Alice’s Adventures

We come to the country of the Caterpillar Dreaming, Yeperenye.

Crossing the MacDonnell Ranges toward Alice Springs

Upon leaving Yuendumu, the American Austrade delegation had a short, late afternoon flight to Alice Springs, where we would be spending the next day and a half on a variety of ventures. There were in-town galleries to visit, friends to catch up with, and an invitation from Tim Jennings to see the Mbantua Gallery … a space that Tim is planning to refurbish in the future with a wine-bar featuring the massive Emily Kngwarreye painting Earth’s Creation that he had purchased only a week before at the Lawson-Menzies auction in Sydney. 

But the first order of business on arriving in town was dinner at the Bluegrass Restaurant, the first sit down meal that most members of the group shared together (not counting the barbeque at Warakurna) since meeting one another days earlier at Yulara. Not that we hadn’t spent a lot of time together, but we’d been taking meals on the run, scattering to get errands completed, or otherwise distracted from the simple pleasure of combining good food and good company. 

When the meal was done and most people had returned to the hotel, the last stragglers among us stopped quickly at Bojangles Saloon and Resaturant to see where those wild Alice Springs webcams originate from. It was my first time in a rowdy Central Australian pub, although things were pretty calm that evening, the bar uncrowded if the music loud enough to make up the difference.

The next day we arrived at the in-town headquarters of Papunya Tula Artists before the doors were even open to the chilly Todd Mall morning. But we needed an early start, as the day was chock-a-block, and we had only an hour to peruse the stock and make some preliminary selections from among the masterpieces on the wall and the hidden treasures stockpiled on the gallery’s floor. 

I’m glad that PTA has continued to make such a large selection of its inventory available for browsing in much the same way that they did in the tiny space that they formerly occupied across Gregory Terrace from the end of the Todd Mall. In those days there was enough wall space to handle few more than a dozen stretched works; thus possibility of uncovering a minor masterpiece by Pegleg Tjampitjinpa or Long Jack Phillipus in the piles of canvas on the floor added a thrill to one’s visit. 

Today, with the airy white walls of the Todd Mall gallery displaying dozens of works ranging from less than a meter square to five times that size, it’s still possible to uncover a Tingari masterwork by Joseph Jurra, work in a new style by Raymond Tjapaltjarri (or even his father Patrick Tjungurrayi) and a surprising view of sandhills by the late Charlie Ward Tjakamarra among the unstretched canvases on the floor. 

I was so caught up in watching my fellow travelers discover one exciting painting after another, and in taking photographs of works I wanted to take home myself, that I never really got around to photographing the gallery space or the PTA mob themselves, so I’ll have to fill in with this shot taken on my previous trip to the gallery in 2005.

Luke, Sarita, Briggitta, and Paul in the Papunya Tula Artists Gallery

All too soon we had to pile into our vehicles and head off for the next stop on the morning’s agenda, a visit to Tjanpi Aboriginal Women’s Baskets and Crafts. Although the women became internationally famous after winning the NATSIAA grand prize in 2005, this enterprise of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjarra (NPY)Women’s Councilhas been going strong for over a decade now. Their shop on Wilkinson Street in Alice is tiny but it overflows with beads and baskets and is populated by an ever unexpected array of desert denizens, such as this pack of camp dogs that was milling around out front. 

Outside Tjanpi Weavers
Emu, by Kitty Impana Collins of Mutitjulu

This whimsical emu (above) that I discovered perched on a shelf inside, like the dogs and the life-sized ladies peering out from corners of the shop typify the inventiveness and the imagination of the Tjanpi group. What’s often and unfortunately overlooked is discussions of the weaver’s accomplishments, is immense amount of cultural detail that is embedded in their work. 

Too often critical commentary follows down the eroded pathways of the arts vs crafts debate. After the win in Darwin two years ago, lots of newspaper inches were devoted to questioning whether the grass Toyota was art; a few gave serious consideration to the implications of the “Toyota Dreaming” joke; but very few reflected on the collaborative nature of cultural production in Aboriginal communities, or the implications of this art for continued transmission of skills that were once critical (and are still useful) to bush survival. 

The twinkle in the eye of the Tjanpi weavers often masks something deadly serious and truly artistic in their work. The mob of camp dogs we met that morning, to a jaded Western eye, looks like a jumble of oversized souvenirs. It takes more than a moment’s reflection to think of it as an installation piece. maybe even a commentary on the unruly men to whom the models for these hunting companions belong.

A riot of camp dogs

Another tradition in Central Desert art that’s been ill-served by the prejudices of the Western art-critical apparatus is that of Arrernte watercolor painting. Condescension in the guise of admiration dominates much writing about Albert Namatjira, and since the early 70s and the rise of acrylic painting in the desert, the watercolorists, like the weavers, have been too often reduced to the status of souvenir hawkers and crafts merchants. Critical opinion was righted somewhat five years ago with the National Gallery’s exhibitionSeeing the Centre, which revealed the depth both feeling and meaning in the paintings of the Hermmansburg School and allowed many people to look with fresh eyes at the artistry of the paintings and not see only the picturesque in them.

We got a fresh look at contemporary landscape painting ourselves at our next stop of the morning, Ngurratjuta Iltja Ntjarra (Many Hands Art Centre). Funded by the Ngurratjuta Aboriginal Corporation, the art centre in Alice provides a space in town for artists who work in a variety of visual traditions. As I browsed the gallery walls I was astonished to find all the great Arrernte watercolorist families represented here by contemporary practitioners: Namatjira, Ebatarinja, Pareroultja, Rubuntja. Emma Nungurrayi Daniels, whose works can be found reproduced in many early compilations of Western Desert acrylic painting, now has a corner of Ngurratjuta to call her own. Iris Taylor is experimenting to great effect in the simple, boldly colored style of acrylic landscape painting that’s been pioneered largely by women from the Utopia region in the last decade. 

All of this blossomed at Ngurratjuta, much to my surprise and delight. The most amazing discovery of the visit were the landscapes of Elton Wirri from Abbott’s Camp in Alice Springs. When he started painting three years ago, his work was startling in its quality and assuredness. Today his style has matured considerably and he looked to my eye to be one of the finest watercolorists working in Central Australia today. in 2006 his paintings formed the backdrop for the theatrical production of Ngapartji Ngapartji at the Sydney Opera House. That’s quite an resume for a sixteen-year old boy, wouldn’t you say? (Shortly before our arrival Elton’s father, Kevin Wirri, made national headlines as a member of the executive of Tangentyere Council by refusing Mal Brough’s $60 million offer to buy out the town camps in Alice Springs.)

More surprises awaited us: Pansy Napangardi paints regularly at the studio, and she was there engaged completing a Hail Dreaming in her characteristic bi-colored dots. She turned out to be one of the most gregarious artists we met in Central Australia, happy to talk about her painting career and her travels around the world. She made no secret of her desire to return to America with us!

Pansy Napangardi at Ngurratjuta Iltja Ntjarra. The painting behind her is a work in progress by Emma Nungurrayi Daniels.

After a chatting with Pansy for a while, I got up to stretch my legs and saw John Oster signaling me over to his side. “Do you know that old man painting next to Pansy?” he asked. “That’s Paddy Stewart.” Well, since hearing the reports of his failing health the day before at Yuendumu, that was about the last thing I expected, and it was a delight to meet him, first of all, and moreover to see him truly looking hearty and painting with great concentration. 

I’d had the foresight to load up photographs of works from our collection on my iPod, so I showed Paddy the Jangapa Jukurrpa (Possum Dreaming) that we’d commissioned in 1999. Less loquacious than his old friend Paddy Sims had proven the day before at Yuendumu, he looked at the painting and said simply, “Old one, that” and went back to work on the Budgerigar Dreaming he had before him.

Paddy Stewart, at left, working on a Budgerigar Dreaming; thanks to Joel Newman for the photo.

As it was by now gone noon, several members of the group split off for a road trip to Keringke Arts. As others attended to the business of finalizing purchases, I settled in for a jaw with John Oster about his days at the coordinator at Warlayirti Artists. 

Taking a break with John Oster (left) of Desart

Those of us who stayed behind in Alice had the afternoon free, and after a brief stop at the Desart Offices, I headed straight for the CAAMA shop, which has lately moved its retail operations onto the Todd Mall, just a few doors down from Papunya Tula. An hour later and a few hundred dollars lighter, I emerged the proud owner of a boatload of CDs to add to my collection of Aboriginal music. 

They had some good Ngaanyatjara reggae in stock, including the Thunder Boys’ Kungka Kutju (One Girl) and a compilation album, Turlku 2: Songs from the Ngaanyatjara Homelands. I scored three new recordings by one of my all-time favorites, the Lajamanu Teenage Band, including their Live in Katherine concert. That makes a nice companion piece to Barunga Live 2006: Safe Tracks Home. The latter, apart from being a partial record of what went down at last year’s Barunga Festival, is a collection of songs that were entered into a competition to produce rock ‘n’ roll with a message about road safety. It’s a great mix, ranging from the children of the Barunga School’s folkie “Rod Seifti Song” to Lajamanu Teenage Band’s flat out “Yarrungkanyi” and the winning entry “Get Together” by Sabata out of Darwin. But there’s another whole blog post to write about all that music, so I’ll stop there. The folks at the CAAMA Shop were great, offering a generous discount and arranging to ship everything back to the States for me.

After I’d cleared the shelves at CAAMA it was time to go back to Papunya Tula, where I’d arranged to meet Daphne Williams for afternoon tea at the bake shop across the alley. I’m happy to report that Daphne is looking great these days, and is back at work with Papunya Tula (again!) at their in-town painting shed, entering documentation on older works into PTA’s computerized inventory and records system. Catching up with Daphne is always a treat; you’d be hard pressed to find a more congenial soul in Central Australia, but having a conversation with her is an amazing trip through time. 

When I mentioned that I’d seen the Papunya Tula collection at the Australian Museum–what to me was a thrilling glimpse of history–Daphne assumed a worried look as she remembered how Andrew Crocker had left suddenly, and the company was on the verge of bankruptcy and there were bills to be paid…. And I thought to myself that while I think of these events as art history, to be researched in books and journals, to Daphne, it was just another day on the job. It’s good to know that she’s still on the job, and still contributing to building the incredible history of Papunya Tula that she’s so central to.

With Daphne Williams at Papunya Tula

We returned to the PTA gallery to say our farewells, and I found the remaining members of the American delegation there, repeating the morning’s adventure of selecting from the riches on display. Luke Scholes helped me pick out a couple more paintings to bring home with me, and I ended the day’s adventures back at Desart, settling in for more stories with John Oster before heading back to the hotel and a quiet evening on my own.

Well that was the plan at any rate, but I’d no sooner kicked off my shoes than the phone in my room rang, and I found myself talking to David Nash, Warlpiri linguist and polymath, with whom I’ve frequently chatted via Instant Messenger. We’d hoped that our paths would cross and we’d have the chance to meet in person somewhere in Australia on this trip, but I wasn’t passing through Canberra where David works for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, and David was planning to be out in Port Hedland while I was in Central Australia. 

So when I asked where he was and he replied “in your hotel lobby,” I couldn’t have been more surprised. Until he said, “I’m here with Jenny Green and we’re wondering what to do about dinner tonight.” Jenny is a Central Australian legend, a linguist who works with the Institute for Aboriginal Development and author of The Town Grew Up Dancing, the biography of Wenten Rubuntja published by IAD Press in 2004. (Jenny conducted the first batik workshop at Utopia; her sister Felicity was art coordinator at Jilamara Arts in Milikapiti on Melville Island and worked closely with Kitty Kantilla years ago.)

We wound up staying at the hotel and dining on fine Thai food. I got the best introduction possible to the current state of linguistic studies in Central Australia, insights into land claims, and much much more over dinner that night. As a moment of what felt like sheer serendipity–Jenny and David had converged on Alice that night from different directions and my last night in town was the first night for both of them–it was hard to beat. 

As always, I found myself at a loss for words: not a good state of affairs when dining with linguists, you’d think, but it was hard to imagine how I could have enjoyed myself more. Their generosity was matched only by their patience with my endless questions and their good humor and warmth and genuine interest in my own adventures on their home court. When people ask me why I return to Australia over and over again, I like to tell them stories about people like David and Jenny.

Jenny Green and David Nash

The next morning we were scheduled to have a viewing of works from Watiyawanu Artists of Mt Liebig, but arrangements got a little complicated. This turned out to be a good thing, for while everything was getting sorted, John Oster offered to drive us all back to the Desart offices in town, where he plied us with books, catalogs, videos, and best of all, a detailed introduction to the work of Desart. 

As I look over my notes from that session, I realize it deserves a posting all its own, but here are just a couple of facts that suggest the enormous value Desart has provided to the arts industry in Central Australia in recent years. They have trained 1500 Aboriginal people in basic information technology, building databases for art centres across the Centre. If you have noticed how similar the inventory system is at many desert art centres, you have seen the fruits of Desart’s labor. 

They are now investigating what it will take to preserve the archival records of these centres in digital format, and where appropriate, to make them accessible on the internet. Two pilot projects, to digitize the backfiles of documentation at Warlayirti Artists and to organize the records of Mangkaja Arts, including the photographs that document the creation of the large Ngurrara canvases, will only scratch the surface of what needs to be done to preserve this enormous historical record and to suggest future directions for these digital repositories.

John in the Desart offices with a map showing the location of member centres

It was hard to tear outrselves away from the stories John was telling us about building up art centres across Central Australia, but time was running short and we were soon bound for a viewing of works from Watiyawanu, whose artists include the winner of last year’s NATSIAA General Prize, Ngoia Napaltjarri; Wentja #2 Napaltjarri (daughter of the great Pintupi painter Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi); and Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri, one of the few artists to my knowledge who paints the stories of the country around Kata Tjuta. 

Peta Appleyard had a dramatic collection of works for us to look at, if not to purchase, as they were all committed to exhibitions already. Watiyawanu has seen demand for works by these artists skyrocket in the last year and if funding for them to join Desart can be achieved in the coming fiscal year, great things may be in store for the fledgling art centre.

Peta Appleyard shows off a new painting by Ngoia Pollard Napaltjarri

And then suddenly we were back in the van, counting heads to make sure we were all aboard for the trip to the Alice Springs airport. It was hard to believe that our journeys through the desert were over, that it was time to take our leave of John Oster, time to head for Darwin and the tropics. I’ve been told that if you see the Todd River in flow three times, you’ll never leave Alice Springs again. I’ve seen the waters running twice; sadly, the Todd was dry this time. But I guess that means I’ll be back another day.

Quintessetial Alice Springs: white gums, blue skies
And the tracks of the caterpillar dreaming
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