The Contemporary Art of the Jirrawun Women

Andy Warhol. Jean-Michel Basquiat. Tony Oliver. Jirrawun Women. An unlikely combination? Not at all these days. The connections are all there.

For the first three, the connections go back to New York City in the early 1980s. For the last three, the connections come into focus starting June 1, with the opening of a new exhibition entitled “Women’s Business” at Sherman Galleries in Paddington, which runs through June 24.

Warhol and Basquiat were friends and occasional collaborators in New York following their introduction to one another in 1983. By that time, Basquiat, a Haitian born, black Puerto Rican, had achieved fame (or notoriety, depending on your aesthetic preferences) as an early crossover in the graffiti art movement. His first canvases were buildings and subway cars and his signature SAMO (Same Old Shit) was well known throughout lower Manhattan. His imagery came from the same simplified, commercial tropes that Warhol had drawn upon, mixed with his own cultural history and the heroic figures of jazzmen and boxers. Overlapping images (stylistically not unlike what might be seen in a rock art gallery, or the characteristic, continuous repainting of urban walls) combined with fragments of text in ways that lent a brutal twist to the early experiments of Pop Art, from Warhol’s soup cans to Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book panels. 

In 1981 Tony Oliver established his Fitzroy gallery, Reconnaissance. A year later, he flew to New York to meet Warhol, and convinced the Pop master to exhibit his works in Australia through Reconnaissance. Lichtenstein and New York artist Philip Guston also received shows at Oliver’s gallery. But the pressures of the business, along with a certain lack of success in marketing American art in Melbourne, led Oliver to close the gallery and withdraw from the art world for a few years in the late 80s. Shortly after his return to Australia in 1990, he met Freddy Timms for the first time, went bush with him, and laid the groundwork for what was to become Jirrawun Arts.

Which brings us to 2006 and “Women’s Business” in Paddington. There’s much that’s remarkable about this show, but the connection back to New York and Basquiat shows up in the graffiti-inspired art of the Nocketta sisters, Ramona, Remika, Tennielle, and Vondean. (Even their names sounds African-American to me.) Two of their five paintings in this show, “Kununurra Midnight Prowl” and “You Big Hole,” are large multi-panel works like many of Basquiat’s. Like urban graffiti art, the paintings are full of anger and sexuality mixed with the bravado of the young. At the same time, they share some compositional similarity to the works of older Gija artists. This is most striking in “You Big Hole, where a pair of circles, one red and one black, echo elements of Paddy Bedford’s work, while the fields of patterned rounded shapes present a direct link to the canvases by Goody Barrett that are also part of “Women’s Business.” Although the design in Barrett’s painting references the scales of the barramundi, both recall for me the spearheads and cicatrices of Goody’s sister Lena Nyadbi. In the case of the Nocketta women, this imagery suggests a new, twenty-first century protocol of initiation into adulthood.

Painting for ceremony is the obvious source of the imagery for Peggy Patrick’s two fabulous pieces in the exhibition, “Body Painting (black)” and “Body Painting (red).” Again, these are large multi-panel pieces in which the artist has taken her ochre-laden hands and covered the polymer underpainting in vast, sweeping arcs. In the context of the other works in the show, I don’t find it a far reach back to New York and the action painting of the Abstract Expressionists. The presence of the artist’s gesture is the substance of the painting, although with Patrick’s work, the resonance of ceremonial paint-up is the strongest connotation.

Body marks are the inspiration for Phyllis Thomas’s contribution to the exhibition, two works each composed of four 120 sq cm panels. Both share broad horizontal stripes of white and black. In “Gemerrre (1)” (gemerre is the Gija word for for cicatrices or traditional scarring) the stripes are framed above and below by swathes of rich, cloudy, dark red. Rivulets of this bloody color drip from the narrow upper band across the black-and-white stripes; more stream through the broad field of red at the bottom of the painting. The history of violence that never lies far below the surface of Gija painting finds it strongest expression here in this work. It is the acme of the show for me. And it is not without its own echoes of New York and the paintings of Sean Scully that were shown at David McKee in the late 80s.

Several weeks ago, writing about new paradigms of representation for Aboriginal artists, I pointed to Tony Oliver as one of a few arts advisors who had taken on a role that lay somewhere between that of the traditional community centre and the urban, Euro-American system of gallery representation. “It will be interesting to see what comes of these experiments,” I wrote. In my wildest imaginings, I could not have anticipated this knockout show.

Note (June 3): This post has been revised to correct inaccuracies in my original interpretation of the imagery in Goody Barret and Phyllis Thomas’s paintings. My thanks to Frances Kofod of Jirrawun for setting me straight.

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One Response to The Contemporary Art of the Jirrawun Women

  1. luciano prisco says:

    some absolute great work here congrats for colating and showing this qaulity of art

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