Painting the deep patterns of life


With time inevitably short, three old men from Wanarn, way out in the Gibson Desert, speak to us on canvas with a sense of urgency. They give us the essence and they move on. The fundamental design elements of Aboriginal art from the desert  – the familiar dotted lines, roundels, concentric circles, interlocking grids – are deployed without “embellishment”, as Dallas Gold of RAFT Artspace says.
This leaves their essential marks to pack a powerful punch in a picture plane otherwise unencumbered. The black of the canvas ground evokes the infinite – timeless, formless – with the artists’ ‘message’ seeming to reach us from this beyond.
Their names are Ben Holland, Tjunka Lewis and Neville Mcarthur. They live in an aged care facility at Warnan. Once a week, twice if they’re lucky, staff from the Warakurna art centre arrive, after a trip of some 100 kms, with canvas and paints.
Art centre manager Edwina Circuitt told the opening crowd at RAFT that the facility residents clamour for the materials – “Me first, me first!” The day is hectic and at the end of it, there’s this treasure trove of paintings, most of them accomplished in a single sitting.
For health and safety reasons the art materials have to be packed up and taken away. If a canvas is unfinished, it will be brought back to the artists in the following week.
At the opening of the show at RAFT, art historian Darren Jorgensen spoke with infectious enthusiasm about the work, about the way in which it makes us see anew something that we recognise, both in the art itself and in the deeper human experience. In the brochure for the exhibition he has compared the work with the Hubble telescope images of the furthest reaches of the galaxy – it resonates “with some pattern of life buried just beneath the surface of the universe”.
“The Wanarn paintings and the Hubble photographs lie on the same continuum,” he writes, “speaking through the strata of the cosmos with patterns that are of the universe …
“While the Hubble scientists peer into their screens and devices, the Wanarn painters travel these lines, these patterns without leaving their place …
“They can look back upon the country and up into the depths of the sky. Theirs is the joy of a universe that is held by the touch of a paintbrush, opening up wormholes into the night.”

Pictured, from top: Painting day at Warnan Aged Care Facility, with Tjunka Lewis in the foreground,  Ben Holland and Neville Mcarthur
in the background. Photo by Peter Yates. • Tarrulkaby Ben Holland •
Wakalpuka by Tjunka Lewis (left) • Lake Baker by Neville Mcarthur (right).
This exhibition, Wati Tjilpiku Canvas, is showing at RAFT in Hele Crescent, Alice Springs until July 7.


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