The ABC presentation of Hetti Perkins Art + Soul has but one episode left to air, after which it will be released on DVD. The reviews and comments I’ve read have been uniformly wonderful. Much praise has been awarded to Perkins herself for the humility with which she approaches the artists and for the unforced, natural, sometimes even awkward manner in which she immerses herself in their worlds. Warwick Thornton’s cinematography and David Page’s score have likewise been praised for their majestic contributions to the whole.
Meanwhile, over here in America, I’ve had to make do with the companion volume (to the series, although “make do” is hardly a fair judgment). Though the trailers for the show made me impatient to see it, I could more than console myself–I could absolutely delight in the presentation of the art and the artists in this volume. As it is, I suspect that I will find myself in future days returning far more often to its pages than to the screen when I want to enjoy once more the delights that Perkins has assembled for us.
Then I discovered that ABC is streaming the episodes of Art + Soul from the show’s website, and that they are available beyond Australia (which is not always the case). And so instead of sitting down to assemble a review of the book alone, I found myself entranced by the first two episodes, “Home + Away,” and “Dreams + Nightmares.” I’m glad I did, for having seen the videos, I came away more impressed by what the book has to offer and can recommend it even more enthusiastically than I had planned.
The book mimics the presentation on film, of course. It is divided into the same three chapters (the third being “Bitter + Sweet”). The same artists are featured on the page and on the screen, and many of the same art works. It is an absolute delight, in the first episode, to watch Perkins walk out behind the art shed at Kiwirrkura to introduce herself to Warlimpirringa Tjapaltjarri (by her skin name only: what else would matter?) But in the companion volume, each chapter is followed by a series of first-person essays by artists who have been featured on screen in the main narrative and these considerably enrich the experience.
And so in the video, we see Warlimpirringa counting out spears that are lying on the ground beside him, and we are told a little of the narrative of how he and his extended family, including Yukultji Napangati, walked in from the Western Desert in the famous encounter in 1984. But in the book we’re treated to more of the story, in Warlimpirringa’s own words.
I was sitting down and I saw a fire at Winparrku. I saw it from Lake Mackay, from Marruwa. I started coming by foot … a lot of walking. Then I saw for the first time my dad [by kinship], Pinta Pinta [Tjapanangka], at Kunamana. I didn’t talk to them. I was afraid. Oh poor buggers! I threw a spear at them, there at Mitulyu. Then they followed me and I threw another spear at them. They said ‘Stop! Don’t spear us. We’re your family, at Marruwa’ (p. 76).
This encounter between Pintupi who had been living a settled life at Papunya, Kintore, and Kiwirrkura for over two decades and the powerful strange nomads, some of whom were unknown to the Kiwirrkura mob, has almost mythic qualities in Warlimpirringa’s telling of it. (Yukultji, for example, was born in 1970, well after men like Pinta Pinta had traveled to Papunya.) You can hear echoes of events from tjukurrpa stories in Warlimpirrnga’s narrative, of travels and battles, and you can imagine the terror that might have lodged in the hearts of those settled Pintupi upon encountering a mob who had been living in and drawing strength from country while they themselves had been eating whitefella food in government settlements.
Of course, the film has equally magical moments that can not be captured on a printed page. One of the finest of these is the vision of Crusoe Kurddal dancing against the backdrop of a sunset, lithe and sinuous as the mimihs we have been watching him carve. I couldn’t help think of the slow-motion dance of death that Kurrdal performed at the climax of Ten Canoes, and I doubt director Warwick Thornton meant it to be any other way.
Another lovely, understated moment comes during the segment in which Perkins explores the story of Tasmanian exile with photographer Ricky Maynard. At one point, we see Maynard on the shore of Flinders Island, setting up his camera. Thornton cuts from a shot of Maynard’s camera to a sequence in which Maynard wades out into the cold waters of the Bass Strait and stares out towards an empty horizon. A few minutes later, Perkins shows us the photograph Maynard was staging there, the incredibly poignant Broken Heart, which she tells us is one of her favorites.
For me, the best moment in the entire series so far is the transition that takes us from the rock shelters of Western Arnhem Land to the suburban Melbourne sheltering-place of Destiny Deacon. The change of venue is signaled by a shot of Melbourne’s Federation Square and the large-screen television that is mounted high above the crowds (often used for showing footy matches). This time, though, we are treated to a few exquisite seconds of Warwick Thornton’s comic short film Mimi. In that film a young white woman, played by Sophie Lee, buys a carved mimi at auction, only to discover it come terrifyingly to life in the closet where she has stored it. The clip that’s been neatly slipped into Art + Soul captures that moment of intercultural terror, cutting back and forth between the screaming faces of Lee and the mimih. It’s hard to imagine a better segue into the animated world of Destiny Deacon.
There are other wonderful moments captured on film: the late Mr Giles being shown a painting by Ronnie Tjampitjinpa in the Yiribana Gallery and spontaneously singing the country it depicts, along with wonderful archival footage of Emily Ngwarray painted up and dancing, Rover Thomas explaining the famous painting of Cyclone Tracy, Lin Onus talking about his ever-popular Fruit Bats. And the impossibly poignant footage from Papunya Tula’s 2009 expedition to New York City showing D. R. Nakamarra strolling hand in hand through Washington Square Park with her “sister” Hetti Perkins Nakamarra.
Thanks to having the wonderful printed version of Art + Soul to hand, I can look back at these moments as I write and look forward to this week’s upcoming episode. Once again Perkins takes us back in history to examine works by 19th-century artist Tommy McRae and to visit one more time with Michael Riley. Richard Bell promises to be outrageous and warm-hearted, while Gulumbu Yunupingu shares the gentle stories behind her paintings of Garak, the Universe.
As an introduction to contemporary Aboriginal art, Art + Soul provides an in-depth examination of work that many viewers and readers will not be familiar with, or not immediately associate with the dots and rarrk that most think of when they conjure the term “Aboriginal art.” If fact, if I have any complaint about the selection of work that has been included here, it would be that much of the creativity of the traditional desert schools has been ignored. Apart from Emily and Mr Giles, the artists of Papunya Tula are called upon the represent the acrylic paintings of the desert regions, and the colorists of Balgo, Yuendumu, Warakurna or Irrunytju are neglected. Still, I would have thought it hard for Perkins to surpass the portrait of the movement that she created in One Sun, One Moon: Aboriginal Art in Australia (AGNSW, 2007); she has succeeding in creating a worthy sequel in part by switching media and making us see the tradition living in its creators, even among those long ago or lately passed away.
The printed page offers its own consolations, not the least of which, as I said earlier, is the opportunity to revisit these stories and these compelling creations at leisure. For despite all the advantages that digital media bring, for me there is no method of study quite so satisfying as the ability to let my eye linger on the printed image on the page (assuming I don’t have the original close by, a delight Sydneysiders will possess through January 13, 2011 when the exhibition at AGNSW closes).
A final service Perkins renders through the pages of Art + Soul is the opportunity to appreciate how rich the Indigenous collections of the Art Gallery of New South Wales are, as the majority of the works represented here are drawn from them. And given that Sydney was the home of Boomalli and that Perkins was involved there from the earliest days, it is not surprising that urban artists are so generously represented, both the Gallery’s collections and in this stunning selection from them. From those early days, Perkins has gone on to curate major international projects including Australia’s participation in the Venice Biennale of 1997 (neatly recaptured here) and the Australian Indigenous Art Commission at the Musée du quai Branly, as well as her work on behalf of AGNSW. I can hardly wait to see what she comes up with next.