They say that all good things must come to an end. That doesn’t make me any happier when they do.
Truth, it’s not so much endings as changes in the air, but they are momentous changes. Dallas Gold is ceasing to operate Raft Artspace as we have known it, though he will keep his hand in with special activities and still be around for Desert Mob. And Edwina Circuitt is hanging up her halo and heading out from Warakurna. In some important ways, these two individuals have defined my experience with the Aboriginal art market in this new century of ours.
I can’t remember how we came to know about Raft Artspace but records show me that we bought a pair of works from Ngukurr artists Faith Thompson and Joyce Huddlestone from him sometime in 2001. I do remember receiving email from him in mid-September of that year, when, in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center, he wrote to ask if we had any means of making contact with people in New York City. He had an artist friend working on a show there at the time, and news was scant. I remember we tried unsuccessfully to make contact; I know, too that all was well in the end.
We first met Dallas at the end of that year, as he was just moving into his upstairs gallery space in Parap. The gallery hadn’t opened yet; it was the Christmas season of closures and Darwin was miserably, paralyzingly hot. But since we were only in town for a few days, and Dallas was busy organizing his stock, he agreed to meet us. The gallery walls were stacked with works from Balgo and Warmun and Ikuntji. At that point our horizons were just beginning to expand beyond the desert acrylics of Papunya Tula and Warlukurlangu; we were beginning to realize there was more to life than dot paintings. The Ngukurr work earlier in the year had been significant in that regard, and the experience of standing in the midst of Dallas’s eclectic vision was a huge step forward in my appreciation of the varieties of Aboriginal art.
It was an experience that would often be repeated. For throughout the next dozen years, Dallas was to introduce us, consistently, to artists we had never heard of before, artists whom we might never have considered seriously were it not for our trust in his judgement. We’d drop in to the gallery and there would be yet another killer show from Maningrida or Yirrkala on, and by that time Dallas had done much to further our education in those areas. Knowing that he’d already introduced us to the power of Jimmy Njiminjuma, Wukun Wanambi, and Djirrirra Wunungmurra, he’d say, “Well, I don’t have much to show you.” And then he’d go into the back and come out with a small work on board by Mick Jawalji and say, “Here’s a new guy you might be interested in.”
Nor was his instruction limited to Aboriginal art. I came to know and admire the work of Ildiko Kovacs and Peter Adsett thanks to Dallas. And the tiny balcony in the Parap space that overlooked the gum trees in the parking lot was the closest thing to a nineteenth-century French salon that I’ve ever experienced anywhere. There was no telling who might be out there with a coffee, but I remember vividly hanging out with Will Stubbs, Djambawa Marawili, Howard Morphy, Nicolas Rothwell, Colin and Liz Laverty, and David Angel at different times. For an American whose participation in the Australian art world took place mainly on the internet, I found going to Raft Artspace to be a bit like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia.
We’ve only been to visit Dallas once since he moved the Gallery to Alice Springs, but the experience of discovery remained undimmed. He was hanging a show from Ernabella and Iwantja and two stunning large paintings faced one another from the ends of a room in the gallery, and when I asked who the artists were, I felt no wiser, for their names were unknown to me. But a couple of days later, in Darwin for the NATSIAA, there was Pepai Jangala Carroll onstage accepting the award for Dickie Minytjiri. And no, I wasn’t surprised.
Nor am I surprised to discover, looking back over this past year, that what was, for me, the most exciting gallery show of 2013 was Desert Boards, which brought Dallas together with, among others, Edwina Circuitt.
I’ve known Edwina only about half as long as I’ve known Dallas. We first met when she picked up my American Austrade expedition group from the airport at Warakurna and loaded us all into the Warakurna Artists troopie for a drive down the corrugated road, past the Giles Weather Station, and on to the great big yellow shed that housed the art centre. It was May 2007 and our second full day on the fourteen day tour. We’d spent the morning in Warburton being treated to a look through their amazing archives and my mind was already reeling from the strangeness of the whole experience. And now Edwina was introducing me to Peter Lewis, who had a photograph album full of pictures of Warakurna in the 1950s that he wanted to share with us!
In thinking back on the afternoon and evening we spent in Warakurna, I remember being struck by two things about Edwina: she was unflaggingly earnest and infused with joy at what she was doing. I remember that pair of qualities helped keep me a bit off balance. I might have expected one, or the other, but not both qualities co-existing so harmoniously in one soul. One thing was certain: they both manifested themselves in enormous energy. In a matters of hours I heard about her trip to Perth to swear out a restraining order against a carpetbagger who was trying to disrupt the community and another journey, not quite as long, to take her beloved dog to see a vet. And her outrage when someone suggested that a medicinal bullet might be equally effective.
That night we had accommodations at the famous Warakurna Roadhouse. We sat around the cook shed watching question time in Parliament (another mind-boggling experience for someone whose experience of watching the government on television was CSPAN capturing an empty congressional chamber in Washington DC) until Edwina showed up with dinner. Then we all repaired to the fire that had been built outside; Mrs Porter came along for the evening and told us about making bush medicines. Finally, we were too sleepy to stand any longer and retired to our rooms for the night. Edwina was back before daybreak to make sure we all got loaded safely into the troopie again for our flight to Kintore.
Edwina is not one to brag about her accomplishments, and she’s certainly an organizer who brings together the strengths of many people for the common good of all. So it’s hard for me, an outsider, to understand exactly what role she played in creating the Western Desert Mob, the alliance of art centres from the A/NPY lands. I do think of it as the first manifestation of a whole new school of desert painting that everyone today agrees revolutionized the art of the deserts. It brought color to the forefront of contemporary Indigenous art in a way that even the startling innovations at Yuendumu almost twenty years earlier didn’t quite achieve. It’s hard to say exactly what role Edwina played in documenting that revolution in last year’s exhibition Purnu, Tjanpi, Canvas: Art of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands and the publication that followed, Ngaanyatjarra: Art from the Lands.
It’s hard to say how the careers of Mr. Lewis and Mr Mitchell, of Carol Golding and Myra Cook might have prospered without Edwina’s guiding hand. Would the astonishing history paintings that first appeared in Warakurna: All the Stories Got into our Minds and Eyes have come to pass? Would this year’s amazing light boxes that debuted at Desert Mob been the logical outgrowth of those history paintings? All I can say for certain is that all of these remarkable achievements, indeed, almost the entire history of Warakurna Artists, have taken place since Edwina arrived at the art centre almost a decade ago.
And now its time for new chapters. Although Dallas is ending the formal exhibition program at Raft Artspace, he had plans to remain active with special exhibitions and events at the gallery space, and will continue to be a presence at Desert Mob in the future while (quite literally) tending his garden in Alice. Edwina will be on board at Warakurna Artists for a few months into 2014 and plans beyond that…well, who can say?
What I can say is that Dallas and Edwina have vastly enriched my appreciation of the art they have worked with and that these very personal reflections don’t do justice to the accomplishments of either of them. I wish them both the best in whatever paths they choose to follow next, and hope that I have not seen the last of either. In the meantime, my sincerest thanks to both.