June’s New Books

I didn’t get a lot of reading done last month, although I hope I made up for it with a great deal of writing and photography from Paris and Washington. But while I was away I did acquire several new titles, which I’m delighted to add to my library, and since a few of them came as gifts, I wish to acknowledge the generosity of the donors here.

The Embassy of Australia provided us with two splendid volumes. The first is certainly destined to become a collector’s item: Australian Indigenous Art Commission = Commande publique d’art aborigene au Musee du quai Branly (Art & Australia, 2006). Celebrating the opening of the Musee, this slim (55 pages) volume has a wealth of information about the Commission. It offers an introduction by Chris Sarra and an essay by co-curators Hetti Perkins and Brenda L. Croft along with sections devoted to each of the artists and their contributions to MQB. There are photographs of the construction of the Musee, architectural plans for the art installations, and pictures of the artists’ country. As a souvenir of the week’s events, it’s going to be hard to equal.

The other gift from the Embassy was Mythe et Realite: art contemporain du desert central de la Collection Gabrielle Pizzi, a special edition (2006) of the catalog of the touring exhibition (see my earlier post of June 24 for some images) published by the Heide Museum of Modern Art (moma@heide.com.au). The glorious reproductions of the works in the exhibition are a treasure in themselves; they also provide superb documentation of the changes in indigenous painting during the two decades in which Pizzi built her personal collection. This is especially true for her first love, the works of the artists of Papunya Tula. There are over 50 paintings here, ranging from a 1972 Water Dreaming by Old Walter Tjampitjinpa to Ninugra Naupurrla’s Wirrulnga, Birth Site of 2004. The value of these reproductions is enhanced by the texts that accompany them, presented here in both French and English.

The first essay is the most moving of three, Geoffrey Bardon’s reminiscence of his return to the deserts, to Papunya and Mt Liebig, and his first trip to the homelands at Kintore, in 1991. Bardon’s prose, always elegiac in nature, is illuminated here with wistfulness and memory, enriched with discovery and amazement.

Papunya was now far away from what it had been in 1980, for even then it had been falling back into its elements of sand and wind. But the way in seemed much clearer now for so many of the European buildings were gone. You saw the people now before you saw their abode and children could be seen as well as heard. You got out of the Land Cruiser onto the deep red sleep of dust, and there you were, talking of old friends, as they wish you to, before the sense of everything had for me become lost. … It was all quiet pats, touches and dignified gestures in the way of the Western Desert, and growled ‘Cheps’ and “Old Fella’, ‘Older Fella yet’, all the grey beards where there had once been black beards, a certain sublime sadness in seeing the proud faces grown tired and rather lost in a kind of dusty apprehension, a maze of new thoughts. … And children everywhere calling like birds, chattering and filling the dust up in the air with their feet. It was all like that.

The rhythms of Bardon’s language put me in mind of the great concluding pages of Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, the drowsy dreamings of eternal return that were Joyce’s resolution of modern man’s struggles and salvation. 

In addition to Bardon’s memoir, there is an essay by Judith Ryan on the works in the Pizzi Collection, and a wonderful interview with Gabrielle Pizzi herself that sheds light on the history of collecting and her personal commitment to the art. Excellent brief biographies of all the artists conclude the contributions of this volume to the history of Aboriginal art. The exhibition has already traveled widely in Europe, and Samantha Pizzi hopes to continue touring it beyond January 2007, when the show closes at the Embassy in Paris.

Complementing the Pizzi volume and in a sense bringing the story up to date is the beautiful catalog, Pintupi (Hamiltons London and Sotheby’s Australia, 2006), of the exhibition of twenty paintings from Papunya Tula that opened in London on June 26. We’re grateful to Tim Klingender for this gift. Fifteen of the works are reproduced here in superbly rendered photographs, and my only complaint from the point of view of documentation is that among the missing paintings are those by Charlie Tjapangati (a personal favorite of mine whom I feel has often been unjustly neglected) and Nyilyari Tjapangati, Pinta Pinta’s son, an emerging young artist–he was born in 1965–whose work is not yet well documented. His paintings’ subtle coloration would have been well served by the quality of the reproductions here, and the work itself (Lake Site of Wilkinkarra (Lake Mackay), 2006) is the finest example I have yet seen. Again, the photographs are well supplemented by biographies and listings of solo and group shows, awards, and collections: all important documentary evidence. 

Proceeds from the sale of these twenty paintings will assist the continued operations of the dialysis center at Kintore that was established through the auction sales of the Western Desert Dialysis Appeal in 1999. Along with the sale at Sotheby’s of a work by Ningura Napurrula (which went for 66,000 Euros) in Paris on June 23, this exhibition will help to sustain an important initiative for Pintupi health and the welfare of the community itself. Papunya Tula, Sotheby’s, and Hamilton’s deserve accolades for their efforts, generosity, and success. As Nicolas Rothwell puts it so eloquently in his introduction to the catalog:

This new desert work is a very conscious form of art; it is made both to disclose and to conceal, and it is made on the membrane between two cultures. … We in Australia have been looking at art from this movement for a generation now, and it has changed the way we see our continent. We see the deserts less as emptiness, and more as repositories of an abrupt renaissance–a gift given to us and the wider world. We regard the artists with a deep and puzzled affection; and it is hard for us not to see another, more sombre cycle being traced out in the sand. These paintings first sprang from a tradition of ritual; their precursors were sketched in the red dirt, or an sacred wooden boards, or upon the hidden walls of obscure caves. There were first painted for the eyes of white men, and displayed in public, at a time when the nomadic life patterns of desert people had been gravely disrupted by contact with western society, by changed diet and settlement in cramped conditions. The present pandemic of kidney disease is a delayed consequence of this shift in life-style. And so it is that the admiration for Aboriginal art is mounting even as a medical plague decimates the people of the western desert. In disquieting fashion, beauty has risen from disaster, and now ministers to disease.

The final gift we received was the brand new Irrunytju Arts (Irrunytju Arts, 2006). Mary Knights was kind enough to search me out in the crowd at the Embassy reception on Friday night to give this to me, almost straight off the presses, after we had fallen into conversation during the morning’s tour of the conservatorial building at MQB. Part history of the community and part catalog of the artists of Irrunytju, this book is another valuable contribution to the history of indigenous Australian art. I can only hope that Mary’s example in creating this document will be followed by other art centres, as it is exactly the kind of documentation that will be of primary importance to historians and critics of future generations. The book grew out of Mary’s own need, as the incoming arts coordinator eighteen months ago, to understand the community, its history, and its art. The introductory essay details the history of Irrunytju as known from the earliest days of exploration, the history of the missions and the government ration depots, the effects of the atomic testing at Maralinga, and finally the establishment of Irrunytju Arts. Twenty-five artists are then presented with biographies and reproductions of their works; a selective list of exhibitions offers a different view of the development of the art centre and the careers of the artists. 

The varied forms of documentation that these books represent–of a commission, a collection, and a community–are necessary and important contributions in themselves to the indigenous Australian art movement. Each book considers its subject matter seriously and aims to preserve something of the present moment for the future. Too often this important, critical work is left undone. The continuing lack of catalogs from the Telstra awards is one of the most glaring examples of a failure to document this history, and one of the most inexcusable. (And I lay the blame at Telstra’s doorstep for not providing the funding to make it happen; MAGNT certainly doesn’t have the resources required.) 

So bravo to the producers of these fine works, and especially to Mary Knights for Irrunytju Arts for taking on the research and publication of her monograph. I hope it inspires others to do more of the same.

And speaking of more of the same, there are more books to report on, but as they don’t quite fit the profile I’ve created in this post, I will leave them to another time. June wasn’t such a bad month for reading after all….

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