Brisbane Arts: Darby Ross, Xstrata No Go(MA)

Our final stop in Australia was a brief layover in Brisbane, whence we departed for Los Angeles and point east. We had only a day to spend there, and had three surprises: two most pleasant and the other quite disappointing.

Good things first: there is a wonderful exhibition curated by Simon Wright at the Dell Gallery of the Queensland College of Art at Griffith University.Darby Jampijinpa Ross: making it good for the people opened on August 22 and runs through September 28. It is the first retrospective–indeed the first solo show–awarded to the old man, who died at the age of 100 in 2005.

Of course, Darby has always been something of a media star in addition to one of the foremost painters in the history of Warlukurlangu Artists. He narrated the SBS documentary Jardiwarnpa (1993), directed by Rachel Perkins and Ned Lander. (Jardiwarnpa itself is a recasting of a 1967 documentary and a 1980s film by Eric Michaels about the Warlpiri fire ceremony.) In the 1990s, he was one of the inspirations for the Bush Mechanics series. And posthumously, he is the subject of a marvelous biography by Liam Campbell, Darby: one hundred years of life in a changing culture (ABC Books, 2006).

Wright has been working on this exhibition for nearly two years, collecting works from public galleries and private collections and assembling over fifty paintings ranging from the earliest works in the 1980s to Darby’s last canvases, completed in 1999. Many, like the “Ngapakurlangu (Rainwater Dreaming),” shown below and in the inset above, the largest known work by the artist at 91 x 351 cm, have never been publicly exhibited before.

Darby Jampijinpa Ross, “Ngapapkurlangu (Rainwater Dreaming),” 1989

The exhibition was officially opened by Darby’s niece, Ormay Gallagher, who travelled to Brisbane with arts centre manager Cecilia Alfonso. In November it will travel to the Araluen Gallery in Alice Springs, where it will be on display through January 2009.

Ormay Gallagher and Cecilia Alfonso at the opening

The second pleasant surprise was the 2008 Xstrata Coal Emerging Indigenous Art Award … although there’s a disappointment bundled in here, as this will be the last in the three year series that has showcased some incredibly strong art in its brief existence. The very good catalog for this show, however, fails to do justice to the installation and to the lively imagination represented therein. The selection of artists and artworks spans the extent of inventiveness and tradition in Indigenous art today. Milly Kelly’s powerful, raw colors from the Western Australian deserts were hung in striking juxtaposition to Glenn Pilkington’s intelligent and indeed cerebral photographic reconstructions of urban country: the contrast worked both thematically and pictorially. 

Pilkington is represented by the Mossenson Galleries, who had three other artists in the show, Loongkoonan, who also paints WA country, though with a more refined brush, and the pair of naive Utopia sculptors, Dinni Kunoth Kemarre and Joie Kunoth Petyarre. Their mixture of cowboys, eagles, and perhaps most surprisingly, a set of chairs and table captured yet another version of country, one that tells the story of co-existence with incoming settlers, of adaptation and reconstruction.

But without a doubt, the star of the show and the winner, most deservedly, of this year’s prize, was Gunybi Ganambarr, whose two large (two meter) barks and three three-meterlarrakitj poles put me in mind of the spires and windows of the grandest Gothic architecture; at the same time they appeared to be blasted out of living, writhing steel. In short, they were among the most startling works of art I’ve seen lately. 

Ganambarr achieves his effects by reducing his palette: the yellow ochre has gone a muddy brown, while red had been replaced with gray that oddly serves to foreground the remaining, traditional black and white. This turns out to be a remarkable variation on the experiments with buwayak or invisibility that his compatriots have been experimenting with in the last five years. The reduction in value and hue combines with the complexity of design to nearly obliterate the vision of the rainbow snake Burrul’tji from these platforms. The density of visual impact in the bark paintings is heightened by the carving: not content to score the surface with cross-hatching, Ganambarr is literally incising the marks into the surface of the wood.

Detail of minhala, longnecked turtle, carved on an early example of a larrakitj by Gunybi Ganambarr

Ganambarr has been creating striking, carved larrakitj for several years now, memorial poles on which the representations of totemic animals have been presented carved in low relief against a background of painted geometric clan designs. Having made the representational elements in these poles stand out by virtue of their sculptedness, he has then disguised them by covering them with the same intricate geometric patterns of the “ground” design painted on the pole. In these new works, he takes the entire project a step farther, and carves deep incisions into the geometry of the abstract designs as well, recasting the relationships among lines and solids in a way that echoes the tensions between abstraction and presentation in more conventional, recent Yolngu art–if indeed much recent Yolngu art can even be classed as conventional. These works constitute a conceptual and a physical tour-de-force and once more assert the position of the Yolngu in the forefront of developing Indigenous art.

After being treated to such a magnificent presentation of new work (not forgetting Daniel Walbidi’s Klimt-like abstractions or Beaver Lennon’s new adventures in portraiture and landscape), I am almost ashamed to carp about the complete lack of any other Indigenous art on display in Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art. But after visiting last year and seeing the extraordinary display of art from Queensland, presided over by the imposing sculptural magnificence of Arthur Koo’ekka Pambegan’s “Flying Fox Story,” and Ron Yunkaporta’s splendid law poles, I found it hard to swallow my disappointment. 

In fact, I found it very odd that there appeared to be not a single work–of any description–from GoMA’s permanent collections on display. I don’t think I’ve ever visited a museum before to find only temporary exhibitions installed. The installations of Modern Ruin were undoubtedly the most moving and intelligent presentation of video I’ve ever seen in a contemporary museum; the Picasso show was packing in school children (though we gave it a miss)…but still I was unsated. 

I must admit, though, that I felt better after walking over to the Queensland Art Gallery where I could feast on Papunya Tula boards, including work by Yumpululu Tjungurrayi, an extraordinary painter whose paintings are unfortunately elusive, Groote Eylandt Barks, and ultimately, the amazing Sidney Nolan retrospective, which finally made me understand why he is Australia’s most celebrated modern artist. It’s a brilliant show, and one I wish I could revisit. If you can’t see it, the superb, excellent, first-rate bookshop of the QAG/GoMA (which features the most reasonable overseas shipping of any bookstore in Oz), has a special on now for purchases of the retrospective’s catalog


Darby Jampijinpa Ross, “Karlanjirrinpirri (Swallow Dreaming),” 1994 Thanks to Simon Wright for the photographs; portrait of Darby Ross by Christine Lennard, courtesy of Warlukurlangu Arts

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