Brilliant Desert Mob turns 30



There couldn’t have been a more eloquent way to to speak to the depth and breadth of the Desert Mob achievement: a roll call of the “nations or tribes” who have taken part in this brilliant affirmation of desert Aboriginal culture and belonging over the last three decades. 

At the show’s opening three Warumungu men, all from Tennant Creek, shared the task – Jimmy Frank and Jospeh Williams, artists and cultural leaders from Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre, and Norman Frank, respected Elder and board member of Julalikari, the region’s Aboriginal-controlled community service organisation.

The names rang out. 

Jimmy Frank started with “people from the west”:  “Pintupi … Warlpiri … Luritja … and Western Aranda mob.”

There were whoops and applause between each name.

Norman Frank talked “about art works from the east”:  “Eastern Arrernte … Alyawarre mob.”

Jospeh Williams spoke for the north: “Mudburra … Jingulu … Warumungu … Warlmanpa … Kaytetye … Anmatyerre.”

And from the south, Jimmy Frank called out (humbly excusing his pronunciation): “Pitjantjatjara …Ngaanyatjarra … Yankunytjatjara.”

And there were more, he said, many more who had been part of Desert Mob over the 30 years.

The men had already acknowledged the Arrernte custodians of the land on which the mob has always gathered. As visitors they had come with a gift for them – a magnificent ‘number seven’ boomerang, accepted on their behalf by Arts Minister Chansey Paech.

Other peoples, who have been part of the Desert Mob story, come to mind. From across the WA border, they are represented on the gallery walls once again this year: Martu … Walmajari … Jaru … Kukatja … Ngarti … Ngaatjatjarra.

The crowd, gathered for this 30th anniversary celebration (postponed from last year), had already been delighted with a performance by the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir and then a wonderful Anangu inma – telling, in dance and song, a Seven Sisters story – led by Rene Kulitja (at top and below).

It was an apposite choice, this story shared across a vast tract of desert Country – from Martu to APY and Ngaanyatjarra lands. There are many events in the songlines that track the story – as anyone who has seen the Songlines exhibition at the National Museum of Australia has learned – but its central motif, enacted by Rene Kulitja’s dancers, was instantly recognisable: the women banding together as they flee the young warrior pursuing them, looking over their shoulders in apprehension, repelling his advances when he draws near.

In the galleries the story is taken up in paint in a number of versions by Papulankutja and Tjala artists, and by Rene Kulitja herself and her daughters, Francine and Esmeralda, in the satellite exhibition from Maruku Arts, showing at Central Craft next door.

It’s what Desert Mob is all about, as Jimmy Frank had explained: showing to the outside world what is unique about Aboriginal people – their culture. “It is our identity, it’s where we come from, it makes us who we are.” This “pathway” was opened by “Mr Namatjira”, who “started everything”, and was taken up by Papunya Tula Artists who last week marked their 50th anniversary (being celebrated with a special show, Martupura Tjukurrpa – Important Business, in their Todd Mall gallery).

He paid particular tribute to “the artists no longer with us today”, as well as the organisations – the “people in the background” from Araluen, Desart, the art centres, their boards (such as Julalikari, singled out for mention by Jospeh Williams), art workers. And audiences too, near and far, who “want to learn about our culture”. Together they have “made it all possible”.

Desert Mob became “a nesting place”, said Jospeh Williams, “for up and coming artists who went on to showcase their works” nationally and internationally. It nurtured the likes of Mr Namatjira’s grandson, Vincent Namatjira, and “guys like us” – him and Jimmy Frank, parts of the Tennant Creek Brio, who last year were invited to show at the prestigious Sydney Biennale (as were Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands, and Mimili Maku, again both represented in the 2021 Desert Mob).

He made a point about the traditional and the contemporary – “that we do with our creativity” – “walking side by side”.

Inside, on the high south wall of Gallery 3, The Brio’s brand of contemporary hangs in all its startling glory.

It’s just three years since they burst onto the scene.

The artists live in a small open highway town. They assert their traditions and language – as was evident from the Warumungu songs they sang at the opening – but in their display this year they assert equally the hybrid culture arising from the many influences experienced in their urban lives.

There are Fabian Brown’s fantastical creatures, which seem to have injected some of their other-worldly character into the enormous insects in the collaborative works by Simon Wilson and Fabian Rankine (a recent addition to the Brio); there are the loosely painted geometries of Marcus Camphoo’s abstracts, one receding into a mesmerising gold shimmer on a huge un-stretched canvas. Wilson’s Witch Doctor Light Head, painted on a flatscreen television, seems to step straight out of an unnerving sci-fi animation. And then, returning to earth, there’s a dazzling rendering in paint of spinifex by Rankine.

Innovations by artists from other art centres may be quieter but are captivating nonetheless. It was the endearing Doris Bush Nungarrayi on opening night, standing proudly in front of her work (below), who drew my attention to Papunya Tjupi’s display of smaller works, experimenting with new approaches to their various subjects. Her work, Anangu Tjuta at Nyunmanu and Papa Tjukurrpa, is rooted in Country and traditional story, but in contrast to her large colourful and detailed canvasses (you can see one at the Vincent Lingiairi Art Award display at Tangentyere Artists), it focusses on drawing (in paint), each motif held distinct in simple black and white on board.

In this display I was also taken by Dennis Nelson Tjakamarra’s pen drawings, both Old Man Dreaming of a V8 (and he’s also got a love story on his mind) and Ilpilli, showing the arrival of an aeroplane in early contact days. The transfixed and alarmed Aboriginal people in the scene are naked but there are a couple of clothed whitefellas trying to reassure them, no it’s not a “Mamu” (ghost), it’s an aeroplane (well, that explains everything).

Tjakamarra’s scenes are in comic book mode, complete with speech bubbles, but he surrounds each one with a delicately painted band of traditional insignia – the long wavering lines of travel and story, the concentric circles of gathering.  The traditional and the contemporary “walking side by side”, as Jospeh Williams said.

Really, all desert Aboriginal art is in this kind of movement, at least in terms of its mode of production. In my first visit I’m often taken by the novel and the figurative: I was struck this year by Mary Pan’s (Tjala Arts) wonderful drawings of animals in coloured ink on paper, particularly her thorny devil; by the equally astute thorny devil by Greenbush artist, Josiah Binsaris; to the swirl of community life, intersecting with an Emu Dreaming, depicted by Clarise Nampijinpa Poulson (Warlukurlangu Artists), which looks like it could be influenced by the graphic style of electronic games; and from the same art centre, Karen Napaljarri Barnes’s delightful Jurlpu (birds); by other documents of community life, like Sally Mulda’s triptych, with its matter-of-fact observations of town campers’ daily rhythms, such as “living people sleeping down the creek”; by Yarrenyty Arltere’s eye-catching presentation of their ever-charming soft sculptures, swinging from hoops as you enter Gallery 2.

There was also no getting away from the immediate and powerful impact of works from Spinifex Arts Project, with the standouts for me being Timo Hogan’s Lake Baker and Lennard Walker’s Kulyuru. While very different in style – the lush painterliness of Hogan’s lake; the austere but unrelenting expansion of Walker’s concentric circles –  both share monumental scale and an intense pared down focus on their subjects.

Works where traditional iconography is taken up in great detail take more time. There are many such fine works in the show to reward slower contemplation – and luckily there are weeks in front of us for return visits, with the exhibition not coming down until 24 October.

Desert Mob each year is at the peak of the town’s cultural offerings. I sorely missed Desart’s annual contribution of the Symposium, and hope for its return next year. Nonetheless, the anniversary show is amplified by several satellite shows, making for a veritable festival across town of desert Aboriginal art.

I’ve mentioned some above. In addition are a retrospective of Araluen’s acquisitions from the show’s three decades; Talapi’s annual Desert Colour; Raft Artspace’s Tjilpi Kutjara, focussing on Spinifex artists Lawrence Pennington and Simon Hogan; Bindi’s annual Bindi Magic (celebrating its 10th anniversary); Desart’s annual photography prize; and Marlene Rubunta’s solo at Watch This Space, in recognition of her Lofty win last year, for her outstanding contribution to the arts.

Below: Seven sisters stories by, left to right, Freda Brady, Sandra Ken, and Maringka Tunkin (Tjala Arts).


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here