There is a paradox in the story of Indigenous textile art, the most famous examples of which are undoubtedly the Utopia batiks. As the market for painting by Aboriginal artists took off in the 1990s, the Utopia batiks were rightly celebrated as the progenitors, not just of an expansion of painting beyond the boundaries of Papunya Tula, but of the first important Indigenous artworks produced by women. The rapid rise in the reputations of the Petyarre sisters and their auntie, Emily Kam Kngwarray gave further prominence to the importance of these woven wonders.
And yet the batiks themselves, like much textile art, are notoriously fragile, their materials and colors both susceptible to degradation by exposure, to handling and to light. And so these exemplars of Indigenous women’s creativity have all but disappeared from view in the State galleries that display countless other examples of native styles and testify to the subtle line between art and craft that such work foregrounds.
For this reason alone Across the Desert: Aboriginal Batik from Central Australia, the recent exhibition of batik mounted by Judith Ryan at the NGV Australia, would be a cause for celebration. Similarly, although numerous publications on batik and related textile arts have appeared over the years, the catalog for this show is a resource to be treasured for the beauty and extravagance of its documentation of the movement in five desert communities.
Earlier publications have treated the story of batik in a variety of ways. Perhaps the earliest, mirroring the initial excitement generated by the emergence of women artists there, was Utopia: a picture story: the Robert Holmes a Court collection (Wakefield Press, 1990) by Anne Marie Brody. A large-format and most handsome volume, this book offered gorgeous photographs, not only of 88 batik works in all their glory, but also of the artists themselves, in expressive, dramatic black-and-white portraits. One of the great strengths of this collection is the evidence it provides of the breadth of artistic experimentation in the medium that women of Utopia (and one man, Lindsay Bird Mpetyane) undertook. There are transformations of bush tucker and women’s ceremonial body paint, images familiar from the acrylic paintings that have become so popular in the years since this collection was assembled. But there are also surprises in store for batik lovers, most notably examples of the naive style of landscape painting that didn’t re-emerge in women’s painting until a decade later. Eileen Kngwarreye’s ghostly blue, black, and white “Night Scene” and Edie Kemarre’s ghost gums in an ochre-tinted desert scene entitled “Emu Dreaming” are arresting, startling, and beautiful.
The 1998 exhibition at the NGV, Raiki Wara: long cloth from Aboriginal Australia and the Torres Strait broadened the scope of the investigation considerably. Although the emphasis was once again on work from Utopia, the catalog offered insight into the seminal role played by Ernabella Arts in establishing a market for Indigenous women’s production of textile arts. Raiki Wara also included batiks from other desert communities, notably Kintore and Yuendumu, and stretched its geographical coverage far to the north, presenting stunning works from as far away as the Torres Strait Islands.
Vividly reproduced in brilliant detail, the painted silks from Santa Teresa and the equally astonishing silks from Merrepen Arts on the Daly River fairly leap off the pages of the catalog. Among other revelations are the 1995 screenprints from Galiwin’ku with their images of marine life and ceremonial objects floating atop washes of color that seem to be composed of equal parts fire and water. Austere screenprinted patterns from the Tiwi Islands stand in counterpoint to Sydney artist Euphemia Bostock possum-skin cloak patterns, while Donna Brown’s lush but soft silk painting contrasts with the lively, sharp desert examples of the art.
And finally, the decade’s documentation drew to a close with the publication of Don’t Ask for Stories: the women from Ernabella and their art (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1999). Founded in 1948, Ernabella is the oldest surviving desert art centre and this publication not only documents the early attempts at producing textile art as an income-generating scheme, but also presents the life stories of the artists and other members of the community in brief, bilingual texts. With the rise of acrylic painting, the demand for textile arts declined across the desert; the lower status and price for batik nearly finished off the industry in Ernabella as elsewhere. This is a situation much to be lamented. And so it is fitting that this latest NGV show, Across the Desert, resurrects the glory of batik, and never better than in its homage to the brilliance of Ernabella.
The catalog for Across the Desert, like all of the quality productions from the NGV, is a sumptuous record of the exhibition studded with high-gloss full-page photographs, a comprehensive illustrated listing of works in the exhibition, biographies of the creators, an introductory essay by Judith Ryan, and two short pieces on batik as couture. These alone would make a substantial contribution to the literature on Aboriginal batik production.
For me, the heart and soul of this catalog, though, are the five central essays with their exuberant photographic documentation of the work produced at art centres in five desert communities: Ernabella, Fregon, Utopia, Yuendumu, and Kintore. This geographical organization foregrounds the differences among the various “schools” of batik, and also allows us to see the work in the context of the later and in some cases more famous acrylic paintings that emerged from these art centres.
The Yuendumu works, for example, though not as brightly colorful as their acrylic counterparts, vibrate with familiar kurruwarri designs, tiny footprints and the signs of women with their digging sticks and coolamons. The dense designs in pink and mauve out of Kintore (including a stunner by Tjunkiya Napaltjarri) immediately recall the early paintings that emerged from the contemporaneous women’s painting project that brought the Pintupi women to the attention of the art world for the first time in the mid-1990s and changed the course of art at Papunya Tula. But these Kintore works also reveal a debt to the women of Utopia in design as well as medium and remind us how significant Emily Kngwarray’s influence was fifteen to twenty years ago. The Utopia batiks themselves have lost none of their glory in two decades.
But it is the work from Ernabella that is here revealed in all its stunning richness. Revisiting the earlier publications I mentioned above, partly out of disbelief that I had overlooked the genius of these long cloths until now, I saw that the Ernabella production has never been slighted. But to have it displayed as it is in Across the Desert, collected together on page after page, allowed me to appreciate the richness, the luxury, the radiance of these artworks for the first time. The designs themselves show the influence of the artists’ Indonesian mentors, and hence of Islamic art, more than anything else in the exhibition. The complexity of drawing is further enhanced by the most dazzling color of all that is on show. (The catalog’s cover illustration, reproduced above, is a detail of a 2007 batik from Ernabella by Tjunkaya Tapaya; it testifies not only to the Indonesian influence but to the continued vitality of batik production in Ernabella.)
If you are intrigued by the story of Indonesian influence on Aboriginal art in the realm of batik (stylistically quite different from the traces of Macassan culture among the Yolngu), look for the fascinating documentary The Golden Cord (Daedalus Films, 1996, distributed by Ronin Films). Directed by Hilary Furlong, who went on a few years later to work at Ernabella, The Golden Cord tells the story of a cultural exchange. Ten women from Utopia traveled to the Brahma Tirta Sari batik studio in Yogyakarta to learn the techniques of batik from Agus Ismoyo and his wife Nia Fliam. The two Java-based artists then paid a return visit to Utopia, in a heartwarming episode which shows the ladies delighting in the special qualities of their country as they return the hospitality they were shown in Indonesia. The film also documents the critical role that Jenny Green played in the development of batik at Utopia, a story that is curiously understated in Across the Desert.
The story of batik is of central importance to the history of the development of Aboriginal fine art in the late twentieth century. It was critical to the emergence of women as artists of equal stature in the desert; it launched the career of the most internationally famous of all Aboriginal artists, and it opened an appreciation of the importance of what was traditionally considered “craft work” in the Indigenous aesthetic. We can only be grateful to Judith Ryan and the NGV for reminding us of all this once more, and for once more giving audiences the opportunity to experience these jewels of the deserts.