Cookie

Cookie-PaddyJapaljarriStewartLast week I read with some surprise and no little sadness the obituary notice in the Sydney Morning Herald for Paddy Japaljarri Stewart.  He was known as “Cookie” from his days as a cook at the Papunya settlement, days that overlapped the creation of the Honey Ant Dreaming mural on the school building there, days that presaged his own involvement in painting up the school–the doors this time–at Yuendumu over a decade later.  Those twin events have always stood in my mind as the portals of the Western Desert Painting movement; I know there are other significant milestones scattered in and amongst them, but for a long time Papunya Tula and Warlukurlangku Artists represented in my mind the birth of the movement.  And while there are still a few of those giants in the earth still standing, I find it inexpressibly sad to lose one more witness to genesis.

I’ve met a fair number of artists in the last twenty years; Cookie was one of them, although the acquaintance came late.  But in different ways he has held a unique place in my personal history of exploring Aboriginal art, and perhaps that is why I am left pondering his legacy on this cold and rainy January morning.

Like many people, our education about Aboriginal art began with Papunya Tula, but in the early 90’s when we began collecting, the austerity of the traditional four-color palette was giving way to brighter acrylic dazzlers and among our first acquisitions was a brilliant, multi-hued Rain Dreaming by Long Jack Phillipus, another of those primordial painters from the Papunya settlement.  This was a time, too, when the artists of Utopia and especially Emily Kngwarreye and Gloria Petyarre were dominating the market.  The brilliance of color was an irresistible part of the appeal, and it wasn’t long before we fell under the spell of the Yuendumu painters.

And by the mid-90s, Paddy Stewart and Paddy Sims were the touchstones of men’s painting in that community.  My memory is that their works were scarce and expensive in those days, and it was with great joy that we finally located a resplendent work by the latter at Indigenart in Perth on our first trip to that city.  These were the days when Internet commerce in Aboriginal art was limited pretty much to email communications with major galleries in the capital cities and we came home delighted but determined somehow to find another work by Paddy Stewart.

Luckily, the art coordinator at Yuendumu in those days was also a pioneer in the arts of technology, Liam Campbell, and I believe that he was the first remote community manager with whom we were able to correspond electronically.  We wrote and explained our quest to him.  Within a few days he wrote back and suggested that we commission a work—a possibility that had never even crossed our minds.  We responded enthusiastically and in short order Liam told us he’d gone out for a walk with the old man and encouraged him to make a painting “in the old way” for us.   A few weeks later, an envelope arrived via air mail; this was still the days before digital cameras, and so Liam had to photograph the canvas, print the picture, and send it postally.

The painting was a Possum Dreaming (Janganpa Jukurrpa) and this was the story:

Jajirdi [native cat] came from the south of Wantangurru to Yakurdiyi where Janganpa were having a secret ceremony. The Jajirdi saw them but did not realize that the ceremony was on and walked in on it. Janganpa and Jajirdi began fighting as a result, at Yurripajirru. The men fought but the women were not close by as it was men’s business. The Janganpa forced the Jajirdi to be part of the initiation ceremony after they had finished fighting. The concentric circle represent the Yakurdiyi. The Dreaming belongs to Japaljarri/Jungurrayi men and Napaljarri/Nungurrayi women.

Cookie-AndreaNungurrayiMartinWe were delighted, all the more so because in the interim we had stumbled on the work of Andrea Nungurrayi Martin, who painted the same subject (right).  We quickly agreed to purchase Paddy’s work; Liam quickly suggested that if we liked, he would ask Andrea to paint her version of the story for us as well.  This was the first time that we had acquired two works that we explicitly understood to be representations of the same jukurrpa story, and I was fascinated to study the ways in the which the iconography both differed and overlapped in the two works.

A few years later we went back to Australia, in 2001, and for the first time managed to see the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award show in Darwin.  This was the year that the Japaljarri men won the work on paper with their reinterpretation of the Yuendumu School Door designs and I remember gazing at them with a mixture of awe and longing.

That trip around Australia in 2001 was a watershed in terms of our collecting.  We bought our first sculpture, our first bark painting, and while back in Perth, stumbled across the catalog for Beyond the Pale, the show that Brenda Croft had curated the previous year for the Adelaide Biennale; that was our introduction to urban Aboriginal art.  We never lost interest in the desert acrylics, but we had vast new territories to explore.

In 2007 I was able to take part in a tour of remote communities sponsored by Austrade, and I was overwhelmed at the possibility of visiting so many places I’d only heard of and meeting many more artists.  We arrived in Yuendumu about midway through the trip, and after we had all piled into the troopie for the short ride from the airstrip to the art centre, Cecelia Alfonso informed us the Paddy Stewart was gravely ill and had gone to Alice Springs for medical attention.  We spend the afternoon on the verandah of the art centre with Paddy Sims, who was voluble in explaining the Star Dreaming he was painting at the time, but grew subdued at the mention of his brother’s absence.

The following day we were in Alice Springs and went to visit Ngurratjuta Iltja Ntjara.  Not long after our arrival, John Oster pulled me aside and asked if I recognized the old man seated in the middle of the room.  You can imagine my surprise when he told me that it was Paddy Stewart.  Despite having spent the previous day hanging out with Paddy Sims (and earlier that morning at Kintore with George Tjungurrayi, Charlie Tjapangati, and Makinti Napanangka), I was suddenly overcome with shyness.  I sat down on the floor near him, and quickly fell into conversation with Pansy Napangardi (it was quite a couple of days!) who was excited to have so many Americans visiting, Americans who might be talked into taking her back to the States with us.  Paddy kept his head down, painting the designs of a Budgerigar Dreaming slowly and precisely.  Eventually he looked up, and I had my iPod ready, displaying a photograph of the Janganpa Jukurrpa he’d painted for us nearly a decade earlier.  He looked at it closely but briefly, and returning to his brushwork said simply, “Old one, that.”

I came away from those two days feeling like I’d dived deep into the well of Aboriginal art history, having met and spoken to some of the heroic figures of the past thirty years, feeling, in some ways, as though I’d met the ancestors themselves.  For of course, I had.  And now another one of them has grown tired and returned to the country he came out of.  The songs endure.

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The Bruise Beneath the Skin

One of the most popular paintings in the Crossing Cultures exhibition, judging by the comments I heard and the number of people standing with their phones and cameras pointed at it, was Samantha Hobson’s beautiful canvas, Wave Break at Night (2003).  At both the Hood Museum and the Toledo Museum, the painting hung in proximity to Rosella Namok’s Blue Water Hole (2003), and I’d like to take some time today to talk about the two of them, and to take a plunge into what may be deeper meanings that stand to unsettle the immediate appeal of these works.

The modern community of Lockhart River is comprised of a diverse collection of approximately 850 people from the Wuthathi, Kuuku Ya’u, Uutaalnganu, Umpila, and Kaanju clans who were brought together  at Orchid Point in the 1920s through the efforts of the Anglican Church Mission.  Dispersed and told to go bush during the Second World War, these people were once more assembled in the 1950s and ultimately relocated at the present location near Quintel Beach.  As with many other government and mission sponsored settlements, friction developed among the various clans living on country traditionally belonging to others.  Removal from the coastal areas and islands caused more unhappiness.  Sally Butler describes recent history in her publication Our Way: contemporary Aboriginal art from Lockhart River (University of Queensland Press, 2007).

The township of Lockhart River is located 2 kilometres inland from Quintel Beach, one of the many white sandy beaches that run along the coast of Lloyd Bay.  Traditional homelands of Sandbeach country incorporate the islands and sea that run parallel to these shores, spreading inland to the easterly slopes of the coastal ranges.  Most of the population of approximately 850 live in the township of Lockhart River, although many kinship groups have camps or outstations located on their traditional lands….  These outstations and camps are extremely important to the community today.  The Lockhart River Community Plan 2004-2008 lists the people’s first priority as ‘getting back to country’, an initiative involving the development of facilities on these outstations and improving access to them by road and sea.  A number of native title claims and other tenure resolution processes relating to these traditional homelands are currently in place.

The priority of ‘getting back to country’ inspires much of the contemporary art, and expressions of country are often means of establishing or affirming traditional connections to one’s homelands (Butler, p. 17).

Elsewhere in this chapter of Our Way, Butler reproduces a conversation she had with a number of the Lockhart River artists in which they talk about “getting back to country” and reconnecting with the “old way.”  The beaches are a favored site in these stories, as the younger generation strolls the shoreline or camps at night around a fire to listen to the older people tell  stories handed down from the days before the missionaries arrived, when language was still strong and the sense of place uncorrupted.

This, then, is part of the background to these two paintings by members of the original Lockhart River Art Gang that hung in Crossing Cultures and are now part of the permanent collection of the Hood Museum of Art.

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The proximate subject of Rosella Namok’s work is a waterhole called Blue Water, a place to which she frequently returns in her paintings.  Blue Water Hole is wonderfully multivalent in its imagery.  Although centered on the image of the water hole itself, the painting suggests in its background a blueness that encompasses sky, sea, and even the beach itself in its varied hues and textures.  The long vertical lines that transect the surface of the painting evoke rain falling on the beach (as in Soft Morning Rain, 2004, see Butler, p. 38) and the mangroves that line the shore (see Claudie Mangroves, 2004,  Butler, p. 96).  But most of all they evoke those soft times upon the beach, the whispered conversations with aunties as they speak of the old days, a respite and relief from modern times, a moment of peace in country with ancient associations.  We could be looking back through time almost as much as upon a moment in time.

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Samantha Hobson’s Wave Break at Night is quite another matter altogether, although it partakes in some degree of that sense of escape to the silence of the beach that pervades Namok’s painting.  In the wall text that accompanied the display of this work at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Museum in November of 2003, Hobson stated “This painting is about the waves coming in and breaking on the beach…you can see it on a full moon…to make those white bubbles. Looks really good.”  In a conversation we had during the weekend they spent at the exhibition in Charlottesville that year, Hobson spoke about how she relished the chance to get away to the beach at night, away from the noise of the township proper and to spend quiet time in the hut she had built on the shore.

Based on the reactions of audiences during the exhibition of the painting in Crossing Cultures this past year, the pleasure Hobson expresses comes through clearly.  The beauty of the foamy waves breaking on the beach, the hint of sunrise suggested by the crimson illumination of sky and sea and beach  immediately transport viewers into a vision of a kind of tropical paradise (notice how, as in Namok’s painting, all three elements are presented as a continuum, perhaps even as a single phenomenon).  Even the dense, shiny, clotted surface of the paint has the effect of suggesting a luxuriant humidity that makes the illusion all the more enticing.

But there is another story lurking in this painting, and it is not as pretty as the surface suggests.  Hobson has been a great chronicler of the stress and violence that exists in the township of Lockhart River, starting with a series known collectively as Stressed Out.  The eponymous canvas (1999, Butler, p. 99) from this group of works features a hangman’s noose.  The composition of what Butler calls the “pinnacle” of this series, the NGV’s Bust ‘Im Up (2000, Butler, p. 100) deploys paired splashes of black that invert the white wave crests of Wave Break at Night.  It shows the ferocity of violence much the way that the raging bush fires of the paintings Hobson created at around the same time. It also reflects a violence in the natural world that parallels the drunken Friday night domestic violence of Bust ‘Im Up.  Smass ‘Im, from 2001 (Butler, p.120) uses the same iconic device, a flare of black splattered across the canvas that evokes a blood spill.

“Poetry begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, “grace” metaphors, and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have. Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.”  So said the American poet Robert Frost in a speech delivered at Amherst College in 1931.  I’ve always felt that his statement applied to the arts generally.  Indeed, if you accept a broad definition of “poetry” based in its Greek root ποιεῖν, “to make,” it is a small step to Plutarch’s assertion that “painting is silent poetry.”

Hobson may well be saying one thing and meaning another in Wave Break at Night.  The peace of the beach, the solace of the sound of waves breaking is surely present.  But behind the beach, back in town, lies the violence that the sea represents an escape from.  Seen in this light, the painting takes on the colors of bruising, the harsh blue-red of broken blood vessels.

We are accustomed to the thought that the surface of Aboriginal paintings reveals only part of the story contained in them.  In work stemming from the traditional practices of the desert or from the clan patterns of Yolngu, we know that another, deeper meaning lies concealed.  I would say that this manner of painting reflects a habit of thinking as well as an aesthetic tradition.  And I submit that such a habit of thinking informs the paintings of the Lockhart River Art Gang, even though we tend to think of them as springing from a society and an artistic tradition whose links to the past are not obvious. To quote Stephen Gilchrist again, there are registers of knowledge in Aboriginal painting, and those registers sing to us across the beaches of the Lockhart River settlement.

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Yolngu Songmen: Rorruwuy Manikay

Last week I shared a couple of clips of Yolngu rock ‘n’ roll from the Seven Star Band, a bunch of rowdy young rockers (and I say that with love in my heart).

This week, I want to turn to a production from the Mulka Project, a hauntingly beautiful, both visually and aurally, recording of Rorruwuy manikay.

Rorruwuy lies just west of the mouth of the Burungbirinung River on Arnhem Bay.  The song men here are Manydjarri and Ngongu Ganambarr, and the yidaki is played by Marrawulwul Garmu.

A CD recording of these songs is available from the Mulka Project.

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Yolngu Songmen: Seven Star Band

Each year at Christmastime I try to kick back a little and instead of putting together an essay, I try to offer a little lighter entertainment: photographs, or short reading lists, or something similar.  This year, it’s time for some music videos, and I’ll kick off a pair of posts today with a couple of clips from Yirrkala’s Seven Star Band.

The first is a highly polished music video, and I’ve cribbed this text from its appearance on Vimeo:

“Baru” means crocodile in Yolngu Mata, the language spoken in the Seven Star band’s hometown of Yirrkala, in NE Arhemland, Australia.

Crocodiles are important to each of the band members, in more ways than one. Baru are strong symbols representing the central way in which each Yolngu clan is connected together in an age-old system. The image-rich lyrics of this song reflect this connection, with words talking about the responsibilities of the band’s generation.

One of the central messages in the song is how the band’s generation are next in line to follow in the old people’s footsteps, and keep the culture alive and strong.

In August last year, the Seven Star Band won the School Band Award in the Indigenous Music Awards. 105.7 ABC Darwin supported the School Band Award prize, and the ABC worked with the band to produce a clip of their winning song, ‘Baru’.

ABC Open producer Will Tinapple and NT State Director Mark Bowling travelled to Yirrkala in November for a three-day video-making workshop.

Despite two days of torrential downpours, the team worked hard to pull off some great shots and locations.
It was a big few days planning and shooting for the musicians who put in extra hours to finish year-end schoolwork. They braved the unseasonal downpours, layered on traditional white clay paint, Gappan, and got out on location to shoot multiple takes at different spots in the community.

As well as its cultural significance, Yirrkala has massive musical heritage producing the likes of Yothu Yindi and Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunipingu.

A couple of the members of the Seven Star Band have family members who played in and toured with Yothu Yindi.

Seven Star Band guitarist said, “This video gives me a chance to be a role model and share culture to other members of my generation.”

The second clip is rougher in its sound production values, as it was recorded live at a Battle of the Bands, but it gives a good sense of what the boys sound like live, which is kind of a cross between Yothu Yindi and Iwantja.  Good stuff.

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Papunya Tula Trifecta

Each November, Papunya Tula Artists hosts their annual in-house blockbuster exhibition in the Todd Mall gallery, and this year, while no exception, was truly exceptional.  Not one, but three shows were mounted: a general selection of recent works from the cooperative’s artists; a benefit for the Western Desert Nganampa Walytja Palyantjaku Tjurtaku Aboriginal Corporation to assist in establishing a dialysis service in Kiwirrkura; and a solo exhibition of recent work by Johnny Yungut Tjupurrula.

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My faithful friend and correspondent Glenn Manser was in Alice and sent along some lovely shots of the installation that I can share with you today.  There are also PDF versions of the catalogs for the dialysis benefit works and Tjupurrula’s solo to be found on the Papunya Tula website.  I’ll begin with the front gallery and a few of the recent works by the company.

A selection of recent paintings by Katjarra Butler

A selection of recent paintings by Katjarra Butler

Bobby West Tjupurrula, Kawayi Namiptjinpa, Yinarupa Nangala

Bobby West Tjupurrula, Kawayi Namiptjinpa, Yinarupa Nangala

 

Yukultji Napangati's golden glow

Yukultji Napangati’s golden glow

 

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Top row, unidentified, Yukultji, Willy Tjungurrayi
Bottom row, Warlimpirringa, Yinarupa, Kawayi

Bobby West Tjupurrula Can he get any better?

Bobby West Tjupurrula
Can he get any better?

A selection of 61x55 cm jewels

A selection of 61×55 cm jewels

In the second gallery, the dialysis project paintings included works by four major artists of long-standing accomplishments.  This may be the final time that works by N. Napurrula grace the gallery’s walls, and there’s no getting around the sadness in that fact. Carrying on the tradition though is her son, Morris GIbson Tjapaltjarri, and another tjilpi, his friends and painting companion at Kintore, Hilary Tjapaltjarri.  The fourth contributor to this part of the exhibition is Patrick Tjungurrayi, who will be able to return to Kiwirrkura if the company is successful in funding dialysis treatment in WA.

Hilary Tjapaltjari

Hilary Tjapaltjarri

Works by Napurrula, left, and son Morris Gibson, right, flank a large canvas by Patrick Tjungurrayi

Works by Napurrula, left, and son Morris Gibson, right, flank a large canvas by Patrick Tjungurrayi

And in the back gallery, Tjupurrulaku: Paintings by Johnny Yungut Tjupurrula.  This old man goes from strength to strength, his compositions still powerfully torqued, his colors more molten than ever.

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If y ou look closely at these photographs, you’ll see a lot of red dots on the wall labels.  But a few works from each category are still available, and are available for review from the Collectables section of the PTA website.  Congratulations to the company on another great close to the year!

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Remarkable People

They say that all good things must come to an end.  That doesn’t make me any happier when they do.

Truth, it’s not so much endings as changes in the air, but they are momentous changes.  Dallas Gold is ceasing to operate Raft Artspace as we have known it, though he will keep his hand in with special activities and still be around for Desert Mob.  And Edwina Circuitt is hanging up her halo and heading out from Warakurna.  In some important ways, these two individuals have defined my experience with the Aboriginal art market in this new century of ours.

I can’t remember how we came to know about Raft Artspace but records show me that we bought a pair of works from Ngukurr artists Faith Thompson and Joyce Huddlestone from him sometime in 2001.  I do remember receiving email from him in mid-September of that year, when, in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center, he wrote to ask if we had any means of making contact with people in New York City.  He had an artist friend working on a show there at the time, and news was scant.  I remember we tried unsuccessfully to make contact; I know, too that all was well in the end.

remarkable-dallasWe first met Dallas at the end of that year, as he was just moving into his upstairs gallery space in Parap.  The gallery hadn’t opened yet; it was the Christmas season of closures and Darwin was miserably, paralyzingly hot.  But since we were only in town for a few days, and Dallas was busy organizing his stock, he agreed to meet us.  The gallery walls were stacked with works from  Balgo and Warmun and Ikuntji.  At that point our horizons were just beginning to expand beyond the desert acrylics of Papunya Tula and Warlukurlangu; we were beginning to realize there was more to life than dot paintings.  The Ngukurr work earlier in the year had been significant in that regard, and the experience of standing in the midst of Dallas’s eclectic vision was a huge step forward in my appreciation of the varieties of Aboriginal art.

It was an experience that would often be repeated.   For throughout the next dozen years, Dallas was to introduce us, consistently, to artists we had never heard of before, artists whom we might never have considered seriously were it not for our trust in his judgement.  We’d drop in to the gallery and there would be yet another killer show from Maningrida or Yirrkala on, and by that time Dallas had done much to further our education in those areas.  Knowing that he’d already introduced us to the power of Jimmy Njiminjuma, Wukun Wanambi, and Djirrirra Wunungmurra, he’d say, “Well, I don’t have much to show you.”  And then he’d go into the back and come out with a small work on board by Mick Jawalji and say, “Here’s a new guy you might be interested in.”

Nor was his instruction limited to Aboriginal art.  I came to know and admire the work of Ildiko Kovacs and Peter Adsett thanks to Dallas.  And the tiny balcony in the Parap space that overlooked the gum trees in the parking lot was the closest thing to a nineteenth-century French salon that I’ve ever experienced anywhere.  There was no telling who might be out there with a coffee, but I remember vividly hanging out with Will Stubbs, Djambawa Marawili, Howard Morphy, Nicolas Rothwell, Colin and Liz Laverty, and David Angel at different times.  For an American whose participation in the Australian art world took place mainly on the internet, I found going to Raft Artspace to be a bit like  stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia.

We’ve only been to visit Dallas once since he moved the Gallery to Alice Springs, but the experience of discovery remained undimmed.  He was hanging a show from Ernabella and Iwantja and two stunning large paintings faced one another from the ends of a room in the gallery, and when I asked who the artists were, I felt no wiser, for their names were unknown to me.  But a couple of days later, in Darwin for the NATSIAA, there was Pepai Jangala Carroll onstage accepting the award for Dickie Minytjiri.  And no, I wasn’t surprised.

Nor am I surprised to discover, looking back over this past year, that what was, for me, the most exciting gallery show of 2013 was Desert Boards, which brought Dallas together with, among others, Edwina Circuitt.

remarkable-edwinaI’ve known Edwina only about half as long as I’ve known Dallas.  We first met when she picked up my American Austrade expedition group from the airport at Warakurna and loaded us all into the Warakurna Artists troopie for a drive down the corrugated road, past the Giles Weather Station, and on to the great big yellow shed that housed the art centre.  It was May 2007 and our second full day on the fourteen day tour.  We’d spent the morning in Warburton being treated to a look through their amazing archives and my mind was already reeling from the strangeness of the whole experience.  And now Edwina was introducing me to Peter Lewis, who had a photograph album full of pictures of Warakurna in the 1950s that he wanted to share with us!

In thinking back on the afternoon and evening we spent in Warakurna, I remember being struck by two things about Edwina: she was unflaggingly earnest and infused with joy at what she was doing.  I remember that pair of qualities helped keep me a bit off balance.  I might have expected one, or the other, but not both qualities co-existing so harmoniously in one soul.  One thing was certain: they both manifested themselves in enormous energy.  In a matters of hours I heard about her trip to Perth to swear out a restraining order against a carpetbagger who was trying to disrupt the community and another journey, not quite as long, to take her beloved dog to see a vet.  And her outrage when someone suggested that a medicinal bullet might be equally effective.

That night we had accommodations at the famous Warakurna Roadhouse.  We sat around the cook shed watching question time in Parliament (another mind-boggling experience for someone whose experience of watching the government on television was CSPAN capturing an empty congressional chamber in Washington DC) until Edwina showed up with dinner.  Then we all repaired to the fire that had been built outside; Mrs Porter came along for the evening and told us about making bush medicines.  Finally, we were too sleepy to stand any longer and retired to our rooms for the night.  Edwina was back before daybreak to make sure we all got loaded safely into the troopie again for our flight to Kintore.

Edwina is not one to brag about her accomplishments, and she’s certainly an organizer who brings together the strengths of many people for the common good of all.  So it’s hard for me, an outsider, to understand exactly what role she played in creating the Western Desert Mob, the alliance of art centres from the A/NPY lands. I do think of it as the first manifestation of  a whole new school of desert painting that everyone today agrees revolutionized the art of the deserts.  It brought color to the forefront of contemporary Indigenous art in a way that even the startling innovations at Yuendumu almost twenty years earlier didn’t quite achieve.  It’s hard to say exactly what role Edwina played in documenting that revolution in last year’s exhibition Purnu, Tjanpi, Canvas: Art of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands and the publication that followed, Ngaanyatjarra: Art from the Lands.  

It’s hard to say how the careers of Mr. Lewis and Mr Mitchell, of Carol Golding and Myra Cook might have prospered without Edwina’s guiding hand.  Would the astonishing history paintings that first appeared in Warakurna: All the Stories Got into our Minds and Eyes have come to pass?  Would this year’s amazing light boxes that debuted at Desert Mob been the logical outgrowth of those history paintings?  All I can say for certain is that all of these remarkable achievements, indeed, almost the entire history of Warakurna Artists, have taken place since Edwina arrived at the art centre almost a decade ago.

And now its time for new chapters.  Although Dallas is ending the formal exhibition program at Raft Artspace, he had plans to remain active with special exhibitions and events at the gallery space, and will continue to be a presence at Desert Mob in the future while (quite literally) tending his garden in Alice.  Edwina will be on board at Warakurna Artists for a few months into 2014 and plans beyond that…well, who can say?

What I can say is that Dallas and Edwina have vastly enriched my appreciation of the art they have worked with and that these very personal reflections don’t do justice to the accomplishments of either of them.  I wish them both the best in whatever paths they choose to follow next, and hope that I have not seen the last of either.  In the meantime, my sincerest thanks to both.

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Big Name No Blanket

big-name-dvdAt the end of May 2007, I found myself in Alice Springs for a couple of days as part of a tour of Aboriginal communities and art centres sponsored by Austrade.  We had an afternoon free and so I made arrangements to catch up with Daphne Williams, the longtime heart, soul, and backbone of Papunya Tula Artists.  There’s always plenty of news to share, but I wasn’t expecting or prepared for one story Daphne had for me.

She asked if I’d heard the news about George Rrurrambu.  Bone cancer; he doesn’t have long.  “I was always fond of him,” Daphne said, “even if he was a real hellraiser when he was young.”  I was shocked by the news, and almost equally surprised at the thought of Daphne and George being friends, for on the surface of things, you could hardly imagine two more dissimilar personalities.  But now, looking back with a few years’ perspective, I  find it easy to believe that two people with such large, warm hearts would be fond of one another.

These thoughts came back to me last night while I was watching Big Name, No Blanket (Night Sky Films, 2013, directed by Steven McGregor), the new documentary about the late lead singer for the Warumpi Band, .

big-name-grThe film is in many ways a standard biopic.  There are lots of interviews with people who knew the singer well throughout his life, including his wife Suzina, his children, bandmates Neil Murray and Sammy Butcher, other musicians like Lou Bennett and Shane Howard, and desert filmmakers Rachel Perkins and Warwick Thornton.  There are clips from a couple of the Warumpi Band’s music videos (the ground-breaking first-song-in-language “Jailanguru Pakarnu” and the perennially popular “My Island Home“) and from the film of their 1986 Black Fella While Fella tour with Midnight Oil.  And there are many other, all too brief scenes from concert dates around Australia, from early days in Papunya through their hell-raising farewell performance at Stompen Ground in Broome in 2000.

In this respect the film enlarges upon the earlier ABC documentary about the band, The End of the Corrugated Road.  (The new film clocks in at just under an hour, twice the running time of the earlier feature.)  Any film project about the Warumpis is going to find its focus in the outsized personality of the band’s frontman, but much of the story here is told by those who knew him, even more so than through the interview clips with—as Neil Murray refers to him—G.R. himself.  As a result, Big Name No Blanket isn’t simply a biopic of one man.  Rather, G.R. comes to embody—much as he did back in the day—what the entire band and its story meant and continues to mean to their legions of fans, blackfella and whitefella alike.

The band is a legend; there’s no disputing that.  The first rock ‘n’ roll single to be sung in an Indigenous language; the band whose tutelage brought Midnight Oil to the creative peak of their own career with Diesel and Dust, the Oils’ album that grew out of the joint tour; the performance of “My Island Home” by Christine Anu at the closing ceremonies of the Sydney Olympics in 2000; the song “Blackfella/Whitefella” itself the anthem of reconciliation: all these are indelible markers in the renaissance of Indigenous culture in Australia in the final decades of the twentieth century.  One of the great strengths of Big Name No Blanket is the way in which it revivifies the legend and sends back into your heart the jolt of excitement all those events generated .

Because I have to admit, over the years, I’ve become a bit jaded, begun to take the Warumpis, and even G.R. himself, a bit for granted.  I groan whenever a film or a television show, needing to dramatize a feelgood moment, decides to splice in a troopie full of characters singing along with “Blackfella/Whitefella” on the radio.  Or when “My Island Home” gets pressed into similar service as a land rights lullaby.  There are times when it’s all a bit cringe-inducing, like the millionth time an elevator door closes and you find yourself listening to the strains of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” or worse, “Michelle”.

Big Name No Blanket manages to scrub away a lot of that accumulated overdose and reveal just how buzzworthy the Warumpis were thirty years ago, and  better, makes you realize how thrilling they still are.  The concert footage certainly helps: the blistering version of “Kintorelakutu” (my personal, all-time, best-of, favorite Warumpi song) filmed on an early tour of the Kimberley, or the crunching chords of “From the Bush” and “Warumpinya” that make you realize how much the band owes to AC/DC as well as to Chuck Berry.  But some of the most powerful moments in the film are in fact, much to my surprise, centered on the stories of “My Island Home.”

big-name-nullarborI bought the Warumpis’ first two albums many years ago in a record store tucked into a major shopping mall in the Brisbane CBD.  At the time I didn’t know a lot about the Band itself apart from the fact that they’d been on a bush tour with Midnight Oil.  I’d found the first album, Big Name, No Blankets, in a bin and taken it up to the counter, where the clerk asked, “Don’t you want their other album?  The one with “My Island Home”?  I just love that song.”  (In fact, I did want Go Bush! as well, but couldn’t find it; their only remaining copy was behind the counter for playing in the store, and they were kind enough to sell it to me.)  For lots of people, it seemed, the Warumpi Band began and ended with “My Island Home.”

The song has a vexed history, as many legends do.  It was a huge commercial hit for Christine Anu, not for the Band, ten years after they broke it on the radio.  And it was Christine Anu who got to perform at the Olympics.  Neil Murray movingly relates how hurt G.R. was by that incident, how G.R. believed he should have been the one making that eloquent statement of land rights at that crucial moment when Australia had the international stage.

Sadly, there’s no mention in the film of the other performance at those closing ceremonies that directly addressed the issues of land rights and reconciliation.  It was given to Midnight Oil to take that message to the world with their performance of “Beds Are Burning” in their black trackies emblazoned with the word SORRY.  Although their performance and its strident rebuke of John Howard was an absolutely thrilling moment, there is a cruel irony in the fact that the band that embodied reconciliation, that galvanized audiences, that demanded that everyone “stand up, stand up and be counted” was nowhere to be seen or heard that night.

Murray also talks about the other long-standing, problematic legend relating to “My Island Home,” the question of its authorship.  Murray states that he wrote the song for G.R., and indeed it tells the story of the saltwater man marooned in the desert, far from his country (much as Murray himself was far from his Victorian roots).  Over time, G.R. came to regard the song as his own.  As Murray says, in G.R.’s mind, the song belonged to the singer and not to the author.  It’s clear that the confusion, the accusations that Murray somehow co-opted G.R.’s ownership, have hurt Murray over the years; it’s equally clear that he remains steadfast in his own beliefs about copyright and intellectual property while recognizing that G.R. saw things very differently.  This vignette does a lot to demonstrate how the respective cultures of blackfellas and whitefellas operated in the band, how the visions worked together and sometimes at odds with one another.

The films tackles a lot of the tensions that defined the Warumpis’ history: Neil’s desire to build a big, professional career, the Butchers’ will and obligations to stay close to Papunya that frustrated Murray, and above all, G.R.’s hell raising antics that cost the band business and clearly raised Murray’s blood pressure.  It doesn’t simplify the stresses.  It takes a chestnut of “reconciliation” and burnishes it to reveal the complications, the give and take, and the pain that surrounds the issues.  In doing so, it somehow re-animates not just “My Island Home” and “Blackfella/Whitefella,” but the whole legend, the thrills and the stumbles of what the Warumpis represented in those exciting days when the band was creating a new consciousness.

And finally, there is G.R.’s exquisite ultimate rendition of “My Island Home” with the Black Arm Band, only months before his death.  If you haven’t seen the performance, I’m not going to spoil it for you by describing it in detail.  But it is a moment that shows how much the song ultimately came to belong to the singer, not the least for it’s being sung in yolngu matha.   It’s much like the version that can be heard on G.R.’s single solo recording, Nerbu (Message), from 2004, and it’s the version that I saw a different incarnation of the Black Arm Band perform earlier this year here in America.

big-name-stage

There’s a scene in Big Name No Blanket in which the Warumpis are shown performing “Blackfella/Whitefella” at Stompen Ground, the concluding bit where the music drops out and G.R. exhorts the audience to sing, unaccompanied, “stand up, stand up and be counted.”  Then he exhorts them to jump while they sing.  The entire hall is buzzed, arms stretched high above their heads in imitation of G.R.’s energy, bouncing up and down, singing along with all their might.  It’s one of those moments of utter abandon and exhilaration.  G.R.’s  final performance on “My Island Home” with the Black Arm Band back in 2006 was another, and it reminded me how here in America, where probably fewer than a dozen people in the audience that night last February knew the Warumpis, Emma Donovan and the Black Arm Band managed to get the entire auditorium to join them in singing out over and over again, “my island home is a-waiting for me.”

Such is the power of the Warumpi Band; such is the charisma of George Rrurrambu Burarrwanga.  If you’re new to the Band’s magic, Big Name No Blanket will act as a superb introduction to the legend, and there’s just enough of the music there to get you hooked.  If like me, you’ve basked in the glow of the Warumpis for a long, long time, the film will regenerate the rush that came with discovering them for the first time.  In either case, you’ll come away with a nuanced appreciation of their history, their struggles, their achievements.  G.R. is often compared to Mick Jagger or to James Brown for his sheer energy and presence onstage.  But for me, the Warumpi Band is better perceived in light of Elvis Presley or the Beatles.  Not because there’s necessarily a strong musical kinship,   but because after Presely and the Beatles, nothing was ever the same again.  And that is true of the Warumpi Band as well.  Big Name No Blanket is an exquisite reminder of that fact, and a renewal of my faith in the meaning of rock ‘n’ roll.

Here’s the trailer for Big Name No Blanket; there’s another video on YouTube in which director Steven McGregor and co-producers Lisa Watts and Rachel Clements discuss the background and making of the film.  (Photos here are from the BNNB FB pages.)

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