Noel Counihan (1913 – 1986) was one of Australia’s important artists, a social realist, political commentator, and a man with a deep understanding of social hardship in his time. His life is well documented, and the story of his address to the crowds from within a locked cage whilst the police had to cut him out is well known. I only want to talk about his artistic achievement with regard to The Cough… Stone Dust, (1947 © Estate of Noel Counihan). He illustrated the ordinary people, the workers, the downtrodden and unemployed in Australian society in the 1940s and 1950s, and no image is more heart searing than this lino-cut which depicts a miner with silicosis (pneumoconiosis) exhausted from coughing. This picture is used as the logo of The Silicosis Project, a major inter-disciplinary European research project in its struggle against silicosis http://www.sciencespo.fr/silicosis/ . It is a new research project combining history, medicine, and social sciences. This project deals with one of the deadliest occupational diseases in history; silicosis, caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust particles. The occupational disease is mainly due to mining in silica bearing rock, but also associated with other dusty occupations such as pottery.
I was brought up through the 1950s and 1960s on a copper mine in Zambia where silicosis was an important part of the average underground worker’s life. Regular X-rays and medical examinations by the Pneumoconiosis Board theoretically meant that a worker could lose his job if the disease was discovered. Looking back, with hindsight, it is obvious that the board was used to keep workers working as long as possible despite development of the disease. Compensation at the time was a pittance, and this was particularly true for black workers.
I have been moved by Counihan’s linocut which shows a miner wracked with cough, exactly as I saw men in our small town suffering, trying to catch their breath with the inflammatory, fibrotic lung disease.
The Counihan Estate has kindly granted permission to use the outline of this image in my work. I have subtracted all but the outlines from the original image and superimposed a formalised bourgeoise pattern typically seen in carpets of the middle classes in the 1940s and 1950s in order to draw a distinct contrast with the jagged outline of the working class miner depicted in cyanotic blue. I have further drawn roughly into the image to emphasise this. The Chest X-ray of a miner with pneumoconiosis is superimposed on the chest focussing on the lungs to provide the only bright colour in the image.
This picture will be published on my blog. I shall keep a copy for myself, but the picture is not for sale.