Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home,
I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?
I saw a band of angels coming after me,
If you get there before I do,
Tell all my friends, I’m coming too.
Improbable as it sounds, whenever I hear the strains of African American spiritual song Sweet Chariot, I am always taken back to a school in Brugges, Belgium, where I spent a year as an exchange student in my late teens. Far away from home, and living within a less than ideal exchange family dynamic, I was terribly homesick and desperate to return to Australia. The school choir, of which was a part (also totally improbable, given I can’t sing a note), sang Sweet Chariot at most concerts and assemblies, sort of as an unofficial anthem. I’m not sure of its relevance to Belgian school students in 1995, nor why they loved it so much, but nevertheless it has left me with memories and evocations far removed from the song’s usual associations.
Then again, maybe my associations aren’t so far removed at all. Though it’s most closely affiliated with slavery and America’s Deep South, Sweet Chariot is ultimately a song of longing – whether that be for freedom, salvation before death, the search for a better life, or just an end to suffering generally. Perhaps what makes the song resonate the way it does across cultures and generations is that the lyrics retain enough abstraction to afford us each the opportunity to recognise our own experiences and emotions in their haunting simplicity.
That haunting simplicity is what strikes most clearly in another Sweet Chariot too, that of artist Simryn Gill, who’s new exhibition ‘Sweet Chariot’ opened at Griffith University Art Gallery yesterday. Taking its name from a suite of black and white photographs Gill shot aboard a small fishing boat in the Malacca Straits, ‘Sweet Chariot’ is a contemplative and tender homage to her hometown of Port Dickson, Malaysia, and the role it has played in shaping her sense of place in the world. Having spent many years living between Sydney and Port Dickson, it is now where she has chosen to put down more stable roots, where her head and heart align most closely with her artistic sensibilities.
In addition to the photographic works are a series of relief prints, created especially for this exhibition, made from items washed ashore in Port Dickson and pressed onto found paper sources – exercise books, catalogues, shipping charts, log books etc. Though highly skilled and precisely set out according to a grid of horizon lines, there is a real sense of ‘making do’ to these printed works that is inherent to the small industrial towns throughout South East Asia I too have visited; places and trades left struggling to survive amid the scars of modernization, environmental damage and the Global Financial Crisis.
The remarkable thing about Gill is that, despite being a significant contributor to Australian and international art over her 30 year career, her work remains touchingly humble and devoid of pretense. Pared back and presented without explanation, her works are exhibited as Gill prefers – open to interpretation. Without the weight of set associations, the works are free to become as meaningful or meaningless as audiences are prepared to make them, which is an extraordinarily freeing way to view art. So often I find myself distracted by the messages being impressed upon me, that I fail to take the time to appreciate, or deprecate, art on its aesthetic merits (or vice versa). In ‘Sweet Chariot’, however, I can stand before the works and take in my surroundings, with only my imagination and Gill’s subtle hand to guide me.
I am at once beachcomber, sailor, pirate, seagull and asylum seeker. I am traversing choppy seas, hoping the waves will take me where I need to go.
Simryn Gill: Sweet Chariot, curated by Naomi Evans, at Griffith University Art Gallery until 12 November 2016.