In Memoriam

On December 2, Will Owen unexpectedly passed away in his sleep.

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Streets of Papunya

streets-of-papunyaHaving thoroughly enjoyed Vivien Johnson’s previous book, Once Upon a Time in Papunya, her attempt to chronicle the rise of Papunya Tula Artists, I didn’t really think twice when Rosina Di Marzo of New South Books reached out to ask if I would be interested in reviewing Johnson’s newest publication, Streets of Papunya: the re-invention of Papunya painting.  A few weeks late the handsome volume appeared in my mailbox, and I settled in to read.

Johnson’s allegiance to the town of Papunya itself has not wavered over four decades since she and her husband at the time, the artist Tim Johnson, trekked out to the settlement to investigate the new art movement that was taking shape there.  And although the town donated its name to the longest-lived and most prosperous Aboriginal art company to date, the force of the movement went west, “Kintorelakatu,” as the Warumpi Band sang it, in the great exodus of the Pintupi to their homelands, first at Kintore, or Walungurru, and later even farther west at Kiwirrkura, where the movement and the company continue to flourish to this day.

In recent years, with the flourishing of the desert art movement again in the central and southern reaches, Papunya’s name has come into common parlance in a new way, associated now with Papunya Tjupi, a new company that remains firmly rooted in the Honey Ant, or Tjupi, Dreaming.  In her new book, Johnson sets out to chronicle art in the town of Papunya from the early day soy the 1950s up to the present, and in doing so she has woven a story that fills in many blanks and provides much-needed continuity.  She has also, for me, told a tale that evoked many partly forgotten memories of my own earliest explorations of the art of the desert.

The literal streets of Papunya have long held a fascination for me, ever since I first saw an aerial view of the town that displayed an uncanny resemblance to a traditional sand drawing of four people seated around a campsite.  It took a while to track down the origin of this striking design as documented in the Rev. J. H. Downing’s Aboriginal ‘Dreamings’ and Town Plans: a report on traditional Aboriginal camp layout in relation to town planning (Institute for Aboriginal Development, 1979).


The conscious decision to pattern the settlement’s growth on the honey-ant designs has found new expression in recent times. The legacy of the founders of the Papunya art movement (as distinct, in some cases, from the founders of Papunya Tula) now lives on in the streets of Papunya, which bear names like Warungkula Court and Possum Crescent.  In a new access of pride in their history, the residents of Papunya, many of whom are direct descendants of the old men who initiated the painting movement and became it earliest household names, have rememorialized the families that are the backbone of tradition in the community.

Johnson’s history begins in the 1950s, an early chapter being the story of Albert Namatjira’s six months of court-ordered house arrest after his conviction for supplying alcohol to a “ward of the state.”  The presence of the most famous Aboriginal artist of all time in the town seems to have ignited a keener interest in the production of art, although the majority of the earliest attempts were either watercolors in the style of the master, or wood carvings that, despite their complexity and beauty, could easily be hawked to the tourist trade.

By the time of Geoffrey Bardon’s storied arrival, then, several of the names that now adorn the streets of Papunya were already in circulation as artists, names that became the first rank of superstars: Kaapa Mbitjana, Johnny Warungkula, Clifford Possum, Michael Nelson Jagamara.  These men, along with others like Long Jack Phillipus, Limpi Putungka Tjanpangati, Don Tjungurrayi, and Two Bob Tjungurrayi, were to become the Papunya artists: they painted early on for Papunya Tula, but they also remained behind when the Pintupi left to invent new pictorial traditions and sustain the Dreamings of Papunya.

strets-of-papunya-limpiThe story of Papunya painting in the 80s and 90s as Johnson tells it is for me the emotional center of Streets of Papunya, although I must say up front that that is a most personal judgment, reflective of my own history far more than Johnson’s.  The first Papunya painting that I owned was a brilliant Water Dreaming by Long Jack Phillipus.  The most startling early Papunya board I’ve ever fallen in love with is a Crow and Yam Dreaming by Limpi (at right), an artist I had never heard of until I saw the work reproduced in an auction catalog.  For some reason I could never recapture, I was fascinated by the work of Two Bob Tjungurrayi; now having read Johnson’s book I understand that the brilliance of Turkey Tolson’s Straightening Spears paintings owes a great deal to stylistic innovations that Limpi and Two Bob undertook in the late 80s, before Turkey and his fellow innovator, Mick Namarari, themselves left the streets of Papunya behind.  Reading about the heyday of Warumpi Arts, then located on Gregory Terrace around the corner from the old Papunya Tula shop, made me remember how thrilling it was in those days to be discovering the genius of the art of the central desert.

Many of the artists who catapulted Papunya Tula to fame remained in Papunya after the Pintupi exodus, and considerable artistic innovation was happening there.  Limpi Putungka and Two Bob Tjnugurrayi introduced a tile of dotting backgrounds in stripes of alternating and contrasting colors, adumbrating the Straightening Spears motif that would make Turkey Tolson internationally renowned.  Turkey and Mick Namarari themselves stayed close to Papunya for years after the settlement of Kintore.  Warumpi Arts was providing a successful commercial outlet in Alice Springs for the likes of Long Jack Phillipus, Dinny Nolan, and Dini Campbell.  But art making in Papunya remained a precarious business without the support of a local art centre.

As many of the old men died or grew too frail to paint extensively without support (Johnny Warungkula was nearly blind), wives and daughters became more central to the continuing painting tradition in the tiny settlement town.  Appeals for government support stalled in Canberra’s bureaucracy or went unheard at all.  But the artists (and Johnson) persisted in their efforts to pass on the stories in the new format of acrylic paint.

Finally in the mid-noughts, the developing talents of the women painters and the persistence of friends and supporters began to bear fruit.  A disused mechanic’s garage and an empty schoolteacher’s apartment were turned over to the use of a fledgling art centre and its coordinators.  But even then, obstacles remained: for example, although the garage was fitted up with utilities and plumbing that allowed work to take place there and be stored safely, it proved impractical to subdivide the building in order to provide culturally appropriate separate spaces for men and women to work in.  This simple fact helps to explain why even today the output of Papunya Tjupi, as the new centre came to be known, features primarily the work of women artists: the men have had a hard time finding the proper support to develop their talents.

The women, however, have become a force to be reckoned with in the 21st century wave of desert painting, developing a style that recognizably belongs to Papunya Tjupi, but at the same time constantly developing new idioms and experimenting with new compositional strategies.  Doris Bush Nungurrayi, Candy Nelson Nakamarrra, Isobel Gorey Nambajimba, Narlie Nelson Nakamarra, and Martha McDonald Nampitjinpa are among the artists who feature regularly in survey shows of desert painting, and even some of the old-timers, like Emily Andy Napaltjarri, who painted for Warumpi Arts in the 90s, have been re-invigorated in their practice.

Doris Bush Nungarrayi Tjurrpinyi (Swimming at Haasts Bluff), 2013

Doris Bush Nungarrayi, Tjurrpinyi (Swimming at Haasts Bluff), 2013

Johnson’s new book documents this living tradition with warmth, affection, and fervor.  Beautifully illustrated with artworks that capture the history of painting at Papunya for nearly sixty years and with affecting family portraits (and in an appendix, extensive family trees), it captures this vital but long overlooked chapter in the history of desert art.  It cannot fault to generate even more enthusiasm for the constantly evolving sensibilities that have sustained Papunya through all its trials.  It is a lovely, and loving, testament.

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Margo Smith, AM

margo_smithDr. Margo Smith, Director of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the University of Virginia has been awarded the Order of Australia for her work promoting Aboriginal art and culture in the United States of America.


The first thing to recognize is that very few people who are not Australian citizens have been awarded the AM.  Even fewer if you weed out peers and cricketeers.  Other Americans with whom Margo shares the honor include Admiral Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and internationally beloved comedian Jerry Lewis.  Pretty elite company, wouldn’t you say?

But considerations of citizenship aside, Margo richly deserves this honor.  The Kluge-Ruhe not only contains one of the largest collections of Indigenous Australian art outside of Australia, it is the only museum totally dedicated to that art in the Americas.  From its origins in the late 1990s as an outpost on the fringes of the University and south of the US capital of Washington, DC, the Kluge-Ruhe has became an international destination for enthusiasts, collectors, curators, and artists.  It is true, as Rover Thomas taught us, that “roads cross” and Margo has made her humble quarters on Pantops Mountain, amidst the splendor of Virginia’s hills, a crossroads both physical and cultural.


One of the chief reasons for this success is Margo’s genuine Southern hospitality, something we prize greatly in this part of the country, and something I learned about her early on.  We made our first trip to Charolottesville to visit the Collection in 2001, just a few years after in opened to the public, drawn by the promise of being able to consult the many printed volumes and research notes housed in the museum’s study center.

At the time I had a pretty insignificant collection of books about Aboriginal art of my own and just enough knowledge to understand how big the gaps in my education were.  And although I was entranced by the variety of the books in the museum’s library—some of them well known to me from references in the literature, others completely surprising (exhibition catalogs from Japan!)—I didn’t spend much time perusing them on that trip.  Instead we spend almost the entire day in conversation with Margo, hearing about her fieldwork among women on the Finke River, her friendship with Howard Morphy, and her travels throughout Australia.  If Southerners are famous for their hospitality, they are equally renowned  for their storytelling, and Margo’s gifts are gentle and impressive on both accounts.

Over the years since then we’ve returned to the Collection many, many times.  We’ve made the acquaintance of most of our fellow American collectors there.  We’ve sat down to dinner with anthropologists like Fred Myers, Francoise Dussart, Franca Tamisari  and Kim Christen, not to mention Howard and Frances Morphy.  (If you’re ever in a position to share a meal with anthropologists, be forewarned that they love to discuss other meals, usually consisting of exotic foods consumed in equally exotic locations: I suspect it’s a well-honed sub-genre of anthropological discourse.)  Gallerists en route to or from the Kluge-Ruhe, Beverly Knight, Suzanne O’Connell, and Stéphane Jacob, among others, have detoured to visit us in North Carolina.  Margo introduced us to Ron Ramsey, recently of the Newcastle Regional Art Gallery, when he was the cultural affairs attaché in Washington, and to Brian Kennedy shortly after his arrival in the US from the National Gallery of Australia.  I even had the chance to sit down once with the eponymous Mr. John Kluge himself (below), and his wife Tussi.


Many of our first introductions to famous artists likewise came at Margo’s hands: Fiona Foley lectured, and presented us with an autographed copy of her monograph Solitaire.  Rosella Namok, Fiona Omeenyo, Samantha Hobson, and Silas Hobson from Lockhart River shared their stories with us.  We spend fascinating days with Terry Yumbulul from Elcho Island, learning the history of the Memorial that his father raised there in the 1950s, the subject of Ronald Berndt’s 1962 study, An Adjustment Movement in Arnhem Land.  Juno Gemes came to visit with her husband, the brilliant Australian poet Robert Adamson.  Alick Tipoti performed traditional Torres Strait Islander dances on the lawn out behind the museum on a cloudless June day.  We met up once at Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where Margo introduced me to Stephen Page and members of the Bangarra dance troupe.margo-alick-tipoti

In recent years, Margo has secured funding to bring artists over to the Kluge-Ruhe for residencies, and the town has turned out to meet Judy Watson, Reko Rennie, Vernon Ah Kee, Yhonnie Scarce, and Ricky Maynard.  In just a few weeks, Tony Albert will be visiting to open an exhibition of his award-winning photographic series, Brothers.  Margo has also organized traveling exhibitions from the collection since its inception, beginning with Dreaming in Color: Aboriginal Art from Balgo, which toured the world for the better part of a decade.  Another early ambassadorial activity was the publication of Art from the Land: Dialogues with the Kluge-Ruhe Collection of Australian Aboriginal Art, which Margo co-edited with Howard Morphy in 1999.  The list of contributors to that volume reads like a Who’s Who of Indigenous art scholarship: Luke Taylor, Howard Morphy, Djon Mundine, Wally Caruana, Christine Watson, Francoise Dussart, and Fred Myers.

Margo has kept up a strong program of exhibitions at the Museum itself, too numerous to catalog here, although a few deserve special mention: Virtuosity, curated by Fred Myers, was a standout, as was the solo show drawn from the documentary work of photographer Juno Gemes.  Regular lectures for the local community and the Friends of the Kluge-Ruhe always draw good crowds. And then there have been truly special events.  In 2005 Margo brought to Thomas Jefferson’s famed Rotunda at the University of Virginia the symposium Media Matters: Representations of the Social in Aboriginal Australia at which scholars from around the world to discuss painting, photography, film, dance, and radio in an Indigenous Australian context.  The panel discussion Sacred or Profane? The Australian Government’s Intervention in Aboriginal Communities that Margo sponsored in 2007 opened many American eyes to the abuses of the Howard government and the so-called Northern Territory Emergency Response..

In 2006, Margo and Britta Konau, then a curator at Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts, organized Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Women Painters, an exhibition of over seventy paintings by thirty-three artists drawn from public and private galleries and collections in the United States and Australia.  The show was an enormous success and traveled on to the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College after closing at NMWA.

margo-tiwiIn May and June of 2007, I traveled with Margo through twenty-four Aboriginal communities in South Australia, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia on a tour organized by Austrade.  Everywhere we went, coordinators and artists alike greeted Margo warmly.  I marveled at the ease with which she struck up conversations at each stop, but one encounter stood out above all others.  When we reached Bula Bula Arts in Ramingining, grand master Philip Gudthaykudthay was waiting to present Margo with a large canvas that she had earlier commissioned for the Kluge-Ruhe’s collection.  Margo asked him to explain the design, and Philip, whose English was extremely limited, borrowed a pen from Margo and proceeded to make an impromptu sketch on a sheet of notebook paper as he spoke.  When he finished, he rolled up the canvas and handed both the painting and the one-of-a-kind ink drawing to her.

I hope these selected highlights of over a decade’s worth of visits with Margo—and there are many more stories I could tell, of dinners, symposia, exhibitions, and conversations—serve to demonstrate the depth of Margo’s commitment to Aboriginal art, her knowledge of its practitioners and their lives, and her genuine love of the culture.  In twenty years of work at the Kluge-Ruhe and beyond, Margo has never put herself at center stage, but has rather allowed the art and the artists to shine and to speak for themselves.  She has always striven to create an understanding of the vitality and the importance of this art.

And so I write today not simply to congratulate Margo on this well-deserved honor, but to offer my personal thanks to her for enriching my understanding of Aboriginal art, for offering me countless opportunities to learn and appreciate, for good meals and good conversations and good advice.  In truth, all of us who love this art are indebted to Margo Smith, AM.

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Lives of the Artist: Patrick Tjungurrayi by John Carty

Patrick-TjungurrayiReaders who followed this blog for a long time know already of my admiration for John Carty’s work.  John is an anthropologist trained at the Australian National University under Howard Morphy.  He has long had an interest in art history, and has practiced both discipline throughout Western Australia for well over a decade now*.

Art and anthropology  have rarely met so fortuitously and happily as when John went out to Balgo in 2002 to begin to learn about the art of the Western Desert.  As he explained recently in a wonderful radio interview, he arrived in Balgo speaking not a word of the languages in use there and immediately fell to feeling quite lost.

As fate would have it, heavy rains farther south in Western Australia had flooded out the community of Kiwirrkura in 2001 and many of those residing there had relocated with relatives in Balgo.  Among these was a man who had spent a good deal of his adult life in both communities.

Patrick was sitting down in the art centre taking a break after completing a large painting by indulging in the creation of a few small canvases.  John recalls the older man man working on a little pink painting when he was invited by the artist to sit down.  Patrick proceeded to explain to John, in a mixture of Kukatja and English, the story he was painting, and how it was being represented on the canvas.  Thus began a friendship that has ripened into the publication of a lovely new book, Patrick Tjungurrayi Beyond Borders (University of Western Australia Press, 2015), John’s biography of—and a bit of an homage to as well—Patrick Alatuti Tjungurrayi.

When I first received an advance copy of the book, I did what I always do with a new art book: I flipped through the pages and looked at the pictures.  The first thing to note is that Beyond Borders is visually stunning—and beyond.  It is full of beautiful, high-resolution reproductions of paintings that span Patrick’s career from his first exhibited canvases in the 1986 Balgo exhibition, Art From the Great Sandy Desert, through his most recent work for Papunya Tula Artists.

But I found myself skipping over the paintings quickly, which surprised me.  Rather I was entranced by the photographs of Patrick himself.  I wanted to study the many sides of this man that his portraits revealed.  It’s rare to find an artist’s monograph that offers so many pictures of the artist himself; John says that the rich trove of photos he came to gather made him want to use them to present man and the life, as well as the art.

In truth, this book is as much biography as art history.  It demonstrates that with an artist of the Western Desert and of Patrick’s stature, it is impossible and pointless to disentangle biography from art history.

The books opens with an amusing and affecting recounting of John’s first encounters with Patrick; on the radio broadcast, he claims that he met Patrick for the first time twice.  The earlier was the encounter in the art centre I retold above, the latter occurred six months later, during a period of strife at Balgo, when Patrick flew in from the skies, dreadlocks covered in ochre, carrying spears.  There’s a funny aspect to that story, too, but you’ll have to read (or hear) it for yourself.

The first part of the book details Patrick’s early life out in the country that lies near the Canning Stock Route.  Illustrated with paintings that depict this country and with historical photographs from the 1950s and 60s as well as from the Canning Stock Route Project in 2007, this section summarizes the education and growth of the young man and his first encounters with whitefellas.  Some of these stories are part of the familiar lore of the Balgo community, especially the medical rescue mission that gave Helicopter Tjungurrayi his long-lasting soubriquet.  But there is more detail about those early encounters with helicopters (or dragonflies) that is sometimes amusing, sometimes wonder-inducing.

In 1958 Patrick walked out of a solitary life in the desert and into the mission at Balgo, where he lived for decades afterwards.  Although he helped to build the Christian church there, and had to make his accommodations with the priests, he maintained his stature and dignity.  As John tells it:

Patrick interprets [Father] McGuire’s actions not as those of a man in charge, but of a man frightened by Aboriginal authority, of Law. This may be a perceptive insight into the psychology of the missionary, but it is an even more illuminating insight into Patrick himself. He does not recount the conflicts, prejudice and bureaucracy of the white world he experienced from 1958 onwards as a victim, but as a man for whom these concerns are a secondary consideration to his own standing in, and understanding of, another Law (p. 48).

John moves from this simply biographical perspective into the next phase of Patrick’s life, when he begins to paint.  Patrick remembers being at Yayayi, near Papunya, in the early 70s when the painting movement was beginning; he himself made his first paintings at Balgo in the late 70s.  Later, he moved to Kiwirrkura, closer to the country he came from.  His travels between the two communities led to him becoming fluent in both the hot-color style of painting practiced at Balgo and the cerebral designs and muted colors of Papunya Tula.  During the early years of the 21st century, following the Kiwirrkura floods, he traveled even more frequently between the two communities and emerged with a style all his own, grounded in his immense knowledge of the Law and of broad ranges of  Country.


His leadership and authority were clearly manifest in the days of the Canning Stock Route Project, and were captured in Nicole Ma’s video, That Long Way I Been Travelling.  In the large painting shown above that Patrick deploys in telling the story, parallel lines of concentric white square represent the wells of the Stock Route (above) and the camps of the Tingari (below).  John describes its importance:

The painting folds the history of the 20th century into the desert’s narrative architecture.   It subjugates white myths into a bigger kind of history. And it does it all through the prism of one man’s epic journey. In holding biography, cross-cultural history and the Dreaming together on the same plane, without collapsing their differences, this painting asserts itself as a significant poetic achievement in Australian art. This big pink Country marbled in parallel visions.

The latest chapters in Patrick’s life are co-narrated in Beyond Borders by John and by Sarah Brown, CEO of the Western Desert Nganampa Walytja Palyantjaku Tjutaku Aboriginal Corporation, or The Purple House, as it’s more commonly known.  Patrick was among the leading artists who produced a series of paintings for auction in 2000, raising over $1 million in the Western Desert Dialysis Appeal.  Machines purchased and installed in Alice Springs and Kintore meant that many desert people were able to stay near country or family while undergoing treatment for end-stage renal disease.

The success of the program in meeting a widespread and growing need led the Territory Government to impose restrictions, barring the entry and treatment of people from surrounding states—including, in a cruel irony—Patrick himself when he became ill several years ago.  Undaunted, Patrick refused treatment and started a media campaign.  Ultimately, he was allowed to go to Alice for treatment, and the Purple House raised funding to expand their services.  They first provisioned a mobile dialysis unit known as the Purple Truck that serves communities throughout the desert.  Last year a two-chair dialysis unit opened in Kiwirrkura.

Patrick Tjungurrayi Beyond Borders is a worthy addition to the library of anyone interested in Indigenous art, the history of Western Australia, medical and social issues affecting Indigenous people, and the anthropology of the Western Desert.  That’s a lot to claim for a mere 125 pages, but thanks to John Carty’s insight and skill, it’s a claim well justified.  It’s a consistently surprising and informative read, and a sheer visual delight, both as documentary and as fine art.  The book is a profile of a great artist and Law man by a marvelous anthropologist and art historian.  And John will be donating all proceeds from sales of the book to benefit the Purple House, as if you needed another reason to buy a copy.  That’s a powerful combination all around.  Don’t miss it.


*John was a prime mover in the Canning Stock Route Project, which resulted in books that show off in some sections the art historical approach to an anthropology of desert art that John has undertaken: Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route (National Museum of Australia, 2010), and Ngurra Kuju Walyja / One Country One People: stories from the Canning Stock Route (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).  He was also deeply involved with the exhibition and publication Purnu, Tjanpi, Canvas: Art of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands (University of Western Australia Press, 2012).  He was among the editors of Desert Lake: art, science, and stories from Paruku (CSIRO Publishing, 2013), has published a monograph on the Martu artist Billy Atkins (Martumili Artists, 2010), and has written about the Spinifex People in Spinifex: People of the Sun and Shadow (Curtin University John Curtin Gallery, 2012).  I am especially pleased that he contributed an important essay, “Rethinking Western Desert Abstraction,” to Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art at the Hood Museum of Art (University Press of New England, 2012).

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Will Stubbs wins ACA Award

I just saw this news release, and I may be late to the party, but I wanted to share the great news that Will Stubbs from the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre has been given the Australia Council Visual Arts Award (Advocate) by the Australia Council for the Arts:

Will Stubbs is coordinator at the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala, NT, and a passionate advocate of Indigenous arts and Australia’s unique arts centres. A former criminal lawyer, Will in 1995 began working with Yolŋu elders and artists, such as Djambawa Marawili AM, Gawirrin Gumana AO and Wanyubi Marika. The Yirrkala artists have since won 30 major art prizes and exhibited widely and internationally, including Musee du Quai Branly.

“A passionate advocate” in some senses hardly seems to capture the intensity of Will’s devotion to Yolngu art and culture; in another way, to call Will’s low-key approach to educating people, cajoling sponsors, and building programs “passionate” seems oddly off-key.  Will burns with an intense but quiet light and he’s been one of the greatest of my mentors in coming to understand Indigenous culture.

I spent an amazing day with Will in Yirrkala ten years ago, my first ever visit to a community and an art centre.  I couldn’t absorb enough information, whether in the form of stories, sights, smells, or the sounds of yidaki played by kids storming through the art centre after school.  When the day was done, Will pulled me aside and told me to relax.  “I know you’re eager to learn,” he said.  “You shouldn’t work so hard at it.  It will come to you in time.”

Those were probably the smartest words of advice anyone’s ever given me on this subject.  I took them to heart and prospered.

My hat’s off to you, Will.  Again.

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The Namatjira Legend Lives On

A coupe of months ago, when I asked Glenn Manser to report on Desert Mob, he told me that he’d really like to write a piece for me on Vincent Namatjira.  Last week, I received the article I’m posting below along with the images Glenn selected of recent works by the grandson of the great old man.

The timing was impeccable, with the announcement this week that the British Museum has acquired a work by Vincent.  That was followed by another announcement from Marshall Arts in Adelaide that their new solo show, Vincent’s first, has been purchased in toto by a state gallery to be named at a later date.

And so, I’m happy once again to share the podium here with Glenn as he describes how…


The Namatjira Legend Lives On 


There is something distinctly familiar, in a fashion, about Vincent Namatjira’s backstory.

Vincent was born in Alice Springs, and as a child he lived with his family in the Indigenous community, Hermannsburg within Ntaria country…However, at just six years of age his mother tragically passed away. With no available family to care for him Vincent and his older sister were taken into foster care, relocating to Perth in Western Australia. Vincent and his sister lived together in Indigenous foster care families throughout childhood1

His childhood was one of bewilderment and loneliness.

What followed, however, has been entirely inspirational. At eighteen he returned to Hermannsburg to reclaim his heritage. Observing his Aunty, Eileen Namatjira as she worked at the Hermannsburg Potters studio, an impressionable Namatjira subconsciously absorbed the inspiration of his ancestors.

After four years of work and study completing a land management course in Darwin, a starry eyed Vincent met his wife to be, Natasha through friends at the Kanpi community.  It was under the tutelage of Jimmy Pompey, Natasha’s father that Vincent began to explore the medium of painting.

Exploring traditional dot paintings of country, Vincent learnt about colour and tone, shapes and movement, reigniting an interest in the traditional works of his mother and in the classic watercolour landscapes of his grandfather.2

More importantly his dormant desire to explore his own creative abilities emerged.

Although he never met his grandfather, inspiration was drawn from Albert Namatjira’s unique vision of country:

“I’m using his name – the same family name – but I’m pushing things forward. Instead of just painting scenery and stuff like that you can mix up your mind and paint other stuff too. Capturing now and the history too.”3

A more urgent imperative has, however, been the foundation for his artistic emergence:

“I’m sitting down here with no anything. Broke, poor and everything, you know… with two daughters and my partner. I want to give them a good future.4

Within the space of three short years, he has been represented in the following:

Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery, Outback Art Award – 2013 – shortlisted

John Fries Memorial Prize 2013 – finalist

30th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award – 2013 – shortlisted

Vincent Namatjira: Portrait of my Grandfather

Vincent Namatjira: Portrait of my Grandfather

38th Alice Prize 2014 – shortlisted

Archibald Prize – Art Gallery of New South Wales – 2014 – entrant

31st Telstra national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award -2014 – shortlisted

Vincent Namatjira: Namatjira Family Meet The Queen

Vincent Namatjira: Namatjira Family Meet The Queen

In May, 2014 he visited the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art to observe the watercolours of his grandfather. More profoundly it was Sir William Dargie’s 1956 Archibald Prize winning portrait of Albert Namatjira that impacted him the most. The pride was obvious.

from left Vincent Namatjira, Kumanara Barney, Karen Zadra and Curator, Bruce McLean

from left Vincent Namatjira, Kumanara Barney, Karen Zadra and Curator, Bruce McLean


Vincent Admiring Dargie’s portrait

Vincent Admiring Dargie’s portrait

This experience provided the inspiration for his 2014 Archibald Prize entry. Surprisingly, the judging panel, at times given to episodes of myopia, did not short list the portrait of artist and grandfather. Unsurprisingly this piece will now grace the walls of QAGOMA next to Dargie’s portrait. The irony is profound. One can imagine Albert Snr reaching out to his grandson and calmly warning, “Vincent, let me tell you a thing or two about these Sydney people.”

2014 Archibald Prize Entry

2014 Archibald Prize Entry

Eclectic though his subject matter is, Namatjira intuitively explores the historical and contemporary with equal sincerity and, where appropriate, wit. His portrait of Captain Cook with Declaration, acquired by the British Museum in 2014, represents the explorer empathetically as if there is no blame to stain his reputation.

Cook Declaration

Cook Declaration

Amusingly, Tony Abbott’s 2013 election success is captured in a hand shake between Abbott and his mentor, John Howard. The time 6.05pm and even then victory was assured. The two dot paintings in the background symbolise Namatjira and his wife, Natasha, observing this moment in history from a distance. He has, therefore, inserted himself into this historic scene, and it serves as a powerful reminder that the people in the bush are watching proceedings in Canberra.

Howard congratulating Abbott

Howard congratulating Abbott

Karen Zadra from the Marshall Arts Gallery in Adelaide insightfully captures the essence of Vincent’s zest for painting:

I realised that his paintings are as much a reflection of his personality as they are portraits, landscapes or genre paintings. He’s a very warm, considerate, humble and perceptive person. And nothing escapes his notice! He’s a keen observer of current affairs, people, and history. The distillation of his observations comes through in his work and although his style is naïve, it is in no way sentimental or derivative. Instead, it speaks of a beautiful mind, sensitive eye and a gift for elegant narrative. While Vincent is fully aware of the dark side of life and history, he chooses to see and express the good. This is why – I believe – his works are so joyous and uplifting.5

There is much more that could be said about this young man who proudly bears his forebear’s name. Suffice it to say that like his cousins, Lenie and Kevin who continue to paint masterful watercolours for the Ngurratjuta Art Centre in Alice Springs, Vincent is determined to chart his own course as an artist yet in doing so remain true to the spirit of his famous grandfather.

“I hope my grandfather would be quite proud, maybe smiling down on me; because I won’t let him go. I just keep carrying him on, his name and our family’s stories.”6

No doubt Albert Snr would be proud to embrace the success of yet another Namatjira.

Images and text courtesy the Artist, Iwantja Arts and Crafts and Marshall Arts


Vincent Namatjira biography, Iwantja Arts and Crafts, 2014
2 ibid.
3Brush with greatness in the APY Lands, Katie Spain, The Advertiser, 9 August, 2013
Brush with greatness in the APY Lands, Katie Spain, The Advertiser, 9 August, 2013
Interview with Karen Zadra, Marshall Arts Gallery, Adelaide, 27 September, 2014
Namatjira biography
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Desert Mob is Alive and Doing Rather Well

Guest post by Glenn Manser

 [Note: Glenn first reached out to me in January 2006, about three months after I started this blog.  Since then he has been a faithful correspondent, exchanging perspectives on trends in Aboriginal art, the performance of the market, and the characters encountered on our ways.  He’s sent me probably hundreds of newspaper stories (of the internet kind) over the years.  Oddly, we’ve never really met: as I said a couple of weeks ago on Facebook, we’ve howdied but we haven’t shook.  The closest we’ve come to a face-to-face meeting was a greeting shouted across the forecourt of MAGNT at the NATSIAAs in 2008 (I think that was the year) as I was getting in a car to catch a lift to the Botanical Gardens and he was lining up to enter the exhibition.  So it gives me great pleasure to move our collaboration up another notch with this report from Desert Mob and Alice Springs.  You can read more about Glenn’s passions in this recent QAGOMA blog post.]

As I left the plane at Alice Springs Airport over a fortnight ago for the Desert Mob weekend, I was reminded of Duncan’s words in Macbeth:

…the air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses

Fortunately my experience of Desert Mob was vastly more pleasing than Duncan’s visit to Glamis.

When Desert Mob is discussed, it should be in its widest context. Not only is it the actual exhibition at the Araluen Centre, the symposium and Marketplace but also the accompanying exhibitions at Papunya Tula Artists, Talapi Gallery and Raft Artspace. Collectively they provide a density of experience of Western Desert art that is not replicated anywhere.

After a four year hiatus, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this Desert Mob weekend. As usual, Araluen Cultural Precinct Director Tim Rollason had everything running ship shape and Curator Stephen Williamson again did an impressive job with the hang.  (All entries in the exhibition can be found at Desert Mob 2014 | Desart.)

The key to this Thursday afternoon is to purchase the catalogue, queue, wait for the opening pleasantries to pass and then scamper into the galleries, do a quick reconnoitre and pluck the appropriate ticket from the item or items you wish to purchase. There is no time to think, consider, evaluate. With over 31 art centres spread throughout three galleries, it is important to be tactical as to which gallery is chosen to sprint to first.

Gallery 1 seemed to offer an interesting combination of art centres. It was the ceramics rather than the paintings that immediately caught the eye. The juxtaposition of the Ernabella and Hermannsburg displays highlighted the divergent styles that have emerged at both centres. Alison Carroll’s beautifully marked stoneware, Ngayuku Walka, reminiscent of her prize winning piece in the Shepparton 2014 Ceramic Art Award (Alison Carroll – Shepparton Art Museum) stood imperiously in all its jade coloured glory. Amusingly nearby, and acquired by the Araluen, was Rona Rubuntja’s Artist Car, an earthenware, paper clay and underglazes rendition of the great Albert Namatjira’s ute, in a well-worn, outback green.



Again it was the Ernabella paintings that next took the eye with a beautifully executed hazy golden piece by Yurpiya Lionel, a fine Rupert Jack and an elongated yet warmly textured Wanampi by Gordon Ingkatji, also acquired by the Araluen. Other pieces of note included a husband and wife collaboration by Tjungu Palya artists, Keith and Tjampawa Stevens and a superb representation of Punyunya by Spinifex artist, Fred Grant.

dmgm3Equally fascinating was up-and-coming Iwantja artist Vincent Namatjira’s insightful execution of The Idulkana Tigers, spotlighting the transformative role Australian Rules Football (AFL) plays in the lives of young, outback Indigenous men.

The Papunya Tula Artists selection was again a collection of masterful smaller pieces that segued beautifully to its own gallery hang. The Morris Gibson Tjapaltjarri, Ray James Tjangala and Mantua Nangala, in particular, stood out. Across the aisle new Papunya Tjupi Arts’ coordinator Helen Puckey had also assembled a collection of praiseworthy pieces including a subtly complex piece in muted yellows by Isobel Gorey Nampitjinpa and a Doris Bush Nungarrayi kaleidoscopic rendition of women searching for bush food.

The Tjanpi Desert Weavers displays were a big hit with extravagant collections of emu, wedge-tailed eagles and an assortment of other birds executed in raffia, feathers, acrylic yarn and wire dominating the floor space. A profusion of red dots was quick testimony to their popularity.

Unfortunately, and it pains me to say it, but the Warlayirti Artists’ exhibition was just plain disappointing. While there were some old favourites, including Bai Bai Napangardi and Helicopter Tjungurrayi, it was the sameness of the selection, even after a four year absence, that really surprised. Hopefully with new coordinators in place, this art centre can bring on some of the younger artists and regain some of Balgo’s former glory.

Gallery 3 and the smaller Sitzler Gallery proved to be less even in their offerings but there were some jewels to be found.

dmgm4 Tjala Arts again dominated with a profusion of large canvasses including a memorable senior women’s collaboration titled Nganampa Ngura.  It was with much sadness that during the exhibition news reached Alice Springs that Kunmanara Williamson, one of the collaborating artists, had passed away.

It was a playfully collaborative work of acrylic on linen together with spinifex fibre and raffia-like reptiles by May Pan and Iluwanti Ken that generated interest and good humoured banter.

Kayili Artists made a memorable return with a series of 80 x 60cm boards with Mrs Ward and Nola Campbell, in particular, delivering very strong works in shimmering colours. Not to be outdone Tjarlirli Art provided two striking works; an abstracted piece in muted browns and infused blues by Bob Gibson and a delicious mixture of swirling reds, oranges and greens in Nyarapayi Giles’s Warmurrungu.


A diverse collection by Martumili Artists provided two impressive pieces by Jakayu Biljabu and the evergreen Nora Wompi.

It was in the Sitzler Gallery that opening night, by then, drew to a conclusion. Watercolours by Kevin Namatjira and Reinhold Inkamala stood out with the latter’s brooding atmospherics characteristic of his emerging style.


For an alternative perspective on opening day and the symposium that followed, Kieran Finnane always provides insightful commentary – Desert Mob: This is who we are – Alice Springs News.

As previously mentioned the weekend was enriched with three quality exhibitions at Papunya Tula Artists, Kate Podger’s Talapi Gallery and Dallas Gold’s Raft Artspace, all nicely segued to sections of the Desert Mob exhibition.

Papunya Tula Artists has been Alice Springs’ epicentre for Central Australian Indigenous art, recently celebrating 40 years of service to its shareholders, principally the Pintupi people. To coincide with Desert Mob, Manager Paul Sweeney and team rehung the gallery and what a fine, carefully nuanced exhibition it was.

The stylistic changes in Morris Gibson’s latest works were evident and a sequential development from his rectangular, richly hued piece in Desert Mob obvious.


Nearby was a mini exhibition of contemporary pieces, large and small, by Yinarupa Nangala finely juxtaposed to emphasise her command of space and minimal use of colour to evoke country.


It was a real treat to meet Patrick Tjungurray again as he sat quietly in the gallery. Six or so years had passed since he had graced the gallery in a triumph of the Tjungurrayis, surrounded by a gaggle of admiring relatives and collectors. Now the ravages of time and ill health were evident. A small but significant selection of his work, however, referenced his enduring strength as an artist and a chronicler of his country and its stories. Thoughtfully juxtaposed next to the colour and vibrancy of Tjungurrayi’s work were several by Ray James Tjangala. The four or so works by Tjangala provided a compositional point of comparison between these two great exponents of Western Desert art. As Sweeney commented, “The work by Ray is undoubtedly typical of him. It’s tight with a quirky twist. I believe a good Ray has a bit of something left field in it which this one does.”


Of course there was much more to admire in the gallery including mini solos by Nunyuma Napangati, Josephine Nangala and Kawayi Nampitjinpa and a veritable feast of attractive smaller 61 x 31cm pieces that adorned the gallery’s main wall.

Entering Kate Podger’s Talapi Gallery, just up the mall, presented an immediate kaleidoscopic contrast to Papunya Tula with a hang of largely Tjungu Palya sourced work on the walls. A profusion of bright reds, greens, blues and everything in between greeted you in her “Desert Colour” exhibition. A gorgeously rich Iyawi Wikilyiri, a small but equally sumptuous Maringka Baker, a Helen Curtis composition of color contrasts, Keturah Zimran’s bold colour fields and a richly rendered Betty Kuntiwa Pumani from Mimili Maku Arts, among many others, gazed at you from the walls.


Kate, former curator at the Araluen Cultural Centre and manager of Ros Premont’s Gallery Gondwana, always brings a depth of knowledge and commentary to any discussion about the qualities of paintings and artists. The set of paintings chosen for the exhibition beautifully complimented the larger collaborative Tjungu Palya and Mimili Maku pieces in Desert Mob.


The third exhibition to round out the Desert Mob weekend was at Dallas Gold’s Raft Artspace and what an experience it was. In the split gallery there was Carlene West’s first solo and also an Ernabella ceramics exhibition.

In the accompanying glossy catalogue, Claire Eltringham said of West’s paintings;

The simplistic compositions boast vast gaping spaces in high contrast colours, the curves are seductive and freeform, the artist’s marks resolute and undaunted…To the naked eye, this is an expansive salt lake, without vegetation, pale but mesmerising with only the tracks in the sand capturing any movement…This is Spinifex country-raw, unforgiving and expansive… as a stand -alone body of work, these paintings are avant-garde and mesmeric.

Given the number of red dots circling the gallery, collectors agreed with Gold’s uncanny ability to unearth new talent, even if West has been painting since the Spinifex Project actually began. He was his self-effacing self when describing the virtues of both exhibitions to the assembled audience.


Indeed, the sensation was as if one was absorbed into those vast expanses that provide the inspiration for West’s paintings.

Just as amazing were the ceramics that made up the Ernabella Arts Tjulpirpa wiya – clay! Not mud-clay exhibition in the smaller gallery. Composed entirely of works by male artists, this stunning exhibition presented works of quality and imagination. Following on from the highly successful key note exhibition Tjungu Warkarintja, Fifteen Years | sabbia gallery, the decision to concentrate on the male artists was inspired and well received.


The talented Ngunytjima Carroll throws most of the pots at Ernabella but rarely marks them. His two pieces in this exhibition reflected not only his ability to shape but also to mark strongly and creatively. Equally, Derek Jungarrayi Thompson, Pepai Carroll and Andy Paul Tjutjuna bring their own gifts to pot marking. Thompson has a beautifully refined, even delicate aesthetic to his interpretation of the Wanampi Tjukurpa, Pepai Carroll marks his Walungurru strongly yet conservatively and Andy Paul Tjutjuna, both in his Desert Mob and Raft pieces, boldly works in shades of black, occasionally infusing blues into his Kalaya Tjukurpa.


Is Desert Mob still the artistic counterpart to Telstra, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award, it once was? Well, if the experiences above are any indication, it is not only alive but definitely doing very well indeed. When the Indigenous art community puts its mind to it, there is nothing better than Desert Mob in Alice Springs.

–Glenn Manser

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Desert Mob 2014: A Photographic Gallery

Lots of people wait all year to go to Alice Springs for Desert Mob.  I, sadly must rely on the kindness of–well not strangers–but rather old friends who bring Desert Mob to me.  Thanks to their generosity, I can now bring a taste of Desert Mob to you.

I’ve known Stephen Williamson and Sam Togni from ancient days in Darwin when Stephen was working for Framed.  We’ve remained close in the days since then that have taken him to posts all across Australia, and I was delighted when I learned that he had gone to Alice Springs to work at the Araluen Arts Centre.  I was even more delighted to learn that he would be responsible for the hang each year of the big Desert Mob show.  I’ve always admired Stephen’s eye and always appreciated his advice about artists to follow.  Now I have the chance to admire his skills as a curator each year.  I’m grateful to him for sharing these stunning photos of Desert Mob again this year, and hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I have, whether you’re experiencing the show for the first time now, or remembering it fondly.

Each of the images below is linked to a larger version; just click to enjoy the splendor in full.  Details of individual works can be seen at the Desert Mob 2014 website.










































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Salon des Refusés Returns

salon-14-thumbIt’s festival season in Darwin again.  Gallerists Matt Ward (Outstation Gallery) and Paul Johnstone (Paul Johnstone Gallery, formerly known as CCAE) have brought back the Salon des Refusés for a second season.  What could be more festive?

Reacting last year to the reduced size of the final hang for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, Ward and Johnstone elected to invite those who didn’t make the cut at NATSIAA to participate in their alternative celebration.  The result was a sprightly collection of familiar masterpieces and intriguing new work, a total of 40 canvases, sculpture, and works on paper.

For the 2014 edition of the Salon, Ward and Johnstone have increased their won hang by over 50%, with 64 works included the time.  Seven bark paintings extend the scope of the selection as well, a welcome addition to the show’s diversity.  All in all (although I obviously haven’t seen the roster of the NATSIAA at the time of this writing), the Salon looks to be a fair challenge, almost equal in size to the canonical show, and certain to be its equal in quality.


As is true of the NATSIAA, some artists are making an encore appearance.  Repeaters from the first Salon this year include Sandy Brumby, Roy Burnyila, Nyarapayi Giles, Ishmael Marika, Yukultji Napangati, Eve Nargoodah, Rosie Tasman, and the Spinifex Women with another collaborative canvas.  Last year’s overall winners at the NATSIAA, Jenni Kemarre Martinello, is represented in the Salon this time with another blown-glass work, an eel trap that brings to mind the seminal weaving work of Yvonne Koolmatrie.  Among those revisiting the Salon, Sandy Brumby’s rough “Victory Downs” is one of the strongest works I’ve seen from this artist;  and Roy Burnyila’s “Freshwater Story” is packed with energy.  The ever-inventive Ishmael Marika scores a hit with his spooky but humorous digital photographic print “Galka with the Artworks.”  A galka is a “dark heart person” and this particular one, with eyes straight out of “Children of the Damned,” has found his way into heart of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre and stands, wearing a bright red “Gove NT” t-shirt, amidst a forest of larrakitj ready for sale.

As always, I have my favorites among the entries.  Perhaps the stand-out for me is Mark Nodea’s “Lost Souls,” a stunning work from this Warmun artist in black, brown and bluish-gray ochres that recalls some of Rover Thomas’s masterpieces, infused in spirit with a bit of Dante’s Inferno, and executed with washes of great delicacy.  I’ve always been impressed with Nodea’s command of color within a restricted palette, but he’s quite outdone himself this time.  It’s terrestrial and celestial at the same time.

Mark Nodea, "Lost Souls," ochre on canvas, 2014 80 x 100 cm

Mark Nodea, “Lost Souls,” ochre on canvas, 2014 80 x 100 cm

Nancy McDinny’s history painting, “War at Blackfella Spring,” is a tour-de-force of allover composition whose clever use of color is an outstanding achievement.  The painting depicts the incursion of dozens of policemen into a camp in the bush of the Barkley Tableland.  In the foreground a few white humpies grouped around fire testify to the presence of blackfellas and are balanced in the composition by a screen of white clouds that stretches across the top edge of the canvas.  In between, amidst the variegated greens of the forest land, blue-jacketed policemen spread out in search of the blackfellas.  The policemen’s white hats create a visual bridge between the humpies and the clouds; scattered amongst them tiny white dots show the presence of blackfellas hidden in the bush, ready to defend their country against the invaders’ incursion.

Color is key to Jayaku Biljabu’s “Wikirri” from Martumili Artists.  Color also provides the strength in the design of “Warlutu” by Tjarlili Art’s Bob Gibson, with intense red, white, and blue swirling in the shape representing Lake Hopkins in Western Australia.  Another strong work from Tjarlili in reds and blues is Valmayi Nampitjinpa’s “Karrkurunkintja,” a retelling of the wati kutjara and liru kutjara (two men and two snakes) story from the Kintore region.  Tommy May uses a similar palette to quite different effect in his depiction of the “Seven Sisters” story from Wangkajungka country, courtesy of Mangkaja Arts; the composition in some ways recalls Lisa Uhl’s paintings of trees from a different country.  And perhaps proving that the desert is indeed a country for old men, strong works from Harry Tjutjuna, Johnny Yungut Tjupurrula, and Roy Underwood bring a muscular strength to the painting section of the Salon.

In the category of works on paper, Injalak Arts is well represented by two members of Waud Namok’s family.  Grandson Maath Maralngurra’s “Lambalk” (sugar glider) is full of grace and movement, while granddaughter Lorraine Kabbindi White’s “Guardians” is full of female water spirits swirling above a lily-encrested Rainbow Serpent.  The old man has surely left his tradition is good hands.  From Yirrkala, Munuy’ngu Marika, one of the stars of the Yuta (new) screeprint collection that debuted at Garma in 2010, has contributed a charming new work, “Dhapirrk Girri,” a self-portrait in a flowing pink-and-green flowered print skirt on the beach near her home.

The passing on of traditions finds a place in the barks section as well, with Antonia Pascoe contributing her version of “Fresh Water Mussels” (ngangi), a motif developed in Maningrida a decade ago by her father, Michael Gadjawala.  Similarly, Fiona Mason carries on in the tradition of Tommy Gondorra Steele with a lovely and delicate rendering of  the “Jima Jima (Waterlily)” motif.

And finally in the 3-D category comes the other work along with Nodea’s painting that thrills me deeply.  Andrew Lunguy, from Mardbalk Arts and Culture on Goulburn Island, has contributed a sculpture

Andrew Lunguy, "Marlajak (Freshwater Prawn)," blackwattle carving, 2014, 14 x 45 x 7 cm

Andrew Lunguy, “Marlajak (Freshwater Prawn),” blackwattle carving, 2014, 14 x 45 x 7 cm

executed in carved blackwattle wood, that is simply breathtaking.  The delicacy of the creature’s limbs, eyestalks, and feelers conveys a visceral sense of their movement, swaying in its watery habitat; the rounded bulk of its body, with marks of the workman’s rasp clearly visible, gleams with a polished light that seems the very refraction of light on the water.  Not quite two feet long from its tip to its tail, it fairly delights the eye with grace and vigor.

Once again, my hat is off to Ward and Johnstone for bringing together this extraordinary show.  But I would be remiss not to mention Nicole Vandersteegen of Niva Design, who has produced the catalogue for this year’s exhibition.  It’s a work of stunning design that enhances the beauty of the artworks themselves and provides (in PDF format) easy navigation through the selections.  All around, the Salon des Refusés once more proves itself to be a class act, and I am sure that it will be a major draw during the Darwin Festival.  The Salon will be showing 9-24 August on the Stokes Hill Wharf; don’t miss it when you’re in town.

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Aboriginal Art Museum Utrecht


Note: We recently spent a few weeks in Europe and finally had the chance to visit the Aboriginal Art Museum Utrecht.  What follows is a preview of a piece that I wrote for publication elsewhere, so it’s a little more general in nature than things I’ve posted here in the past, but I wanted to share our impressions of this fabulous museum and the generosity with which we were welcomed by the staff.  

On a day that threatened (and finally delivered) rain, we rode the tram up to Amsterdam Centraal to catch the train 40 mms southeast to the medieval and modern city of Utrecht.  A university town of about 300,000 inhabitants, the site of the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht that ended the Wars of Spanish Succession 401 years ago, Utrecht is in some ways a smaller, quieter version of Amsterdam.  Laced with canals, full of centuries-old buildings that sport upscale boutiques and excellent, tiny restaurants, it’s a charming city,   once you get your bearings.  The train station seemed larger than Amsterdam’s and it disgorged into a leviathan of a shopping mall.  Our destination was little more than ten minutes walk away, but we wandered, not quite lost, for nearly an hour before arriving there.

We were on our way to visit the Aboriginal Art Museum Utrecht (AAMU), the only museum in Europe dedicated entirely to the contemporary art of the Indigenous people of Australia. Over the last 40+ years, a transformation of traditional iconography and artistic practice from impermanent, ceremonial creations into durable expression in acrylic painting, sculpture, photography, and even a new form of traditional use of earth pigments on the flattened bark of eucalyptus trees has blossomed into what the late critic Robert Hughes described as “the last great art movement of the twentieth century.”  An expression of the Indigenous people’s enduring connection to the land they belong to, contemporary Aboriginal art is most often recognized in a format in which thousands of colorful tiny dots create seemingly abstract patterns of startling geometric design and intensity.  Starting in 1988, the bicentennial year of Australian settlement by the British, and accelerating through the 2001 Sydney Olympics, Australia has adopted (and co-opted) this art form as a badge of national identity.  Sadly, Australia’s long history of mistreatment of its tiny percentage of Aboriginal people (roughly 2% of the population of  23 million) has not been materially altered by their recognition of this unique and vibrant aesthetic culture.

aamu-interiorThat culture has inspired international partisans, and there are numerous large and important collections of Aboriginal art worldwide, including several in the Netherlands.  Some of these have found a permanent or long-term, loan-based home at the AAMU, which lies in the city center on the picturesque Oudegracht.  We had met the Museum’s curator Georges Petitjean at the 2006 opening of the Musée du quay Branly in Paris, where a significant public art commission incorporates the work of eight prominent Aboriginal artists in the architectural design of its administrative and curatorial headquarters building.  We have been eager to visit Utrecht and the AAMU ever since, and we were not disappointed when we finally arrived there.

Georges and Director Mike Anderson were our hosts for the day and they gave us a comprehensive tour of the museum.  The major exhibition of the moment, Country to Coast, focuses on art from the Kimberley region in Australia’s vast and sparsely populated northwest corner.  It is an area where mining dominates, whence iron ore and uranium feeds the wealth of the nation via exports to Asia.  And apart from the tiny concentrated settlements that serve the mining industry, it is largely populated by Aboriginal people, who in their turn primarily use ocher pigments extracted from the earth to create their depictions of ancestral creation myths and continuing contemporary connections to the land.

Paddy Bedford, Camel Creek, 2005

Paddy Bedford, Camel Creek, 2005

Is is an art as diverse as the country from which it springs.  Paddy Bedford and Queenie MacKenzie are among its most famous practitioners, with major canvases by the late Bedford often selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars in the secondary auction market.  Camel Creek, from 2005, is typical of the master’s late period, in which features of the landscape—hills, desert tracks, waterholes that provide sustenance in the often forbidding environment—are represented with extraordinary delicacy and nuance.

Lily Karedada uses the same ocher-based paints to recreate the figures of Wandjinas that have adorned the walls of caves and rock shelters for thousands of years.  These spirit beings are associated with the coming of rain—again marking the importance of water—and the rock art depictions of them are regularly refreshed by new applications of color in their caves, as well as being reproduced and re-interpreted on bark supports for sale in the contemporary art market.

Daniel Walbidi, Winpa, 2007

Daniel Walbidi, Winpa, 2007

Away on the Pacific coast of Australia, in the tiny mission town of Bidyadanga, a talented and self-assured young man named Daniel Walbidi decided, ten years ago when he was barely out of his teens, to encourage the elders in his community to take up acrylic paints to preserve a cultural connection that was on the point of vanishing forever.  The Yulparija people originated in the inland deserts of the Kimberley.  But late in the twentieth century a combination of drought and the draining off of underground reservoirs of fresh water by the mining industry’s insatiable thirst forced them to abandon their homeland for a long trek to a more sustainable coastal home.  Under Daniel’s precocious leadership they began to paint the stories of their desert homeland, but with a palette inspired by the vivid blues and greens of their new oceanside settlement beside the traditional reds and oranges of the desert.

After touring the exhibition with us, Georges and Mike led us back out into the misty streets of Utrecht in search of lunch and further conversations about the collecting and exhibition programs of the AAMU.  In addition to showcasing the tradition-based arts of Aboriginal Australia, the AAMU does excellent work in demonstrating the breadth of this art form and its connections to contemporary artistic practice, taking the discussion out of the realm of ethnographic curiosity into the arena of installation art, video, and photography.  A year ago, BOMB! celebrated the 400th anniversary of the Peace of Utrecht with a large, multimedia installation of work created in concert by Aboriginal artist Adam Hill (aka Blak Douglas) and Adam Geczy, a Sydney artist who has lived and worked extensively in Europe.  This coming fall, a new exhibition called BLAK: forced into images will focus on representations of Indigenous Australian identity through the mediums of video and photography.

After lunch, we returned to view the installation of works from the museum’s permanent collection , which showcased the variety of styles, media, and content that characterizes current practice.  And then we were taken down into the subterranean vaults of the museum for a quick look at the innovative ways Petitjean and Alexander have transformed the potentially humid canal-side environment of an old Dutch building into a climate-controlled storage facility where the bulk of the collection can be safely housed.

A painting by Helicopter Tjungarrayi from the Kimberey community of WIrrimanu (Balgo Hills) has been translated into a mosaic that adorns the AAMU courtyard.

A painting by Helicopter Tjungarrayi from the Kimberey community of WIrrimanu (Balgo Hills) has been translated into a mosaic that adorns the AAMU courtyard.

We ended our visit, as one does, inspecting the museum shop.  We somehow managed to resist the temptation to take a bit of Australia and Utrecht back home with us.  Like any good museum shop, AAMU’s is crowded with plenty of good books that help to interpret the collections.  But unlike many, it is also well stocked with the art itself.  Although modestly priced for the most part, the canvases and paintings on bark, along with fiber art and prints, were truly museum quality pieces themselves that would not have looked out of place on the walls of the gallery instead of the walls of the shop.  We said our goodbyes with regret, and headed off under Georges’ direction through the narrow, winding streets of the city to regain the train station and settle in for the 45-minute ride back to Amsterdam.  Along the way we enjoyed watching the deep green fields of the Dutch countryside slide past us, spotting the occasional windmill in the distance and following the progress of barges along the canals.  But our minds’ eyes were full of images of Australia that the visit had captured for us.  Our short trip had taken us four centuries away from the Golden Age of Dutch painting that we’d been enjoying in Amsterdam, and thousands of miles from the lowlands of Holland to the worn hills of a continent half a world away.  It’s a journey I suggest you take if you’re ever in the neighborhood.

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