On the road with ROA

I watch ROA through my binoculars against the backdrop of the Pilbara landscape. The natural habitat of this Belgium born artist, are the urban streetscape of big cities. A dense and compact environment of steel and concrete, that can seem claustrophobic, when compared to the arcing sky and open plains of the Pilbara, with its feeling of infinite space that overwhelms and dwarfs everything within it.

For many hours, our four -wheel drive has lumbered along a rutted earthen track, and the highway has vanished long ago. We are deep in Ngarluma country, which, runs, between Maitland River up to the Peawah River and inland to the Chichester Ranges over the West Pilbara. Out here, it’s difficult to fathom the industry that is roaring around us; the towns absorbing new workers and the frenzy of construction to feed the appetite of the mining industry.

Although this is ROA’s first excursion into the outback, he doesn’t fear walking into the wilderness that unfolds and unfolds all around us. Our guide, a senior Ngarluma Aboriginal man, has observed ROA’s sense of exploration and adventure. ‘I don’t want to be tracking no white fella’s today,’ he warns me.

But, ROA is used to exploring foreign places, having spent the past two and half years travelling and painting tirelessly. ROA explains that he is not attached to this work he leaves behind. ‘It’s like an exorcism; it’s not mine any more, it belongs to everyone,’ he says, ‘there is always a quality of impermanence to painting on the street. Anyone could come along; the wall could be buffed, the site bulldozed.

More than the habitual behavior of a nomadic, renegade artist, the extreme environment of the Pilbara suits ROA’s proclivity to push the limits, to rebel against constraints, as is evident in the demanding scale and location of much of his work, which, features animals, at various stages in the cycle of life, from decay to procreation.

ROA is always prepared to explore, to scope new walls, jump over fences, run, if he has too. As he explains; ‘Street art is just art, but there is a spirit to it. The way you work within the structure that you choose to paint on, the way you play with architecture, and, always this feeling that you don’t have much time, that you may have to leave. This gives it a unique energy.’

Through the prickly spinifex, I can see him now, turning a skull over in his hands, not only with anthropomorphic curiosity, but with awe. This is not a macabre fascination with death, but rather, part of his interest in the natural world.

This nature fetish goes beyond that of an avid biologist. His gaze is tuned into nature, and it’s such a strong part of how he sees the world, that over the few days I’ve been travelling with him, he’s influenced my own way of looking. I’ve become more aware of the prettiness of the small red finches that dart around us; the osprey’s circling in the sky above.

In a similar way, the Ngarluma elders who take us through their country reveal a depth and complexity to the land, so that, what appears to be a vast emptiness becomes rich with a cultural, social, and sacred ecology of stories, myth, knowledge, and histories.

ROA is particularly taken with the engraving on a non-descript outcrop of rocks, of a Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger a species that is now extinct. He muses about the way humans destroy our environment, and with it, other living things. ‘Humans are the same everywhere, we know it’s not good how we live, but we do it anyway.’

As we traverse through Ngarluma country, there are frequent stops to pick bush lolly, or Gardangu, a glucose laden sap from the kanji bush, it appears just before summer and is a signal that the heat is on its way. We visit a thalu or ritual increase site for Moorumburri beetles that has a special ritual attached to it, known by only a few custodians.

We also explore abandoned places of industrial and human waste, old station sites, which have become surreal installations of decay, and neglect, full of indecipherable stuff that is now, the colour of earth-toned rust from the erosive effects of time, and the force of sun and wind.

We pick through spaces chaotic with random objects that have been left behind: old tools, fans, a toaster, car wrecks, caravans, cabinets, bones. To me, this is evidence of how inhuman and destructive this environment can be, a hard-edged, dangerous place, to ROA, this detritus offer the possibility of renewal and transformation, that he incorporates into his gallery work.

At one such place, ROA paints a cute, giant size, marsupial; that looks so alive, at any moment you expect it to spring off into the bush. Amongst this industrial graveyard, this act of creation is a celebration of life, a symbol of hope and new beginnings, a reminder of nature, and the life that dwells within it, even amidst the carnage brought about by humans.

This experience in the Pilbara informed ROA’s exhibition, Paradox, which was presented by FORM and Skalitzers Contemporary Art, at the FORM Gallery in Perth, from October 24th, 2011 – January 13th, 2012.

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FORM is an independent, not for profit organisation dedicated to advocating for and developing creativity in Western Australia.