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HomeIssue 23Never ending story: Desert Mob 2013

Never ending story: Desert Mob 2013

At Antara a woman was trying to build a shelter. Things were going wrong. In her frustration she swore, she spoke of men’s business. A man was watching her…
“I was feeling cold,” the singer chants, and continues her story:
The man killed the woman with a spear to the heart… He cooked her on a fire.
He speared her… I was feeling cold… he speared her and she fell down…
He was standing up, he was watching her, he speared her…
That spear went into her heart and she fell down…
She was swearing. He chased her and he killed her.
This story of transgression and violent retribution and the contrasting impressions of the high, sweet voice as the story was sung, scenes of the sunlit bush, a secluded valley, scenes of the artist Betty Pumani at work, explode my viewing of her striking painting, Antara (at right).
Its blood-red core is no longer an intriguing aesthetic choice amidst a pale field of finely dotted motifs, but a representation of specific violence – the upward thrusting, elongated red form no doubt the spear, the red trail to the edge the woman’s blood as she died. It’s also a story of a specific place, a sacred place, Antara, a permanent reminder of a crime and its punishment, more chilling than any clause of our Criminal Code.
The repeated refrain, “I was feeling cold”, may well be referring to the woman’s need for shelter but it also sent a shiver down my spine as the song’s story unfolded and seemed to suggest something of how the artist might have felt as she laid out the fearful story in paint.
The lyrics as quoted above may not be a perfect transcription; they are taken from hastily scrawled notes of the subtitles running on a short film shown by Mimili Maku Arts at the Desert Mob symposium last Friday. Matching up the film with Pumani’s painting hanging in the exhibition was a revelatory experience and underlines the power that a film like this has in communicating with an Aboriginal artist’s public.

At left: On stage at the symposium Mimili Maku Arts manager Hannah Grace with artists Tuppy Goodwin, Puna Yanima and Mumu Mike Williams.
Desert Mob incorporates hundreds of works and it is no doubt beyond the resources of the art centres, Desart and the Araluen Arts Centre who present the exhibition in partnership, to provide more interpretive materials, though the lack of even one reflective essay in the catalogue is regrettable as was the absence of a meaningful speech on opening night.
The occasion of Desert Mob is one of the most significant interfaces between Central Australia, particularly its Aboriginal people, and the rest of the world and as such it deserves the moments taken to honour it in a speech. Such a speech doesn’t need to be lengthy but does need to be thoughtful and uplifting. The next night at Raft Artspace curator Dallas Gold was able to strike the right note and received a deserved ovation (his short speech is quoted in full at the end of this article).
Excellent interpretive and background material is steadily being accumulated from year to year in the symposium as well as in expanding content on art centres’ websites. Mimili Maku art centre manager Hannah Grace told me that eight films like the one about Antara have been made and are in the process of final editing as part of the digital biography project, Kinara Pulkapakani, meaning ‘the rising moon’. The films will soon be uploaded to Mimili Maku’s website and will provide an invaluable resource for all who seek a deeper understanding of what they are looking at in works by these artists.
Above right: The way children will learn in the future. A mural at Ikuntji by Alison Multa, pictured with her son, in collaboration with French artist Julien Malland. Multa spoke at the symposium of her idea to show the child learning on a laptop. 
That Aboriginal artists want their non-Aboriginal audience to better understand them (within the obvious limits of the secret-sacred) cannot be in doubt. Teaching their children and so preserving their culture for the future was the most frequently heard statement of intent at the symposium, but it was closely followed by a desire to reach beyond their own communities.
“We want to share our stories with the world and make a bit of money too,” said Jane Young, chairperson of Desart, the Aboriginal art centre advocacy organisation, in her opening remarks.
The reference to money made her laugh and the audience laughed with her, but ‘the market’ always looms large behind this survey show from the art centres and this year’s no doubt reflects its cooling: fewer large works, fewer thrilling works (though there are certainly some), lower prices. Yet a strong drive to connect still propels the artists and they are finding new ways to do so.
There is a pronounced figurative strand in the show with work that may be stylistically unsophisticated yet is thoroughly engaging in its story-telling. The light-boxes from Warakurna Artists are the highlight of this strand, strong in subject matter, brand new in form.
They mostly work by piercing the plywood on which a scene is painted to allow light to shine through from behind, while a couple have tiny coloured lights added to the surface. The technique particularly suits depictions of the night sky and half of the scenes are nocturnal. Using electric light as an expressive medium is also in sympathy with artists’ observations of the uses of new technology in their communities. Polly Pauwiya Butler-Jackson’s Watching ICTV (Indigenous Community Television – above left) and Mobile phone tower are interesting social and historical documents in this regard.
Judith Yinyika Chambers, however, has used her boxes to ‘shine a light’ on the past. Both her scenes show contact history. In Harold Bell Lasseter Aborigines, some of them with raised spears, cautiously approach the prospector as he waters his camels and collects water for himself.
Circus Waters (at right) shows an encounter of actual violence, recounted by the artist at the symposium. Her scene makes it clear enough: a camel has been speared and three white men take their revenge. Chambers said the white men were “explorers”. The Aboriginal people were her forebears – “our  family” – who did not know that white men were nearby when they made their camp. In her depiction the explorers’ bullets look to have mortally struck two Aborigines and grazed the head of a third. The artist cleverly uses light to pick out the trajectory of the bullets. Using it more decoratively to outline the camels, the waterhole and to pick out flowers across the landscape might have taken it too far.
(This is not the only work from Warakurna Artists to treat this subject. Notes on the National Museum of Australia website, for a painting titled Circus Waters Massacre by Ian Newberry, describe a “really big fight” in which two of the white men were killed and three or four of the Aboriginal men, including the artist’s great-great grandfather. The notes add: “In January 1900, Henry Hill’s prospecting party passed through the Rawlinson Range, stopping at Circus Waters”.)
Other light box subjects in Desert Mob show the ways in which community life today is structured, at least in part, by non-traditional forces: the church, as in Eunice Yunurupa Porter’s Warakurna desert chapel, and the more recent phenomenon of the NGO, conducting, for instance, land management trips, health walks, youth camps.
One of the show’s most surprising and rather delightful commentaries on present day life comes from Margaret Boko of Tangentyere Artists. Her paintings from over the years provide an interesting insight into the culture of Alice Springs town campers as lived from day to day, with its unique blend of surviving traditions and contemporary adaptations. While I have seen work by her that highlights vulnerability and fear with roots in traditional belief – for instance the threat to children of the kataitja (ritual executioner) or mamu (evil spirit) – this work, Tjulpu and tjitji (at left), is full of affection for the dwelling place shown.
The surrounding landscape is dotted with flowers, there are waterholes, animals, people, houses, cultivated gardens, cars, all in happy congregation. Most high-spirited of all are the tjulpu (birds) of the title who are shown high in the sky and – as Boko spells out in characteristic text that is part her paintings – playing with plastic bags, some of which are also ‘on the wing’ by themselves.
With this charming take on plastic bags in the landscape, Boko may be responding to the preoccupation of outsiders with litter in the town camps. Her title also draws attention to the tjitchi (children) who are less prominently shown in the bottom right-hand corner, playing, as her text tells us, “around humpy houses”. Again the message would seem to be, the tjitchi are OK.
A day in the life of children with their families is the subject of a series of four etchings (actually etchings and screenprints in a double process) from the late Tjilpi Kunmanara Kankapankatja of Kaltjiti Arts. The artist was apparently a teenager before his first encounter with white men. The only clue that what he has shown here has occurred in post-contact times is that some of the figures appear to be clothed and shod. Otherwise the images seem to speak from times long past. This is not simply because of the subject matter, a typical day for a nomadic family group, spent hunting and gathering with spears and nulla nullas and some women with coolamons on their heads.  It’s also because of the way the figures are assembled with no suggestion of perspective or horizon. You could imagine seeing them, particularly the first of the series – Mungawinki kukaku ankuntja – Early morning: going hunting (at right) – in a cave or on a rockface. The contemporary medium however has allowed the artist to revel in the drawn mark, that becomes ever more lively across the series as he conveys night falling and enveloping his figures.
From a feeling of times past to a feeling of right now: the only photographic work in the show is by probably its youngest artists, 26-year-old Rhonda Dick and her sister Anita Pan. Dick, from Tjala Arts in Amata in the APY Lands, came to the fore at last year’s Desert Mob with her win of the associated inaugural Desart art workers’ photography prize. Earlier this year she was awarded the Red Ochre Dreaming Award, worth $20,000, which she said she wanted to use to study photography in Sydney “so I can have full control of my camera and make how I see my work in my mind become real”. The diptych in Desert Mob, Kangkura muna malanypa, where she and Pan have photographed one another, reveals her attention to precisely these things. The idea behind the work – a play on hand signals – is clearly thought out in terms of the lens’ capabilities – having the hands in focus, the faces not – as well as in the way the double is working with points of similarity and difference.
If the drive out of art centres is mostly about artists projecting a sense of who Aboriginal people are, their world, their culture, it is interesting to see another young artist, Vincent Namatjira from Iwantja Arts, turn his attention to impressions of the outside world as they reach him. On this election weekend Namatjira’s portrait, Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard, was right on the ball, placing Abbott at the centre, flanked by the two former Labor prime ministers, as if handing him the top job.
Finally for thrilling work: for me two stand out in particular, Patjantja (at left) by Bob Gibson (b. 1974) and Warmurrungu (below right) by Nyarapayi Giles (b. 1940). They are hanging side by side and both come from Tjarlirli Art, at Tjukurla in WA, north-west of Docker River. They are both painted with tremendous charge at the same scale and share something of the same intensity of colour – the Yves Klein blue, the turquoise, the orange. Both are also animated by a sense of grand movement around compelling central events even though their iconography is quite distinct. Warmurrungu is centred on a pair of concentric circles, with densely dotted trails teeming towards and around them, while Patjantja is executed in a spare geometry, brushed in with great gestural force, with an emphasis on the edges of the story-telling field.
I learn from the provenance certificate, provided to me on request, that Warmurrungu is a site near Giles’ birthplace where ochre is collected for ceremonial use and that Giles paints the travels of ancestral emus and the rockholes where they stopped.
The blue of her rockholes in this painting floods across Gibson’s canvas and it is interesting to learn that Patjantja tells a story in part of rising waters during the travels of two snakes being looked after by two men. When the water is rising, one snake goes into an ant’s hole, but the other is too big. It is cut by the men and a lot of fat comes out, which may well be represented by the cadmium yellow squares around the edge.
Both these artists are among those showing currently at Raft Artspace, which proclaims the spirit of its exhibition in the title, The Wild Ones. It brings together work from some of the arts centres (Tjarlirli, Warakurna, Kayili, Papulankutja) in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands in WA, promoting themselves under the umbrella name of Western Desert Mob, and one of the most far-flung centres, the Spinifex Arts Project in Ilkurlka, also in WA, where infrastructure may consist of just a shipping container but out of it emanates a cultural forcefield.
Dallas Gold’s words from The Wild Ones opening night, last Friday on the eve of the federal election, sum it up:
“Tomorrow we go to the polls! The pressure is on to be conservative; to vote beige or beige – to put our slippers on and everything will be all right! Not tonight though, tonight we celebrate the brave.
“From the wild desert pop art by the Spinifex Artists, to paintings by the old people at the Wanarn Aged Care Centre [represented by Warakurna Artists] who paint like they do not need to prove a thing to anybody – their great knowledge absolute and now they have fun with paint – to the raw works from Docker River, the bold Katjarra Butler painting, so strong we had to put it in the corner, and of course the wild Nyarapayi Giles paintings. She is on fire at the moment. I needed to place a few quiet works in here to settle the room down!
“Of course ‘wild’ works can come from anywhere but it seems to be the dominant aesthetic from the west… The Wild Ones started off as the working title as we were putting the show together. Edwina (Circuitt from Warakurna) would send yet another image saying “it’s a bit wild, you might not like it” or Nyssa (from Tjarlirli) would describe Nyarapayi Giles or Katjarra Butler’s latest work as “really wild, man”!
“So thank you to all passionate art centre managers and especially Edwina, Nyssa, Amanda & Brian. However the biggest thank you goes to the artists who do not pander to the market or to anybody and make the strong works that inspire us to be brave in all our life decisions.
“Artists of The Wild Ones, this show celebrates you.”

Below: Warta Wara by Simon Hogan, Spinifex Arts Project, showing at Raft Artspace. 



  1. Fantastic article Kieran. It’s always interesting to read your reports and insights.
    I do agree about the need for a bit more info re the story being told in the paintings in Desert Mob.
    Often the title on the wall label is in language with no indication of what it means.
    Maybe a translation would not help much in appreciating the work – but sometimes it might!


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