Roper River’s Richness

As a school of art, painting from Ngukurr and the Roper River region south of Arnhem Land has never been easy to classify. The four-color dotted patterns of precise work from Papunya are immediately recognizable, as is the brighter and less precise palette of Yuendumu. The slurred dotting and equally brilliant colors of Balgo, the warm landscapes from Warmun, the shimmering brilliance of Maningrida all make for easy and immediate identification. But how do you concisely characterize the commonalities that exist in the work of Ginger Riley, Willie Gudabi, and Angelina George?

Cath Bowdler, the new director of the Wagga Wagga Gallery, has come as close as possible in the title of the new exhibition she has mounted there: Colour Country: art from Roper River. “Colour” is the immediate key, brilliant and spectrum-crossing, primary, fluorescent, multi-hued, tonal: you could exhaust an entire thesaurus of color terms in describing these works. And “country,” likewise, in a sense that is immediately accessible even to audiences unfamiliar with the idioms of painting country that characterize much Indigenous art. This is landscape painting that is immediately recognizable as such, whether the style be seemingly naive, as in Gertie Huddleston’s painting, or epic, in the recent work of Angelina George. 

But this diversity of style and temperament is only one reason I have never really grasped the concept of a “Ngukurr School.” Given the high profile of a number of the artists from this area, and the frequency with which their works appear in catalogs from Sotheby’s, it is astonishing to learn that the six major painters whose work is the focus of Bowdler’s new exhibition–Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, Willie Gudabi, Gertie Huddleston, Djambu Barra Barra, Amy Jirwulurr Johnson, and Angelina George–have appeared all together only once before in a public gallery exhibition. That was on the occasion of Ngundungunya: Art for Everyone, organized to accompany the major retrospective of Ginger Riley’s work at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1997. And as the extensive bibliography that Bowdler has compiled for her catalog shows, there has been a disappointing paucity of critical writing on these artists, individually and collectively, apart from the catalog of the Riley retrospective and the forthcoming catalogue raisonne being prepared now by Beverly Knight, a long-time champion of the community’s output.

Happily, Bowdler has rectified both these omissions, gathering together 50 artworks for the Wagga Wagga show and writing a superb catalog (with supplementary contributions from Judith Ryan on Ginger Riley and Nicolas Rothwell on Angelina George) that reveals both the history and the achievements of this remarkable school of painters. The diversity of styles and subjects was the subject of Bowdler’s recently completed doctoral thesis at the ANU; now in the catalog’s scant 100 pages, superbly illustrated, she has managed to share the fruits of her years of research in a way that ought to effect an important and immediate re-evaluation of the work.

Bowdler begins her analysis with two chapters of history. The first is of the region itself and the disruptions and dislocations caused by white settlement. Maps and photographs hint at the extensive geographic diversity of the land, from the stone country hills, along the Roper’s valley, and down to the Limmen Bight on the Gulf of Carpentaria. The paintings and the artists’ biographies, taken up in later chapters, also speak of diversity, of tropical richness, hard cattleman’s country, and humid sea plains. 

The second history exercise chronicles the founding and growth of the art centre itself, from its early days as an outgrowth of the Ngukurr Adult Education Committee’s work to its first headquarters in a disused hospital building known as Beat Street, and finally into a secure, comfortable facility that was formerly the town library. The enthusiasm and drive of the artists themselves is the thread running through these two decades of changes.

A chapter is then devoted to each of the six major artists, and these chapters are art criticism of the highest order. Blending biographical information with close examination of the imagery and iconography, Bowdler, Ryan, and Rothwell stretch our comprehension of the sources and achievements of each artist’s career. We learn what makes each of them unique, but also what binds them together: the luminosity of Ginger Riley landscapes, the color-soaked totems of Djambu Barra Barra’s Yolngu-inspired desire, and the friendship that existed between the two men anxious to find new forms of expression. We learn about early successes for the community, and a long fallow period when it seemed as if the new community’s ambitions would founder.

Especially satisfying is Bowdler’s brilliant exegesis of Djambu Barra Barra’s work. The combination of bold graphic design, an almost psychedelic palette that revels in a unique, eccentric color sense, and the use of rarrk for infills and backgrounds makes Barra Barra a standout even in this crowd of individuals. Bowdler delineates and explains Barra Barra’s connection to the traditions of Arnhem Land (he hails from Nilpidgi, northwest of Blue Mud Bay and well north of the Roper) and skillfully shows how his adoption of the intense color schemes characteristic of the Roper River artists transfigures the brilliance of the rarrk tradition in a way that no other artist has attempted.

Similarly, Bowdler study of influence reveals how Barra Barra’s sensibility finds some continuity in the work of his wife Amy Johnson and equally how her own vision and creativity flourishes apart from his. The story of Willie Gudabi’s mentoring of Gertie Huddleston and her own adaptation of his style through the lens of Christianity offers new insights into the work of each. Reading the chapters on these latter two artists, I found myself thinking alternately of the composition of the Yirrkala Church bark panels and the Baptistry Doors on the Florence Duomo–not that Bowdler mentions either, but her text is rich enough to have sparked new associations and dreamy (if not Dreaming) paths for me to wander down.

The exhibition and catalog conclude with an all too brief consideration of the art of “Ngukurr Now.” Ginger, Willie and Djambu are all gone. Maureen Thompson now carries on the tradition of empaneled country-telling. Her daughter Faith Thompson Nelson re-interprets Ginger Riley’s country on the one hand, and on the other draws upon father’s Alyawarra heritage to paint fiery transformations of the traditions of Utopia in the Central Desert. Alan Joshua Junior’s sculptures spirit sculptures keep alive the tradition of rarrk painting in the Roper; his paintings reveal a burgeoning talent whose future path is so full of possibilities as to be unpredictable. I wish there had been room for other new artists to be included in this show. (Gertie Huddleston’s daughter Joyce is a particular favorite of mine: she lifts what might have been tiny swatches from a painting by Gertie and fills large canvases with them in rhythmic, colored bands representing treetops and ravines or the depths of a billabong.) Perhaps Bowdler will turn her attentions to the Roper’s new generation of artists in a future exhibition. I, for one, would be very grateful.

In the meantime, Colour Country: art from Roper River is a feast worth settling down to. The show is on at the Wagga Wagga Gallery until August 2. Thereafter it will travel to the Flinders University Art Museum in Adelaide in December, open at Drill Hall in Canberra in February 2010, and close out its run at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory from the end of May through mid-July 2010.

If you plan to take advantage of the opportunity to see this important exhibition in any of its upcoming venues, I would urge you to acquire a copy of the catalog (A$30) in advance, as careful study of these essays and the superb reproductions of the works will vastly enrich your experience of viewing the paintings in person. Few catalogs offer such deep insight, which is reason enough to purchase it if you can not see the show sometime in the next twelve months. You can contact the Wagga Wagga Gallery or Cath Bowdler directly. (Please note that you’ll have to edit the addresses the links provide: replace (at) with @ for it to work.)

Installation view of Colour Country at the Wagga Wagga Gallery.

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One Response to Roper River’s Richness

  1. Ross Potts says:

    Amazing reading, I lived in Ngukurr with Willie , Sambo, and all the others and loved every minute of it. Also have many of their art works and have them in our house and they always receive comments from people when they see them. Love your site it is fantastic,
    Regards Ross Potts.

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