Mangkaja Arts, Fitzroy Crossing, WA

Fitzroy Crossing, home of Mangkaja Arts, was the third stop of the day on our blitz through the Kimberley. We came down out of the brilliant blue at three o’clock in the afternoon to be met at the airport by manager Mandy Mcguire for the short drive across the Fitzroy River floodplain into town. Located on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert, Fitzroy Crossing has seen waves of migrations in the last hundred years. As pastoralists moved in and displaced the original inhabitants, other Indigeneous people moved in from the Desert regions. The result is a most pluralistic art centre where the local Bunuba meet and mingle with Walmajarri, Wangkajunka, Gooniyandi, Juwaliny, and other people.

This historical migration led in recent years to the spectacular pair of paintings known as the Ngurrara Canvases, completed in 1996 and 1997 and documenting the traditional ownership of the surrounding country. In 2000, another large collaborative work once more laid out the Martuwarra and Jila country (respectively the Bunuba and Gooniyandi river country and the Walmajarri and Wangkajunka desert lands). Glimpses of this later work, along with Ngurrara I (which was auctioned at Sothey’s in 2003 and was the subject of an extensive article in The New Yorker for July 28, 2003) can be had at the website of the 2002 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art. Ngurrara II is currently on tour to museums around Australia and can be seen at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra until June 22, 2008.

Ngurrara II, 1997

Today, Mangkaja Arts operates two facilities. The older of the two is an unprepossessing affair from the outside, located in the Tarunda Supermarket Complex. This small strip mall is the unlikeliest setting for an arts centre that we encountered on our trip, where you would expect to grab a quick meal at the takeaway shop or load up the van with groceries, but not meet up with dazzling displays of art. You can get some sense of the place in a short video clip from Cathy Freeman and Deborah Mailman’s Going Bushtelevision series made available by Ninenmsn.

Across the road, a brand new building that had barely opened before our arrival in June 2007 served as a spacious gallery for the display of new work and a storehouse of paintings both on offer and awaiting shipment to galleries and exhibitions around the country. 

Mangkaja’s new studio and warehouse space. Photo by Margo Smith.

In this new space we were joined by Paul Miller, who helped us sort through the stacks of framed canvases leaning against the walls and even more unstretched works laid out on large tables for our perusal and selection. Although an examination of the styles comprised in the Ngurrara canvases affords some taste of the variety and breadth of expression that is now collected under the banner of Mangkaja Arts, it cannot truly do justice to them all. The boldness of Wakartu Cory Surprise’s blocks of color seen on the wall at the left in the photo below easily survive translation to such a large framework; Daisy Andrews’ delicately colored landscapes (on the floor below Wakartu’s work) need to be savored and absorbed slowly and in their small scale.

Wolf examines the stock. Photo by Margo Smith.

Many of the older men, including painters such as Pijaju Peter Skipper, Mawukura Jimmy Nerrimah, and Spider Snell paint bold ceremonial designs that clearly show their connections to the iconographic traditions of the Western Desert. (Spider can be seen dancing on the Ngurrara canvas in the photograph on the cover of the Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, Oxford University Press, 2001; his painting Ngunjawali, 2003, which describes a story from the Tingari cycle, is on the right here.) The women’s paintings constantly surprise with the richness of their floral imagery. The theme of jila, the everlasting waterholes in the desert, flourishes in the works of all these painters, whether through intimations of the great serpents that live in them or in the fecundity they bring to the desert.

If there was a disappointment to the finish of this day, it was that changes in schedule and our consequent late arrival meant that all the artists had departed for the day (and we were a day early to boot). However the wealth of work available for us to look through easily made up for the missed opportunity.

Paul Miller helps Nana makes some tough decisions. Photo by Khadija Carroll.

Eventually we all walked across the road to the storefront Art Centre to conclude our business and to peruse the ample selection of catalogs, prints, and paintings by emerging artists. There another surprise was waiting for me: Greg Wallace and Jen Ford were hard at work in the back room, sorting out the photographic archives of Mangkaja Arts. They were there as part of a pilot project being run by Desart to further apply the benefits of technology to the operations of art centres across Australia. Having managed to install the appropriate equipment and software to enable each of Desart’s members to capture their output digitally and to begin the work of building websites, John Oster was now committed to exploring the digital options for preserving the history of these hardy organizations.

Two pilot projects had been selected to examine the resource requirements for building differing kinds of digital archives at two Kimberley art centres. At Warlayirti Artists in Balgo, scanning of the entire physical archive of painting certificates documenting in photographs and stories the history of artwork produced for Warlayirti was underway. Here in Fitzroy Crossing Greg and Jen were still at the stage of assessing the riches on hand. Jen took time out to leaf through a set of scrapbooks that appeared to contain hundreds of photos of the painting of one of the Ngurrara canvases. They hoped at some point in the future to scan all these into digital images and document the people appearing in each along with stories being painted. 

Night was falling by the time we began to caravan towards the Fitzroy Crossing River Lodge, where we were to spend the night (unknowingly in the company of several tour bus loads of bemused seniors also stopping for the night on a very different tour of the Kimberley). Once we had checked into our rooms, though, it was not yet time to rest and relax.

There was indeed more art to be seen, as Paul Good from Austrade and Linda Butterly of the Kimberley Development Council had just arrived after a long, long drive from Carnarvon, to treat us to an exhibition of new art of the Pilbara region. Artists from the Shire of Roebourne had, in 2006, traveled to Florence, Italy, for an astonishing exhibition called Antica Terra Pulsante (Ancient Land Pulsing). Their work rivaled that of the Mangkaja Artists for its variety and in many cases the intensity of the color they applied to the canvas. 

Kathleen Nangala Njamme’s squares and roundels recalled the classic works of many Western Desert artists and would not have been out of place on the walls of Warlayirti Artists in Balgo. Yindjibarndi artist Clifton Mack builds fields of color out of an infinite number of small dots and dashes. Some of his work was reminiscent in color and composition of faraway Anmatyerre or Alyawarre painters; other paintings looked startlingly new and spoke eloquently of the seaside light of the Western coastline. But I think we all agreed that Karratha Murniba’s shimmering fields of color, once of which is reproduced below, were the star attractions of the show that Paul and Linda had so generously arranged for us.

Murinba is the most dramatic and the freshest of the painters working today out of Roebourne.

After feasting all day on Kimberley art, from Kununurra through Warmun, and westwards from Fitzroy to Roebourne, it was time to replenish the body as well as the soul. To that end, we all repaired to the Fitzroy Crossing River Lodge, where Paul Miller rejoined us while Paul Good and Linda Butterly made sure that the wine flowed as smoothly as the conversation. As this was to be our group’s last night on the road–prior to our very last night of the tour in Darwin–it was with real reluctance that we gave in to the need for sleep as the clock ticked past 10 p.m.

Dawn’s early light in Fitzroy Crossing

Dawn brought another perfect day and I took the opportunity to wander the grounds of the Lodge, the cool morning nearly silent but for a few birdcalls. After a quick breakfast, we loaded our gear for the return trip to the airport, where Paul and Linda sent us off with a hefty gift of catalogs and books to help us remember the land we hadn’t seen, the iron-red Pilbara. Their generosity and kindness, their invitations to return, were the perfect send-off for our final day touring the art centres of the West.

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