Vanessa Russ at work in her studio. Image: Eva FernandezThe space between the pigeon-holes

Vanessa Russ by Ara Jansen
Vanessa Russ knows that every piece of art she creates tells a story. She also knows that while viewers can appreciate what they see, or even love it undeniably, they won’t ever know exactly what she was thinking.

 “I want to use images that are not so representational,” Vanessa explains. “I’m trying to find a way to say something without saying it.

“While a river might leave memory in the form of Pandanus leaves in high trees or a watermark on a rock wall, its presence is a mere memory once the flood is gone. Yet as an artist, how do you represent that mark, that waterline?

“It would be easy to draw a tree and associate it with a place or a story but what I’m trying to do is see that the water running down to the river is what provides the tree with life.”

A painter of an East Kimberley mob, Vanessa now lives in Perth where she’s working on her PhD in art history at UWA, studying the Art Gallery of New South Wales and its relationship to Aboriginal art. She has also started researching the Holmes à Court collection for a project.

“We don’t seem to look into what collections mean anymore,” Vanessa says. “They seem to operate on their own rather than us considering what they mean in context against Australia and Australian art.”

Vanessa has lived in London and worked and studied in Sydney for almost 15 years. She hopes to submit her PhD in April and get back to the work of making art.

“As a child my first exposure to art was rock painting. I never knew what a gallery was, but I knew what painting was and had a thoroughly different context for it.”

Vanessa believes Aboriginal artists like herself live in a ‘third space’ – not the traditional Aboriginal art space, but drawing from two places without even knowing it. Those two places are traditional culture and western culture.

“I think theorists really struggle with that because they don’t realise how you draw on your lived experience without being conscious of it. Only when you retro-fit an explanation do you realise what it means.

"As an artist you draw on everything you know and I draw from the experiences of two different worlds.”

Vanessa feels strongly that this mix has the potential to give birth to new ideas and possibilities which can move the art into that third space.

She feels one of the biggest problems in art criticism is trying to understand Aboriginal culture from a western perspective. It can create stereotypes and a belief that one style, such as dot painting, is the only or ultimate Indigenous art form.

“Though this should never devalue the importance of dot painting for those artists who practice it…its place is still important. But art schools have a bad habit of pushing people to such practices.

“People seem to have such opinions on what it (art) should be rather than just letting artists create.” 

Ara Jansen has been a journalist for more than two decades. She loves a good story and has spent most of her career writing about the arts, which constantly fascinate her.

This article featured in the Artsource Newsletter, Autumn 2013.