Mother Courage – Mid-Week Review

By Maya Borom
Mother Courage

By Maya Borom.

Warwick Thornton’s Mother Courage is an installation co-commissioned by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and the five-yearly modern and contemporary art exhibition dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany. Thornton is best known as the winner of the Camera d’Or for best first feature at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival for Samson & Deliah – a story of two Aboriginal teenagers seeking to escape the confines of their remote community.

Born and raised in Alice Springs, Thornton has had a long association with Australian film, as both director and cinematographer and it is these strong associations that play out so successfully in the installation itself. His ability to share a story visually coupled with music by way of Aboriginal radio is powerful and thought provoking – it encourages the viewer to challenge their own understandings of community and family, and take meaning from the piece as both a work of art and a statement piece on self-determination. Thornton himself has said his own inspiration came from the 1939 play ‘Mother Courage and her Children’ by Bertolt’s Brecht, where the central protagonist is uprooted and sells merchandise in an attempt to survive within society during war.

… Thornton spoke of the forced isolation that many women from rural areas were subjected to, removed from their immediate communities and art centres and forced to adopt nomadic lifestyles in order to ensure survival.

The installation itself is made up of an old van positioned in the centre of the gallery. Loud music projects outwards to the visitor as they catch a glimpse of the back profiles of the Mother Courage character and her grandson. It’s clearly evident that the van provides not only remedial shelter from the elements but acts as a place of business and provides the small familial unit with their home – in effect their own mobile community. Mother Courage paints while her grandson looks on in the background eating and listening to the radio. Surrounding them are familial artifacts that go towards making the van a home.

In an interview with ACMI curator Ulanda Blair about the piece, Thornton spoke of the forced isolation that many women from rural areas were subjected to, removed from their immediate communities and art centres and forced to adopt nomadic lifestyles in order to ensure survival. Selling artwork gave women the means to be self-sufficient and Thornton has captured the ability of the Mother Courage character to maintain her sense of self and achievement in the face of such adversity.

By including the teenager, the grandson, in the piece Thornton makes a strong statement about the importance of generational relationships – within the Aboriginal community it is the elders who pass on important cultural and social understandings. The grandchild watches his grandmother paint and, in doing so, becomes enmeshed in his own culture – no matter how physically removed he may be.

Thornton’s work traditionally features strong female characters and Mother Courage is no exception. Ultimately, Mother Courage encourages the viewer to undertake a self-reflection on their own biases and prejudices and challenges the viewer’s perceptions of what is occurring in the van. Some may see it as a statement piece about dysfunctionality found within some Aboriginal communities, but others may see it as a statement about strength and endurance.

Mother Courage is on exhibition at ACMI until Friday 21 June. For its final weekend, 22-23 June it will be relocated to the Federation Square Atrium.

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