“Land of All”: Art and Artists of Mornington Island

At the 22nd National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award in 2005, I caught sight of a (relatively) small canvas that from a distance appeared starkly white all over; on closer inspection I saw that the white background was stippled all over with dense black-brown pinpricks of color. Amidst the enormous colorful works that dominated the show that year (Nicolas Rothwell described one of the winning entries as “a vast colour television screen with a malfunctioning vertical hold control” in his review of the exhibition, “The Big Picture, Little Dreaming,” The Australian, August 15, 2005), this canvas focused my attention in the way that silence conspicuously fills the world when a howling windstorm suddenly drops into stillness. Reading the text on the wall brought more surprises. It was called Wurruku, Sharp-nosed Brown Shark, and was painted by a young woman named Emily Evans from Mornington Island. (At right is a detail of Baibal, Spotted Stingray, a similar work from that year.) To that point in time, the only art from Mornington that I was familiar with were the semi-naturalistic ceremonial and pastoral scenes painted by Dick Roughsey, who had passed away twenty years earlier, or artifacts like the conical dancing-hats topped with emu feathers and adorned with red-and-white stripes that appeared in the catalogs of specialized Oceanic arts and crafts dealers. Was a contemporary art tradition, a renaissance, being brought to light on this tiny island in the Gulf of Carpentaria?

Three years later, the affirmative answer to that question is well known to all, and the reputation of the Mornington Island Arts and Crafts Center further solidified by the publication of a gorgeous new book celebrating the achievements of its artists, The Heart of Everything: the art and artists of Mornington & Bentinck Islands (McCulloch and McCulloch Australian Art Books, 2008). Featuring essays by Nicholas Evans, Louise Martin-Chew, and Paul Memmott, with additional material by Susan McCulloch, The Heart of Everything offers in its brief 100 pages a splendid overview of the variety of styles that have emerged from this community in the last five years, an investigation of the history of painting in the last half-century on Mornington Island, biographies of the leading practitioners, and an all-too-brief glimpse of what the future may hold.

The most famous of these contemporary artists is, of course, Sally Gabori, an elderly Kaiadilt woman originally from Bentinck Island, which lies southeast of Mornington off the shores of Queensland. It seems fitting, therefore that the book opens with an explosively colored double-gatefold illustration of Dulka Warngild (Land of All), a 200 x 600 cm collaborative canvas by seven Bentinck Island women that is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria after being displayed in a group show at Alcaston Gallery in Melbourne last August and September. Large expanses of dark sea blue at two extremities of the canvas set off the riotous colors in which each woman has painted her particular stretch of country; each artist’s contribution is immediately recognizable in its characteristic style but the boldness of color and the sweep of composition creates a coherence to the canvas that can sometimes be lacking from monumental collaborative compositions of this sort. (A solo show by Gabori opens at Alcaston on Tuesday, May 27, and features a similarly monumental work that is likewise sustained by echoing forms and colors along its six-meter horizontal axis. In an interesting stylistic development, Gabori has chosen in several of her paintings to adopt a strategy of simple, closely-valued hues for some of the smaller works in the show, and in the strongest new paintings pare her palette down to black and white with only the barest hint of pale color staining the lighter surfaces.)

But famous as they have become, the Bentinck Islanders have been engaged with painting their country for a relatively brief period of time: Gabori was the first to engage at a workshop in 2005. To its credit, The Heart of Everything does ample justice to the history of the Lardil artists of Mornington Island who have carried the traditions of their country to the rest of the world in painting and dance since the 1950s. Dick Roughsey is, of course, the most famous of these artists–mostly male in contrast to the female stars of the Kaiadilt. Beginning with bark painting inspired by his visits to Arnhem Land in the 1950s, Roughey went on to become internationally renowned for his children’s books, often done in collaboration with Percy Tresize, including The Giant Devil Dingo (Collins, 1973) and The Rainbow Serpent (Collins, 1975). Roughsey’s literary reputation had already been established by the publication of Moon and Rainbow (Reed, 1971), considered to be the first autobiography penned by an Aboriginal man.

Dick Roughsey, Rain Dance, 1985

But it was in many ways Roughsey’s older brother Lindsay, also known as “Spider,” who is at the heart of the history of Lardil painting since the early 1960s, and one of the great achievements of The Heart of Everything is to document this story eloquently, most particularly in Paul Memmott’s essay, “Origins of the Contemporary Art Movement.” While the book is superbly, beautifully illustrated throughout with a combination of historical photographs, reproductions of paintings, shots of the artists at work, and images of the Mornington Island Dancers, the ambassadors of Lardil culture since 1973, all these elements combine in their most powerful form to accompany Memmott’s lucid exposition of the contributions of the Roughsey brother, and of Lindsay in particular, to the cultural preservation of Lardil traditions in the face of the onslaught of missionary culture, alcohol, and natural disasters. 

Lardil painting is rooted in the traditions of body painting and shows strong affinities to ceremonial designs stretching all the way to Central Australia. Many of these designs were documented in a series of rough paintings executed in the early years of this century and collected in the important publication Paint Up (University of Queensland Press, 2002). Among the many art works illustrated now in The Heart of Everything, it would be hard to find one as exquisite and moving as Lindsay Roughsey’s Dingo Story from 1961. Executed in ochres and colored balls of feather down on bark, this gem reproduces chest and leg paint designs combined with a painted ceremonial dancing belt and a pair of clapsticks. At once fragile and forceful, it captures the essence of Lardil visual art better than anything else in the book. From that point onwards, Lindsay Roughsey would remain a source of inspiration to the artists of Mornington Island; he completed his last paintings not long before his death in 2007.

Following hard on the heels of the publication of Paint Up, longtime resident Brett Evans set about revitalizing the art centre on Mornington Island, and after exhibiting some small paintings in Sydney in 2004, held a series of workshops that began the contemporary renaissance of painting on the island. Louise Martin-Chew documents this intense period of resurgent creativity in the second of the book’s major essays, “A Contemporary Art Movement Develops.” It is a story mixed with sorrow, though, as she records in quick succession the passing of many of the men who produced some of the most dramatic works from the first wave of the Lardil awakening. Though Arnold Watt, Melville Escott, Billy Koorubbuba all succumbed over the next few years, along with Lindsay Roughsey, a new generation of Lardil painters, including many women–Renee Wilson, Joyanne Williams, Jolene Roughsey and perhaps most dramatically of all, Emily Evans–have succeeded them in producing vibrant art based on traditional ceremonial designs. After appearing the 2005 NATSIAA, Evans was selected for inclusion in the first Xstrata Emerging Artists exhibition in Brisbane in 2006; the next year she was followed in that competition by Sally Gabori.

Among the men who remain actively painting today are the elder Reggie Robertson (above left, his Headband, 2005) and Bradley Wilson (Thanbe, Nose Markings, right), who represents a younger generation of painters.

The great surprise that erupted in the midst of all this activity was the emergence of the Kaiadilt women, led by Sally Gabori and documented by Nicholas Evans in the book’s third essay, “People of the Strand: the Kaiadilt of Bentinck Island.” The Kaiadilt had lived relatively undisturbed by Western incursions until the 1940s, when many of the young women were moved by the missionaries to Mornington. There they still lived a life apart from their Lardil neighbors. Even now they retain a distinctive visual style based on painting their country, with an imagery rich in the depiction of the sea, of fishing and of rock weirs, and of the flora of Bentinck.

After tracing the history of the development of these disparate schools of painting under the aegis of the Mornington Island Arts and Crafts Centre, the book provides brief chapters detailing the life and work of some of the most noted artists producing today. This opportunity to study individuals’ work in the context of the larger story helps one to see the unique qualities of each all the better. And indeed, in looking at Thelma Burke’s paintings, their radical difference from the Bentinck Island painters with whom she is frequently group makes sudden sense: Burke is a Yangkaal woman who comes from the third major linguistic group inhabiting the Wellesley Islands.

The book’s final chapter looks all too briefly at some of the rising stars of Mornington Island, a group once more dominated by the Lardil; there is somehow something quite fitting about the ebb and flow of influence among the various peoples of this stormy island community, something that echoes the elemental movements of people and the sea in the southern waters of the Carpentaria.

The Heart of Everything is in some ways as unexpected a book as the emergence of the community on the international art scene itself was startling. Like their fellow Queenslanders, the Lockhart River Art Gang, the painters of Mornington Island seemed to burst out of nowhere to seize the attention and imagination of the art world with astonishing force. To have this lovely monograph delivered in such a timely fashion was a delightful surprise. Its combination of historical exposition with stunning reproductions of the works serves to explain why the art has developed the way it has, in several differing directions, while providing superb visual documentation of that development. The high standards of photographic work and design that characterize McCulloch productions once again serve the subjects extremely well. I closed the book with a renewed appreciation of the richness of the Lardil, Yangkaal, and Kaiadilt traditions, and a renewed hope for the future of this tiny community.

Arnold Watt, Stripes of the Dingo, 2005

This entry was posted in Art, Books and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s