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HomeIssue 6Desert Mob’s dazzling reminder of gallery potential

Desert Mob’s dazzling reminder of gallery potential

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UPDATED 6.38pm, 11 September 2018. More text, more images.
Works containing “a great deal of cultural power” created by “black-skinned proud Aboriginal people” have once again made their journey across the surrounding desert lands to the Araluen Arts Centre.
The annual Desert Mob opened last Thursday with this vivid image evoked by Rene Kulitja and translated by Linda Rive. Kulitja is a senior artist with Tjanpi Desert Weavers and Maraku Arts, a director of the NPY Women’s Council, a member Mutitjulu Aboriginal Corporation and the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir.
Her own life encapsulates what the work of art centres is all about: the transmission of culture. She paid tribute to her mother and father who established Maraku Arts a long time ago. Because of them she is an artist today, her daughter as well, and granddaughter in turn.
With the help of fellow artists Nyunmiti Burton and Niningka Lewis she sang Desert Mob open, with a song about a woman with a digging stick, holding it above her head, dragging it along the ground, leaving a trail: a metaphor for all the desert journeys of all the artworks, eventually hung above our heads on the walls of the gallery or placed on plinths.
The spirit of Kulitja’s words and the song and then the dazzling display of work inside in all its diversity were a wonderful reminder of what Alice Springs’s number one aspirational project is all about.
Tourism and Culture Minister Lauren Moss was there to reiterate her government’s commitment to the project, what would be “a spectacular cultural institution”. The exhibition and associated events, once again, give every reason to believe that desert artists would make a major contribution to the success of a national gallery.
p2562 Desert Mob Iwantja 430In terms of artistic virtuosity, art centres from the APY Lands in South Australia dominate, with commanding displays of works about country and its songs at a grand scale. Size is not key but in a big show like this it helps.
Left: From Iwantja Arts, from left, Beth Conway, Peter Mungkuri, Alec Baker, Heath Arens. Behind them work by, from left, Julie Yatjitja, Peter Mungkuri and Betty Chimney. 
This is clearly reflected in the decision by Iwantja Arts, which in past Desert Mobs has exhibited work in a wide variety of formats, to hang only large canvasses – a matter of holding their own alongside the work of competing centres such as Kaltjiti Arts, also from the APY Lands, taking up all of Araluen’s largest wall with nine works, none of them missing a beat.
But Desert Mob is about more than artistic virtuosity, despite so much of it being on display. Its cultural vitality is the thing –  its evidence of people “thinking and feeling” their way into the means of expressing what’s important to them.
I’m borrowing the words from Betty Muffler, translated by Vicki Cullinan and reproduced in the exhibition’s worthwhile catalogue. She is talking about her love of painting, and how she follows her thoughts and ideas around the canvas.  You can just see this happening in her large intricate rendering of her own fertile mind and spirit. In contrast to the vast majority of artists in the show, Muffler eschews colour. The tracery of her watery white lines across the black ground of the canvas is eloquent enough; colour might have drowned out the clarity of her vision.
p2562 Desert Mob Tjanpi 430In quite a different vein is the narrative work (at left) by Nancy Nanana Jackson and Judith Yinyika Chambers of Tjanpi Desert Weavers, Tutjurangara Massacre (Circus Water Rock Hole Massacre).
It is not the first time that Chambers has dealt with this subject; it was also the focus of her  light-box work in the 2013 Desert Mob. The scale of this new collaborative work is fitting for the gravity of the subject, passed down in the Ngaaanyatjarra Lands as an enduring oral history. The use of the tjanpi as the medium is also effective. Its playful character can contrast sharply with the dark subject matter it is sometimes used to express. With this work, when you realise what you are looking at, there’s something particularly shocking about the plug-hole wounds and red woollen blood trails in the prone tjanpi figures.
(Consult the catalogue for an account by Bernard Newberry, introduced as “the recognised cultural authority to speak for this story”, as well as further discussion of the oral history.)
In a beautifully coherent showing, Papunya Tjupi artists explore the use of metallic paint, in a warm bronze hue. Doris Bush, a lovely bubbly presence at the opening, blends it subtly with acrylics, for her bush foods painting, Bush Mangarri Tjuta (the artist is pictured with her painting, below)Charlotte Phillipus Napurrula though astutely does not blend it for her Kalipinypa. This is a Water Dreaming place, but as she explains in the catalogue (with the text presented like a poem) her painting is about the sandhill country all around it and “lightning flashes everywhere”: “The lightning lights up the sandhills, it shows me. / Those lightning become the sandhills.” This is admirably conceptualised and achieved in her rigorous painting.
p2562 Desert Mob Doris Bush 430What is on the wall at Desert Mob is but a glimpse of the depths of desert art and life. Small shows all over town, in art centre galleries and private galleries working with art centres, clearly demonstrate this.  For me they included a visit to the opening of Bindi Magic, a showing of the Mwerre Anthurre Artists. Art centres are limited to 10 exhibits for Desert Mob; here in their own gallery more than 60 works on the walls confirm the industry and commitment of these artists with a disability.
The work shows them consolidating skills – Jane Mervin’s beautifully painted White One (Owl) a case in point – and exploring new subjects – for example, Adrian Jangala Robertson, known for his lively landscapes, has also tried his hand at figures. Conway Ginger continues with his wonderful pen and wash drawings, in which even a pair of football boots can acquire particular character (see Richmond Specky). Charles Jangala Inkamala, painting in a distinctive graphic style, outlining his forms in thick black lines, imparts an intuited Germanic character to what must surely be one of the old mission houses at Hermannsburg (Untitled). On display also are a range of lampshades, reproducing Bindi works. These are made to order and represent a new income stream for the artists.
At Desart’s office in Reg Harris Lane is a small showing from of a larger body of work that has come out of a unique collaboration over five years between Warlukurlangu Artists and British artist Patrick Waterhouse.  The impetus came from Waterhouse’s eye-opening travels to remote communities while on assignment with a magazine in 2011. There he observed, contrary to expectation, the communities’ rich culture and complexity of life. He reflected on his own massive ignorance and the way in which, in British schools, students learn nothing of their colonial history. In response he started collecting different historical documents, somewhat haphazardly but from the First Fleet to the present day and on the premise that they were incomplete – missing vital elements of the story.
Archive in tow, he returned in 2015, looking for a community which would be receptive to working with him to insert something new into the historical record, taking the documents through a process of revision. He found that community at Yuendumu and its art centre, where artists worked with him to re-examine the historical documents – early maps, lithographs, photographs and teaching materials – and subvert them with their own interventions.
p2562 Desert Mob Simms 430At the Desert Mob symposium, Otto Simms, chairperson of Warlukurlangu Artists and board member of Desart, joined Waterhouse on stage to comment on some of the work that has emerged: “When the First Fleet came out, they actually didn’t know there was a culture, there were stories in the great land they found, criss-crossing the continent.”
Left: Otto Simms with a photograph of himself on his country by Patrick Waterhouse that Simms has then “revised”.
We have seen the Mimili Maku artist Mumu Mike Williams and collaborators re-vision the map of Australia in wonderfully expressive and politically pointed ways, asserting their belonging, the power of their Tjukurrpa, the crime of events like the Maralinga and Emu Field nuclear tests of the 1950s and ‘60s. (An example of this work was reproduced in the Desert Mob promotional material this year and Williams contributes a diptych to the series in the current show.)
The Waterhouse-Warlukurlangu collaboration works in a similar vein, but with a finessed aesthetic taking its cue from the immaculate historical documents that were being revised. Sometimes though the intervention is more like a graffiti, as in the red nose applied to a 17th century lithograph of Cook. This provoked gales of laughter at the symposium. Waterhouse commented on the playfulness and humour of the process but at the same time,  he said, they were all aware they were making powerful imagery that was about shifting perceptions, bringing in something new to parts of the historical record. He extended his critical thinking to his own photographic process, with its inbuilt power relationship between photographer and subject, inviting community members into a process of dialogue with him and the images he took of them.  These form the bulk of the images on show at Desart.
An example is the photograph of Simms (see above), standing in his country, west of Yuemdumu. The photographic image and Simms’s overpainting combine to show “who I am, where I come from, what my identity is in my own country, the jukurrpa that is within me.” Other images in the show, taken in profile in the vein of the typological photographs of early ethnographers, are over-painted in black, an act of obliteration, rejecting the kind of objectifying information such images historically sought to convey.
Cultural identity is inevitably a strong theme at Desert Mob and the takes on it are richly varied. For contemporary Aboriginal people it is not exclusively rooted in their dreamings and country: a range of other influences and adaptations are also in evidence. This year perhaps there has been none more light-heartedly entertaining than the short film Never Stop Riding screened at the symposium. It comes from that hive of creativity, Iwantja Arts, and poignantly features the late J. Pompey among its cast of cowboys. It has a message to the young men of the Lands, about pride in the stockmen’s heritage and fine horsemanship of their elders and forebears, but it is also a wonderfully playful riff on the Western, with its story of stolen gold and shoot-ups and classic one-liners – “Make my day”, “I’m your worst nightmare “ – capped off with a hoot of a dance scene. To see Peter Mungkuri, who is not a young man, jiving about and then to recall that his is the fine hand that has delicately handled the pink washes and ink drawing of his large canvas, Ngayuku Ngura (My Country), is profoundly restorative: this optimism, this genius for life and its expression in art,  it’s enormous what is being offered to us here.
RELATED READING: My review in Artlink.
IMAGES BELOW, from top. 
Bindi Magic: clockwise from top left, work by Billy Tjampijinpa Kenda, Kukula McDonald, Kenda, and Charles Jangala Inkamala.
Iwantja Arts: Never Stop Riding, screening at the symposium.
Yarrenyty Arltere Artists: in the foreground Trudy Inkamala’s Devil Devil Woman.
Warlukurlangu Artists: Karen Napaljarri Barnes, Ngatijirri Jukurrpa – Budgerigar Dreaming.
Gallery Three, opening night, ceramics from Ernabella in the foreground.
Opening night crowd.
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