Art and Law in Darwin

After the American Art Mob arrived in Darwin from the Central Australian leg of our tour, our first stop–the plane was late and so were we–was Parliament House, for a visit with Chief Minister Clare Martin. I think we were all a little nervous about the audience, and slightly embarrassed by the informality of our appearance, coming as we did straight from the airport after a busy morning in Alice Springs. Chief Minister Martin dispelled that nervousness within moments of seating us in her conference room, though, and quickly had each of us explaining our interests, our histories, and our hopes. Afterwards, she indulged us with the obligatory photo op on the balcony behind her office overlooking Darwin Harbour. By the way, the walls Chief Minister’s offices are filled with first-rate Aboriginal art from across the Territory.

The Austrade delegation in Darwin: Bernie, Joel, Khadija, Wayne, Chief Minister Clare Martin, Will, Sherry, Wolf, Nana, Margo, and Kerry

Should you find yourself in Darwin this coming weekend for the 24th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award and need a respite from the rounds of galleries and exhibitions, the Supreme Court can offer a few moment’s quiet retreat. There’s Darwin history of all sorts to the found there, and stunning Aboriginal art as well. I’d heard about the Court’s collection for years before my first visit there in 2005, but it wasn’t until the afternoon of the Austrade delegation’s first day in Darwin that I was able to appreciate the story behind it.

The Supreme Court Building in Darwin

We were especially fortunate in receiving a tour of the Court’s collection from its two very distinguished curators. We were met at first by Anita Angel, who in addition to her responsibilities for the Court’s collection is the Curator of the Charles Darwin University Art Collection. We were joined shortly afterwards by her husband, the Honourable Justice David Angel. Together, the two have been responsible for the selection of many of the works that grace the Court today, and they continue to enhance the collection despite no longer having an acquisitions budget.

The Angels have clearly given much serious thought to the composition of the collection, and it shouldn’t be surprising that the theme of “the Law” predominates in the works they have selected. The first Aboriginal artwork to be added to the Court’s collection, a gift of the Northern Territory Law Society, is a work that represents an Aboriginal version of “litigation”: Turkey Tolson’s Mitukatjirri and Tjikari Men’s Spear Fight at Ilyingaungau (1990, 183 x 241 cm). Painted at the same time as the South Australian Museum’sStraightening Spears at Ilyingaungau, this painting represents the actual battle for which the South Australian piece is the prelude. As such, it concerns the action of resolving conflict, which is of course the Court’s own mission.

The Angels felt that it was important to have works by indigenous artists prominently associated with and displayed in the Court, not least because indigenous people are so often clients of the Territory’s legal system. Those whose cases make it to Darwin have often traveled far from their homes and find themselves in an alien environment. The Angels hope that being in the presence of indigenous artwork will help to welcome plaintiffs and defendants alike, and will say to them “Your culture and your law has a place here.”

So central to the Court’s collection is this piece that it has only been removed from view there once. The occasion was its reunification with its South Australian counterpart for the exhibition Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2000. (The painting is reproduced in the catalog for that show, pp. 116-17.)

The selection of a work by an artist from the Centre was not accidental, either. Aware of Darwin’s reputation among Territorians for a certain self-centredness at the expense of the southern reaches of the Northern Territory, the curators felt it was important to begin their collecting with works from the Desert, rather than with the abundant and easily obtained art of Arnhem Land that one might have expected to form the core of the judicial collection.

This ethic of inclusiveness that informed the selection of Turkey Tolson’s work also led the Angels to include works by women early on. The first indigenous woman artist to be added to the roster was, fittingly, Pansy Napangardi, also the first woman to paint for Papunya Tula. 

Another work by a woman that reflects an important aspect of Aboriginal law is Nora Napaljarri Nelson’s Milky Way Dreaming, which tells the story of a Tjakamarra man who pursued seven sisters that were the wrong skin for him to marry. His pursuit took them across vast distances; ultimately the sisters fled into the sky, where they can be seen today in the constellation of the Seven Sisters, still relentlessly pursued across the night skies.

The mosaic of Nora Napaljarri Nelson’s Milky Way Dreaming in the foyer of the Darwin Supreme Court

Interestingly, the creation of this painting resulted in some traditional litigation when the senior men in the artist’s community of Yuendumu, including her father, objected to her depicting a story they believed she did not have the rights to paint. The dispute was eventually resolved, and the original painting was transformed into a mosaic, 7.5 meters to a side, in the main concourse of the Supreme Court’s foyer. According to Aboriginal Darwin: a guide to exploring important places (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2006), Melbourne Mural Studio artists Joe Attard and David Jack used 700,000 squares of Venetian glass to create the mosaic, which glitters like the night sky itself.

The story of the Seven Sisters is central to another important legal battle that is remembered in the Court’s collection. The work of eight Aboriginal artists had been transferred without permission to a series of woven carpets manufactured in Vietnam. The decision in Milpurrurru and others v Indofurn, informally known as the “Carpets Case,” extended recognition of Aboriginal intellectual property rights as expressed in the creative arts. One of the carpets, a reproduction of Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri’s Kooralia, is part of the Museum’s collection. Kooralia is the artist’s birthplace, a site associated with the Seven Sisters Dreaming; the original painting is also included in the Genesis and Geniuscatalog (p. 79).

The catalog of the Court collection goes on and on. There’s an early work from Utopia, one of the famous car doors retrieved from the automobile graveyards of the Outback and decorated with a landscape by Kelsey Kemarre. The Court acquired this work courtesy of CAAMA Productions and Anthony Knight of Alcaston Gallery. Alcaston also commissioned a large painting of pukumani poles that accompanies a collection of the poles themselves. These sculptures include works by distinguished Tiwi artists Pius Tipungwuti and Leon Puruntatameri.

The best view of Nora Napaljarri’s mosaic can be achieved from the fourth floor of the building, which also offers considerable delights in work by non-indigeneous artists. While I’m sure that the decision to prominently display indigenous art in the building’s entrance foyer must have been controversial at first, some of the non-indigenous work also demonstrates the Angels’ fearlessness in collecting. Skye Raabe’s Then Then Now is a memorial to the damage wrought to Darwin by Cyclone Tracy and to the city’s spirit in recovering from the disaster. And yet the acquisition of this simple but moving piece opened wounds among many citizens, painful memories they did not wish to see displayed so publicly.

Skye Raabe’s Then Then Now commemorates Darwin’s revival after Cyclone Tracy

Even more controversial was a sculpture at the front end of the fourth floor whose details I don’t have written down. I was too mesmerized and horrified by the story Justice Angel told us as we looked at it. The sculpture looks vaguely like a boat: in that respect it is truer to life than might be imagined. For it is composed of the wreckage of Indonesian sea craft that are hardly worth the name.

The boat people who reach Australia’s northern shores from Indonesia frequently make landfall near Darwin. Their boats are often all they own, or all they bring with them in their flight from poverty or persecution. But if these unfortunates are caught attempting to enter Australia illegally, they are sent back to Indonesia, their leaky skiffs confiscated and burned in the harbor. This sculpture is made from materials scavenged from those confiscated vessels and the very poverty of its materials is heart-rending. 

This was the last work of art purchased for the Court’s collection; its acquisition resulted in the cancellation of the budget for further acquisitions. David and Anita Angel hope to continue the proud tradition of acquiring fine art that speaks of and to the law through donations and bequests from now on.

There is one last work that to my mind represents that grandeur of this collection more than any other, but its story is so rich that it deserves to be told in full. And that, my friends, is a story for tomorrow’s post.


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