Above: Family’s (Waltja), winner of the 2017 Desart Photography Prize, by Ikuntji Artists’ Roseranna Larry.
By KIERAN FINNANE
(Updated, 15 January 2018, to correct a detail regarding the Australian War Memorial commission.)
As an emblem of the driving force behind desert Aboriginal art, the photograph by Ikuntji Artists’ Roseranna Larry is eloquent. It was chosen by judges Hetti Perkins and Miriam Charlie as winner of the 2017 Desart Photography Prize, for its coherent and joyful expression of culture: “It is carried in the children, painted on the truck, and of course [is] in the artist behind the lens.”
In whatever medium they are working, artists are making their art primarily for their children, “for our next generations”: this is the most repeated statement about what motivates them, as simple as it is profound.
It was moving then to hear Nyurpaya Kaika-Burton, during the Desert Mob symposium, reflecting on the process of making the giant bird nests (right) that are this year’s contribution to the exhibition from the Tjanpi Desert Weavers.
For all of the artists, the project had its roots in the close observation of birds and their nest-making. Ilawanti Ken spoke particularly of the fairy martins’ mud nests; Mary Pan, the nests of her favourites, the wedge-tailed eagles. Nyurpaya’s focus was on nests more generally and on their role in the way birds care for their babies, and this had made her think about human parenting. (The three artists spoke in Pitjantjatja with interpreter Linda Rive translating.)
The Tjanpi nests are lined with feathers: “That’s just exactly the way the birds would like it, that’s where they raise their chicks in down-filled comfort and warmth. That’s what we like to replicate.
“Birds raise their babies in a beautiful way, but we do too. We’re humans, we raise our children and babies in a different way, in the human way.
“Birds raise their chicks and the chicks fly away and leave home. And we raise our babies into children and they leave home too. But whereas we believe that baby birds that grow up into adults have a good life, we’re not sure about our young people today. They don’t have such a good life as the birds.” *
It is easy, in the atmosphere of excited energy around Desert Mob and in the presence of the dazzling variety and strength of much of the art on display, to not tune into or put aside what may be the artists’ underlying preoccupations and concerns. There was resounding applause at the symposium for the desert artists who were recently acknowledged with four of the six prizes at the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, including the top prize which went to co-creators Frank Young, Anwar Young and Rhonda Unrupa Dick. Its subject, the incarceration of young Aboriginal people, which we know is so disproportionate, may give some clue to what Nyurpaya’s sadness was about – incarceration on a spectrum of worries.
Below: from left, Linda Rive, Mary Pan, Ilawanti Ken and Nyurpaya Kaika-Burton.
At the same time and in strange contrast to much that is difficult in their daily lives, there seems to be expanding opportunity and acknowledgement for desert artists, including multiple collaborations with major interstate institutions and exhibitions. While this mostly involves senior artists, the artists themselves always seem to have a forward-looking focus – it’s for the children, the next generations.
We are constantly reminded of the vitality of this transmission by new waves of creative dynamism from younger generation artists. Bobby West Tjupurrula, from Kiwirrkurra in Western Australia, rightfully took credit for the instigating energy of Papunya Tula artists in paving the way for this to happen. He spoke at the symposium about the major exhibition of early Papunya boards, Tjungunutja, currently on show at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin.
Unseen in public for many years, this collection, said to be the most significant of this work in the world, has only been cleared for display after careful vetting. West explained: “They painted secret one and we said no more, because it is a new generation, new young people coming up.”
The movement has subsequently flourished: “Now today from Pitjantjatjara land, including Warlpiri land, and right across Australia men and women painting. It’s a good thing, we wanted to make it easy, better for them to work.”
Right: from left, Matthew Pinta, Bobby West Tjupurrula and Luke Scholes, MAGNT’s curator of Aboriginal art.
Papunya Tula artists are of course present in Desert Mob, with a modest display of small-scale but utterly coherent work (see images at bottom), showing the strength of their restrained palette, much more of which can be seen in the current Pintupi show at their Todd Mall gallery.
Intimately part of their legacy, hanging in proximity at Desert Mob, is the work of the Papunya Tjupi artists, hitting their stride with large-scale works of dynamism and diversity (see detail images at bottom). These artists, all women at present, are the direct descendants – familial and cultural – of the first-generation Papunya painters. And so the transmission goes.
West was particularly concerned to acknowledge Pitjantjatjara artists, including Frank Young, and they certainly continue to make their presence felt in desert art.
The symposium heard from a collective of APY (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) senior men about their recent commission from the Australian War Memorial. This resulted in a major collaborative canvas that will hang, from November 16 this year, in prime position at the memorial.
It was created after a long developmental process, including a visit to Canberra where the men became aware of the extensive record of military service by Aboriginal people going back to the 19th century. According to the memorial’s researcher Ryan Johnston, who appeared with the APY men, at least 1000 Indigenous Australian men served in World War I, even though at this time authorities did not allow them to enlist. To get around this they often presented themselves as Maori, he said.
Above left: Mumu Mike Williams speaking. Below right: The APY Collective of senior men, together with Ryan Johnston (speaking) and Heath Aarons, manager of Mimili Maku; on the screen above them, the two major collaborative canvasses commissioned for the war memorial.
The Mimili Maku artist Mumu Mike Williams spoke movingly about what the whole experience had meant to him:
“I went inside, I was crying when I see that man, Aboriginal man, he went overseas to fight. He never died for nothing, he died with the land, country, and with the Tjukurpa [Dreaming]. That’s why I put the Tjukurpa on this canvas.
“The tjilpi [senior men] and pampa [senior women] they always look after the land and Tjukurpa. Not only the Pitjantjatjara, but Arrernte, Warlpiri, Anmatyerr, … Australia …
“The land is very important, that man never died for nothing.
“One day I’ll die, for the country, and that’s why I write Pitjantjatjara, tjilpi and pampa look after country and Tjukurpa. When I die the children can take over for the land and Tjukurpa.
“Manta [land] is very important, that why we put it on canvas … Tjukurpa.”
Frank Young, of Tjala Arts and APY Council chairman, had also commented: “We have always known Anangu will die to protect country.”
Visiting the war memorial had shown them that a lot of blood had been shed by black and white Australians fighting alongside one another, he said, before also mentioning “our local wars, Anangu against Anangu”, in which blood was also shed “for love of country”.
It was noteworthy that no mention was made by the Anangu men of the frontier wars, which to date have not been acknowledged at the war memorial (it sees its role as specifically the commemoration of military service). However, a painting in the Desert Mob exhibition by Mumu Mike Williams, together with Willy Muntjantji Martin and Sammy Dodd, makes an assertive statement of ownership of country never ceded.
The work, Ngura (Country), is painted on two flattened Australia Post mailbags, hung from hand-crafted kulata [spears]. The map of Australia in bold outline is emblazoned across the middle, surrounded by a sea of Tjukurpa. Across the map in large hand-written lettering is the statement: “Nganampa Tjukurpa Kunpu Ngaranyi Tjitji Malatja Tjutaka”, meaning “Our Tjukurpa Stands Strong for the Future Generations”.
Right: Willy Martin with Ngura (Country) on which he collaborated.
Perhaps more explicitly, in terms of an answer to a system of law and property relations that perpetuates colonial dispossession, the artists have made two interventions on the official stamp of the mailbags: where it is written that “Theft or misuse of this bag is a criminal offence”, they have crossed out the word “bag” and replaced it on one bag with “manta” meaning land, and on the other, “Tjukurpa” meaning Dreaming: “Theft or misuse of this manta / Tjurkurpa is a criminal offence.”
This important work, one in now a long series by Mumu Mike Williams, has been acquired from the exhibition by the Araluen Arts Centre.
The creative energy pouring out of the APY lands is once again an impressive and dominant force at Desert Mob, even though this year’s show might not have as many individual high points as the shows of the last couple of years. For instance, Vincent Namatjira’s solo exhibition as part of the current Sydney Contemporary program meant that none of this artist’s unique portraiture was available for Desert Mob, even though he, along with fellow Iwantja artists, launched the event.
Above: from left, Peter Mungkuri, Vincent Namatjira, Betty Muffler, and Betty Chimney.
Among them was senior man Peter Mungkuri who contributed an alluring drawn work on paper to last year’s show, alongside two others by Alec Baker which were acquired by Araluen (in an earlier version of this article the two acquisitions were incorrectly attributed to Mungkuri). In July this year a similar work on paper by Mungkuri was awarded what is said to be the world’s richest landscape art prize, the inaugural Hadley’s Art Prize, worth $100,000 – “good money”, as Mungkuri said with a chuckle to the launch crowd. His contribution to Desert Mob this year, Ngura (Country), is again graphically similar, although painted on linen, adding tea and acrylics to ink.
Also alongside Namatjira on the stage were two new talents, Betty Chimney exhibiting at Desert Mob for the first time with a large assured Tjukurpa painting, Ngura Kunpu (Strong Country) and Betty Muffler, who won the emerging artist prize at this year’s NATSIAAs. The work she is showing in Desert Mob is a similar delicately-painted black and white Tjukurpa work, titled Ngayuku Ngankari Ngura (My Healing Country).
From here in Alice Springs, the showing from Yarrenyty Arltere, the artists working out of Larapinta Valley town camp, was much smaller in scale compared to recent years though with a reliably characterful contribution from Marlene Rubuntja (left). At a glance the two upright figures look like they are engaged in a tug-of-war game. Closer inspection shows the object of their struggle is a goanna. The work is about sharing, says Rubuntja: there is no need to fight over bush tucker, there is plenty to go round, not only the meat but the berries too which she has depicted in the foreground.
This art centre too is involved in significant collaborations. One, an installation in collaboration with local video artist Leonardo Ortega has just opened in the Sydney CBD’s busy Wynyard Station. The other, a major commission for the National Gallery of Victoria involving international as well as local collaborators, is underway.
The symposium heard from artists of the Tjarlili, Warakurna, and Papulankutja art centres, all located in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands in Western Australia, about their collaboration on a project called NGURRA: Home which will feature at the upcoming Tarnanthi, South Australia’s festival of Indigenous art. (Ngaanyatjarra artists as well others from the Martu, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara lands have also got more than 100 artworks on display in the National Museum of Australia’s Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition which opens this Friday.)
As with the war memorial commission, there has been a considerable lead-in to this project, with the South Australian Museum’s curator of Aboriginal art Glenn Iseger-Pilkington working with the artists over the last year, particular focussing on young people and the way they see themselves in the world.
Short films showed some of what has been involved, including travel deep into the lands to a rarely visited site, a first for Winston Green and his younger brother. In thinking of Nyurpaya’s worry about children, it was heartening to hear Green speak with such fervour about the value of the trip for them: “Both of us are thirsty for knowledge, especially for this area. It’s who we are pretty much.”
Above: Artists and arts workers from the NGURRA project; Glenn Iseger-Pilkington in the middle; above them on the screen Kristabell Porter, also on stage, second from right.
Impressive too was the young artist Kristabell Porter, who is developing her photography: there is one on show at Desert Mob and another entered in the Desart Photography Prize, earning a “highly commended”. But she has also been important in facilitating the involvement of other young people in the NGURRA project. As with so many of the artists it comes down to this main thing: looking after her grandfather’s country “so I can teach my kids”.
Below, work from Papunya Tjupi, details from their intricately worked canvasses, from top: Yalka Tjukurrpa (Bush Onion Dreaming) by Mary Roberts Nakamarra; Kapi Tjukurrpa – Kalipinypa (Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa) by Maureen Poulson Napangardi; Kapi Tjukurrpa – Kalipinypa by Candy Nelson Nakamarra.
Below: work from Papunya Tula, all untitled: left, Nanyuma Napangati; middle from top, Morris Gibson Tjapaltjarri, Charlie Tjapangati, Yalta Napangati; right, Yukultji Napangati, Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri.
Below: work from Tjungu Palya, from left, Kuru Ala by Ruth Fatt; Cave Hill by Helen Curtis; Cave Hill by Angkaliya Curtis.
Below: work from Tjala Arts, from left, Kulata Tjuta by Ray Ken; Wati Tjukurpa by Tjala Men’s Collaborative; Ngayuku Ngura by Barbara Moore.