By KIERAN FINNANE
As a survey of priorities for Aboriginal people in our region, for richness and breadth there is nothing like the Desert Mob experience – the annual exhibition of work from art centres and accompanying events, including the day-long symposium.
Country and its story remain overwhelmingly important. My country or simply Country are among the most used titles (in addition to the many place names), with “beloved” made implicit in the beauty and variety of expression the artists bring to this subject.
This year’s major acquisition by the Araluen Arts Centre from the show, Ngayuku Ngura (My Country) by Wawiriya Burton (at top), is but one example. It shows a sweep of country on a canvas almost three metres wide, teeming with life and the intricate knowledge of that life. The artist is a senior woman, painting with Tjala Arts. This is what she says about “my ngura” in Beneath the Canvas: the Lives and Stories of the Tjala Artists: “I became a women there at Nyumpanytja in the cave of Mice Women. It’s an important place for pregnant women and those who are sick; it’s not for men. These sites are the Tjukurpa and are important places of women’s law and Dreaming. It is fine for women to speak of this law just as it is fine for men to speak of their law.”
Wawiriya remembers a childhood from the time before there were houses, when her family slept by a fire, no blankets, when their food was hunted and gathered from the bush, when they were “clear headed and happy” – without sugar, without alcohol. All this was a long time ago, but the vitality she evokes is powerfully present in her work even if she’s tired now – “painting and painting and painting” – and it’s nearly time “to have a rest”.
From the same art centre, three women artists treat the Seven Sisters story, with Yaritji Young’s version (at right) a wonderfully dynamic departure from the densely dotted canvas. Across a seeming vast airy expanse it traces journeys of great speed and purpose, converging on a centre of high drama, all this so suited to the story of the lusty Nyiru (Orion) in pursuit of the Kunkarunkara women (The Pleiades or Seven Sisters) who constantly move between sky and earth to escape his unwanted attention.
When art audiences are given information about Tjukurpa stories underpinning work, it is mostly just a ‘bare bones’ summary. It is interesting to read, in the catalogue produced for this year’s Desert Mob, what Yaritji Young and her sisters say the Seven Sisters story means for them: “It is about family protecting each other and teaching each other … We are all kanguru pulka, big sisters, to the young women. Like in the Seven Sisters story – we must teach and protect our young sisters.”
They extend this to their work as artists, teaching the younger women, about Tjukurpa, about art. These lessons are explicitly taken up in subject matter and commentary by one of their young women, Rhonda Dick, whose photographic work Traditional Inma (The Dance of Many Tribes) won this year’s Desart Photography Prize (on show in a pop-up gallery in Reg Harris Lane). It is a composite work, showing a woman’s feet thrusting into the red earth of her country, the rising dust caught in late light, with a painted Tjukurpa story seeming to strike up from the ground in response to the dance. The artist, who was the inaugural winner of this prize and has pursued photography ever since, said she wanted “to share the story of inma and culture for all Aboriginal people across Australia. This is an important message to pass on and we will teach our young ones so that they can pass it on, generation to generation, and keep the circle of life rotating, non-stop.”
A work in the main exhibition, by the ever-inventive Robert Fielding from Mimili Maku Arts, also seeks to integrate the idea of painting practice, as an expression of Tjukurpa, with photographic representation. Fielding calls his triptych Ngura nyangatja wanna ngaranyi (This country is alive), with death part of that life, as the sentinel trunk of an ancient tree in one panel unflinchingly declares. Country is rendered in black and white, or rather in a palette of greys, while the pale sky is rhythmically dotted by holes punched into the surface. The work is installed clear of the wall so that you can see it also from the back; in this view, the dotting becomes the subject – Tjukurpa and country are one.
This is essentially the message of Mumu Mike Williams, also from Mimili Maku, in his pair of diptychs, although he is determinedly addressing a national audience, using canvas mail bags – government property – as his ground and the map of Australia as his central motif.
Left: Australia-ku Tjukurpa by Mumu Mike Williams.
The whole of the country is sacred land, as his text declares. Furthermore, it is stolen land and threatened by damage: where the mail bag is stamped with the warning “Theft or misuse of this bag is a criminal offence”, the artist has crossed out the words “this bag” and written over them: “Manta munu Tjukurpa”. His meaning couldn’t be clearer.
Stamped with unmistakeable political urgency, this work builds on a series exhibited earlier this year at Raft Artspace, in which the artist was particularly protesting the expansion of the nuclear industry in South Australia. His leadership, alongside that of other senior men, one from each of the seven art centres across the APY Lands, is honoured in a polyptych made up of a series of portraits by Vincent Namatjira, titled Seven Leaders.
This young artist, from Iwantja Arts, has made his mark with portraits of prominent figures, historical and contemporary. His great-grandfather, Albert Namatjira, has been a favourite subject, but many others have been non-Aboriginal identities, from explorers such as Cook to contemporary political leaders.
It has been an interesting reversal of the external gaze on the Aboriginal world, to see these representations from the inside looking out. They have shown the artist to be curious, alert and perceptive, and the characterisations have often been quite sympathetic. But they also lend themselves well to satire, as demonstrated in a video, produced by Iwantja Arts and screened at the symposium. It focussed on the politicians, animating the images hilariously, with a soundtrack of their pronouncements on Aboriginal affairs intercut with rude noises, implying that it is all so much hot air, or spoken with forked tongue, as suggested by the snake emanating from Tony Abbott’s mouth.
Unadulterated though, these portraits of politicians underline the significance of Seven Leaders (above), which is like an answering work – Anangu leaders, Australian leaders, equal in stature and importance.
Once again the showing from Iwantja is fascinatingly diverse, with subtle, beautiful works about country by senior artists Peter Mungkuri and Alec Baker (in ink on paper) ranging through a large, perfectly judged work from the wildly imaginative Tiger Yaltangki to the quirky comic book-style reimaginings of popular culture by Kaylene Whiskey.
Although this range of interests and approaches is most marked at Iwantja, diversity is increasingly the hallmark of Desert Mob. With the hype gone out of the fine art market, artists and art centres seem freer to go where their inspiration or preoccupations lead them. Acrylic on canvas as a medium and intense colour and mark-making are still dominant, but in every corner there is evidence of artists striking out in new directions.
There are charcoal on paper works from Papunya Tjupi Arts, all of them focussed on Tjukurrpa subjects, with those by Doris Bush Nungurrayi particularly striking for their elegant containment and clarity. They tell the story of her Puppy Dog dreaming: “They live underground. They sit and watch from inside, in their cave, that is their home, the cave,” she tells us in the catalogue. There are only a few left now – she speculates as to why – but some of them still visit her when she’s sleeping: “All in a line-up, they jump on me.”
Viewers will be delighted by the collaborative work from Warlukurlangu Artists (above), a horde of dogs, painted in acrylic on cutout metal shapes. It developed out of a drawing workshop conducted by Batchelor Institute and speaks to a revitalised energy from this art centre based in Yuendumu, one of the oldest in the desert. They also took part in the textile and fashion show at the symposium, a first for Desert Mob, and impressed with their highly wearable garments featuring artist-designed fabrics.
Of particular note also from Warlukurlangu is the painting Janganpa Jukurrpa (Brush Tail Possum Dreaming) by Steven Jupurrula Nelson, who paints with the vigour of a Jackson Pollock. And if you suspect in looking at its wild, blood red passion that it tells a story of violence, you are right. A work by the artist under the same title was one of the finalists in the Vincent Lingiari Art Award (still on show at Tangentyere Artists Gallery in Fogarty Street). Its catalogue provides a synopsis of this Dreaming, a fearful story of the killing of a Nampijinpa woman and her daughters by a Jupurrula man. The Nampijinpa had promised the daughters to him but then ran away with them. The Jupurrula tracked them to Mawurrji, a big hill west of Yuendumu. There he killed them with a stone axe, their bodies becoming the rocks at that site.
A Tjukurrpa of more recent evolution dominates the showing by Minyma Kutjara Arts Project. Three car bonnets are painted with the Christian nativity story by artists Stacia Lewis, Roma Butler and Tjawina Roberts. This art centre is based in the tiny community of Irrunytju near the tri-state border. In the catalogue Stacia Lewis tells us that the bonnets were painted for last year’s Christmas party: “We learned these stories from Sunday school when we were young, it is happy story. The story of baby Jesus is special to us – our Tjukurrpa.”
Several women in the Greenbush Art Group, based at the Alice Springs gaol, have explored the expressive possibilities of old work and sports gloves, revisioned as soft-sculpted birds, a departure from the dominant use of bright coloured wools and feathers in past Desert Mob shows, in contrast to the found metal aesthetic of the men.
Finally, I want to mention, not as a new direction, but as the continuation of an important stream of work, the documentation of contemporary life. It has been the hallmark of Tangentyere Artists and particularly striking this year is Pension Day, Titjikala by Doris Thomas (at right). In a beautifully organised painting – row on row of colourful houses, cars, streets, and crowning them all, sunlit country – people throng, many of them with arms raised in the joy of greeting one another, and dogs in train, looking for treats. It’s a work of memory, as Doris Thomas is now a dialysis patient, living in a hostel in town and can’t get back, but she knows from family and friends, as she tells us in the catalogue, that the community is still the same and as soon as mobile dialysis services allow, she’ll be visiting.
This is a very large exhibition, bringing together in this its 26th year, as Araluen director Mark Crees noted on opening night, 295 artists from 31 art centres across the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia, showing 253 works with a combined ticket price of over $800,000. Behind those numbers stands an enduring strength of purpose, a creative outpouring for all who will look and listen.
Images of art works (except for Warlukurlangu collaborative), courtesy Araluen Art Centre and the artists. Photos below by Kieran Finnane.
Note: Variations in spelling of Aboriginal language words take their cue from the artists and art centres.
Below, from top: Dancers from Papulankutja Artists opened the symposium on Friday. • At the preview of the exhibition for artists and media – soft sculptures by Yarrenyty Altere Artists in the foreground. • Part of the opening night crowd last Thursday.