By Jess Wallace

In They Came Like a Tsunami (2017) Sandra Saunders brings to the fore her colonial subjects – Captain Cook, The Queen, The Law, and The Church – arriving on a gigantic wave that dumps the empire across country in a dense white spume. Spirits seem to fall from the spray and at the same time they rise from the earth, to face this invasion as it descends upon their people and the land beneath them.

Here, country is seen as a map, as a story, that depicts the battleground of white ‘settlement’. There is a broad, sweeping sense of destruction upon this topography. Mining is underway. Maralinga explodes in the right-hand corner, a direct result of the wave’s impact. However, it is in the detail that the continued and overwhelming effects of colonisation are depicted; there are graves at the base of the atomic cloud; protestors call for the stop to deaths in custody, for the protection of cultural heritage; the Aboriginal Tent Embassy claims sovereignty.

Saunders describes her new work as a necessity – her need to respond to what’s happening in Australia. For her, this painting is underpinned by a deep and abiding sorrow. This sense of mourning has a cumulative effect that works across time, depicted in scenes that rely on the viewer’s knowledge of what is to come, as well as what has been. The inevitability of conflict can be seen in the poised zone between the warriors on the beach and Cook’s party. Disruption will come to the people who are tenderly painted into their environment, circling the fire within the circle of trees. And grieving is ever-present. As protestors cross the country in acts of resistance, the rendering of their shadows mirrors their spirit ancestors above.

Aboriginal people, often seen in Saunders’s work in groups, represent “the collective”, depicting “the struggle of Aboriginal people across Australia”.[1] The collective is seen in times of sadness, and through acts of strength and resilience. In They Came Like a Tsunami, there is expression of both.

Saunders commonly paints in reaction to political or cultural events and has developed an approach to painting that suits her need for immediacy. She prefers acrylic paints for their drying speed, and likes the flip side of hardboard for its texture and capacity to suck up the volumes of paint she uses in her initial layers. They Came Like a Tsunami has been made with this kind of urgency. And Saunders has combined both collage (a medium she has often experimented with) with her typical palette of strong colours: Prussian blue, cadmium yellow, vermillion, and dark forest green.

As an artist and activist, the themes Saunders expresses in this new work have been at the heart of her practice for years. She is driven by a need to respond, to speak back, to tell the “real story”.[2] The artist’s storytelling in They Came Like a Tsunami draws from much of her previous work: “You could say it is a coming together of my other paintings”, she explains.[3]

Sandra Saunders

Sandra Saunders, Redfern Speech...and what?, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 91.5 x 76cm. Courtesy the artist.

At times Saunders’s work is satirical and often sharp. This collection brings together some of the more sombre of her paintings, conveying the seriousness of her images and her approach when making them. Her observations of our political landscape invariably raise the question: How can this be? Redfern Speech… and what? (2017) is a recognition of Keating’s acknowledgements – “we took the traditional land… we took the children… we committed murders…”[4] – at the same time it is a challenge: and what? What has been done since that speech was given in 1992? How and when will the government rectify the ongoing impact of these truths? When will the real healing begin? Men In Blue Ties (2013) was painted after the backlash Julia Gillard received for her misogyny speech. The attacks that the white male politicians, and not to mention the media, made against Gillard, resonated with the artist. “They were the same kind of men in blue ties that had done the injustices to us during Hindmarsh,”[5] Hindmarsh being the painful and prolonged Hindmarsh Island Bridge Affair that saw Ngarrindjeri women fight for the protection of the island’s waters, alongside the validity of their spiritual beliefs.

There is shock in the recognition of Saunders’s observations. Perhaps no more so than in her Hindmarsh Island Collection – work that spans the Bridge Affair and beyond, as well as Saunders’s role as the then Director of the South Australian Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement. The large white-faced, white-wigged men of her courtroom scenes are pompous and dour. Two feature in Women’s Business 2000 (2001) where Saunders herself sits in the witness box, squeezed to the edge of frame, while the lawyers stand amongst towers of books. In the hands of one lawyer is a title: ‘Women’. The ways in which knowledge is determined and perceived by our cultural and legal institutions is of serious concern for Saunders. In Lore vs Law 2000 (2003) Saunders has captured the moment when, “For the purpose of this hearing the judge turned himself into a woman”.[6] While in Miminis Yarning (2000) Ngarrindjeri women are depicted around the artist’s kitchen table, a meeting place throughout the Bridge Affair. This painting represents a significant decision, when the women decided to provide evidence, which had previously come under vicious attack, in a federal case that would hopefully “remove the fabrication label,”[7] which it finally did.

Saunders describes her new work as a necessity – her need to respond to what’s happening in Australia.

Sandra Saunders, Mother Earth, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 90 x 56cm. Courtesy the artist.

On occasion Saunders chooses to work with oil, where the process of making is slowed by the medium, and where the desire to represent the content, is undertaken with the deepest affection. For example, Creation (2012) in which the existence of land and people are intertwined, and The People (2002), which depicts a time before the tsunami and the men in blue ties: before the bridge. Like each work in her Hindmarsh Collection, The People was made as part of the healing process that the artist underwent in the wake of the Bridge Affair. The Hindmarsh Collection included another oil on canvas, Auntie Dodo 1994 (2003), which has since been badly damaged. Saunders felt a strong need to recreate this work in Dr Doreen Kartinyeri (2017). This is a painting of the Ngarrindjeri matriarch, genealogist and custodian of the Ngarrindjeri women’s confidential information. It is also a portrait of the artist’s friend. Painted with acrylic on board, it encompasses something of Saunders’s urgent style and yet, as Saunders explains, it was made with the same intense feelings of respect as the original.[8]

They Came Like a Tsunami encapsulates the pain and rage Saunders feels for the state of this nation. While her tsunami is in full force, it is also beautiful. The wave’s inner curve, its shadow on the sand, are striking. The contrast between the blue sea and sky and the red earth are what grounds this painting, reminding us of the other more complex contrasts at play, and reminding us too, that the power of nature is far from responsible for the havoc that arrived on these shores.

[1] Telephone interview with artist, 3 August 2017
[2] “Real story” refers to ‘This story is real’, the artist’s statement in The Hindmarsh Island Collection catalogue, 2003
[3] Telephone interview with artist, 3 August 2017
[4] Text featured in the painting Redfern Speech…and what?, 2017
[5] Telephone interview with artist, 10 October 2017
[6] The Hindmarsh Island Collection catalogue, 2003
[7] The Hindmarsh Island Collection catalogue, 2003

Sandra Saunders, Women's Business 2000, 2001, acrylic on board, 80 x 200 cm. Courtesy the artist.

Sandra Saunders' 'They Came Like a Tsunami' runs 20 October—11 November, 2017 as part of TARNANTHI Festival of Contmporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art.

Presented by ACE Open and Ku Arts.