern Territory is crucial to her interest as an adult in Aboriginal communities and their art, and it’s the basis in experience for her support for Aboriginal causes, such as the struggle for land rights.

Six of the artist’s first 12 years were spent in colonised cultures. That’s how she describes them. Three in Darwin and another three in the Philippines as the family followed her father’s airforce postings. In 1980 and in the early 1980s, on subsequent visits when she went to Bathurst Island, when she worked there for Tiwi Design Cooperative, Marie McMahon was reintroduced to the Island and welcomed as, and I’ll see if I can say it, ‘WingcommanderMcMahondaughter’. That’s the name that they give her; ‘This is WingcommanderMcMahondaughter’. And then they would say to her ‘He was a big man’, and she kept remembering him as very plump and would say ‘Yes, he was a big man.’ But they meant big in stature, and in terms of his role as the airman commanding the base.

In short, there was a personal history of contact as the basis for this art and arguably this is essential, certainly important for white Australians working with these issues and with these images, which McMahon sees as relating to the process of colonisation that is still being continued today, and being struggled against today.

In McMahon’s work there have developed images and treatments, which now provide her with a flexible and entirely personal repertoire for her interests and affiliations. These are often quite personal as, for example, in these two screenprints. On this side, it’s called Promised; Watiyaporoka. I can’t say Tiwi words at all well. Marie does it better. On the other side Kimurra Kimari; Dry season. Both are hand–coloured silkscreens, in editions of about ten. Ten, in fact.

In this image you see the arranged marriage, under traditional law, of two Tiwi friends. They face outwards from each other, not to convey that there’s any personal separation or that it’s not a strong relationship, but to convey their traditional tribal relationships with exogamous [tribes]. It’s very important that groups marry outwards, and there are very strict rules governing that. Brother marries sister, sister marries brother. Marie has attempted to recapitulate this in the image, which is understood in those terms by the Tiwi audiences.

On the other side, Lying asleep in the dry season is the child of this marriage. Now, the features are generalised, as I said before, so as to avoid any future problems with prohibited images. This is, as I said, based entirely on her own experience and understanding of the laws and society of the Island.

Two later images. I’m showing you them with the artist’s documentation shots on the other side. On this side, a lithograph of 1988 which was editioned at the VPW [Victorian Print Workshop], called Kulalaga; Hunting, hunting. On the other side, Tropical woodland on B.I. in 1988 and, very quickly, it’s companion piece Kulaga Yinkittee, which means ‘looking around for food’, which is also accompanied by a cabbage–tree palm, here. It was also editioned at the VPW.

What I think distinguishes these two prints is the sense of the Tiwi people being surrounded and supported by their environment, spiritually as well as physically; for food gathering but also for life. They stand in amongst the vegetation, these young women, not as part of a natural order but as indissolubly linked to the rhythms and necessities of life in that place.

The second lithograph, the one over here which I vastly prefer, has developed this theme further and this is why I wanted the comparison with the other one which won’t come back. There’s a real difference there, and maybe it’s hard to see it on the slide, between the different kinds of drawing that are actually in the image. The face is very detailed and is very realistic, in a sense, in terms of the drawing handling; the vegetation much more simply and schematically rendered.

I think in doing this Marie has been able to develop a kind of handling which makes more clear the social character of the cultural person, the Tiwi, and the natural order of the vegetation around it. So, a developing repertoire of images and possibilities.

Secondly, McMahon’s personal sensibility has contributed to the iconic strength of these images of women, which are drawn from several sources and manifested in many of the prints that we’ve seen. The frontal stance, taken in so many of the family snapshots including the one that we saw reproduced as a screenprint and see here, is important, as in the images of her mother, but so too is the image of feminine importance derived from icons of the Virgin of Christian mythology.

Two images from her personal collection. The Virgin of Guadaloupe, a Spanish postcard, contemporary, collected in Mexico by one of the Redback artists last year. Unfortunately, I ended up not having a slide of Marie McMahon’s similar print, collected in Los Angeles in 1978. It’s an image she has had an interest in for some time.

The photograph, again, of the Stella Maris figure, which is seen in the other photograph on Apsley Strait, which is on Bathurst Island. Just in passing can I ask you to remember this decorative material on the base of this obviously Pellegrini–type imported plaster statue because I want you to remember it and I should have put another slide in later and I forgot.

Many of these works; etchings, lithographs, screenprints continue McMahon’s earlier interest in the lives and images of women, particularly female family members. If we look at these two works just for two, the work on your left, Werner as a child, a lithograph of 1985, is an image of her mother as a young woman.

And, on the other side, Maori Garden, a screenprint of 1986, part of a suite of works that come out of the artist’s interest in her mother’s origins in New Zealand, with its parallel history to Australia of suppression of the original inhabitants and colonial exploitation.

The image of indigenous and imported vegetation is important in this suite of works -I’ll just show you one image - and has been reiterated in works, as I think the Tiwi works have shown.

Finally the last bit, and I’m being given the hurry-up. This is an appalling slide. I see it’s not going to be any use whatsoever.

The third aspect of Marie McMahon’s contact with Aboriginal life and work; her employment by Bima Wear in the latter part of 1988 with a return stint to be completed this year. Bima Wear is a clothing and printing workshop run by the women of Bathurst Island, to be distinguished from the Tiwi Design Cooperative, which is men’s business. Bima, of course, is the original being of the creation myth of the Tiwi people.

This is the shop. Installation shots showing two of those Redback anti–drug posters that are designed by McMahon in the back, which she didn’t take there; which found their way there. And, a rather poor slide of a recent fabric design by the women during her consultancy there.

Here are two of the artists, Theresa Munkaname and Fiona Kerinauia, posing in front of material.

Oh, Roger. They’re out of sync. You see, I was going to have the two of the fashion parade together. This is one of the artist printing that same fabric. The point of showing you the fashion parade is to make the point that nearly all the fabric, which we hardly ever see down here, is used on the Island and sold for island clothing. And these are two more workshop shots, showing people printing in 1988.

McMahon was working there as a person who was asked to deliberately assist in the development of design skills by the artists and one of the arguments that various and white craft advisors have about the work of Bima is whether it should be, basically, a small production clothing workshop or whether it’s important to develop the design skills of the women and artists so that they may produce designs that can then be franchised and reproduced in larger numbers, and whether that would be, in fact, more interesting economically.

McMahon has been asked, also, some interesting questions recently about her work. She’s been asked ‘Do the Tiwi women really design the fabric or is it the case that McMahon herself is the designer?’ She’s also been asked [if she is] of Aboriginal descent. The answer is a firm ‘no’ to both questions.

The answer came back, this time from a curator, ‘Where do such young and formally untrained women derive their design sense?’


Here’s a picture of Fatima Cantilla cutting a stencil for a fabric. On the other side – unfortunately I don’t have an author but it’s from the 1980s – is a hand–coloured woodcut of Bima, after whom the workshop is named. I’ve put them side by side to make the point that these women are from childhood on constantly surrounded by images from this very productive culture, and learned, as it were, at their mother’s knees.

Two more images from the Island. A Tiwi cross, made out of spears and very decorated. I’ll ask you to remember the decoration on the base of the statue of the Virgin. On this side, a Bima figure carving by women from Melville Island which was exhibited in Melbourne last year. Marie wasn’t able to give me the artist’s name, but it was done in the early 1980s.

Intense familiarity, of course, with this traditional decoration is where the young women working at Bima derive their sense of design.

Here, as you see, hanging in at the screenprinting table just where the fumes are worst, but watching the design process and making process, the children are always there.

Finally, a design by a very young woman called Fatima Kantilla in 1988, a stencil and hand–colouring on cotton. It’s a scarf about a metre square. It will be exhibited in Jane Dieterlinger’s Contemporary art of dress show which is going to be at the V&A in June, and after to the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.

Very quickly, the sting in the tail of this paper. By now you will have perceived that this paper supports some of the work by white Australians in response to Aboriginal culture and society. Here I’m thinking particularly of McMahon’s work with Bima. It has recently been argued that these relationships, which I would characterise as ones of support and respect, which was Jeffery’s word, are nothing more than another form of white oppression of Aboriginals.

Anne-Marie Willis, and Tony Fry, in their article ‘Ethnocentrism, art, and the culture of domination’, which was published in Praxis 20, had this to say. I wish to quote very briefly. These things are, they say,

…presented as Aboriginal initiatives’ and they are, they say, writing from a sense of urgency, and I quote ‘…stemming from the conviction that current ways of conceiving the issues and resulting modes of operation are counter-productive and are often deepening the problems. It will be argued that most ideas and practices in circulation are functioning to mask the continuation of the exploitation of Aboriginal culture, which they are seeking to displace. In fact, they are frequently forms of neo-colonialism in the unbroken and unceasing process of colonisation.

I appreciate certain arguments put by Willis and Fry, especially that our Anglo/Euro culture has worked systematically to position cultures differently (sic) to it as subordinate, but I am in much greater general agreement with Vivien Johnson, whose piece ‘Our appropriation is your dispossession’, which was in Praxis 17, was obviously one of the sources for the Fry and Willis piece.

Just very briefly, Vivien Johnson speaks very approvingly of the way in which Aboriginal artists have established themselves in the art world in the last five years, and how important it is that they have won or achieved a certain place in this struggle for what she calls ‘self–representation’ before a predominantly non–Aboriginal audience.

As I hope I’ve demonstrated, there are positive outcomes to be derived from exploring the relationships between white and black artists within this sphere of contemporary culture. Many of the initiatives undertaken by this artist have been done so on the invitation of Aboriginal artists and communities.

The final two images come from two different Bicentennial year projects which were not organised by Aboriginal artists. On this side, an image from Right here, right now, the anti-Bicentennial poster/folder, commissioned by Co-Media in Adelaide, and the right is from the Australian National Gallery’s print portfolio.

This one is called Wurreddie’s Vision and Truganana’s sister, a hand-coloured screenprint, and The two walyars on the other side is a lithograph. I’m making the point that the artist decides to intervene in terms of trying to make some counter-statement from the position of a white artist against the history of oppression that we have visited on Aboriginal people here.

Even with the artist’s work as an individual, McMahon, who was most aware of the problems of addressing subject matter outside her own culture, is responding to knowledge and experience of Aboriginal culture, knowledge and experience with which she has been endowed by Aboriginal friends, as well as Aboriginal and white scholars.

I remain convinced that these works must be seen as a contribution to the growing white Australian sense of the value of Aboriginal life and cultures.

Thank you.


© Julie Ewington, 1989.
Transcript of paper presented at The First Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1989.