Art News on the Web

I’ve written before about footy and Indigenous culture, but if you really want to know about footy, art, and culture in the Indigenous sphere, you need to talk to Beverly Knight of Melbourne’s Alcaston Gallery. A longtime champion of the Essendon Bombers, she was the first woman director in the AFL, joining the Essendon Board in 1993. (Uncultured Yank that I am, I once got my teams confused and asked Bev how Collingwood was going. I now own Bombers cap to make sure that I don’t make that mistake twice.)

Martin Flanagan recently posted a lovely essay, “White Knight,” on that details the many ways in which Bev’s passion for footy, Aboriginal art, and helping people from Indigenous communities have come together over the years. She was Michael Long’s sponsor and mentor when he first came to play in Melbourne. In 1996, for the centenary of the VFL, she worked to have Indigneous artists included in an exhibition on the theme of art and footy, and sometime in the past decade (my memory and my records are terribly shoddy), she organized an entire show about footy at Alcaston. Bev has always been an outspoken supporter of her team and her proteges, but she’s never really boasted about her involvement and support. She’s certainly been a generous friend to us over the years, and it’s delightful to see that spirit of generosity celebrated in this article.

In other media news, it’s been a delight to see Nicolas Rothwell back on the art beat at The Australian. Although all of the shows he recently reviewed have now come down, you can still enjoy both his lovely prose and a look at the art works themselves on the web. “The Dark Wings of Desire” (April 11, 2008) looked at the art and Dreamings on display in Kukula Mcdonald’s recent series of black cockatoo paintings in the Mwerre Anthurre exhibition at Karen Brown in Darwin in April, which also included work by Billy Benn.

Rothwell’s review of Tjunkiya Napaltjarri’s recent solo show at Utopia Gallery in Sydney (“Landscape of Feeling,” April 29, 2008) probes her newly broadened palette, her biography, her relationship (in visual terms) to the work of Nyurapaia Nampitjinpa and Naata Nungurrayi, as well as Tjunkiya’s connection to the Dreaming site of Yumari, long celebrated not just in her own work but in some of the greatest canvases of Uta Uta Tjangala. Rothwell ends his musings with a striking observation:

As to the internal motives that fuel her work, we know little. And this is one of the oddest aspects of Australia’s protracted romance with desert art. Not only do we have little understanding, on the psychological or social level, of the particular artists whose paintings evoke such strong responses in us; not only are they, despite the endless streams of enthusiastic praise for their art, total strangers to us: the truth is that scarcely any attempt has yet been made to know them and present them as individuals with lives, characters and outlooks of their own. It is a task that awaits, and as the old desert artists pass into oblivion it seems to press upon us each day with greater force.

His most recent piece, “Evolution in Sacred Tradition” (May 8, 2008) was occasioned by two spectacular shows of ground-breaking new work from Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala: Wanyubi Marika & Young Guns II at Bill Gregory’s Annandale Galleries, and Bitpit: New Growth Sculpture Project , mounted by Dallas Gold at Raft Artspace in Darwin. (Bitpit is a bud or shoot emerging from a tree.) Wanyubi’s new barks are a startling departure, not just for the artist, but possibly for Buku-Larrnggay as well, recalling the sensation of Buwayak: Invisibility at Annandale in 2003. Here the visual motif is a series of circles that represent the state of the water at the shore of Yalangbara at the instant that the Djang’kawu Sisters withdrew their paddles from the sea, the instant before they stepped ashore to begin tracing the creation across the Land of the Sunrise where the Yolngu live still today. For those accustomed to the dominance of white in the traditional palette of Buku’s painters, this show will look startlingly brilliant in color, despite adhering to the traditional registers. And indeed, the paradox that Rothwell takes as the starting point of his essay is the fact that one of the most conservative and traditional communities in Indigenous Australia is consistently producing the most innovative art works.

The sculptural works at Raft in Bitpit are likewise astonishing mixtures of the traditional and the cutting edge. The acknowledged star of this exhibition in Nawurapu Wunungmurra, who has been best known to date for his zigzag evocations the sacred expanse of water, Gulutji, where it empties into Djalma (Blue Mud Bay) at the end of its journey from Gangan. In recent years he has been adorning larrakitj bearing the deep water design with a frieze of clouds that float above the watery imagery. The sculptures in this show are mokuy spirits, a classic form of Yolngu carving given an astonishing new twist. These tall, attenuated, skeletal figures are carved in high relief and would best be not encountered on a dark night.

Two other sculptures in the show are heart-achingly beautiful. One is a figure of the creator, Barama, by Gawirrin Gumana, that matches anything produced by the genius of the ancient Greeks for its mien of nobility. The other, by Djambawa Marawili, depicts the crocodile ancester Baru rearing up on his hind legs, embracing the shoulders of a spear-carrying man. I don’t know if this represents a moment of transformation or a promise of protection, or something else altogether. I do know that it is almost a match for Gawarrin’s figure in nobility and majesty.

The final delight is that both shows, at Annandale and Raft, have catalogs that are accompanied by insightful commentary by Will Stubbs, who has returned to Yirrkala and to Buku-Larrnggay. Will’s combination of insight and style is unparalleled among art centre spokesmen. Here is his account of a trip out into the thickets with Djambawa to procure a kapok tree that is to be transformed into a work of art.

Djambawa asked me “How do you feel?”
“I’m fine.”
“No, I mean, how do you really feel?”
“Well…I’m buggered.”
“Yes. And..?
“I’m really hot and thirsty. My head feels like it’s going to explode.”
“And what else?”
“My body is aching and I’m covered in scratches and mud.”
“Exactly! So! The next time you are sitting behind your desk and I bring my handicrafts in I want you to remember just how you are feeling now!”
And I have. I still have scars from that afternoon.

If you check the Links section in the sidebar on the right, you’ll find a new blog listed, Wordy-Gurdy. Written by Jackey Coyle-Taylor who, with husband Roger, manages the Warmun Art Centre since June of 2007. Her blog predates her move to Warmun, so it is a personal record, but of course, it is now dominated by Jackey’s experiences in her new job. She captures all the joys and heartaches of the work and the community, and it’s a moving read. And the pictures are fabulous, especially since Warmun has a “no photos” policy for visitors. Click on the small photos that stud most entries and they’ll enlarge to more than fill your screen. Good on you, Jackey; I’m looking forward to many more postings!

And finally, things are starting to get hot in Darwin, despite the onset of winter. The second Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair can be previewed at its new website. Apolline Kohen has once more masterminded a three-day (August 14-16) exposition of art from nearly two dozen community art centres, including man of the places I visited on my tour with Austrade last year. I’m excited about the opportunity to renew acquaintances and catch up with old friends.

And there’s been a preliminary launch of the program for the Darwin Festival 2008Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu headlines a concert that will also feature Wildflower, at the Star Shell on August 16. Tickets will be going fast!

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