Art from Mornington Island

I’m several days into writing a blog on Aboriginal art, and I haven’t even created a category called art yet, or written much about paintings or sculpture. Allow me to correct that now, with a short entry about a delightful surprise.

Amidst all the hubbub at the Telstra awards this year, I think a lot of art got overlooked. At least, in the days following the Award I had several conversations that began, “Oh, did you see the work by…..” and ended in the negative.

One of those works that caught my eye was a painting by Emily Evans from Mornington Island. It was a very minimal work, a white canvas covered with tiny brown dotting. It looked somewhat like a Kathleen Petyarre, but without the drawing that she does. It was lovely, and quiet, and very easy to overlook.

Part of my surprise was in seeing work from Mornington Island at all. Apart from dance hats, other artifacts, and works by Dick Roughsey, I haven’t really seen much over the years. So this little gem was all the more welcome.

And then I discovered that there had recently been a whole exhibition of works from Mornington Island artists at Woolloongabba Art Gallery. According to the catalog that’s available on the Gallery’s website, the community had been building up a business in handcrafts over the last two years, and began painting in 2005. I believe this was this first exhibition resulting from this new initiative.

Body painting forms the basis for many of the designs of the men’s paintings, and at the moment, men seem to far outnumber the women. The canvases are large–in many cases one dimension reaches four to five feet. The designs are bold, with broad, solid stripes dominating large fields of the paintings. The dotting is likewise bold, more like body painting than the infill of Desert styles. The catalog also includes one “story painting” by Arnold Watt in the realist style of Dick Roughsey’s famous works, and it’s as serene and lovely as the old master’s.

The women’s painting is harder to characterize. There are only four female artists included. Emily Evans’ work I’ve described above. Jolene Roughsey and Renee Wilson paint in a bold style that echoes elements of the men’s designs, although Wilson’s work (at least those reproduced in the catalog) seems to owe something to Rosella Namok. Finally, Sally Gabori’s paintings are bright, colorful and loose and reminded me somewhat of paintings coming from the western Kimberley. 

This is the most promising looking debut show I’ve seen in quite a while, and it was a sellout, so perhaps I’m not alone in that opinion.

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