Ngaruwanajirri: helping one another

Alfonso Puautjimi

"Five Heads" by Alfonso Puautjimi, 2004

In the Tiwi language, Ngaruwanajirri means, literally, “helping one another.”  In broader terms, it names a group of artists and the place where they practice in Nguiu (Wurrumiyanga) on Bathurst Island.  It is also the title of the first major retrospective of the works of those artists, now on display at the Charles Darwin University Art Collection and Art Gallery on the Casuarina Campus in Darwin.

At the moment there are fourteen artists who live and work at Ngaruwanajirri, along with another dozen “freelancers.”  All are men and women who require some degree of special care in their lives, care which they receive in part from the dedicated team of Joy and John Naden in the form of instruction, assistance, and encouragement in creating a body of work that has earned them repute far beyond the confines of the Keeping House where they communally practice their craft to such astonishing effect.

We were fortunate enough to arrive in Darwin just a few hours before the show, curated by Anita Angel, opened to a packed house of supporters and enthusiasts.  Most of the artists were present and they were a joyful lot indeed, clearly thrilled at the chance to see so much of their work assembled in one place.

ngaruwanajirri women

Although Ngaruwanajirri has achieved significant commercial success over the years, production for the marketplace has never been the primary purpose of the group.  The Nadens have never pressured them to conform to mercantile demands: the goal is simply to paint and carve and to keep the activity fresh, stimulating, and engaging for the artists themselves.  While sales have been good, and many of the works on display in the exhibition are in the CDU art collection or are on loan from private collectors, much of the work also derived from the Ngaruwanajirri collection and has never been on public display before.  Additionally, approximately a quarter of the nearly 200 works on show are a series of monotypes on Arches paper created in 2010 under the direction of printmaker Marilyn Gibson working with Joy Naden and the artists.

ngaruwanajirri men

Naden worked as an art teacher before coming to Bathurst and settling down at Ngaruwanajirri, and she retains some of her classroom methods in working with the artists: she sets out small sculptures from which they paint, encourages them to recreate story imagery, and allows them to work from their own varied observations of country and city.  While some of the work seems classically Tiwi in style and execution, other paintings take boats and barges, airplanes, motorcars, or street scenes from travels off island as their subject matter.  This variety of inspiration, coupled with each painter’s individual mode of expression, makes for a fascinating panorama on the CDU Gallery walls.  The work ranges from sacred design to secular landscape; portraits of Joy and John are scattered throughout; and the styles can range from pure abstraction to echoes of Cezanne and Matisse.

Among the artists who contributed to the show, three in particular stand out and have achieved the greatest recognition in the marketplace, each with a different and compelling style that is equally immediately recognizable as the work of a Tiwi painter and yet fiercely independent and original.

Estelle Munkanome may be the most traditional in her iconography.  The imagery is geometric, patterns built on squares and circles in the customary ochres.  The designs often have an easy balance to them, while never falling into simple symmetry.  They are bold and direct most often, but especially when Estelle seems to draw inspiration from the built environment of the Keeping House, can become wonderfully complex and full of energetic incident.

Lorna Kantilla’s work is soft and muted; if I were to draw upon metaphors of Western art, I would say that she is the post-Impressionist painter in the lot.  Often drawing her inspiration from nature, in her frequent studies of mud mussels for example, she composes her paintings from dots and parallel lines of color and avoids the large planes of solid pigment that her fellows favor much of the time.  Aesthetically adventurous, Lorna has branched out into working with watercolors and gouache and in doing so has produced some of the loveliest and most surprising works in the exhibition.  This change in medium has allowed her to experiment with a palette of blues and greens, grays and pastels. (In a midwinter 2010 show at Darwin’s Outstation Gallery, Lorna’s work shows fascinating affinities to styles of desert painting: surely unintentional but thrilling nonetheless.)

The group’s rock star is without a doubt Alfonso Puautjimi.  He is bold and inventive, far ranging in his choice of subject matter and in his technique.  Some paintings are a riot of sloping lines and large, fiercely applied daubs.  Others begin with simple drawings given heft by broad, plain chunks of color.  Alfonso is the artist of boats and airplanes, motor cars and bicycles, as well as vertiginous cityscapes and pensive still lifes.  His boldness also finds expression in his signature, which is often crafted large across the bottom of the picture plane.

Among the other delights of this exhibition is the chance to encounter sculptures produced at Ngaruwanajirri, which are not often seen in the group’s commercial exhibitions.  A large collaborative tutini stands outside the entrance to the Art Gallery; inside are numerous smaller examples of the carvers’ craftsmanship: figures of Purukuparli and Bima, more tutini, graceful birds from the Tiwi canon.  I was especially delighted by David Tipuamantunirri’s pair of mythic ancestors, which Anita and Joy can be seen admiring in the photograph below.  Another great pleasure of this show, perhaps too easy to overlook, is the remarkable hang.  The seemingly endless constellations and arrangements of the work in the vast gallery space keeps the eye engaged and provides variety while reinforcing connections among the many works on display.

Ngaruwanajirri at CDU

As I noted above, the opening ceremonies on August 10 drew a large and enthusiastic attendance, and as the first event in our Darwin itinerary, kicked off the rounds of reunions that were to continue throughout the weekend.  We met up with Franchesca Cubillo, whom we’d missed in Canberra, found our compatriot Nana Booker in the crowd, and reconnected with CDU intimates Chips Mackinolty and Therese Ritchie (who made us a gift of the catalog from their own knockout retrospective Not Dead Yet, which was held at the CDU Art Gallery just a year ago).

But there was one instant of real magic in the evening.  Curator Anita Angel was midway through her welcoming speech when she was suddenly overcome with emotion.  Her voice grew taut; she paused for a fraction of a second.  Almost immediately, a soft thrumming sound responded from the bench where the male artists were seated, and just as quickly a low, throaty keening of encouragement answered from the opposite corner of the room where the women were gathered.  A ripple so slight you couldn’t be sure it was there went through the crowd and for a second (no more) there was the silence of held breath before Anita gathered her voice and resumed speaking.  It was a splendid moment of ngaruwanajirri: helping one another.

Joy Naden and Anita Angel; at right David Angel stands in front of Estelle Munkanome's portrait of Lorna Kantilla

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