Kununurra, USA

After last week’s post reporting testimony given at Kununurra by, among others, Cathy Cummins and Kim Griffiths of Waringarri Aboriginal Arts in Kununurra, it seems only appropriate that this weekend we traveled up to the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Museum to see a double-barreled exhibition of art from the region put together by Cummins and Kluge-Ruhe curator Margo Smith. Much of the exhibition space was given over to “Red Hot Ochre,” a show of paintings and prints from Waringarri artists, along with other Kununurra luminaries including Rover Thomas, Queenie Mackenzie, and Billy Thomas. Somewhat unusually for the Kluge-Ruhe, this was an exhibition in which the works were for sale, and the number of red dots scattered around the gallery’s rooms proved that “red hot” was an entirely appropriate sobriquet for the show. Response has been so enthusiastic that associate curator Denise LaJetta joked that people were bound to be disappointed at the opening of the next exhibition, to be drawn entirely from the Museum’s own holdings, when they discover that nothing will be on sale. 

Waringarri has produced a distinguished roster of artists over the years, including the late Paddy Carlton and Alan Griffiths, represented in this show by two characteristic and dynamic canvases of men dancing bali bali balga. At the Kluge-Ruhe, however, relative newcomers dominated the walls. Mignonette Jamin and Minnie Lumai, two of the artists honored at the Xstrata Emerging Indigenous Art Awards at the Queensland Art Gallery in 2006, had several brilliant canvases each on display. Jamin’s work was particularly well-received by the crowd in attendance the night we were there, and a number of people, commenting on the vitality and energy of the work in general, pointed to her canvases to make their point. Lumai’s spare paintings were uncluttered and bright in their ochres that verged on pastel shades and drew one’s eye wherever they appeared.

The most delightful painting surprise of the show for me was Rebecca Bray, who was represented by two small but powerful works. One of them, shown on the left in the installation shot below, depicts a hill in the Kununurra vicinity which harbors a site where white clay is gathered for ceremonial and artistic purposes. (The tiny crescent of white is visible at the upper edge of the hill in the photograph.) The textures in the painting are rich, giving a low-relief tactility to the central landmass. The application of the red ochre in the background, radiating from the center of the painting, suggests the concentration of sacred power in the area. Bray’s other piece in the exhibition, Mulawun Dreaming, tells the story of how the Eagle and Crane ancestors caught fish in the Ord River by crushing the leaves of the mulawun bush and throwing them in the water, causing the fish to float to the surface. This latter work was likewise highly textured, its design in red ochre built up on a gritty black ground in a style that is reminiscent of the beeswax cave paintings of the Kimberley region. (The other two works in this photo are by Mignonette and, at the far right, Daisy Bitting.) 

Although many of the prints on view were by the “old masters” (Rover, Queenie, Billy Thomas), the selection by current artists from Waringarri was equally impressive. I was particularly taken by a small work by Nancy Dilyai called Janayiwom Country which shows angular black masses on a red ground surrounded by yellow hills. The surface tension of this small work caught the eye from across the entrance hall like a flag snapping in a stiff breeze. 

One of my long-time favorites among the artists of Waringarri is Judy Mengil, who was represented in Red Hot Ochre by the large work shown to the right below (the other is by Minnie Lumai). The spare composition fooled me from afar with its simplicity. On closer inspection, the central roundel revealed in its outer rings a richness of detail and color that brought indoors the imminent flowering of spring that could be glimpsed through the Kluge-Ruhe’s windows.

The remaining two rooms in the Kluge-Ruhe’s exhibition space were occupied by Peter Eve’s photographs from Beyond the Frontier, which includes color shots of the Kimberley ranges beside large portraits of Jirrawun artists and other large, black-and-white landscapes. Eve’s photography is well known to anyone with an interest in Aboriginal art and culture. It graces the website of Waringarri Aboriginal Arts (among others) and he has documented Garma festivals and Replant at Darwin’s Riverfestival 2006. Despite having seeing his work reproduced on the web many times, I was still quite unprepared for the full glory of these photographs up close.

The titular print, Beyond the Frontier (above left), is well known but extraordinarily impressive when seen full-sized, spreading over 200 cm. in length, with a looming cloud that appears poised to crush the landscape below (or hoover it straight up into infinity). The portrait of Rammey Ramsey on the right, the only color portrait in the show, is built out of light and shadow, with the golden glow of sunlight finally focusing the viewer’s eye on the artist’s profile and revealing the character of its subject within the landscape as the photograph’s ultimate gift.

Kimberley Wandjina, shown on the left in the photograph above, exploits the power of the sun’s brilliance on a riverflat to create an image that is literally “solarized.” What appears at first to be a feat of techincal trickery is seen on close inspection to be a literal image of the sun transforming the watery landscape. In contrast to the brilliance of the light on water, the depth of the shadows cast on the river by the trees lining its banks creates a deep void of blackness. The detail of the tiny trees themselves is the final eye-catching punch in this visual hat trick. The smaller color landscapes are true jewels in the show; again the detail captured by Eve’s camera is extraordinary, as in the views on the left below of the Carr Boyd Range (top) and Ragged Range (bottom). The massive rock formations seem monumental at first, but their size and presence is softened by the bands of rich green vegetation that spread across them like drapery.

The show at the Kluge-Ruhe is beautifully hung, alternating portraits of country and artists. The subjects share a ruggedness and an implacable presence. The portrait of Freddie Timms (above, right) shows his painted Ned Kelly armor and penetrating gaze; it is a portrait of the artist as a mythology, a reminder of how the legend of the outlaw who defied colonial authority in the south has become an icon of resistance across the north. In another portrait, Peggy Patrick confronts the viewer from within a cage of tree branches at the site of the Mistake Creek Massacre. Similarly, the family of Rammey Ramsey, his wife and six children, all direct their eyes into the camera and at the viewer, surrounding the artist himself who gazes down at the branding iron clasped in his hands like a scepter. There is no retreat in these portraits; rather there is strength, survival, and a sense of self-assurance that holds the subjects at a remove, emphasizing their individual power. I walked away from these photographs with an echo in my mind of the closing lines of Basil Bunting’s poem “On the Fly-Leaf of Pound’s Cantos.” Comparing the enormity of Pound’s mad masterpiece to the Alps, Bunting concludes with a sentiment I find entirely appropriate to the Kimberley and its people.

They are there, you will have to go a long way round
if you want to avoid them.
It takes some getting used to. There are the Alps,
fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!

Red Hot Ochre and Beyond the Frontier will remain on view at the Kluge-Ruhe until April 21, 2007.

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