Furious Riding: The Kelly Women Narratives, ran from August 5th to August 26th at Arts Space Wodonga.
The record of Ellen Kelly’s court appearance before Sir Redmond Barry, accessible in the State Library of Victoria, is memorable for her single recorded word: ‘no’. A woman notorious for her irrepressible tongue suddenly had nothing to say for herself; how did this happen?
This is the question which both Janet Goodchild-Cuffley and myself, Dorothy Simmons, have set out to answer. Ned Kelly’s story has entered Australian history and mythology; it has, like Ned himself, been done to death. But what about ‘herstory’, and specifically the story of Ellen, a mythmaker in the most literal sense possible?
I had re-imagined her life verbally in my historical novel, LIVING LIKE A KELLY, so when I heard about ‘the Kelly narratives’ I knew I had to go and see how another woman had re-imagined it visually.
I was not disappointed. In the first image of a girl singing and mermaids listening, the power of myth is evoked, the Irish heritage of folklore and heroism which Ned took in with his mother’s milk. The stormy sea anticipates Ellen’s own ‘tempest tossed’ life.
The second image depicts a rare moment of triumph: the ‘furious riding’ of the exhibition’s title… though indomitable and independent might be more accurate adjectives. Ellen’s world is spinning increasingly out of control; the high may be momentary, but it is marvellous.
The final image focusses on Ellen alone, as we all are at the beginning and at the end. She stands braced, looking ahead. However the wind blows, she will stand her ground.
Readers familiar with Sydney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings in the National Gallery will recognize Goodchild-Cuffley’s appropriation and appreciate how she has made it her own… and Ellen’s. The colour and movement, the sense of all the untold lives caught up in a tragic narrative, the mix of mythological symbol and domestic detail, make this a thoroughly thought-provoking and unforgettable exhibition.
A catalogue of the exhibition is available from Arts Space, Wodonga,