Patrick Waterhouse, Restricted Images – Made With the Warlpiri of Central Australia

JTF (just the facts): Published in September 2018 by SPBH Editions (here). Hardcover, 208 pages, with 131 black and white photographs, many covered with dot painting. In an edition of 1500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Patrick Waterhouse is a British artist working at the intersection, photography, drawing, and graphic design. In 2015, he won the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize for Ponte City, a ground-breaking project looking at a controversial 54-story apartment building in Johannesburg and its residents, which he worked on with the South African photographer Mikhael Subotzky (the photobook is reviewed here). Waterhouse has always been interested in history, and particularly in the various ways it can be told. In 2011, he visited Australia for the first time, and as he encountered the Aboriginal communities there, he become intrigued by the way their story had been shaped by photography.

That visit became a project, and ultimately took form as a photobook entitled Restricted Images: Made with the Warlpiri of Central Australia. But instead of looking in from the outside, Waterhouse envisioned the project in collaboration with the Indigenous community. The cooperative aspect of the effort was essential to Waterhouse, and as the book opens, he mentions by name the many people who contributed, all thirty nine of them (their names appear again on the back cover).

Waterhouse sets the context and intention of the project by referencing an anthropological study of the central Australian tribes, entitled The Native Tribes of Central Australia, that was published in 1899 by Francis J. Gillen and Baldwin Spencer. The book presented the customs and traditions of the peoples in depth, and the text was illustrated with many photographs, documenting various rituals and ceremonies. While in the time of its publication, the book received plenty of attention, today it is obvious that it also invaded the privacy and trespassed on the cultural protocols of its sitters, either accidentally or negligently. Most notably, reproductions and photographs of deceased Indigenous people are absolutely prohibited by Aboriginal cultural beliefs. Over the past century, anthropologists and institutions have taken measures to ensure that cultural sensitivity is better respected, and now, colonial-era photographs are restricted to avoid showing subjects that can infringe on cultural rules and standards.

Waterhouse spent over fours years in Australia, taking photographs in the Yeundumu and Nyirrpi Aboriginal communities. After making black and white prints of the images, he went back to Australia, where he worked with members of the same communities at the Warlukurlangu Art Centre. Founded in 1985, the Centre is one of the oldest Aboriginal-owned art centers in Central Australia. The photographs were amended by members of the community using the technique of dot painting, an integral part of Australian Indigenous culture. Aboriginal dot painting is used for body painting, for ceremonies, and for symbolic patterns engraved on rocks and wood. The collaboration gave the members of the community agency and ownership of their own images, so they could decide what could be seen and how. Waterhouse calls the resulting artworks “restricted images” to emphasize this intentional process.

The first image in the book shows three figures standing along a wall, two of them holding brown paper bags, and another is sitting on a chair. Each figure in this casual scene is painted in a unique style, carefully following the contours of the silhouettes. The painting varies in the use of colors, the type and arrangement of dots, and their sizes, as each artist has his or her own story to tell. More than decoration or simple interruption, they are re-interpretations of Waterhouse’s images, using a symbolic language to share hidden stories. While we might not grasp the full meaning of each pattern in these paintings, all of them are visually vibrant artworks.

Another image shows a figure standing outside, playfully flexing his arm muscles, “this way” reads the caption; it is followed by a photo of a person pointing his finger toward the sky, “that way”. Both photographs are painted in a similar manner – horizontal lines of dots, alternating between three colors, fill in the space. A different image is a close up side portrait; it takes up most of the page, and that scale allows us to notice all the lines of dots in light blue, green, red and yellow filing the space and forming shapes, with locks of hair carefully traced with lines of yellow dots. While the more dynamic postures of the first portraits bring in a sense of magic, the stillness and elaborate painting techniques of latter connect to a more spiritual side.

A few spreads feature grids of multiple portraits, alternating between dark silhouettes and painted portraits, both frontal and from the side. This arrangement highlights the diversity and detail of the techniques and approaches being used; it is also filled with obscured faces, making our reading of them inaccessible. As a result, specific individuals become stand-ins for something more universal.

All of the portraits were taken outside, showing members of the community doing some work, tending plants, sitting outside their houses, or simply posing for a portrait. Some of the artworks obviously connect to the philosophy of “daydreaming”, a complex term referring to the creation of the world, where the interrelation of people and things is central, and spirits are transformed into trees, rocks, or part of the landscape, creating sacred places. Even in everyday scenes, the painters have added layers of lyrical mysticism and sparkling energy that give the mundane extra meaning. There are multiple images of kids playing: one of them shows four girls climbing the fence with acrobatic ease. Another full spread depicts a figure on the ground with arms wide open; light blue lines follow inside the silhouette, creating U-shapes like the whorls of fingerprints. The last image in the book captures a child playing with a rugby ball, and Waterhouse’s shadow falls on the foreground, showing an artist who understands his humble place in this community.

In terms of design, Restricted Images is a straightforward book, without elaborate construction or production elements. A tipped-in image of a figure holding a stick (it is captioned “Looking for Honey Ants”) appears on the cover, with the title underneath. Some photographs in the book are full spread, other have more white space around them, and few spreads feature multiple portraits. Inside the book, the texts at the beginning and at the end are printed on unassuming brownish paper. The captions are placed at the end of the book and also give ownership to particular artists for each restricted image. The pared down design ensures that nothing competes with the elaborate overpainting, but the experience with book would however benefit from a better binding to allow the book to lay flat.

While the collaborative images in this book create an entrancing visual narrative, the concept behind the two-sided photographic project is more remarkable. Waterhouse’s effort opens up an important and complicated conversation about who is being represented in photographs, who is making the images, and how this representation is framed. Awareness, sensitivity, and humility are the hallmarks of Waterhouse’s approach here, and these deliberate artistic steps back allow the Warlpiri communities to symbolically regain control. The result is a set of works that feel appropriately balanced and measured, where the give-and-take of photographic image making is made mutual, respectful, and complementary.

Collector’s POV: Patrick Waterhouse does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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One comment

  1. Pete /

    Wow! Remarkable.

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