The Queen of Jilamara

When I started doing some reading on Tiwi art and culture back at the beginning of this year, I wasn’t thinking about the major retrospective of Kitty Kantilla’s work that was due to open at the Ian Potter Centre of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) on April 27, just a few weeks after I published the results of my somewhat laborious investigations. But that reading provided a wonderful context for the stunning catalog of the exhibition edited by Judith Ryan (National Gallery of Victoria, 2007). The book is first of all a visual delight from its opening pages, and secondly another comprehensive review of the life and work of a determined and innovative Aboriginal artist (like those recently devoted to Michael Riley and Paddy Bedford). I was first introduced to Kitty’s work about a decade ago, when she was nominated as one of the 50 most collectible Australian artists by theAustralian Art Collector Magazine. In the meantime I’ve seen her work in numerous exhibitions, on websites, and in many, many publications. 

But now, with the catalog for the NGV show in my hands, I feel like I’ve been introduced to the old lady herself for the first time. On the first three pages of the volume, immediately following the title page, three successive photographs, each one of virtual close-up of the preceding image, draw you in to an acquaintance with her. The very last page of catalog shows Kitty’s eyes peering over the top of a sheet of canvas or paper; she grasps it with the index and middle fingers of both hands extended almost as if in a valedictory salute. Having invited us into her world, she finally says goodbye. The images are both effective and affecting and help to establish an emotional bond with a painter whose art is highly abstract and impervious to narrative interpretation.

And after those introductory photographs, the catalog plunges you directly into the work, sixty glorious pages of it. First the bark paintings, then the tungas, and the ironwood sculptures. Ochre works on paper follow, then prints, and finally the great works on canvas. Each section is arranged in a roughly chronological order. Flipping through the pages feels a bit like watching waves at the seashore advance, retreat, swell again, come closer. There is both constancy and change, subtle variations, the occasional grand surprise.

As a great retrospective should, this exhibition establishes the majestic quality of the work as a whole, and forces the viewer to look at each painting for what it contributes to that grand vision, and to try to understand how it is unique among all the work collected. One looks at the late works with their swathes of expressionistic blocks of solid color and their angular skews of dots (ct. 71-74) and can think at first only of the startling contrast to earlier works. Paintings from a decade earlier vibrate with row upon row of tightly ordered, fine dotting. But there too, amidst the control, is a sudden burst of a painterly application of white ochre revealing the rush of the artist’s hand across the canvas. This can be seen, for example, in Parlini jilamara from 1995 (cat. 56), the painting famously referred to in the controversial film Art from the Heart as telling the story of buffalo, fish, and eggs in Kitty’s frying pan. Similarly, in her catalog essay Judith Ryan notes the unusual wavelike pattern in an Untitled bark from 1992 (cat. 2). (Perhaps with equal wit, Kitty explained the wave pattern as “that hospital television,” which Ryan glosses as an ECG monitor Kitty observed during a stay in the hospital shortly before she painted this piece.) But perhaps it’s not so unique an element in her work–don’t the triangles–a common device in her paintings–at the top of Purrukuparli (1994, cat. 52) undulate with their own wave-like rhythm? One could get lost in these paintings for days.

Luckily for the reader who may feel overwhelmed, there is plenty of guidance on offer in the essays that follow the catalog of paintings. The first of these, edited together from a series of interviews, is by Pedro Wonaeamirri, the artist who has assumed the regal mantle from the Queen of Jilamara. He lays out the clearest, most coherent telling of the story of Purukaparli I have read, noting that Kitty comes from the country where the ancestor walked into the sea. He goes on to talk about pukumani and kulama, and to discuss the production of art in Tiwi life, ending with his own connections to the old lady.

Judith Ryan follows up with the heroic major catalog essay that attempts to assess the work as a whole while explicating many of the individual painting, sculptures, and prints. She provides invaluable guidance for the study of Kitty’s oeuvre in the best hermeneutic fashion whereby the part informs the understanding of the whole and vice-versa. The essay is not easy going, but repays the reader’s effort well. 

In keeping with the advance-and-retreat rhythm of the catalog, the next set of essays takes us back in time to examine the life of the artist, beginning with her early years working out of the settlement at Paru on the southeast coast of Melville Island, across the Apsley Strait from the relatively more cosmopolitan (and Christian) world at Nguiu. This essay by Margie West sets the stage for Kitty’s development as an artist, linking the biography to the work. James Bennett’s piece on “Kitty’s Kantilla’s Art and the ‘Old Designs'” offers more context. It addresses the often problematic question of what lies behind the abstract designs of Tiwi art. He shows that there is much unresolved ambiguity about the “meaning” of Tiwi art and casts some well-considered doubts on the reliability of Mountford’s interpretations, on which I relied heavily in my earlier piece. He also notes that Mountford’s monograph remains the only major study of Tiwi art published to date, a situation which this catalog goes some distance towards rectifying. Three short, more personal pieces by Felicity Green, Una Rey, and Martin King round out the selection of essays in this volume. 

As a side note, this catalog reminded me again of the important role that Gabriella Roy, an important Sydney dealer, played in bringing an appreciation of Kitty Kantilla’s art to the fore, and moreover, how often her intelligence and perspicacity have fostered our understanding of the diverse universe of Aboriginal art.

The critical apparatus in the book’s final pages is not to be overlooked. The exhibition checklist in unusually fine, including not simply the details of composition and provenance, but exhibition histories for the individual works, literature reviews that indicate prior publication of any piece, and explanatory notes referencing body painting traditions, ancestor stories, and Kitty’s own remarks about the paintings. These notes are supplemented by a generous bibliography, broad in scope, of monographs, reviews, and articles about Tiwi art and culture stretching all the way back to Baldwin Spencer. The “Artist’s Profile” lists dozens of exhibitions from the 1988 Carved Wooden Sculpture by Tiwi Women from Paru to this year’s Yingarti Jilamara: The Art of the Tiwi Islands at the Art Gallery of South Australia. A similar “Tiwi Chronology” provides a historical perspective beginning with a note on Palaneri (The Dreaming) and the Dutch sightings of the Tiwi Islands in 1636 to the appointment of Michelle Newton and Quentin Sprague as the new managers of Jilamara Arts in March 2007.

Kitty Kantilla will remain on view at the NGV through August 19. It then travels to the Art Gallery of New South Wales for a short six-week season extending from December 7 through January 28, 2008.

Update: ABC Radio National’s program Exhibit A for May 20 features an interview with curator Judith Ryan, entitled “Queen of Tiwi Art.” Also on tap this week, Adrian Newstead talks about the auction scene. The program is also available for free download from the iTunes Store.


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