Jenny Farrell reviews Provenance, by Kate Thompson
As Elliot Fielding struggles in an Australian hospital to piece together his fragmented memory following serious head injury, the reader embarks with him on the road to make sense of his life before. The narrative delves into the realities of Aboriginal life, through the fictional Warlpiri community in the central Australian Tanami desert, and indigenous art.
Elliot, through whose lens this world unfolds, is an English doctor, come to work in the remote community, inspired by a previous visit to the red sands of the desert. With little knowledge of this society, he takes up a post in a medical centre for Aboriginal people, and complications unfold the more involved he becomes in the lives of his patients.
The Western reader expects to encounter alcoholism, mental illness and other manifestations of indigenous cultures being robbed of their land, culture, and livelihood by colonial ‘civilisation’. Kate Thompson, however, focuses primarily on Aboriginal art as the language of the native Australians. It is apparent from this fascinating novel that she has personal knowledge of her subject.
Sensitive to the realities of the indigenous people, the author never wholly departs from the Western outsider point of view of Elliot, never attempts to speak as an Aboriginal. Choosing a character who slowly learns something of the native Australians’ lives, and later their art, allows her to express a growing understanding of their culture. And over time, his patients learn to trust Elliot, as a Westerner, while never admitting him fully into their lives.
‘I thought you didn’t mind people seeing your culture. I thought you liked sharing it with the whitefellas.’ ‘Some parts we don’t mind,’ Doris said. ‘But that little dance we do for people, over there in the town sometimes, special times, that one not our culture, not proper one, Same with those paintings. They are just one little bit, one story. That’s like you read one page out of the Bible and think that is your whole law.’
Elliot’s central assignment in the novel is to sell some paintings by an elderly artist, Doris Banks, who asks him for a Toyota in return. In this request, the clash between capitalist and pre-capitalist society is highlighted; money in native Australian communities is something shared across the community, and cars are also common property. The Toyota is needed to manage distances: ‘We don’t need much. (…) Little bit of fence around the back and that side. Make it safe, for women dancing, you know? And one Toyota.’.
The art market for Aboriginal paintings is shown to be diverse, ranging from centres that facilitate artists, to ‘carpetbaggers’ who go into the desert to acquire artwork directly at a fraction of the price they then sell them for. And while Doris Banks’ request that Elliot sells her paintings for her feels natural to her, this is totally unacceptable to the white art dealers.
The continuing exploitation of the indigenous artists is an important theme in the novel, reflected in its title Provenance “what makes the same painting worth three figures in your bit of plastic pipe, and five figures in someone else’s bit of plastic pipe.” Provenance, the record of ownership, also refers to something’s origin, a close semantic connection with indigene. The fact that these art dealers supply the provenance, reinforces the theme of resistance in the novel to the notion, that “white people were the ones who knew what was best for Aboriginal people.”
Thompson does not idealise the realities of Aboriginal society. This is no pastoral, the native Australians we encounter are not ‘noble savages’. More clearly, we are shown Western incomprehension of worlds beyond their immediate experience. Having travelled into the desert with the native Australians under the guidance of Luke on a visit to a significant site to fulfil obligations, Elliot exclaims, “What were you thinking of, bringing us out here into the middle of nowhere?” Luke gives him the answer he deserves “this place is not nowhere to me.” and Eliot understands in one of his many dreams “that old tree is deeper than it is high and that its roots stretch far down into a time that is governed by a set of elementals he will never comprehend.”
How much of the language of the landscape, its beauty, and native culture is expressed in indigenous painting, is a growing realisation for Elliot and the reader.
Kate Thompson is an award-winning writer. The daughter of the social historians and peace activists Dorothy and E. P. Thompson, her books always display an awareness of social injustice and the manipulations of the powerful. This novel and her other books also reveal and side with people’s resistance against inequality.
Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.