Pretty Country, Cannibal Country

One of the more intriguing aspects of Yiwarra Kuju was the prominence it delivered to Martumili Artists, whom I find to be among the most interesting group of artists to have emerged from the past half-decade’s burst of creative energy in the deserts of central and western Australia.  More colorful than Papunya Tula, and more relaxed in brushstroke, less soaked in the purples and crimsons of their neighbors to the south, somehow tighter and harder-edged than Kimberley colorists from Fitzroy Crossing, they seem to partake of many stylistic elements of other desert communities while approximating none of them.

The fact that they were so central to the story of art along the Canning Stock Route suggested why their art had much in common with that of other communities, but offered no real clues to why they differed.

Among all the artworks in the Canning Stock Route collection, some of the most intriguing–perhaps I can also say strangest–focused on the great salt lake known as Kumpupirntily, or Lake Disappointment.  Seeing the salt lake’s expanse in photographs suddenly made visual sense out of the work of Rita Muni Simpson and many other early stars from Martumili.  But countering that sense of enlightenment was the puzzle of the cannibals.

Tales of cannibalism among the peoples of the western deserts are not new: they were the stuff of many explorers’ legends.  But I can’t recall ever hearing much about cannibals in the stories depicted in desert painting before seeing paintings that took Kumpupirntily as their locus.  And when I did, I didn’t quite know what to make of them.

Billy AtkinsNow a new publication from Martumili Artists sheds light on the background of these paintings, provides a history of the inception and development of Martumili, and offers an in-depth examination of one of its most distinctive painters.  Published to coincide with the recent exhibition at William Mora Galleries in October 2010, ‘Pretty One’: the art of Billy Atkins (Martumili Artists, 2010) is an exceptional exploration of recent developments in desert painting as well as a retrospective of Martumili’s founder.

Kumpupirntily is central to the art of Billy Atkins, whose style, like those of his fellow artists at Martumili, is both familiar and strange at once.  In the catalog for Yiwarra Kuju, this is the story that’s told about it from both the whitefella and blackfella perspectives.

The power of the Jukurrpa, and of the ancestral beings whose actions shaped the world, remains present in the land.  These ancestral beings, who often transformed into the landscapes they created, can also affect living people and events.  Along the Canning Stock Route, this influence is felt most powerfully at Kumpupirntily (Lake Disappointment).

Kumpupirntily is a vast dry salt lake that dominates the country east of the Canning Stock Route, from well 18 to 21.  Explorer Frank Hann came across it in 1896.  Having followed creeks that flowed inland in the hope of finding a freshwater lake, he named it after the disappointment he felt.

Hann knew nothing of Kumpupirntily’s cultural importance.  One of the most dangerous areas in the Western Desert, the lake is home to cannibal beings known as Ngayurnangalku (the word means ‘will eat me’).  The Ngayurnangalku live under the surface of the lake, in their own world, with its own sky and a sun that never sets.  They are said to resemble people, except for their large fangs and the lng curved fingernails they use to catch and hold their victims (Yiwarra Kuju, p. 61).

Or as Atkins himself succinctly states it, “Im telling you that cannibal mob is out there and they are no good.”

This sense of danger amidst the beauty of the desert landscape informs Atkins’ art and is illuminated by the superb essay that forms the heart of the new catalog ‘Pretty One.’ The subtitle that anthropologist John Carty has given to this study sums it up equally well: “danger and beauty in the art of Billy Atkins.”

Many critics have commented on the strategies desert artists have employed to mask the power of the stories they tell.  The subject has been extensively explored recently by Fred Myers, whose lecture in conjunction with the opening Icons of the Desert at New York University (“Showing Too Much or Too Little: Predicaments of Painting Indigenous Presence in Central Australia”) traced the development of Pintupi thought about the degree to which it is permissible to represent the power of the Dreaming in art.  It has become a commonplace to consider the veil of dotting to be a mechanism of concealment, and the increasing reliance on abstraction in Pintupi painting over the last forty years reinforces the necessity of keeping sacred knowledge in trust for the initiated.

Carty’s essay in ‘Pretty One’ reveals how fraught even these strategies are for the more conservative Martu people.  That sense of danger explains the late emergence of Martumili as a center of painting in the Western Desert, and Carty’s explication here advances the discussions of secrecy and peril in Aboriginal art.

The Martu, like others across the continent, felt that even the Pintupi solutions ran the risk of too much revelation, or just as troubling, inadvertent revelation.  What looked like an innocuous design to one painter might send shivers of fear through someone from another community, another tradition.  Carty records Atkins’ reaction to Rover Thomas’s Railway Bridge, Katherine (1984), a painting of a decidedly non-sacred subject.  The design made Atkins turn away from the image with a broken response: “You can’t paint…” (p. 8).

Atkins’ solution is to paint landscape in a more naturalistic (that is, naive Western) style.  This allows him to address his country directly, in a way that is accessible to both Martu and whitefellas, without running the risk of exposing  that which must be kept restricted.  It also accounts for much of what Atkins describes as “pretty.”  Whether or not it meets the commonplace definition of that word, Atkins’ depiction of his country in this manner allows the beauty to shine through without the underglaze of danger.

Except, of course, when he chooses to explicitly acknowledge the presence of the Ngayurnangalku, as he often does.  His landscapes are sometimes full of images of these wild men, other times littered with their abandoned weapons.  But it is the cannibal men themselves who are dangerous to the Martu, not the revelation of their existence or the landscapes they inhabit and pass through on their way between their own world and ours.


Kumpupirntily, photo by Tim Acker

Atkins’ landscapes are likewise full of indicators of mythical presences: snakes and goannas in particular, along with the occasional bush turkey or kangaroo.  (The drawing of a goanna that graces the front cover of the catalog is Atkins’ self-portrait.)  Atkins has a fondness for honey ants that is sometimes just an expression of his delight in eating them and sometimes an indicator of their own mythic qualities, emblazoned as they are with markings that are naturalistic and yet at the same time recall the designs carved on the wooden shields that the Ngayurnangalku scatter across the countryside around  Kumpupirntily.

Although Atkins has produced a body of work that is clearly stamped with his own genius, his work also suggests connections among the people scattered along the length of the Canning Stock Route, connections that Yiwarra Kuju helped to illuminate.  There are paintings in this catalogue that remind me of works that I’ve seen in Patjarr or Warburton; others recall East Kimberley painting of the Jirrawun school; still others evoke Mangkaja artists as stylistically disparate as Jukuna Mona Chuguna or Wakartu Cory Surprise.

Carty’s superb essay ties all these threads together.  It is a model for critical art histories, combining elements of the artist’s biography, the particular cultural background from which he has emerged, and a close, thoughtful, and perceptive gaze at the paintings themselves.  Marumili coordinator Gabrielle Sullivan has contributed a brief introduction and superb photographs of Atkin’s output going back to 2003, the year that Atkins was selected for inclusion in the 20th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award.

The output of the established desert art centres–Papunya Tula, Balgo, Utopia–has been well documented over the decades.  Less critical attention has been focused on the qualities of the painting emerging from areas south and west of these traditional strongholds of the marketplace.  Cary’s insights in this brief catalog essay are an important and welcome addition to the literature of the art of the Western Deserts.

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3 Responses to Pretty Country, Cannibal Country

  1. Pingback: Cannibal Story | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

  2. Pingback: The Terrain of the Critic | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

  3. Pingback: Lives of the Artist: Patrick Tjungurrayi by John Carty | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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