2006 Obon - The Soul of Broome


by Helen Norton April 24, 2006

 Obon – 2006 Broome Exhibition - Cockatoo Gallery

by Helen Norton

Click here to see the Exhibition

The festival of Obon is conducted each year in Broome West Australia for the Japanese divers who died whilst being engaged in the search for pearls during the pearling hey days in the early 1900's.

During the Obon festival which might be literally interpreted as "Hanging upside down in Hell", the relatives and attendants put the offerings which were made at the divers gravesides in little paper boats and send them up the river or out to sea on the tide.  The Buddhist/Shinto belief is that this helps the spirits on their journey across to 'the other side'.  This beautiful ritual must be seen as a wonderful example of human compassion in action.  Upon reflection it can be seen how we use such rituals to contain our suffering condition. It matters not if we believe in 'the other side'.  You can or you might not.  What is vital is the intent towards the living. 

I lived in Broome for 13 years and always felt something was not being said in the artworks or how Broome was presented to the world as a destination of peculiar ambience.  The tourism industry is sucked and pushed, like the enormous tidal movements.  The emphasis is eternally on conflict.  Fights between developers and Aboriginal rights for land.  Fights between councils, residents, McDonalds burgers, fights between airlines and post offices or rights to open more nightclubs, but what else is there apart from new subdivisions and more blow-ins?  The transient nature of Broome is a well-known aspect.  It was always "Broome or Bust" that was written upon the pioneer Kombie vans.  Could it be that possibly even the new middle class outer suburban escapees from the cities cannot resist Broome for some reason which is often only seen as material reality but is in fact more about ‘the subtle’.  It most certainly is known as uplifting, and represents an escape from the petrifying, nullifying feeling of conforming to city life.  And yet Broome has more by-laws than many city councils.  There is a thirst in a hot remote town for proof of power among the local lawmakers, of that we are all sure once we live there for a while.  Being big frogs in small ponds draws us to transient border towns and remote Mecca’s of opportunity such as Broome presents itself.

There is much notice taken of the magnificent landscape, the turquoise seas, the deep alizarin and ochre pindan.  When the first rains come after a long dry season, and the very first drops hit the powdered or rock hard pindan, words cannot describe the incredible elegant aroma that rises from the warm earth - but what of 'the other'.  What of the ethereal aspect of Broome town as a cultural being in itself.

Broome's pearling culture is what Broome is built upon today.   Of course like any place in Australia, there is the inescapable Aboriginal culture, which danced with the land before the whiteys came; however the human culture of Broome itself as a 'culture' is made of many faces from around the world. What I was looking for was a way of enriching our perception of Broome from a spiritual perspective, other than Aboriginal alone.  The idea is not to get stuck in only acknowledging a natively born response as a truth of a places experiential potential spiritually, for this excludes the impermanent nature of human existence.  It excludes ‘interracial’ reality. We love each other no matter what colour or culture, and most of Broome’s real long-term residents are a result of this cultural inter-loving and blending.  If there is something sure about life, something truly permanent it is the impermanent nature of human culture. 

What is sure however is that humans will respond to this disturbing fact about life (the impermanence and its worry) with attempts at forming permanence through ritual. This act is of such poignant beauty which smacks of the compassionate way humans address the fear of their own transience. No culture escapes this, and no human is devoid of some sort of cultural response to his fear.

I wanted to portray something not so raw, not so primitive as the Aboriginal culture alone as being the grounding.  And yet one can't escape the dreaming in this examination, as the Aboriginal locals were such a huge part of the pearling towns foundation. The magnificent opportunity the aboriginal dreaming foundational stories bring to this meditation and reflection is a chance to see raw human psychological response to earth's challenges.  And then we see the more refined cultural models such as Buddhism that moved beyond form itself in many ways to deal with form and acknowledgment of suffering being behind the way form is used and perceived. 

All cultural spiritual containers begin as a raw and wise response to the human condition, as did the Vedic foundational aspect of Buddhism have Pagan aspects at some stage a long time ago in exactly the same way as the Aboriginal foundational dreaming has.  The unknown is imagined into the known form to contain fear of the unknown. 

Philosophy is the reflective response towards this. And yet philosophy is yet another attempt at containing the unknown only this time with the best objectivity the mind can muster while it still insists on ‘controlling’ the fear with reasoning. However, it has moved from just the panicked emotional response that dogmatic religion might be when it attempts to bring order to disorder through ritual taming mechanisms found in religious conformity devoid of questioning deeper aspects of itself. 

My aim is not to make a comparison between which of the models is better equipped or more efficient in the work of awareness and acceptance of mankind’s difficulties.  My point is that this is what humans do, and it seems that effective outcomes rely on all of this coming together beyond all of the comparisons but only after the comparisons are able to be made. Differentiation needs to be firstly made conscious about how we deal with our fears about life and death. Surely the greatest conflict we know! When we see the order of progressive emotion and thought, behind the evocation of containment rituals, something new and useful occurs. Insight!  When we do not see the order we practice rituals blindly and dutifully without responsibility, and we see a world full of duty and blind service to ideologies devoid of compassion towards life’s inmates – ourselves. What I am observing here is that  ‘ritual containment’ is useful as a compassionate action or response to the ‘human problem’ that demands some action given it is looked into for its original intent.

I wanted to work with bringing in more notice in how we see the top end of Australia and its closer relationship with Asian spiritual influence than for instance the more Christian orientated mindset of the Melbourne divers who came later to Broome with the introduction of the white Australia policy.

I was looking for something that did not ignore in the historical glance backwards what the culture of Broome was accessing as its core spiritual driving force.  The huge population of Asiatic’s cannot be ignored as they married and intermingled with the aboriginal locals.

All this to consider, and yet I had to stop somewhere and call up the ‘metaphor’ of this search as the boundary for me to work within as an artist, as there could be so much meandering in the details of correctness in all the cultures in Broome’s foundations.

The artist’s role (and many artists are in fact artisans and not philosophers) is similar to cultures role itself. Art is a cultural catchment area. The artist – whether she or he be the artisan type, working just with sensing image and form or the philosophical/spiritual artist who seeks deeper meaning and ways of negotiating that – both act responsibly when they attempt to encase human experience in a ‘consumable form’.   Consumable form is compassionate form.   The compassion manifests at whatever level the artist is working on.  Many people just love beautiful art with no messages or deeper aspects – and it may be the way of their being. Others need deeper cultural experience to hold their own perspectives, which enjoy further enquiry beyond simplicity.  The analogy of the artist and his art is clear to the approach towards cultural spiritual practice.

If one immerses themselves in judgment free comparatives it is however a necessary stage of weeding out the illusive and personally subjective aspects which give the appearance of duality or conflict between human cultural spiritual models. Art comes into this as well.  The so often touted “oneness” can be found through the understanding of what comparatives can reveal about underlying metaphors that unite all things and not before.  This cannot be grasped by mere idealisms and avoidance of un-pleasant conflict along the way.  Conflict eventually causes the resolution of conflict given we stop judging within the disturbances of conflict.   Conflict offers up the only chance we have of learning to accept paradox.   What better place to examine this consciousness making fact than in a literal sense in a multi-cultural town full of conflicts?

There seems to be no shortcut to a renounced state of contentment and peace in our world of suffering realities.  If one however takes a shortcut, one may arrive through resignation (giving up because its too hard, too hard), at a place of apparent peace often.  But the stillness will be pockmarked with a sense of something still not done, and there might be far less ease. All is “still” as long as no one comes past THIS LINE.  There is a limit to the peace when it is gained by simply barring out conflicts gift and potential for fear of it disturbing our apparent ‘peaceful state’.

The long road of working through to find unity via tracking the unifying factor in the conflict, the purpose of paradox, seems to be the sort of approach that may eventually lead to a greater sense of peaceful stillness in the individual where there are no longer any ‘hard lines’ to have to maintain and guard. Fear of life and all its miseries diminishes into acceptance of life and all its miseries.  Ironically this is the most we can do for peace. If we deny life is miserable, how can we address what we deny is reality about human life?  If we long for harmony, we always invite the paradox of dis-harmony as we demonise anything that appears other than harmonious to our own subjective reality, which may not be our neighbours.  Thus we create war through a longing for no war.

Its as if age and experience combined with intense effort to withhold judgment as long as possible is the way of renunciation, no matter which type of character we are.

Most of the written and visual accounts of Broome are approached through various personal subjective experiences, or what appear to be very well organised data or photographic collections of facts that manifested.  Very little has been done on the asking what is the good of the ‘soul’ of Broome.  Much is spoken of the dark manifestation of greed, lawlessness, and transience, which has ironic similarities to the ‘undertow’ existing in reality for Broome town and many other places today including our daily dealings with work and personal relationships not to mention our dealings with the earth itself.

In the hunt for an example of peace manifesting from the conflict of Broome, I pondered the distinctive nature of the Japanese divers. They were always seen as 'the best'.  I wondered what gave them an advantage over the others in a completely foreign landscape and environment to their homeland.  There was something stoic and steady in their sense of self as one read the accounts of their presence in the town.  No matter how ‘out of order’ Broome became, the Japanese divers seemed to be in order.  I discovered or perceived this special quality to be in the subtle aspect of their nature, laced into their spirit.  This led me to examine how they 'contained' their inner core of being human.  The nature of their spiritual beliefs was at this core. 

My recent work during the completion of the Masters Degree in Analytical Depth Psychology had already led me to an in depth study and research of the human psychological motive behind all spiritual or religious foundations across the world.  It was not a surprise to find the Buddhist/Shinto connection to these men and women, which gave them a different perspective or respect for the environment they worked within, and how they themselves connected to it through defiance, compliance and then acceptance as a part of it. 

Land man walked on the bottom of the ocean through defiance, land man paid with pain and death through compliance.  The matter of fact about this is addressed with a response as ritual acceptance such as the Obon ritual offers to the living while it is honouring the dead.

My intent in this work is to shine a little light on how we might experience a journey to Broome, other than on Cable Beach or in the Pearl Shops buying the object that was the outcome.  I choose to dig a little deeper and find something of the human inner experience, which leaves very few trails and yet leaves them everywhere should we choose to see differently. 

What is the soul of 'BROOME' as a town, as a culture?

After some 6 years living away from Broome I feel I can conduct some ceremonial 'offerings' from the distance of reflection, but not sentiment, as it is more like a warming compassion about Broome’s soul or inner heartbeat.  The notion in "Obon" the painting is that 'the paper boat' returned with this mysterious ghostly divers form instead of 'making it across the seas to the 'other world'.  It is an image of things having gone wrong in some ways, but it is intended to stir the curiosity. The image I had was that this little boat got wedged on shore too early and the suffering diver emerged from the watery grave.

Helen Norton © 26th July 2006 (Fremantle)

 




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