Nici Cumpston Attesting

These are highly political works, confronting issues of sustainability and the impact on a culture that occupied the place for thousands of years.

Odette Kelada

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Nici Cumpston
Ringbarked 2008
archival print on canvas, hand-coloured with pencil and watercolour
75 x 205 cm
courtesy the artist and Gallerysmith, Melbourne

Nici Cumpston’s 2008 Attesting series consists of eight striking images of trees, roots and limbs that are animated with spirit yet, physically, are only remnants of trees that have died. It is this movement, between the living and the dead, that Cumpston captures so skilfully in her images. This tension between past and present landscapes offers a meditation on loss and decay whilst brimming with a poetic sensibility that is neither stagnant nor empty. If anything, there is a poignancy about the fullness of emptiness, the boundaries along which the most bereft of moments exist alongside a heightened sense of living; reminiscent of Keats’ ‘Ode on Melancholy’, where Beauty must die ‘aching Pleasure nigh, turning to Poison while the bee-mouth sips’. Attesting is therefore a most apt title for this exhibition as there is a sense of bearing witness, of testimony to a passage of time and change wrought through the landscape Cumpston has chosen. Panoramic in scale, most of the works are archival prints on canvas, hand-coloured with watercolour and pencil. The effect of the colouring technique imbues the works with a mythic quality and is reminiscent of 19th to early 20th century methods of hand colouring black and white photographs to heighten their realism.

The sites Cumpston presents hold great significance in themselves. All the works are of Nookamka Lake in the Murray-Darling River system. Cumpston has been documenting the changes on what was once one of the largest fresh water lakes in Australia, now bearing the effects of a decision in 2007 to stop the flow of water from the Murray River. The lake is dry; leaving exposed what was hidden below. The leached landscape shows its bones in the surreal fragments that rise now to the surface. In the compelling image Ringbarked 2008, the base of a tree is suspended in air, held aloft only by tenuous ghostly tendrils of root systems that appear far too fragile to support the decapitated stump.

As a Barkindji woman, Cumpston is connected to the riverland through her heritage. The sites here bear witness to Aboriginal stories and habitation, speaking of a history where the exploitation of the environment and of the Indigenous peoples cannot be denied. These are highly political works, confronting issues of sustainability and the impact on a culture that occupied the place for thousands of years. As Cumpston notes in her artist’s statement, many of the trees that remain in the area show scars depicting canoes, shields or coolamons. Her works highlight the significance of these traces left as the waterline recedes. The presence of ring trees, where the branches have been bound when the trees were young to form a ring shape, are evidence of some form of ’sign’. While the reasons for these ’signs’ are varied and, with the exception of speaking to the Elders, information on the practice limited, Cumpston states they may demarcate places of abundance, as they appear near areas that were sites of food and shelter. Now the ’signs’ exist in desolate terrain, the antithesis of this meaning.

Nici Cumpston
Keeper 2008
inkjet print on Hahnemuhle paper
140 x 60 cm
edition of 3
courtesy the artist and Gallerysmith, Melbourne

Keeper 2008 is a powerful work portraying a hollowed trunk, a birthing place. A branch positioned at the forefront of the photo appears as a figure crossing the space, caught in a momentary haunted gesture. But this is all in the eye of the viewer. What can be seen, what remains unseen, is a matter of reflection and imagination, much like shapes in clouds. What is so strong about these works is that no matter what one sees or feels there is no escaping the stories and ‘aliveness’ of the imagery. The trees are vigorous protagonists as they extend, reach, witness, writhe — stalks, bark, earth, and limbs personified in a drama that engages and delves beyond the ordinary, into apocalyptic or biblical realms. In Cold Weather 2008, the body of a Murray cod decaying on the shore, part skeleton, part flesh, with its massively proportioned mouth agape, is both terrifying and disconcertingly beautiful. It is hard to walk away from such an image. The balance achieved between the stillness, lucidity and movement in these works ensure that they linger in the memory, as I also felt the desire to linger in the spaces Cumpston invites us to inhabit; intense yet gentle as a dream, far too real in their depiction of a thirsty country.

Nici Cumpston
30 January — 2 March 2009
Gallerysmith, Melbourne



  1. Mary O'Brien commented on September 15, 2009 | Permalink

    I was moved to see the series of photos at the Indigenous Art display in Perth. I work with trying to bring rest to landscapes being highly damaged by livestock grazing in the southwest US (in the state of Utah). I am wondering wither Nici Cumpston has a video of her works, or some way I might be able to bring her images to people in southwestern United States.

  2. Nici Cumpston commented on November 14, 2009 | Permalink

    Hi Mary
    I would be happy to send you some information, there is a download available as an MP4 file on the Artistspeak program of the University of South Australia website. Or you could contact me directly via my email. I am always happy to share information. Thank you for your comments.

  3. Glenys Marriott commented on July 2, 2010 | Permalink

    Dear Nici
    I just wanted to leave a note to say I love your work - we are related. Will I get to meet you at the CUMPSTON reunion in January?
    Best wishes
    Glenys in North Yorkshire, England

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