Arielle Gamble hated it when the fat bastards on their mobility scooters poisoned the trees in town.
Almost as much as she hated scooping maggots from a dying sheep’s back, thanks to her neighbour’s negligence: “Local piece of work Julie forgot to vaccinate her sheep at the onset of summer. Julie can go fuck herself.”
Despite the Sydney based artist and designer’s feelings towards Julie and co., it’s an almost affectionate brand of vitriol that’s aimed at fellow residents in her black humour-ridden zine, A Year In A (Shit) Country Town. Filled with stained glass window style black pen illustrations, the newspaper plays out as an ode to what Arielle describes as “the roughness and tenderness, the ugly and beautiful” parts of Australian culture.
Having been raised in country New South Wales before a move to inner city Sydney later in life, Arielle knows both sides of the coin all too well. “Life in the city can be incredibly self-conscious sometimes, so I love how people in the country just go real weird,” she laughs. “There’s so much room to paint your own story in whatever strange way you want to. But it can be stifling as well… people can feel repressed by the community they grew up in.”
However, she says that her hippie artist parents never desired to be a part of “that inner circle in town”, so her childhood meant exploring forests and messing around with her dad’s endless pots of paints and pencils since she was old enough to hold one. Her late father, Kim Gamble (of the hugely popular kid’s book series Tashi), was one of Australia’s most well-known illustrators, and it’s from him that Arielle believes she inherited her love of storytelling and observing the minutiae of everyday life.
“He was a really amazing journal keeper and had a really great sense of the ridiculous,” Arielle tells me as we sit inside her backyard studio watched closely by her cattle dog, Tilly. “Full of stories about crazy people he met along the way and tiny, weird little observations that you run into in life that, if you don’t take notice of, disappear.”
Her workspace tells its own story, filled with native flowers, watercolour paintings of bushland—that I guess to be the surrounds of her mudbrick house out in the country—and bright red hessian stitching, her latest body of work is embroidered Australian love stories (“Love is blind and so is Sharon” reads one, expressing we’re a nation better versed in getting legless than at dishing out romance).
The humour that Arielle injects into her blunt observations on the Australian way of life hasn’t found its way into all of her projects, however. Since early last year, she’s been working to co-curate the exhibition All That We Can’t See, a series of works providing social commentary of a darker nature.
In 2016, The Guardian published an Australian government file leak of Wikileaks proportions: The Nauru Files. An anonymous whistleblower had sent them over 2000 individual case files detailing assault, sexual abuse, self-harm, child abuse and abhorrent living conditions endured by asylum seekers in an offshore detention centre, care of the Australian Government. The leak meant that the Australian public now knew the dark secrets of the island off-limits to all Australian media. Half of the reports involved young children, including this from September, 2014:
“She reported that she has been asking for a four-minute shower as opposed to two minutes. Her request has been accepted on condition of sexual favours.”
Arielle, who describes the files as “Australian stories”, says that reading the harrowing accounts was what prompted her to ask 30 of Australia’s leading artists to illustrate the reports. “The clinical language and redactions [omitting personal details] are great because they allowed them to be published, but it’s tough to engage with unless you’re really trying,” she says. “That’s why we wanted to bring in images as another way to push people into reading them.”
The fact that the federal government failed to intervene despite, as Arielle says, caseworkers “spending every third day cutting somebody down from a noose or treating kids for razor blade wounds” is unfathomable. But sometimes we need to be horrified to act, and the artworks ready to go on show in All That We Can’t See are nothing short of disturbing.
I ask Arielle if it ever muddies the waters in her own mind—moving between affectionate stories of her homeland and depictions of shame and institutional neglect. “My relationship with the Australian land and culture isn’t without complexity,” she responds. “I believe more broadly that Australians are good people at heart, who value compassion and decency. I don’t think of it as a shiny thing, it’s layered and has a lot of depth and I hope to express that in my own art too.”