Judith Crispin: The Compassion of Country

© Judith Crispin ‘Jessica becoming stars, in the place of fireflies and river trees, last ceremony ground of the rex hares.’ [detail]

Watching a bird or animal decay over many hours, I see how the earth takes that dead body back into itself, like a fallen leaf or a shell … the gentleness of that process.


In contemporary Western thinking, we tend to view the world as made up of concrete objects and definable actions. A place through which we move and interact in a rational and materialistic way. Above all, contemporary Western thinking emphasises the division between things: the individual in contrast to the community; the ownership of property rather than the custodianship of a shared planet; the human species as privileged over the rest of Nature; the living as discontinuous with the dead. But for the ancient peoples of what we now call Australia, the world is a very different place.

Australian Aboriginal ways of life reach back more than 60,000 years. They are the oldest continuous cultures on the planet, and they are deeply woven into the continuity and interconnectivity of things. It is an oral tradition with strong spiritual values centred on a reverence for the land and on the Dreamtime, a body of stories that connect the ancient time of creation with life in the present-day. There are many different Aboriginal groups, each with their own culture, Dreamtime stories and language. However, they all share this sense of extended continuity and a deep respect for the rich diversity of Nature which come together in the unifying concept of ‘Country’.

‘Country’ embraces all living things. It includes people, plants and animals. It encompasses the changing seasons, community stories and creation spirits. Country is both a place of belonging and a way of being. The interdependence between Aboriginal people and the land is based on deep respect – while the land sustains and provides for the people, people manage and maintain the land with a lightness of touch. For Aboriginal people, Country connects all aspects of existence: spirituality, culture, language, family, law and identity.

The Australian artist, Judith Crispin, is of Aboriginal lineage; specifically, that of the Bpangerang people, from an area that is now in the northeast of the state of Victoria. She was brought up in a contemporary Australian society and only discovered her relationship with her Aboriginal forebears once she was an adult. Since then she has spent much time immersing herself in, and learning about, the culture of her adoptive community, the Warlpiri people of the Tanami Desert in northern Australia. 

Judith Crispin’s work is a remarkable synthesis of the timeless wisdom of Aboriginal tradition and a radically innovative approach to printmaking that spans photography and painting, pushing the limits of both to create pictures of intense poetic beauty. These images transcend notions of ancient versus modern to glimpse the continuity of the world across time, place and the dimension of the spiritual. Through delicately nuanced allegory, she visualises the transition of life, in death, returning to the maternal earth as metaphors for the profound interconnection, healing and respect that rests at the heart of the Aboriginal concept of Country.

Alasdair Foster

© Judith Crispin ‘Honeyeaters know there is a special place after death for birds who have the courage to leave this world singing. Those are the bird warriors. Not fighters, but the ones who look death in the eye and sing.’


Alasdair: When, did you begin to make photographs?

Judith: I can tell you the exact moment. I’d been living in Germany and composing music. On my way home one evening I stopped to chat with a homeless lady. She told me how she’d once had a husband and children; how they’d abandoned her when she developed a mental illness. I asked her how she’d coped, having lost everyone who’d ever loved her.  She answered that every night, when the shops closed, she’d walk around the city looking in the windows of art galleries. Sometimes she’d see a painting and know it was created by someone who saw the world as she did. And in those moments, she felt less alone. I realised then, for the first time, that nobody homeless or desperate, mentally ill, frightened or alone, would ever attend a concert of my music. My whole creative world amounted to little more than analgesics for the bored rich. So, I began again.

How has your family history shaped your approach as an artist?

I was an adult before I discovered our family’s Aboriginality. There are many families like mine – those who, by virtue of their lighter skin colouring, were able to reinvent themselves as ‘Europeans’. For me, it became very important to understand what Aboriginality meant. In the ensuing decades spent tracking my Aboriginal Grandfather’s people, I was adopted by Warlpiri people of the Tanami Desert. They gave me a skin name, a bush name, and adopted me into a family.

I owe the Warlpiri people a great debt. However, I gradually came to understand that people like me will never have a genuine place in either white or black culture. We are Nowhere People: children of the Stolen Generation who, because of our paler skin colour, were forcibly removed from our Aboriginal families to be raised and ‘assimilated’ into white communities. We exist at the intersection of incompatible cultures and histories and, if we ever want to belong, we will have to create something entirely new to belong to.

Do you consider your approach to your art to be compassionate?

I am more comfortable with the idea of balance, than compassion. I am trying to restore balance through these images, between human abstraction and the real landscape.

What do you mean by real landscape?

Every living creature has a ‘Country’ [a specific locality and connection to that land] on which it is grown and nurtured. The Warlpiri people speak of invisible spider strings, like an electric wire connecting a spirit to its Country. If the string breaks, then Country and the spirit both suffer. All of us, be we animal, bird or human, have somewhere that is home – even if it’s just a burrow, a tree, or a house – a place where our electric wire is connected. I create artworks works from animals and birds killed on our roads, combined with the ochres, seeds, twigs and leaves from the place that they are found.

Making these works is a ritual, a death ritual. I stay beside the fallen creature for up to fifty hours while creating the print. Watching a bird or animal decay over many hours, I see how the earth takes that dead body back into itself, like a fallen leaf or a shell … the gentleness of that process.

[Left] © Judith Crispin ‘Ben sometimes felt he carried his artist girlfriend a lot, but she painted him stars while he slept.’
[Right] © Judith Crispin ‘Mother lost to trucks, it was cold, and the night raining stars. Henry left the highway, following songlines across the great dividing range, to the sky country of kangaroos.’

The works we are going to discuss are made by the Lumen process. What is that process?

Lumen printing, which is the basis of my Lumachrome Glass Printing process, used to be call Sun Printing. An object is placed onto light-sensitive paper and exposed in sunlight. If the right paper is used, colours form in the emulsion. On its own, Lumen printing produces beautiful but rudimentary images. Details are vague and difficult to control.

You then use a number of techniques to embellish that basic Lumen print: cliché-verre, chemigram and so on. How do you use these?

Cliché-verre combines painting and photography. It was developed in the nineteenth-century and popularised by artists such as Man Ray.  In this technique, glass is laid over light-sensitive paper. This can then be coated with resin or paint, into which lines are scratched. When exposed to light, the areas that have been scratched out are exposed. I use cliché-verre for depth and detail in the background.

Chemigram was invented by Pierre Cordier in the 1950s. It also combines painting and photography. I was fortunate, early on, to receive advice from Monsieur Cordier himself, and learn how to refine the chemistry. The chemigram process creates the fine detail in my images. I often paint the chemicals directly onto dead animal bodies before placing them on the paper. All these techniques, lumen printing, cliché-verre and chemigram involve chemical and solar transformations of silver halide crystals embedded on the surface of the paper.

To these techniques I add two more. The first involves running an electric current over a glass plate for forty-eight hours or so. Electricity, passing through metal salts and acids, creates dendritic crystals which can be pressed directly onto a print. The second technique works with the fundamental chemistry of organic decomposition. I call this process ‘cadaverchrome’. Under glass – a decaying body releases gases and fluids. These substances produce colour in silver halide crystals. Gradually, I build a background image from these fluids, creating the impression of mountain ranges, cliffs, deserts and sky.

How did the Lumen Prints project begin?

There are many like me in Australia – those who have never felt part of white culture, but who are also estranged from black culture. As an adult, it is too late to jump into the culture of one’s dead ancestors – no matter how beautiful it might be. I have spent decades living and working in Aboriginal communities, learning their culture and language, but I will always be an outsider, just as I am, and will always be, an outsider to white culture.

Aboriginal people say: Speak to Country, and the Country will speak back. Country does not require permission to form relationships with those who live on her. It has become very important for me to find a shared language with Country – so I began looking for patterns, constellations, wind lines, the neural network of rivers crossing the desert… In this work, I am trying to forge my own relationship with Country – not something inherited from culture.

[Left] © Judith Crispin ‘Moon Snake’
[Right] © Judith Crispin ‘Tamsin dreams of Froglady, her hairstring grazing the tops of rainforest trees, like an invitation.’

My first Lumachrome print was of a tiger snake. I found it in the depths of winter, disturbed from hibernation and wound around a branch beside the road. I exposed the print by moonlight, on the night of the lunar eclipse. It is a very basic lumen. The cliché-verre element was just glass fogged by dew.

Later that month, I made a print from a frog. To my surprise, the resulting image clearly showed internal organs, including a womb and eggs. The human eye alone can’t see these things. Light reflects from the frog to my retina in a microsecond – everything we see is the result of fleeting observation. But in a lumen print, during an exposure of between twenty and fifty hours, light impregnates itself slowly in the silver halide crystals. The resulting print records much more than we can see with our eyes.

© Judith Crispin ‘In dawn frost, Herb surrendered his body to tangled vines and lifted into the sun.’

This complex visual layering and resonance with your direct response to the natural landscape create in each image a kind of narrative. How do you construct that narrative – for example, in the image of the rat and the sun?

My friend Greer was working in her studio one afternoon when, glancing up, she spied this little rat hanging in the vines outside her window. It had frozen to death in the tangle of stems, its face turned toward the sun in a last gesture of hope. I wanted to believe he had drifted up in death toward that sun. The sun in this print was created using a tennis ball soaked in copper chloride, a coffee filter, seeds and resin. A separate plate was used to run electric current through the same copper chloride solution and later contact-transferred onto the mark made by the tennis ball.

© Judith Crispin ‘Lily returns to Altair, the brightest of Aquila’s stars, wearing the body of a crow.’

Each image is given an extended caption that involves a kind of allegory. Can you talk about how these short poetic texts relate to the image, perhaps taking the example of the image of the crow.

This is a portrait of a Warlpiri law-woman, hunter and custodian of bird dreamings. She has passed away. Within her culture, this means that her name can no longer be spoken and photographs of her may not be shown. This woman who had hunted food until she was ninety years old, who was covered from head to toe in ceremony scars, who sang to waterholes in the old Warlpiri language, who lived for more than one hundred years… passed away in a nursing home, more than nine-hundred kilometres from her ancestral lands. She was frightened to die so far from Country. She asked me to take feathers to her ancestral lands after she passed away. She said that her spirit would follow those feathers back to Country. After she died, I dreamed of her in the body of a crow, her abdomen glittering with stars from the constellation Aquila, a sign of the bird.

For weeks after that dream I searched for a crow. I knew it was my last chance to make a portrait of my friend. I made the constellation from dandelion seeds and paint, brushed the crow’s feathers with ochres from the bird’s own Country, and exposed the image over thirty-two hours.

© Judith Crispin ‘Four birds and a lizard return to their ancestors, on spider-strings, over Mount Cooroora, in Kabi-Kabi Country.’

You spoke earlier about the ‘spider strings’ that, for Warlpiri people, link all living things to their respective Country. This concept is central to the large-scale, five-panel work ‘Four Birds and a Lizard return to their ancestors, on spider-strings, over Mount Cooroora, in Kabi-Kabi Country’. How did this work come about?

It was created at The Cooroora Institute [a multi-arts centre in the south-east of Queensland]. It is a portrait of a mountain sacred to the Kabi-Kabi people. The work shows five spirits connected to the sacred mountain on what the Warlpiri people call ‘spider-strings’, invisible electric wires that tether them to their Country.

The print includes a southern boobook owl, masked lapwing, eastern water dragon, purple swamp hen, and a rainbow lorikeet. The creatures rise over the mountain on ‘strings’ made from human hair. The sky is created from rainforest seeds; the mountain is a beached jellyfish, combined with shed python skins, echidna spines, spiders, rainforest ochres, twigs and petals.

To compile the work, I used two large acetate sheets spread on trestle tables. The paper was anchored to a zinc-coated steel sheet with strong magnets. Highlights were painted on with Vegemite (essentially salt and yeast), which works as an accelerator. To create plant-like details in the mountain range, I prepared a separate glass plate, running an electric current through a solution of copper chloride, silver nitrate, sulphuric acid and salt. The crystals were pressed onto the print by hand. After the first exposure, using a paintbrush and saltwater, I enhanced the shapes with hand-painted lines. Very fine features were accentuated with photographic developer applied using a fine wire. Then the cliché-verre elements were carefully reset for another forty-one hours.

What do you want to communicate through this visualisation of death and what might lie beyond?

Warlpiri women have taught me new ways to understand death. In white culture we rarely see someone after they’ve died. And when confronted by dead animals, most people feel disgust or indifference. We mourn the death of a celebrity, but we drive over the body of an owl on the freeway without hesitating. This dismissal of animal death as trivial, together with our strange refusal to bear witness to human death, has cut us off from every other lifeform on the planet. Making these Lumachrome Glass Prints is a way of restoring balance. Honouring a fallen bird or lizard seeks to overcome my enculturation: the hubris of elevating humans over all other species.

What have you learned about compassion in the process of making these photographs?

I don’t know much about human compassion, but I have witnessed the compassion of Country. I have seen how it cradles each fallen creature, from a felled tree to a dead rat… Country takes them back into its own body. And I have seen the way cockatoos will pull a wounded bird from the highway, or how a dog will sometimes cross a paddock to avoid startling a mother kangaroo and joey. Of course, nature can also seem cruel – animals hunt to eat, landscapes burn to rejuvenate the forests – but there is very little senseless violence outside that of humans. It is as though the entire human race is asleep and dreaming of their own superiority, their ability to consume everything because they want to. I see little compassion in any of that.

Biographical Notes

Judith Crispin is a Bpangerang woman born in 1970 on the outskirts of Sydney. A composer, poet and artist, she holds a PhD in music and is currently completing a doctorate in poetry. She studied musical composition with Larry Sitsky before moving to Paris in 2005 to pursue post–doctoral work with Emmanuel Nunes. From 2007 to 2010 she was a Humboldt Fellow in Berlin, conducting research at the intersection of music, poetry and visual art. 

She has exhibited widely in Oceania, Europe, Asia and North America, and published a number of books including ‘The Myrrh-Bearers’ [poetry] (Puncher & Wattmann, 2015); ‘The Lumen Seed’ [images and poetry] (Daylight Books, 2017); and ‘The Dingo’s Noctuary’ [illustrated verse novel] (Daylight Books, 2021). In 2020 she won the Blake Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the Olive Cotton Prize for Photography. She currently lives and works in Wamboin, in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. 

This article was first published in Chinese, in the February 2020 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was compassion.