Franck Gohier is a painter, sculptor and printmaker based in Darwin. His punchy, immediate style, utilising bright colours, text and popular imagery belies his works’ deeper messages, drawn from a keen interest in politics and social justice instilled since childhood. His Top End location plays a major role in his practice, with its history, events and people inspiring many of his works. In Issue 42, Bridget Macleod spoke to Gohier as he prepared for his curated exhibition at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
You are working towards an exhibition at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT); how is the planning going? What can we expect from this exhibition?
The survey exhibition, A thousand miles from everywhere, is being curated by Glenn Barkley and organised by the excellent team at MAGNT. Everything is going to plan and it has been great fun revisiting the past in order to evaluate the future. The show spans almost 30 years of practice encompassing printmaking, painting and sculpture and will be accompanied by a comprehensive publication.
Your location has had a big impact on your work. What is it about the Northern Territory that most interests you?
People interest me the most. Their cultural backgrounds, views on life, motives, fears, aspirations and so on. And also how these elements necessarily help shape history and events. I often feature elements of the Territory to speak about the vitality of my own experiences living here and how this part of Australia is simply a microcosm that reflects all of humanity. “Same but different” as we say in the North.
You are an enthusiastic supporter of the Territory’s art scene. What do you see as the major benefits for artists working here?
Living in relative isolation is definitely a bonus. It allows you to find your own voice, unwind and concentrate on your practice. A smaller populace also creates a more intimate and supportive community.
It also poses challenges; what adjustments have you made?
With the extreme humidity of the wet season followed by the dry season you definitely have to adjust your materials and practice. Mould can be a problem when working with ink, paint and paper and it’s good to have some pre-emptive conservation skills. You also have to adjust your clothing. In the peak of the wet season there is no need for shirts or shoes in the studio.
Your interest in social justice originated from your French parents?
During the May 1968 Paris riots my mother was a uni student and pregnant with me, and my father was a union delegate. They emigrated to Australia because of their political beliefs, to a country which they deemed more progressive than France at the time. My father’s tertiary qualifications were never recognised here and so he ended up being a manual labourer for most of his life. In Darwin during the 1970s, my mother, as a welfare officer, helped numerous French-speaking Vietnamese refugees relocate, followed by the next wave of Portuguese-speaking Timorese. Politics, religion and philosophy were always dinner table topics.
Your works often present serious matters in a humorous manner, is this a way of engaging a wider audience?
That is partly the reason. When dealing with serious political issues I find that humour mitigates against being overtly moral. It’s a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. A sense of humour also goes a long way to survive in an often harsh, outpost, frontier town like Darwin.
Historic and archival objects, images and ephemera inform your work. Is there a large amount of research that goes into each work or have you accumulated a collection of sources to draw from?
My work is a form of urban archaeology. I often go to lawn sales, op shops, the tip shop, local historical sites, sifting through to find the detritus of Northern Territory history – scraps and objects imbued with a story that I can use in my artwork. I often find objects on eBay or in antique stores when I travel. Friends who know what a mad collector I am also bring me treasures occasionally. I have an extensive library of historical and art publications to research from and the local archive is only a 15-minute walk from my studio.
Types, fonts and lettering are also important to your works. What impact do such choices have on the message you are depicting?
Typography is indispensable for good graphic design. You need to able to get your message across quickly and simply. Certain fonts are evocative of historical epochs or movements and we can use these to great effect when they are already part of the collective, popular conscience. At this point you are simply building on tradition … or you can have some fun by totally debunking that theory!
You have facilitated a number of printmaking workshops in remote communities. What led you to this?
In 1994 I joined Leon Stainer and George Watts at Northern Territory University to help out with a few Indigenous printmaking workshops for Injalak, Tiwi Designs and Ernabella. I had been a part-time printmaking lecturer and technician for a few years prior. Over the next two years the three of us convened many workshops and gained a national reputation. These workshops later became Northern Editions at the newly named Charles Darwin University and I went on to start of my own venture, Red Hand Prints.
The traditional practices of different communities influenced the techniques you taught them. An important aspect of collaborative printmaking is understanding how to get the artist’s vision from idea to realisation. Tiwi artists have a strong tradition of woodcarving and so lino-cut and wood-cut prints are an obvious starting point. Artists from Injalak Arts have an immediate lineage to painting in rock shelters and so stone lithography comes to mind. Rover Thomas liked painting directly onto etching plates and so I would mix up batches of sugar lift in his favourite earth colours from pigments in the ceramics studio.
Has working with Indigenous artists influenced your practice in any way?
Absolutely. When I was a kid I saw some Tiwi artists carving a log and to this day I can see the influence in my sculptures. Carving difficult, dense timbers like iron wood, you realise that the material dictates the form, and the artist has only a bit of a say in the matter. The mark-making and overlaying of colours I employ in my own painting practice has also been influenced by Indigenous artists.
You established Red Hand Prints in 1996; what benefits did this have for the community and your personal practice?
Ultimately we wanted to create a vibrant, thriving arts community in an environment which, at the time, had absolutely no support from the various tax-funded organisations and institutions established specifically to support local arts. We also wanted to create a voice for our socio/political concerns that was not filtered or tampered with by the usual prescribed channels for commentary. For our own practice that meant total freedom. For the community? I think they had fun coming along for the ride.
What do you like best about printmaking?
I like the fact that it is relatively inexpensive to produce multiples and therefore affordable to make and collect. Ideas can be immediately transmitted within a short time span. I also love the aesthetics that are particular and unique to all the printmaking mediums.
Do you approach your prints differently to your paintings and sculptures in terms of planning and production?
Not really, although the physical making of the object is different in the production phase, the planning stage is quiet fluid and intuitive across mediums. It’s difficult to articulate but I guess after 30 years of practice I don’t really think about it anymore. It just happens.
Franck Gohier is represented by Mitchell Fine Art
(Author: Bridget Macleod)