Ngaanyatjarra Art History

A few weeks ago I posted a link to a video about the exhibition Purnu, Tjanpi, Canvas: Art of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands currently on display in Perth.  A few days later the catalog for the show arrived in the mail from the University of Western Australia Press and I’ve spent the past couple of weeks immersed in its glories.

For glorious it truly is.  You would expect no less from editors Tim Acker and John Carty, the talent behind Yiwarra Kuju: the Canning Stock Route, but even so the present volume is enough to take your breath away, repeatedly.  For starters, there is the design of the book: large format (28.5 x 24 cm), printed in full, startling color on heavyweight, glossy paper, and bound so perfectly that at any point it falls effortlessly open and rests flat on the desk without the pages having to be held down.  Apart from the pleasure this gives to the reading or browsing experience, it means that the frequent double-page spreads, be they reproductions of stunning works of art or equally magnificent photographs of country, are a simple joy to behold and to study.  (I might quibble with the choice of the gray font for the otherwise excellent, detailed captions for the hundreds of illustrations; the color makes them hard to read except in strong light, say the bright sunshine of a desert sky.)

Otherwise, the design of the book is impeccable, never more so than in the choice to adorn most left-hand pages with full-page photographic reproductions so that each time you turn the page you are startled–truth–by yet another vibrant canvas, a panorama of desert sands, or the portrait of an artist engaged in making another astonishing work.  If the art of the neighboring APY Lands has seemed to dominate exhibitions in recent years, those achievements are about to be shouldered aside by the magnificence and variety of art from the Ngaanyatjarra Lands evident in this exhibition.  It is hard for me to remember the last time I was so impressed by the beauty of a printed artifact, unless perhaps it was with Yiwarra Kuju itself.  Ngaanyatjarra: Art from the Lands deserves to be in every collector’s library.

But apart from the physical beauty of this book, the wealth of history encompassed in its pages is no less inspirational.

The area of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands Native Title Claim lies in Western Australia’s Gibson and Great Victoria Deserts, west of the tri-state border with South Australia and the Northern Territory.  Apart from the mission at Warburton, established in 1933, and the Giles Weather Station, sited in 1956, the Lands have been relatively free of long-term incursion by outsiders.  The Ngaanyatjarra preserved their nomadic habits through much of the twentieth century, with even those who settled at the Mission keeping in touch with their homelands; then, about twenty years ago, many of them began to return to the settlements that now boast the thriving art centres of the Western Desert Mob: Warakurna, Papulankutja (at Blackstone), Kayili (Patjarr) and Tjilarli (Tjukurla).

But prior to the establishment of these centres, art from the Lands was flourishing and providing regular incomes to the Ngaanyatjarra people from the early 1980s onwards.  Suspicious of the revelations of culture that were being undertaken by their Pintupi/Luritja and Anmatyerre neighbors to the north under the auspices of Papunya Tula Artists, the Ngaanyatjarra took advantage of the growing tourist trade at Uluru to market wooden sculptures (purnu) decorated with poker-burnt designs through the Maruku Arts Centre at the base of the Ayers Rock climb.  In the following decade, after the Ngaanyatjarra-Pitjantjatjara-Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council began a series of workshops to teach weaving with desert grasses, yarn, and raffia, Tjanpi Desert Weavers became another outlet for the creative energies of the region.

Beginning in 1990, the Warburton Arts Project introduced painting on canvas in another attempt to preserve the history and culture of the region, although the works produced there were not put on sale and today constitute a vast and unparalleled legacy that records the tjukurpa of the people.  By the time that people decided to participate in the marketplace for works in acrylic on canvas, an entire cadre of trained painters was ready to spread out from the Mission to populate the fledgling art centres established in the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century.

The development of each of these art forms (purnu, tjanpi, canvaspa) was enhanced by the constant movement of people throughout the region, from homeland to mission to homeland and back again, with infusions from the north as some of the stars of the Papunya Tula school, including Anatjari Tjakamarra, Pirrmangka Reid Napanangka and other relatives, settled on the Lands, in nearby Kaltukatjara (Docker River), or visited from Kintore and Kiwirrkura.  Most of the artists have sold their work through more than one of the four main art centres over the years; people looking to sell canvas quit Warburton for Patjarr or Tjukurla; artists who began at other regional centres like Irrunytju now reside farther west on a permanent basis.  Patjarr is a tiny settlement: when I was there in 2007 the permanent population numbered around 60, but on the day of my visit fewer than a dozen old people were in residence, as most everyone else had gone off to Warburton for an extended stay coinciding with a sports weekend.  It was in Warburton, not Patjarr, that I met Fred Ward Tjaruru.

These connections are traced in the opening essays of the catalog by David Brooks, who treats of the history of the Lands and the people themselves, John Carty, who traces a Ngaanyatjarra art history, and Tim Acker, who chronicles the development of the art centres.  Together, the three essayists create a thoughtful and considered art history that is true to the spirit of the Ngaanyatjara: it becomes almost an Aboriginal art history rather than a history of Aboriginal art (or one branch of it).  The 50 pages these stories occupy are lovingly illustrated with portraits of the artists, with illustrations from the Warakurna History Paintings that astonished visitors to Darwin’s Outstation Gallery in 2011 and that now reside in the National Museum of Australia, and with priceless gems from the Warburton Collection, seen all too rarely.

The next 75 pages of the catalog are given over to the plates and once again, the impeccable design of the book will leave you gasping in wonder.  Each set of facing pages has been carefully constructed to elucidate harmonies.  Jacky Giles’s mazelike painting with its design derived from coastal pearl shells stands in counterpoint to Reggie Jackson’s carved tjara (shield); Cliff Reid’s rough Tingari design (a detail of which graces the catalog’s cover) floats across from another shield, scored by Tommy Watson and Nyakul Dawson with hundreds of adze-marks and glowing, upended,  in the center of a tussock of desert grass.  There are collections of woven figures: the mythical Seven Sisters and the mundane Early Days Bush Family with its babies, dogs, windbreaks, and even a fiber fire.  Acrylic rainbows of paint by Kantjupayi Benson and Tommy Mitchell are unfurled across the double spread.  Two paintings, both clearly from the hand of Kayili’s Ngipi Ward face one another; another pair look strikingly different, but both are the work of Annie Farmer from Tjarlili.  A woven helicopter by Eunice Porter hovers on a white page opposite Diane Golding’s Mail Plane, silhouetted on black.  The cumulative effect can only be described as exhilarating.

The latter half of the book is devoted to chapters focused on the various art centres.  A history of the trailblazing Maruku Arts is enhanced by memoirs of a purnu-man, Steve Fox, whose job is was for many years to travel the desert circuit buying the wooden sculptures.  The story of Tjanpi Desert Weavers culminates in the making of the famed Toyota and with an appreciation of the singular genius of its chief architect, Kantjupayi Benson.  John Carty profiles the four new art centres (with help from Edwina Circuitt of Warakurna Artists).   Each of these chapters is supplemented by verbal portraits of one or two of each centre’s leading artists; a few of these record the reflections of the artists in their own words.  Judith Ryan contributes a coda on Irrunytju Arts, the first major painting centre to open in the area, and one whose contested history following the arrival of John Ioannou can not be ignored in a general survey of the development of commercial activities in the Lands.

The penultimate pages of the catalog are given over to portraits (in the conventional Western photographic sense) of each of the artists represented in the exhibition, listing brief biographical details and the art centres with which they have been associated in the course of their careers, details which reinforce the interrelatedness of the Ngaanyatjarra. The very last pages offer three more portraits, of tjanpi, purnu, and canvas: smiling weavers holding armfuls of grass; mulga wood in the strong hands of Winston Mitchell, Ken Shepherd leaning over a massive, primed canvas in the Warakurna painting shed.  These final images seem to me emblematic not just of the diversity of art from the Lands, but of the love and care that has been lavished on this exhibition and its catalog by artists and curators alike.

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3 Responses to Ngaanyatjarra Art History

  1. Pingback: Riches of the Canning Stock Route | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

  2. Pingback: Remarkable People | 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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