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Surgeon paints a brighter picture
by Victoria Laurie
19aug05 FOR more than two decades, Perth surgeon Ian Constable has cast a practised eye over Aboriginal artists creating paintings in remote Western Australia. His interest is both professional and personal. An avid collector of indigenous art, he has travelled widely to meet and talk to artists. As an eye surgeon, he has met their gaze through an optical lens and marvelled that eyes damaged by flies, disease and outback dust can still produce masterpieces. Constable's personal mission is to make sure those creative eyes stay bright and focused, especially among respected elderly artists. He has embarked on a series of self-funded visits to remote communities, with an optometrist and portable eye-testing equipment in tow, to treat WA's art elite. "Eye disease typically affects older people, and many had trachoma when they were children," says Constable, taking a break from a patient clinic at the Lions Eye Institute in Perth, a multi-million-dollar research and treatment centre which he founded and still runs. "A lot of these artists have quite poor vision and it's extraordinary the sort of fine detail and meticulous work they can do with very little vision." A few weeks ago, in the cool and darkened interior of Mangkaja Arts in Fitzroy Crossing, Constable flicked on a beam of light to examine the eyes of one of Australia's most collectable artists. Butcher Cherel Janangoo is in his mid-eighties and at the peak of his artistic career. With some relief, Constable noted that Cherel's vision is still strong. But one female artist needs a cataract operation and must join a queue. Two hundred people in the Kimberley alone are awaiting surgery, says Constable, yet each year only 60 operations are done. "And 200 cataract patients are only the ones who've been assessed. It's probably more like 500." Further east in Kununurra, at the Jirrawun Aboriginal Art Corporation, a dozen artists sit painting the kind of bold, ochre-hued Kimberley landscapes made famous by Rover Thomas and Queenie McKenzie. Almost as renowned in international art circles is 84year-old Paddy Bedford, whose work now hangs in every major Australian gallery and in the foyer of Paris's Modern Art Museum. His eyes too remain strong. His painting colleagues are all in their sixties and seventies: artists such as Freddie Timms, Rammy Ramsey, Rusty Peters, Phyllis Thomas, Goody Barrett and Peggy Patrick. At least five of them need glasses. "When we looked through artists' records, virtually nobody who had had cataract surgery had ever been given glasses," says Constable. "It seems extraordinary that people doing

near-sighted work would have had eye surgery but no sufficient follow-up. Taking off a cataract only allows them to see at a distance; they still need reading aids. So there are all sorts of problems to do with service. "Here are some iconic Australian artists and a lot of them are getting third-class medicine. I use the word third-class, not second-class," Constable says, pausing for emphasis. "I just think that there are enough resources around - and it shouldn't fall on government only - to make sure they get decent health care as productive Australians." Constable, 62, is no firebrand and his tactics in seeking better care are calculated, rather than confrontational. He says eye health has greatly improved since 1975, when, as a young eye surgeon from the eastern states, he moved to Perth and was promptly sent north to perform cataract operations. "Later, I was up there camping for nearly four weeks with the National Trachoma and Eye Health program, headed up by Fred Hollows." He began buying art. On every wall of the Lions Eye Institute are Aboriginal paintings of startling quality and pedigree, some of the 250 works collected by Constable and his wife, state MP Liz Constable. ("It pales into insignificance next to the Holmes a Court or Kerry Stokes collections," Constable says. "We don't have a Rover Thomas. We couldn't afford one.") The eye doctor and art lover can see the correlation between eye health and artistic output. "A key artist will have an exhibition in Melbourne or Germany and it's a sellout. If they have failing eyes, they simply start producing less or quality drops off. I can name instances, but it's unfair to the artists. It's avoidable and totally unnecessary." Mangkaja's art co-ordinator, Karen Dayman, says 90 per cent of the centre's top artists are nearing, or past, 70 years of age. "I think all the artists we deal with have eye problems. It's very much part of living in this area." But equating bad eyes with bad art is too simplistic, she says. Take the work of one Mangkaja painter of bold, bright canvases whose eyes faltered in old age. "The colour didn't diminish but the forms that she used softened. I don't think it's an exception in relation to other artists' lives. "You can see when eyes are becoming less precise," Dayman says, pointing out that the use of cut-out paper forms by French painter Henri Matisse was his response to poor vision. Constable owns some drawings by another famous artist plagued late in life by failing eyes, Australian landscape artist Lloyd Rees. Yet, according to painter John Olsen, Rees's work increased in "luminosity and transcendence" as his sight failed. Constable too has witnessed remarkable instances of Aboriginal artists who are near blind but painting effectively. "Many are painting dreamtime symbols that they can paint quite literally with their eyes shut." But he says all artists have the right to improved eyesight. Only artists and their families are treated by Constable's roving eye clinic, in a calculated act of elitism. He ensures those with eye conditions are put on waiting lists or get referred to specialists and then, politely but firmly, he lobbies government and networks of medical colleagues to work faster.

"Using the artists as the excuse I'm trying to leverage the effectiveness of the whole program, but the artists are going to get first-class treatment one way or the other. It's just changing the mindset as to how valuable these people are to the rest of us." It's a form of elitism that the artists accept gratefully as long as it leads to more health care for others. Says Mangkaja painter Eva Nargoodah of Constable's recent clinic at Fitzroy Crossing: "We need him to come back because there are more people that need it. It was easy right here in the art centre, easier than [going to] the hospital." "It's started with artists and their families and it'll spread out to the wider community," says Jirrawun's art co-ordinator Tony Oliver. Already, the enterprising organisation (William Deane is its patron) has decided to form a complementary corporation, Jirrawun Health, to advocate and lobby on behalf of community members requiring health care. Says Oliver bluntly: "I'd have to say the artists are better when their eyes are right." Constable, who will join Jirrawun's new health board, says Australia's remote indigenous art movement can teach important lessons to an ailing medical system. Routinely, he visits communities where medical staff are distant and unavailable. "The attitude is 'If you're sick, you come to us. I'm a doctor, I'm running a clinic between nine and eleven, doctors' hours, and it's your obligation to come to me."' At the artistically vibrant Warmun community, near Turkey Creek, "none of the people would go anywhere near the clinic, which has got a fence with barbed wire around it". In stark contrast, says Constable, the art adviser "has always got the kettle boiling for a cup of tea, there's food there even though she is being paid a quarter of what the doctors are [earning]. And the Aboriginal people want to go and sit on the dirt outside her place all day. Some of them paint and some don't." Constable says he's been amply rewarded for his efforts on behalf of Kimberley artists. He says it was a privilege to meet Paddy Bedford in person, "one of Australia's living legends", and to be allowed to buy one of his paintings. But it was Bedford's silent gesture of thanks over dinner that evening that Constable will never forget. "He was quietly sitting there eating his dinner and saying nothing, while we discussed Aboriginal health around the table and he reached over and grabbed my hand and just held it for 10 minutes. He didn't say a word, but the message was, 'Here's someone who cares about Aboriginal health and culture.' It was a magic moment."

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