By KIERAN FINNANE
Opening a show in the dark when much of the work is about the most refined mark-making and the subtlest use of colour – why not? It brought the festivity of this time of year into the gallery, with the acapella group, the Splinter Sisters – visible thanks to drapings of tiny coloured lights – filling the air with plaintive songs from the northern hemisphere, home ground for the Christmas story.
They started off in front of Robert Klein-Boonschate’s virtuoso untitled drawing (below) that won the NT Art Award in 1993, then languished forgotten in the storeroom for 17 years. Discovered rolled up in a corner by then curator Kate Podger (now of Talapi Gallery), it was acquired by the Friends of Araluen to become one of the jewels of the Araluen Collections.
In this new show, paperWork, drawn entirely from Araluen’s holdings, it is the centrepiece, not so much for its impressive scale as for its quiet insistence: the artist draws you into this fold of country, likely unmarked on any European map, to dwell in its presence.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, this is for when the lights are up.
At the opening, they stayed off to allow a lovely outing of a work otherwise not on display, Philomena Hali’s Don’t ruffle my patterns, an Elizabethan-style gown made entirely from old dressmaking patterns. In the 2005 Wearable Art Awards the gown won in its category, “Noisy Art!” for its faint rustlings in contrast to the favoured percussive sounds. It also earned people’s choice and was acquired.
Last Thursday, it was modelled by Abbey Newell-Gray, led into the gallery by Craig San Roque – devisor of this delightfully theatrical opening – to do a courtly dance, first through the paper works show and then across the foyer to ILLUMINATE. This show presents Araluen’s small but enticing holdings of video works. The only one not on display, due to technical difficulties, is the very first that was acquired, 2001 Alice Prize winner, Eye Contact by Merilyn Fairskye.
Right: In the foreground, Helen Geier’s Half size screen V, 2008, acquired by the Friends of Araluen.
Here she danced among the fluttering moths (below left) of Shoufay Derz’s Depart without return, highly commended and acquired from the 2012 Alice Prize. In that show the work was displayed on a television monitor for obvious space reasons. In the current show it is projected onto the wall and is all the more entrancing at this scale. I would have liked to see Pip McManus’s mesmerising Ichor, winner of the prize in 2008, also at greater scale, which would suit its reference to cultural monuments.
The now biennial Alice Prize, presented by the Alice Springs Art Foundation since 1970, is the source of all the moving image works in the collection. This underlines the importance of this national competitive exhibition in bringing contemporary work into The Centre, exposing local artists and audiences to new directions in art practice.
It is also revealing about the way public collections are amassed. All three new collection shows in the galleries are – apart from their manifold aesthetic pleasures and explorations of ideas – a study in the mix of factors, including good fortune, that underpins Araluen’s rich holdings.
In the good fortune category come two key works in aRt of surPrise, installed in the Namatjira Gallery for the coming year.
One, a newly surfaced painting by Albert Namatjira himself, has not been seen in public anywhere in the last 60 years. It is one of two paintings commissioned from the artist in 1956 for inclusion in an exhibition of Australian art presented during the Olympic Games, staged that year in Melbourne. In the end only the other was put on display while this one was sold to a friend of Rex Battarbee’s, Namatjira’s mentor and champion. The owner, now 96 years old, recently made arrangements for the work to come to Araluen on long term loan.
Beautifully preserved, its colour as fresh as if it were painted yesterday, it depicts Haasts Bluff, the distant grand forms of which are glimpsed through the foregrounded limbs of a distinctive old tree on the left and a rock formation rising on the right.
“Albert was known for his open vistas but he has closed this one right down,” comments curator Stephen Williamson.
“It’s an incredible work, dense with information and colour. 1956 was getting towards the end of his career [he died in ’59], he was under a lot of pressure and there’s a lot of variation in the works of this period. But here we have one that shows the mature powers of the artist.”
Hanging next to it is another treasure, Wild Potato Story, by Walter Tjampitjinpa, one of the early Papunya painters, this work dating from 1972. Its central motif shows the sacred tuber of the title, but in its top left-hand corner is a figure in ceremonial headdress and body paint, the kind of reference that at the time caused great controversy amongst other Aboriginal groups.
This is the first time Wild Potato Story has been shown at Araluen, although it was part of a major exhibition in 2011-12 on the origins of Western Desert art at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), travelling later to Paris.
It then came into the collection as a donation from Brian Frank Martin, the Alice Springs lawyer who became the Territory’s fourth Chief Justice (preceding Brian Ross Martin). While in Alice he served on the town council, including as mayor, and was also keenly involved in the establishment of Araluen. He had an astute eye early, acquiring this work from Pat Hogan’s Stuart Art Centre, the first private art dealer in the Western Desert work.
Between them the two paintings set the direction for two of the three strands of this show, which traces the evolution of contemporary Aboriginal art. The first strand, “Genesis”, is devoted to the work of the Namatjira School, and tells the story of early institutional responses (NGV and the Art Gallery of New South Wales) to Albert Namatjira’s work, deemed “not Aboriginal enough, too European”, says Mr Williamson.
Right: West MacDonnells, Central Australia, 1960, by Edwin Pareroultja.
Their negative judgement was not shared by the public who adored Namatjira’s work. The galleries preferred to acquire instead landscapes featuring the intense colour and rhythms of, respectively, Edwin and Otto Pareroultja.
When Araluen opened in 1984 it hosted a major Namatjira retrospective, curated by the late Mona Byrnes. It provided the first opportunity to see a large number of the artist’s works in a single space. Together with a symposium to which influential art critics and gallery directors from around the country were invited, it helped shift the assessment of Namatjira’s achievement as an artist.
The second strand, “Surprise”, shows a number of the early Papunya boards which burst onto the scene in 1971 and ’72, with around 1000 of them painted during those years. It took a while for this more abstract, iconographic work to capture the interest and acclaim it deserved. (At the first show of Papunya paintings held in Alice Springs, only two out of 45 sold, according to Dick Kimber, one of the buyers.)
Araluen owes the strength of this small but significant display of foundational works to a long-term loan from the Papunya Council, although the collection does proudly boast a major early acquisition (not part of the present show). This was thanks to the 1971 Caltex / Northern Territory Art Award and its judge Jo Caddy, who gave the award to Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa for his painting Gulgardi. (It also travelled to Melbourne and Paris for the NGV’s origins exhibition.) The NT Art Award was organised by the Central Australian Art Society, founded in 1963, so even longer lived than the Art Foundation and another important source of works in the collections.
The exhibition then opens up to the third and largest strand, titled “Innovation”, which shows the many directions in which Aboriginal artists have taken their work in the decades since. The paintings are dazzling for colour and invention and, perhaps above all, for distinct conception – they are anything but formulaic.
The gallery is particularly enlivened by the presence of sculpture. The various figures, human, animal and plant, fashioned with verve from a range of materials – found metal, recycled blankets, native grasses – seem to bring the world outside into the pristine gallery environment.
Commanding centre stage is an installation (above) by Tjanpi Desert Weavers, Kangkuru Punu Minyma Kutjara (Two women sister trees), previously shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and on loan to Araluen from Tjanpi. You can just imagine these sisters out on country, ready for ceremony, the sound of clapping sticks and song in the air.
Behind them is the complete box set of woodblock prints made by desert artists in collaboration with Basil Hall Editions, in a 2010 project commemorating the 20th anniversary of Desert Mob, the art centres’ annual exhibition and flagship event for Araluen Galleries.
It was a project built on faith: the blocks cut to size were sent out to the art centres with the request that a print be made; 40 came back. A snapshot in time of the flourishing of art practice and cultural survival in the desert.
All three shows will be quite long lived: ILLUMINATE to 26 March 2017; paperWork to 18 May; and aRT of surpRise to 1 October. Note also in the Sitzler Gallery Suzi Lyon’s show, Into Blue, drawing on her visits to the Arctic, showing till 5 February.