Geographic Cosmology: The Art of Lucy Ward

Below is an extended text of the article, “Geographic Cosmology: The Art of Lucy Ward” published in Craft Arts International, no.78, 2010, pp.34-39

It is June 2005 and a heavy thunderstorm has just erupted, pouring noisy torrents of rain upon the tin roof of Mossenson Galleries in Perth, Western Australia. Entering the gallery, octogenarian Kimberley artist Lucy Ward wears a beaming smile as she shakes the rain from her snow-white hair. Approaching a large brown canvas covered in a dozen or more images of her ancestral Wandjina spirits, she runs her hand across the painting, as though affectionately stroking a long lost friend. “My Wandjina,” she exclaims. “You’ve brought the rain!”

Like Ward, these Wandjina are a long way from their Kimberley homelands. And yet, this distance does not weaken their spiritual or elemental power. For the Ngarinyin, Worrorra and Wunambal people of the north-west Kimberley, the Wandjina are the central figure of religious significance. According to legend, they were the physical manifestation of great spirit beings who controlled the elements, such as wind, lightning and rain. During the Ngarrangarni or Dreaming, their actions and adventures shaped the landscape and helped create Indigenous law. At the end of creation time, they left their images on the rock faces and escarpments, in order to watch over the country and its Indigenous inhabitants, and to ensure the continuity of traditional law. Over milenia, the repainting of the Wandjina has become a sacred act of passage, connecting the Ngarinyin, Worrorra and Wunambal people in an unbroken link with both their ancestors and the Ngarrangarni.

The power of this ancestral connection, and indeed, the power ascribed to the imagery of the Wandjina, reflects the unique spiritual temporality of the Ngarrangarni or Dreaming. As W.E.H. Stanner notes, although the concept of the Dreaming evokes a heroic time when ancestral spirits roamed the earth, “one cannot ‘fix’ the Dreaming in time: it was, and is, everywhen … a kind of logos or principle of order transcending everything significant for Aboriginal men.” The essence of Ngarrangarni runs through all things and connects every point in time and space. Adherence to its fundamental and mystical truths is the driving force for senior Indigenous people like Ward, shaping their lives and world-view. It is this essence that explains the power ascribed to the image of the Wandjina. This is not only a spiritual and elemental power – such as the power to bring on rain in Perth, hundreds of miles from their ancestral homelands – but also their power as profound visual statements that challenge our western preconceptions of time, space, aesthetics and value.

Lucy Ward began painting in 2003 and has since established herself as one of the leading contemporary painters of the Wandjina. She has exhibited throughout Australia, as well as in Asia, Europe and America, and has held eight solo exhibitions through Mossenson Galleries in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. Her works are held in several important public collections, including the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the Western Australian Museum, the Berndt Museum of Anthropology at the University of Western Australia and Macquarie University. In 2006 she was awarded the City of Stirling Art Award, and she has been a finalist in numerous major art prizes, including the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, the Wynne Prize, the Arthur Guy Memorial Painting Prize, The Alice Prize and the Waterhouse Natural History Prize.

In the jubilant glow of Ward’s paintings there is a reflection on her long life lived in the Kimberley. She was born around 1920 at Ngarangarri country – the land of the Honey Dream – in what is now known as Beverley Springs Station. Her mother died while Ward was still an infant, so her father carried her around the bush in a bark coolamon, before finding a woman who was breastfeeding a little boy. According to Ward, “That little boy and I went share for her ngaman (milk), She was a good woman. That is why I am still alive today.”

Ward’s childhood was spent traversing the Ngarangarri and Winyiduwa clan estates with her father and grandfather. From these old men, she gained first-hand knowledge of the hunter-gather lifestyle: hunting kangaroo, emu, fish and prawns and gathering yam and edible water lilies. They also introduced her to the ancient artistic practices of the Ngarinyin, and she recalls fondly watching them paint “the really Wandjina in the caves.” As she matured, Ward worked on the burgeoning Kimberley cattle stations, both as a domestic servant and well as mustering and tailing cattle. But the formative experiences of her childhood remained with her, and during the wet season, when monsoonal rains locked the cattle industry down, Ward and her Ngarinyin kin would return to their ancestral estates for ceremony and to tend to their country.

Like her life, Ward’s paintings are a balance of sorrow and joy. In many of her canvases, a single Wandjina is painted in isolation, surrounded by swathes of colourful dotted squares, signifying the ‘sugarbag’ or bush-honey pod. According to Ward, in the Ngarrangarni, this Wandjina broke with traditional law, and took another man’s promised wife. This angered the man’s family, who pursued him across the country, seeking to punish him for this indiscretion. They finally caught him in Ngarangarri country, where he was beaten, speared and killed. From his prostrate body rose the sugarbag trees, making Ngarangarri country the land of honey. It is a powerful story of the connection of all things. In death there is creation; in punishment there is redemption; in the bitterness of tears, the sweetness of honey.

This sense of connectivity can be seen even more clearly in Lucy Ward’s signature image of ngara (the sugarbag). Ngara refers to the honey made by the stingless native bees. There are two types of bees native to the north-west Kimberley, the tree-dwelling bee (Waningga) and those that build their hives in rocks (Namri). Ngara is an important totem for Lucy Ward – not only was she born in Ngarangarri (the land of the Honey Dream), but according to Ward, she was also born under the shade of a sugarbag tree. Along with the image of the Wandjina, the sugarbag has been one of Ward’s defining motifs. However, whilst Ward’s depictions of Wandjina have remained relatively unchanging – undoubtedly due to the sacred nature of the image – the sugarbag has provided her with a motif of incredible flexibility. Over her diverse artistic career, it has been an endlessly malleable aesthetic form, in which she has found a seemingly boundless array of conceptual and aesthetic variations. Ward’s gallery representative, Dr Diane Mossenson, notes with amazement Ward’s “capacity for artistic re-invention. Unlike many Aboriginal artists who paint a limited number of images, Lucy has remained strong to her stories, but she continually recreates the imagery, finding new ways to express her stories.”

During his fieldwork in the Kimberley in the early 1960s, anthropologist Ian Crawford noted several rock-art sites in which the sugarbag motif was prominent. Reproduced in his landmark 1968 volume Art of the Wandjina, the cave paintings of sugarbags are clear artistic precursors to Ward’s early paintings. Like her Wandjina, this comparison reveals how much Ward’s work takes its core inspiration from her rock-art heritage. This etymology is easily overlooked in Ward’s work, particularly in light of the explosive acrylic palette favoured in her early paintings.

Like the cave paintings of sugarbags, Ward’s earliest depictions show the sugarbag motif as distinct, individual objects. Each honey pod is depicted as an irregular square or circle filled with coloured dots. Sometimes these squares or circles are sub-divided, while in other cases they are not. In late 2005, however, a major development began to occur in Ward’s portrayal of sugarbags. The sugarbag became an increasingly open signifier, whose individual unity slowly disappeared. In her most recent works, such as the monumental diptych Ngara (Sugarbag) Story 2008, exhibited at the Arthur Guy Memorial Art Prize, any sense of this indivisible unity has been shattered in favour of an all-over dotting that covers the canvas in a pulsating invocation of the aerial landscape.

There are many probable reasons for this development. One reason is certainly Ward’s exposure to artworks outside her immediate cultural experience. In 2006, Ward visited Melbourne for the launch of her exhibition Ngarrangarni Manambarra. During her visit, she attended the National Gallery of Victoria, where she was given a guided tour by senior curator Judith Ryan. Ward was particularly taken with both the style and scale of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri’s monumental Napperby Death Spirit Dreaming 1980. Following the visit, she repeatedly expressed her desire to work on larger canvases, referring back to the Tjapaltjarri’s canvas as an example. In the proceeding months, Ward not only completed several larger canvases, including the majestic 2007 Wandjinas in Ngarangarri Country (198 x 298 cm) which was exhibited in the 2008 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, but Ward began to cover much larger sections of her canvas in shimmering dot-work, creating constellation like backgrounds to her tableaus of Wandjina, sugarbags and country.

On a more local level, 2005 also saw the arrival of another profound artistic influence on Ward’s work. In that year, the senior Nyikina artist Loongkoonan began painting at the same Derby based workshop as Ward. Although belonging to a different language group, Ward and Loongkoonan began a highly competitive and influential artistic relationship. Painting alongside each other, they became like a Braque and Picasso of the Kimberley – taking on the visual lessons of each other’s work, and continually challenging each other to find new ways of developing their very different painterly practices.

Despite these external prompts, however, Ward’s development has shown a clear and uniquely personal epistemic trajectory. In the paintings of Lucy Ward, each mark upon the canvas is like a fingerprint, betraying the trace of its creator’s movement. In painting her ancestral homelands, her marks revel her ownership of the country, like footprints in a landscape that she has traversed by foot, understood instinctively and known intimately. But just like a footprint, they exist as the memory of presence, a nostalgic echo of past travels.

In the wake of colonial incursion, elders like Ward cannot live on their traditional lands, but return only occasionally to tend to the country of which they are the sacred custodians. Returning to her sacred sites, Ward sings out to the spirits, warning them of her arrival. Her song echoes through the stony ridges and it is as though she is a young woman again. It is this memory of the landscape that reveals itself in Ward’s paintings. Each mark connects Ward to her landscape, making her one with the Dreams, songs and topography of her land of honey.

In this context, the sugarbag is a profound tripartite symbol for the personal (as Ward’s totem), the physical (the bush honey pod) and the spatial (Ngarangarri country: the land of the sugarbag dream). In shattering the individual unity of the sugarbag – literally opening it up – Ward fuses these three categories. Rather than fingerprints, the dots meld into a pointillist landscape that shimmers into being with a cosmological unity.

These seemingly abstract shapes thus become a complex metaphor for the inter-relationship of identity, culture and country. They are part of a sacred and personal geography that Marcia Langton has termed ‘placedness.’ For Ward, the past is not, as L.P. Hartley has famously suggested, ‘a foreign country’, but rather a familiar country that situates and unites all moments in time. Ward’s paintings become what Langton has described as “site markers of the remembering process and of identity itself.” They inhabit a temporality that is neither past, present nor future, but part of the sacred link that connects Lucy Ward to the timeless Ngarrangarni.

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