Rod Moss


Rod Moss relocated from Melbourne to Alice Springs in the early 1980s to assume a lecturing position in painting at the local College, now Charles Darwin University. He was taken in by the Eastern Arrernte custodians and developed an especially close relationship with the Elder of families whose custodial lands were in the Simpson desert. For over a decade he travelled, whenever possible, with the old man who confided in him the stories of the country east of the town. His own responsibilities to relationships to the people and those places, formed over nearly 30 years have been articulated in his paintings and his book, The Hard Light of Day, which won the Prime Minister’s non-fiction Award in 2011.

Interpretation of Dreams, 2009
Generally speaking, settler culture devalues indigenous knowledge. It is the settler who knows better, whose medical practices, a significant component of any culture, are superior. It is as if millenia added very little to the sum of indigenous wellbeing, or little that could be of value to the wellbeing of the mainstream. In this painting I’ve inverted the assumed roles of psychological healing with Arrernte elder, Patrick Hayes interpreting the dreams of Sigmund Freud. The setting is in Freud’s consultation room re-contexturalised in Central Australia. Freud was an avid collector of artefacts from ‘primitive’ peoples, though indigenous Australians didn’t figure in his estimations (any more than they did in the distorted map of the Surrealists who acknowledged Freud’s contributions to dream understandings that were so crucial to their strategies). The coolamon is positioned as a conduit for the forces beyond the window. Barely decipherable in reproduction, the scrawl on the painting is the Arrernte inscription, ‘Listen to the Creation Stories‘.

Healing at Peverill Creek, 2002
This is my interpretation of the casual setting in which traditional healers do their work. The angangkere (traditional healer) David Johnson, is laying his hands over the torso of my youngest daughter, nursed by her mother, at the right of the painting. Ursula Nicaloff and Arthur Webb are central. Other family members sit or stand over the embers, fashioning music sticks. Anjou has a chest cold and her breathing is congested. Sometimes, when the chilly winter winds blow from the south over the Simpson Desert, it is the honey eater which carries colds from white gum to white gum. However, David tells us that the morning’s hot north wind has brought this condition and that he is a doctor for wind-sickness. He will rub his hands on the sides of his shirt and lay them on her chest accompanied by a clicking noise produced by his clenched teeth. He will spit blood into the palms of his hand as evidence of the sickness that he has extracted. The operation occupies about five minutes. Within a day or so, she will breathe easily. He has worked successfully more than once on my stomach when I’ve had sick guts, wrenching the muscles several times, singing and again, spitting blood.

Aranye Singing the Tjabe at Mount Antulye, 1997.
During his final eighteen months, my mentor Aranye Johnson passed on his healing powers, of which he had been the custodian. We were at Patrick Hayes outstation, Mout Antulye, about 40 kilometres east of Alice Springs, when Aranye invited Patrick to receive ‘the song and the fat.’ This part of the eastern MacDonnell Ranges features the magnificent Antulye, the shadow of the eagle’s wing which was Patrick’s totemic ancestor. So, far from the location of the event being arbitrary, it was crucially linked to Patrick. As shown in my painting, Aranye is singing over the stored fat of the tjabe, or witchetty grub whose essence has been reduced and added to cooking fat and housed in a tobacco tin. Such transmissions often occur in public spaces, with the kids in this instance as witnesses. Indeed, children are observed from their earliest years as having propensities for becoming healers; their sympathies and insightful actions being indicators of potential.

This article appeared in Vol 4 Issue 37 of The Art of Healing