Art Around Town (Darwin)

For three days in August, there’s really too much art to see in Darwin.

That was part of the reason that we arrived early: we thought that with a week to prowl the city, we’d be able to appreciate all that the Darwin Festival, the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards had to offer. Well, we did better than we had on our previous outing in 2005, but we still managed to miss the Tiwi Arts Network exhibition down at Browns Mart (which everyone said was brilliant) and the new print editions of work from Waringarri and Jirrawun at Northern Editions (ditto).

Among the shows that opened on the weekend of the Art Award, we managed to catch the group exhibitions from Maningrida at their downtown shop and from Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala out at Framed. The former was necessarily small, but featured a good cross-section of work, including a second Dirdbim (Full Moon) weaving by Marina Murdilnga and a number of other interesting new weavings. The show from Yirrkala was eye-popping, a mixture, like the Maningrida survey, of established and emerging artists. For my money, the smaller bark by Wukun Wanambi, a borderless vortex of black and white fishes, Wawurritjpal or sea mullet, swirling through the waters at the mouth of the Gurka’wuy River, was possibly the single most striking piece of the whole weekend.

We’d been able to spend a good bit of time out in Parap during the earlier part of the week, where there’s plenty to see now that five galleries showing Indigenous work are located in the Parap Shopping Village. Stalwarts Raft Artspace and 24Hr Art have been joined by the newcomers at Outstation. The Tiwi Art Network also has its headquarters here, and Nomad Art has moved from its tiny old space into the lower level gallery formerly filled by Raft. So there’s now a village to visit, and the synergy that these five spaces create will be interesting to watch.

I’ve already written a bit about Outstation, whose offering From Wirrimanu featured some surprising new work out of Balgo, most especially a dark canvas by Miriam Baadjo that showed the compositional influence of her uncle, Wimmitji Tjapangarti, who grew her up. Several works by Jimmy Tchooga were the other standouts in the exhibition, melding classic desert iconography with Balgo color in a simpler style than the painter usually adopts.

The group show at 24Hr Art was an extremely odd mixture. Julie Gough’s mixed media installation, “Aftermath,” overwhelmed me with its complexity. Gary Lee’s “investigations … of Aboriginal male beauty,” “Maast Maast,” finally crossed the line into pornography, requiring that the door to the gallery be locked at all times against the accidental entry of minors. Maybe it was fitting irony that the best work in the show, I thought, was the charming animation curated by Jenny Fraser, “Big Eye.” The Claymation retelling of the story about how the turtle got its shell and the echidna its spines had all the exuberance you might expect of youngsters who have discovered the thrill of artistic expression and achievement for perhaps the first time. 

Over at Raft, Freddie Timms and Rammey Ramsey shared the gallery’s walls, and made for an interesting contrast as colorists. Timms builds paintings using strong primary colors in combination with weightless pastels. There is more complexity to the compositions these days, but for all that the works look to me like particolored Holsteins. Ramsey on the other hand maintains his hieratic presence, producing works worthy of Adolph Gottlieb but with a gentleness and a paint-handling technique that is somehow both raw and sophisticated at the same time. As a body of work, these canvases by Ramsey were the clear winners of the weekend.

The other astonishing body of work on view in Parap this weekend was the folio of prints, Custodians: Country and Culture, at Nomad Art. Featuring ten artists from across remote Australia and printed by the legendary Basil Hall, this is perhaps the finest collection of prints I’ve seen. Each work is stunning in design and execution. The color handling and overlay in the print by Judy Watson Napangardi is of premier quality, and the gradations of tone in Regina Wilson’s work equally impressive. 

But the work that thrilled me was “Nayuyungi and Nakurrurndilhba” by Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek. The old master’s figures float on a ground of translucent washes that capture the surface of a cave’s wall with striking verisimiltude, and the overlay of colors and printings brings to life the generations of custodians who have cared for the rock art in Bardayal’s country. Margie West points up the emotional impact of this print in her essay on the collection:

Over the past few years he has been passing on his artistic legacy to younger members of his family and to emphasise this, his print includes a superimposed image painted by his grandson Gavin Namarnyilk. The imagery here is particularly poignant, because it symbolises the age-old transferral of custodial rights and responsibilities to the next generation. In this way Aboriginal culture continues to endure, to be reinvigorated and to inspire.

Nomad was also deeply involved, in conjunction with Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, in this year’s Galuku Gallery show at the Botanic Gardens, but that’s a story for another post.

Paul Johnstone at Cross-Cultural Art Exchange (CCAE) once again hosted a spectacular show from Papunya Tula Artists, headlined by a large and visually stunning work by Patrick Tjungurrayi. But every work in the exhibition was a knockout, from stalwarts like George Tjuungurrayi, Makinti Napanangka and Walangkura Napanangka to newcomers like Rubilee Napurrula. Rubilee is Wintjiya Napaltjarri’s daughter, who began painting after dancing for the opening of the new painting studio in Kintore in 2007. Her imagery is quite unlike any other painter’s from Kintore and she’s shown a great deal of creative growth over little more than a year’s time.

One of the strengths of this show is the relatively modest scale of most of the works in it. Despite its small (91×46 cm) size, Johnny Yungut’s black and white work is one of the strongest and most dramatic in the show, and among the best work Yungut has done in years. Similarly, Jack Giles has a compelling pearl-shell meander in red and white that does a slow burn while two works by Nyilyari Tjapangarti at 61 x 55 cm vibrate like molecules under intense pressure.

Paul Johnstone of CCAE in front of a detail of Patrick Tjungurrayi’s 183 x 244 cm Untitled.

In the end, we managed to miss all the official openings, the dancers from Waringarri, the champagne around town, the breakfast spread at Browns Mart. But we took our time, and revisited several of the shows in the course of the week. After all, we were supposed to be on vacation, weren’t we? Sometimes you need a week to see three days worth of art.

Coming up next, I hope to get photos from the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair and the NATSIAA presentations up. But we’re back in the States now, and tomorrow marks the return to work and the official end of the vacation, so it will be a few days before I continue the story. 

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