by Theresa Byrnes
photo - Rainer Hosch
I grew up in Australia and moved to New York City in 2000. I left a post-colonial society now wrapped in the shiny packaging of capitalism.
In the early 1990’s I was accepted into an Aboriginal community in remote Australia, Northern Territory, Arnhem land, Gove, Yirrkala. Roy Marika (RIP) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Marika Roy, the president of Yirrkala adopted me into his family; I was 20. In the early 1970’s Roy led the TENT EMBASSY & won the first Land Rights case in Australian history.
Roy’s youngest son Jolma was my age, we became friends. In 1998 Jolma was incarcerated for borrowing his brother’s jeep. The police claimed that he stole it. There is no acknowledgement or power given to the concept of ownership or private property in Yolngu (Aboriginal) law. Jolma hung himself in prison in 1998. The prince was dead along with so many other Aboriginal deaths in custody around that time.
Introduced foods and substances drastically reduced life expectancy of Aboriginal people. Some of my friends were of “The Stolen Generation” - in the 1950’s when the Australian government took Aboriginal babies, toddlers and children away from their families and communities and placed them in white families, they called it assimilation. My Aboriginal family were dying as a direct result of European invasion/colonization even though 200 years ago.
National pride was a tough pill to swallow. National disgust and shame more like it at the government’s wanton blind-fulness of any wrong doing done then, or now.
The Australian Government (Then John Howard) refused to say SORRY to the crimes committed under colonization regardless of the public crying for it, marching for it. In 1999 was the biggest march in Australian history. Ten’s of thousands of Aussies marched over the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Sorry banners, huge billowed in the wind. At the end or the bridge, at the top off King Street was my studio. It was in the old Scot’s church now empty, awaiting renovation. I exhibited “Ascension” and “East Wind” - huge oil paintings I had done about my Aboriginal brother who had recently hung himself in prison.
John Dunmore Lang was the founding pastor of Scots Church, the first Presbyterian Church in Sydney, built in 1827. He planted the church independent of the colonial authorities and was the first Christian minister not on the government payroll. He was often criticized for befriending convicts, championing the rights of minorities such as Chinese immigrants and seeking to understand local indigenous people. He preached fearlessly, calling the authorities to account for their abuses and corruption.
Is Christianity and the law all bad? God, money and law based on ownership make a helluva trinity. Colonization - (is invasion in polite terms), military enforces law while holding hands with the missionaries, committed to bringing salvation to the natives. Our god is superior, the only way! People white and black, old and new-world are beaten down to submit. “God is the ultimate realtor”, (to quote Chairman Omali Yeshitela) he made and owns the earth - end of story, end of the dreamtime.
I was 28, I had just begun using a wheelchair full-time. I was spearheading the Theresa Byrnes Foundation inc. raising funds for scientific research into (FA) Friedreich’s Ataxia, the disease of the nervous system I have. My art and my plight was featured in news papers, magazines, TV & radio interviews starting in 1996 thru 1999. I began to speak up for Aboriginal rights.
Painting with fury, new to a wheelchair, married and divorced within 9 months, I published my 1st book, THE DIVINE MISTAKE, (PAN MACMILLAN 1999) and was date-raped.
Authority told me I was someone I was not. I was running from a conservative, genocidal government, from doctors that were invested in and convinced of my doomed prognosis, from people who loved me thinking my life was over, from a community who empathized with a rapist, from belief in a white male God who’s path we should follow, from the idea that wealth was progress and that sexual intimacy/romantic love equalled expansion and security.
Roy (my father) died in 1993, Jolma my brother in 1998 and Natati my sister in 1999. I was heart broken and felt hopeless to change the Australian (European) society. The Marika family took me into their family, their hearts. The family had achieved much in the arts, in politics, they were royalty but strangely main-stream Australia did not see it like that.
I was weirded out by being called disabled all of sudden, I felt no change except for my mode of transport. Shocked that people were so superficial that a simple change up from legs to wheels would be a total game changer to how I was perceived and what my role would be in the world.
I just wanted to paint, forget my social/political responsibility, forget history and the morbid prognosis of my future, just be in the moment. I sold as many paintings as I could and moved to New York.
I came to live on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 2000 and furiously painted. From dingy basement to tiny storefront, through all struggles, always driven to paint. I thought I had come to know freedom deeply.
Then came September 11, 2001. it unveiled the evil eye of the storm - NYC the empire city of capitalism with a colonist soul. From Howard to Bush - had been colony hopping? I had flown to New York City to be me. Was I also running from the truth of who I was. The pursuit of freedom continues to teach me about what freedom is not.
An ex boyfriend and my ex-husband started a brief hand at action painting shortly after breaking up with me - but they did not have the commitment to freedom you had to feel to paint it. I guess they thought freedom was easy, a common mistake. There seems to be an assumption that freedom is easy, but try making a mistake on purpose, it is virtually impossible.
Giovanni da Verrizano and Americo Vespucci when exploring “The New World” in the early 15 hundreds wrote of the magnificent fertile land as a waste, that it was not utilized for profit and cultivation. It struck me as similar to when a man recently exclaimed that I was gorgeous, then declaring, that it was a waste that I did not have a boyfriend. Conquering a woman and conquering land both stem from colonial, capitalist arrogance.
LAND is NOT WASTED IF IT NOT UTILIZED FOR PROFIT! Nature as wilderness gives much more than any product. I am a wild woman, not a waste if not loved or utilized by a man.
Watching a Trump Rally in Oct 2018, the banner/slogan MAKE AMERICA PROUD AGAIN was used, I read the banner as MAKE AMERICA PORN AGAIN. Trump declared, to a cheering crowd, “AMERICA IS RESPECTED AGAIN” - (huh, not according to The United Nations or any international press.) Like most men Trump is in denial to serve himself.
In 2008 I flew to Yirrkala for Raymattja Maika’s funeral (another sister gone). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymattja_Marika was an Australian Yolngu aboriginal leader, scholar, linguist and Yuppa (sister) working constantly toward achieve reconciliation between Aboriginal and Western cultures.
In 2012 I flew there to grieve one of my four mother’s death, Barrupu Yunupingu https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/110.2013/ In the early and mid 1990’s we camped out under the stars, together with family many times. Life on the community was changing fast, many of the traditional and the politically active people were dying.
Within a functioning capitalist society we can not afford to be self-critical or recognize our mistakes. We build truth on a lie, on the huge theft of land and labor. Our mistakes must repeat in order for this system to survive and continue. It is a bloodthirsty order that we believe grants freedom.
A life of freedom becomes inauthentic and fake when we awaken to sense that freedom maybe the flawless repetition of a mistake.
Nina Simone says “That freedom is life without fear.” In the studio, when I paint - making a mark, I enter a zone where there is no fear. Maybe in post-colonial culture freedom is really the clever and unquestioned repetition of a mistake. So to be free you must be trained to make a lie that tells the truth. “Art is a lie that tells the truth” Picasso.
There can be no fear in art and its growth, is is not haunted by perfection. To grow beyond being trained the artist flips, rips, leaps, flings and wails. Claiming nothing but the moments of becoming. Risking what is known for what is about to be.
It is the closest thing to god, the purist action an unguarded moment without intent? There is shock, release into lack of control for a moment. As the paint leaves the brush and flies through the air, words fall from mind, from fingertips, trip, spill, drop, splatter and shatter any notion of holding back.
Holding gaze between falling and flying, not ruled by a need for cash money. To achieve a life of freedom in this world takes discipline, focus and management. Can all humans experience freedom?
Every citizen can be reduced to the amount of labour required to sustain a life. To survive must we jump on the murderous wheel of capitalism and be guided by the fear of not having? We live within a system that maintains control through its wealth. Profits made possible by centuries of slavery, theft of land, it’s resources and the convenient, militant belief in the untruth of ownership.
Violence and Freedom, which is America built on and which does it promise and deliver? Violence fuels our idea of freedom. Competition and battle begin as innocent play but are soon subverted into the actions and acceptance of violent oppression of the people and the planet.
I can not hide that I am a product of colonial capitalism. I am 15th generation white-washed, (my great, great, great grandmother was an indigenous Pilipino woman in the 15th century) how quickly we forget our indigenous roots.
When trying to corral artists to join with me a public performance/action an artist suggested I offer payment to artists, so to get more involved. I can not fund people to RISE UP I am not a politician with a campaign budget. So I did “The Snake” and I ask, WHO IS THE SNAKE?
It seems obvious that the empire will fall. Government has no power without control of self or nature. As the earth crumbles and bursts, profiters run out of slaves. Slaves become inmates - stripping people of all their legal rights, so they own nothing not even themselves. Society can only be dumbed down so much and for so long. History can repeat, sustaining its greedy self, until even the dumbest of the dumb wake up. The comfortable hunkered down in the scratch, give thanks to genocide, to slavery for making our country free, and sink their white shiny teeth into factory farmed flesh.
Trump is what America is. People flock to America because it is capitalist. The capital of the first world promises a reprieve from suffering and hardship (even though the US. has caused much of the global instability that people are fleeing from). In America you can be anyone you want to be? I ran here, did New York City give me freedom to be me, at what global cost? I live in a conundrum - the snake bites it’s tail.
There has be a better way! Where we involve the poor, the homeless and the indigenous to teach us how to live sustainably on the planet. Like my Aboriginal sister Natati who was bringing indigenous (bush) medicine to Nhulunbuy hospital in Gove, NT, Australia in the mid 1990’s.
The ruling class shun, ignore, the poor, the homeless and the indigenous but these are the people we will need most when this civilization falls. When there is no internet, no electricity, no plumbing and no fuel for transport, it will be the people who do not use or rely on those things to survive that will lead humanity.
The middle and upper class will flounder and be desperate. The 1%ers will pay billions to board rocket ships in the hope of colonizing other planets. We must evolve now and involve the poor, the homeless and the indigenous to teach us how to live sustainably on the planet.
Plunder and profit are not an achievement but a crime. A crime that has become glamorous and above the law it funds. America, the (so called) free world need strive for wisdom not wealth. Wisdom will sustain our species not the continuing, voracious need for surplus/capital that continues a “rape culture” of people and planet, leading us to extinction.
I am an action painter. I paint in action and live in “action". To make an honest, raw, powerful painting (series of marks) it is best to make it within an experience, to live it. Reflecting the times, the decades of choices that made us tick a certain way. In action painting there is no where to hide and no want to run.
The act of painting is a spellbinding, private magic show. The seeds of my becoming a performance artist were planted 3 decades ago as my studio painting became more experimental and physical. Mirroring the wild gesture of a mistake, repeating it, guiding it and being led by it - being part of its power, it’s natural flow moving me to feel the human bungle within natures force. As my performances become increasingly political - I realize - I am a political action painter.
THE SNAKE a performance by Theresa Byrnes