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Bush, Kushana - 2018.1

Kushana Bush

Actors Unmoored by Wind 2017
gouache, gold leaf and pencil on paper
51 x 66.4 cm
Purchased 2018

Through the arched windows of a decorative wall, bodies tumble, mostly naked. They fall from the sky, landing atop other bodies, also mostly naked. On a platform of timber planks, the wall stands, detached from other architecture, like the facade of a heritage building whose original body has been extricated, vacating specific histories. Beyond the wall and platform are streaks of white across shades of blue, like wisps of cloud or froth-capped waves. Cycladic sculptural figurines hang on the wall, resting on silvery pins, their arms crossed over their chests, stiff and uniformly pale like marble, or corpses in repose.

From a distance, Actors Unmoored by Wind shimmers with burnished gold. The neutral greys and browns of the wall and platform and naked bodies are offset by bright swathes of fabric, patterned with birds or flowers or stripes, in banana yellow, tangerine, maroon, with cornflower-blue accents. One of the falling bodies is dressed in a jumpsuit patterned with plump pineapple-like fruit with tessellated skin. This figure is painted with feet splayed in the air, hurtling head-first towards a pair of ankles bound with rope. The platform is crowded where the bodies land. Three figures kneel, cradling smaller bodies on their laps, child-sized bodies but with wizened faces, bloodshot eyes, puckered mouths. Two others lie face down, plaited hair trailing down their backs, almost to bare buttocks. More rope rests in the foreground, looped into a noose. Nearby is a wood-grained coffin. Nestled inside is a tinier coffin, infant-sized, and inside that, a white candle, unlit. Unsullied, the objects seem readied for the theatre of death.

Stepping closer, I notice white cuticles on toenails, cracked lips, the woven texture of hair, furrowed folds of skin, worn patches on the pads of the feet. At this myopic distance, the golden accents are revealed as silhouettes of birds and flowers on fabric. Short-sighted herself, Kushana Bush has long been drawn to miniature paintings, to the intimacies of close viewing, when the burnished gold seems to reflect warmth, like a buttercup held under the chin. Though not small in scale, this painting is like an agglomeration of miniatures.

In conversation, Bush commented that Actors Unmoored by the Wind was triggered by an earlier work, Other People 2016, in which a crowd encircles the body of a naked boy. At the time, boatloads of refugees were fleeing civil war in Syria, and the nightly news was gripped by imagery of collapse and mass dislocation and mass death. Bush paints from the quiet and stability of a small southern city in a sparsely populated southern island of a small, stable country in the South Pacific. She pondered the absurdity of making art, of labouring over painstaking compositions of aesthetic beauty, while events unfold that are shocking and urgent, and indeed surreal, by virtue of their extreme distance.

Yet tragedy is not exclusive to contemporary politics. Works from art history can converge with the preoccupations of our present moment and, through reinterpretation, offer space for contemplation. Her scenes are replete with historical and contemporary cultural and political allusions, yet she avoids fixing pictorial narratives to a specific time or place. By mutating and transforming images beyond familiarity, Bush asserts distance. Her compositions are already out of time, already inviting reinterpretation. With Other People, Bush painted bodies that fly like acrobats off the top of the painting, escaping the heavy scene below. In Actors Unmoored by the Wind, those bodies crash back to earth. The refugee crisis has not abated. Asylum seekers remain detained on Nauru and Manus Island. Men and women and children are self-harming. The fate of vulnerable bodies is uncertain, unmoored by the policies of regimes outside the pictorial space.

Fayen d’Evie is an artist based in Muckleford, Dja Dja Wurrung country.