Text and poems for Hossein

Written for a catalogue for Hossein Valamanesh, Sherman Galleries, Sydney 1999

Fingers of memory

pre-dawn wakeful
listening in the silence
for rain
to burst
like stones on the roof

listening for magpies
awake also
and watching the sky for light
to echo the movement
and sing it
back and forth
across the sky

a creation song for morning
a song for the sun, for the day, and for being

everyday the same as the last
everyday the only one

The human finger touches sand and makes a dot. This mark is like a footprint or the tracks made by a bird or snake. It is like the mark that rain makes, both purposeful and random, it tracks thought the way a track traces movement. It is a first movement historically and individually, linking the present and the past. ‘I am here’ it says and then straightaway ‘I was here’.

The human finger touches fogged glass and makes a mark, writes a word, draws a circle, joins two squares to make a cube.

Point, line, plane. These are elements of the creative credo of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky and the approach to drawing taught at the Bauhaus which is still used to teach the idea of three dimensions in Western systems of drawing. A point is one dimension, a line creates two dimensions while the plane introduces the idea of volume or the third dimension. This graphic magic is revealed to us as children through geometry and thus we learn a way of measuring the earth, geo – earth, metry – measure. We learn to draw a solid universe on paper, spiralling stairs, boxes in boxes, polygons and arcs, spheres and cones.

In Aboriginal painting from the Kimberley to the Western Desert, from Utopia to Arnhem Land, whether the marks are made on the body, on the ground, on bark, on board, on canvas or on paper, the dot or point is not about dimensions as it is in Euclidean geometry. The dimensions the dot touches on and its purposes are multivalent and polysemic. It can be rain, hail, sand, eggs, trees, stars…it can be more than one of these things, it can be all of them at the same time.

Pattern can disguise knowledge, clouding clarity and enmeshing information, which is already coded, into a matrix of dots to hide a too easy reading. Or it can be a way of inculcating power, lending the painted surface the brilliance of the plumage of a bird, the scales of a fish or lizard, the shimmer of water. Dotting and cross-hatching produce rhythmic structures which both contain and resolve complex tensions. As anthropologists Peter Sutton and Howard Morphy tell us in reference to North East Arnhem Land art: “It is the quality of brilliance that is associated in Yolgnu art with ancestral power and with beauty. The brilliance, the Yolgnu say, makes the gut (the seat of the emotions) go happy.”

In his recent work Hossein Valamanesh is making objects for contemplation by responding to the patterns formed by plant life, patterns which we see red on our eyelids when we are in the sun and close our eyes, patterns which we see on our arms when it is warm and the skin becomes transparent, the veins visible. Forking, branching, dividing, meeting, joining, segmenting, all these organic forms he brings into measured and circumscribed rectangular spaces.

In Iran/Persia, Valamanesh’s birthplace, the idea of paradise as an enclosed garden is imitated by carpets filled with stylized designs of birds and flowers, trees and water. For the artist the knots on the underside of a Persian carpet, as units making up a pattern, have an affinity with the dots of Aboriginal painting and, like them, combine function with meaning.

Valamanesh’s works in this exhibition include gridded dots of black, red and yellow sands made in homage to the use of the dot by Western Desert artists, as the artist reflects on his brief stay in Papunya in 1974 when he observed the Aboriginal painters at work. When he asked if he could do a dot painting he was told: “Yes, but tell your own story.”

Sometimes after I have been working in the garden
and I close my eyes at night to go to sleep
I still see what I saw when I was gardening
I see the mandala rosette forms
of green tap-rooted weeds
floating eidetic onto my closed eyes
Even if I have not been thrusting a pronged tool
into the soil to unroot and remove these plants
I still see a succession of them rising out of the darkness
towards me in a peaceful and beautiful way
Are they the ghosts of the plants that I have murdered
or have I released some image bank that is stirred
by proximity to soil and green things
In these quiet moments
something has entered me
on the border
between the sky and the land
kneeling and touching
the horizon


Stephanie Radok

talking about country, Museum of Economic Botany 2002

Talking about country: people and plants
a celebration of migration and local knowledge

The paintings on show here are made with watercolour paint made in Australia, brushes made in China and paper made in France. They are painted by a person who was born in Melbourne, then grew up in North America and Europe and Australia.

There are 256 paintings of which 85 are on show. Altogether there is a painting for every country in the world.

The plants in the paintings are not the botanic or floral emblems of the countries.

Rather each painting contains an image of a plant or a part of a plant that is found in South Australia.

The point of this contrariness at this moment in Australian history, a time of intense reflection and discussion about migration, is to make several points:

1. all countries have native plants that are loved by their people.

2. often these plants migrate in one way or another and are found in other countries than their place of origin.

3. the movement of plants around the world has some similarities with the movement of people around the world.

4. plants preceded all peoples on the earth and all names for them, and all classifications and taxonomies. In the beginning was the world, not the word. Can we imagine a time when plants and countries had no names?

5. a plant and a person from almost every country in the world can now be found in South Australia, and not only in the Botanic Gardens.

6. a lot of the plants we love are native to Australia, a lot are plants that have migrated and thrived here.

7. the indigenous plants and those who have come in successive waves of migration form the country we live in and make it the place it is now.

8. it is a place that is now aware and appreciative of the Aboriginal people and their cultures but also positive about cultures brought here over the last two hundred years. And the new ones being formed every day.

A recent book about landscape and language in Australia says that:
�Country� is a key word of Aboriginal English. It is now used all over Aboriginal Australia to name the place where a person belongs. Country may be either mother or grandfather, which grows them up and is grown up by them. These kinship terms impose mutual responsibility of caring and keeping upon people and land.

�Country� is also a key word of Australian English, though it may not mean precisely the same thing that it does in Aboriginal English, it is nevertheless a vital part of people�s understandings of identity and belonging. Also with increasing familiarity some of the meanings of it in Aboriginal English are moving into Australian English.

�What country do you come from?�
�What country did your parents come from?�
These questions are commonly asked in Australia and people are proud of and interested in the complexity of their cultural backgrounds. These marvelous mixtures and fertile hybrids come together to make Australia a complex place where thought and creativity are enlivened by recent immigrants as much as by less recent immigrants.

The current discussions and events surrounding migration to Australia have many troubling aspects but the mixture and layering of people in Australia is so far advanced that it cannot be legislated against or bullied out of happening. However unpleasant some aspects of the journey, culture and country mixing in Australia is irreversible, it is here to stay.

The paintings in talking about country put together the names of countries with images of plants to assert a kind of equivalence among plants, peoples, cultures and countries.

There are many languages to talk about countries, those of politics, trade, science, religion, history. This artwork seeks to introduce or remind us of another language to talk about country, a language of celebration and affection, a language of joy.

Botany, the study of plants, gives names to plants and organizes them into families and species. As the collection on show in the Museum of Economic Botany demonstrates, the economic uses of plants have been a major driving force in the study of them.

The scientific approach to the world is to tabulate and categorize it.

It begins with the idea of naming and �discovering � the whole world (which was never lost) in order to get a sense of control over the world as well as being able to talk about it.

And yet botanical description of plants do not encompass all the meanings of plants.

What escapes is a sense of the aliveness, what Dylan Thomas called the green fuse, the life force, the energy that flows through the plant and gives grace and vitality to its forms. It is this variety and richness as seen in plants that these paintings celebrate by making the plants comparable to people and human cultures.

South Australia is both a unique place and a place in which parts of the rest of the world may be found.

Thinking globally and acting locally, we get a perception of ourselves as citizens of the world as well as treasuring our local knowledge.

The works celebrate the journeying of plants and peoples, migrations and local knowledges traveling around the globe and coming to rest, in South Australia.

Stephanie Radok, March 2002


An exhibition of works on paper at the Museum of Economic Botany, Adelaide Botanic Gardens, March-October 2002

Words for Country, language and landscape and language in Australia
edited by Tim Bonyhady and Tom Griffiths
University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2002