Written by Dr Christine Nicholls
Born in Adelaide in 1963, Nici Cumpston, who is of Afghan, English, Irish and Barkindji (also spelled Paakantji) Aboriginal heritage, is a descendant of the Darling River people of northern NSW. She is also culturally affiliated with the River Murray people and lived for some years at Berri in the South Australian Riverland.
A photographic visual artist, curator and former academic, Cumpston worked in the Photographics Department of the South Australian Police Force between 1990 and 1996, processing slide film relating to crime scenes, road accidents and forensic investigations. This proved to be a germinal experience for the young photographer. In a lecture given to students at the University of South Australia in October 2008, Cumpston revealed that this experience led to her taking, thereafter, an ‘investigative’ and ‘documentary’ approach in her own photography. So even when photographing scenes of great natural beauty, in a sense Cumpston takes a forensic approach. While working with the Police Department she also honed her technical skills and developed proficiency in processing and printing both colour and black and white films.
The major themes and sub-themes of Nici Cumpston’s photography relate to the current parlous state of the Murray-Darling river system, its lakes and tributaries and attendant ecology, and to the attempted erasure of prior Indigenous presence on those sites and the cultural amnesia accompanying this.
Cumpston’s photographic art is founded on a paradox. On the one hand she sees the ravaged eco-systems of the Murray-Darling Basin as ‘evidence’ akin to that of a crime scene, and draws attention to the appalling effects of pollution and salination, the mass drownings of ancient red river gums caused by the re-routing of the river and the building of locks and weirs, and the river’s dangerously low, still-receding water levels. At the same time Nici Cumpston’s photographs are works of haunting beauty. Her camera seeks – and finds – the aesthetic loveliness that once inhabited the saline-ringed, dead and dying trees and distorted shapes that she portrays in her photographs. She also focuses on the sometimes scarcely readable marks and signs left on these desolate landscapes by former Indigenous occupants.
In a recent body of work, featuring panoramic views of the dying Lake Bonney (known as ‘Nookamka’ by the local Indigenous people), near Barmera, notwithstanding the post-apocalyptic nature of the scenes that she portrays, Cumpston shows that this was once a place of great natural beauty. Creating art from devastation and loss, Cumpston’s abiding concern with the signs and markings left behind by prior Indigenous occupants is also forefronted in these splendid, but chilling works. A selection of works from this series of photographs was exhibited in 2008 at the University of South Australia Gallery as part of Shards, a group exhibition. The remains of very old ‘ring trees’, and the oval scars on ancient trees from which Indigenous people fashioned wooden implements bear witness to those people who once lived, loved, worked and died on this site. The place has become quite literally a gravesite for people and more recently for natural species.
A significant part of Cumpston’s artistic practice is her technique of hand-colouring her photographs with transparent watercolours and pencils. It is largely through her use of this technique that she transforms the ugliness of the environmental wreckage that lays bare in front of the camera’s lens, into aesthetically compelling imagery. In this regard, high-profile photographer Kate Breakey, one of Nici Cumpston’s teachers at the North Adelaide School of Art, who introduced her to this technique, has been an important mentor. Breakey’s ideas and practices continue to influence Cumpston’s work.
Landmark group exhibitions in Cumpston’s career include Doubts, her first exhibition held at the Adelaide Fringe Festival in 1988; Three Views of Kaurna Territory, at Artspace in the Adelaide Festival Centre in 1998; Nakkondi/Look – Indigenous Australians 1999-2000, which originated as a collaborative project with non-Indigenous photographer Andrew Dunbar and culminated in a tour to the 8th Festival of Pacific Arts in Noumea in 2000; Weaving the Murray, also in 2000, in which Cumpston participated as a weaver and as the photographer documenting the weaving practices and objects created by Indigenous and non-Indigenous women; Reflections, her first solo show held at Tandanya in 2002; Holy Holy Holy, at the Flinders University Art Museum 2004; another group show at Sydney’s Cooee Gallery in 2006; Power and Beauty, a group show at Heide Museum of Modern Art in 2007; Attesting, at Gallerysmith Melbourne, in 2009, and more.
Over the years Cumpston’s profile as an artist has grown steadily, and more recently, exponentially. In 2006 she was invited to participate in the Xstrata Coal Emerging Indigenous Art Award at the Queensland Art Gallery. In 2007 she won the People’s Choice Award for the work she entered in the River Murray Art Prize. Her work has been acquired by a number of prestigious institutions including the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection in the University of Virginia (USA); the Adelaide Festival Centre, where her diptych Reflections is on permanent display in the foyer; the South Australian Museum; the Flinders University Art Museum and others, and has also been acquired by a number of private collections. Nici Cumpston’s most signifi cant commission to date, titled Flooded Gum and Eckert’s Creek, Murray River National Park (2005), is on permanent display in the Commonwealth Law Court Foyer in Adelaide’s Angas Street.
Christopher Isherwood once famously said, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking”. Nici Cumpston too is a camera, shutter wide open, but more than that, a visual artist who actively and thoughtfully records and attests to our less-than-impressive times, registering her deep concern about the probably terminal ecological state of our river systems, while paying homage to her Indigenous forebears.
Christine Nicholls would like to acknowledge a lecture given by Nici Cumpston at the University of South Australia 28/10/08, from which many of the insights in this essay were derived.
First published in the Craftsouth Bulletin, Issue 6, April-June 2009.