Monthly Archives: September 2012

Jukurrtjanu Mularrarringu (From the Dreaming): Meaning and Movement in the Art of Nora Wompi

The following essay was written to accompany the exhibition Nora Wompi at Fortyfivedownstairs presented by Suzanne O’Connell Gallery from April 27 till May 8, 2010

Nora Wompi, Kunawarritji 2007, acrylic on canvas, National Gallery of Victoria.

With their thick, viscous skeins of impasto paint, the paintings of Nora Wompi seem to melt onto the eye. Layers of overlapping colours blur, making forms difficult to define; the desert landscape shimmers into being, like a mirage upon the horizon. Despite abandoning her searing palette of reds, orange and pinks Wompi’s work has lost none of its blazing desert intensity. Meandering tracks of paint roll rhythmically across the canvas, creating a dynamic, anamorphic topography. The movement of the artist’s hand is clearly visible in the thick brushstrokes, which run across the canvas like trails in the wilderness. The encrusted dots of early works have given way to broad swathes of shifting colour. Where the early works had a gravelly sense of place that evoked the material presence of the landscape, Wompi’s recent works present a peripatetic, nomadic understanding of space.

In the past five years, Wompi’s paintings have increased in both scale and confidence. Her development has not been a process of metamorphosis, so much as a form of artistic excavation, stripping away the crust to reveal the metaphysical essence of the landscape. Her latest works are less concerned with the visible features of the landscape than with its underlying spiritual meanings. They are paintings of experience, not cynical or world-weary, but acutely aware of the truth of the matter, of what is permanent and what fades away.

Nora Wompi, Kinjun 1995, acrylic on paper, National Gallery of Victoria.

Exploring this intangible essence has required Wompi to develop a unique abstract visual language. The clearly identifiable iconography of desert painting – with its recognisable symbols for waterholes, campsites and rockholes – has slowly been replaced with a more fluid, gestural style. The specificity of particular places, stories and sites has given way to grand, totalised renderings of her country around Kunnawarritji. These are ‘big pictures’ that require a ‘big picture’ approach. The spiritual essence that they seek to capture cannot be described using a predetermined lexicon of signs, but requires the development of an artistic language based on emotion and intuition.

It is important to note that for Wompi, this visual language is not something simply imagined or ‘made up’. Although intangible, the essence of landscape that Wompi’s paintings address is very real. It is a spirituality revealed through a close connection and understanding of her ancestral country. It is only through a long and intimate association with the landscape that these mysteries are revealed. This revelation is described in her native Kukatja tongue as jukurrtjanu mularrarringu – the truth that comes from the Dreaming. It is from the Dreaming that everything of value or significance derives.

Born around 1935 at Lilbaru near Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route, Wompi belongs to a fading generation of senior Indigenous people who grew up in the desert, learning the solemn codes of the nomadic lifestyle. Consistent with this nomadic outlook, her biography is defined by significant movements: walking with her mother to Bililuna Station and then onto Balgo Mission; relocating to Fitzroy Crossing with her second husband Cowboy Dick; returning to Kunnawarritji with her sisters at the dawn of the homelands movement. Although aged in her seventies, Wompi maintains a highly transitory lifestyle, moving regularly between Kunnawarritji, Balgo, Kiwirrkurra and Punmu in order to visit relatives and attend to familial obligations.

Nora Wompi, Kunawarritji 2012, acrylic on canvas.

In the nomadic concept of country, places are not understood in isolation, but rather through their intersections and connections. In Indigenous cosmology, this reveals itself through the songlines that run across the country, uniting all places. These paths reflect the ancestral mythology of the Dreaming, when spirit beings traveled across the landscape creating its sacred sites and leaving their residue in the landscape. According to Indigenous beliefs, this sacred essence remains in the landscape, and is discernible to those whose kinship or custodial ties allow them to access it.

It is this pervasive presence that Wompi explores in her paintings. In their sinuous pathways, we see an organic lattice of places, each connected, rolling into each other like tali or sandhills. Each gestural mark upon the canvas is like a footprint, revealing its creator’s presence. Like a footprint, they exist as the memory of presence – a nostalgic echo of past travels, both personal and ancestral. Judith Ryan has characterized this as a “haptic quality … calling sites and spiritual associations through touch.” This touch connects Wompi’s knowledge and custodianship of the land to that of her ancestors; her movement on the canvas becomes a mythopoetic recollection of all the spiritual travels that underpin her country. At the same time, it overlays her own journey – both physical and artistic – onto these paths, creating a palimpsest that connects the past and present.

Nora Wompi, Kunawarritji 2010, acrylic on canvas.

In doing so, Wompi’s paintings create a matrix that unites all time and place. They paint the history of her landscape, as it is transcribed by ancient songlines and transgressed by more recent paths, such as the Canning Stock Route, which, during Wompi’s lifetime, brought European settlers into the world of the Kukatja. These settlers could not see the landscape, access its sacred powers or read its songlines. But perhaps this is the very point of Wompi’s paintings. As their lines of colour spill outwards to the edge of the painting, it is almost as though they are trying to break free of the canvas, to pour out from Kunnawarritji to the world. As they reach the edge, they ask us to see the majesty outside the canvas – to realize that this mystical essence is part of the great continuum of existence. This is a unique gift; an intercultural exchange that offers both an expansive lesson in Indigenous cosmology and a critique of our own visual nescience. Painted lovingly and passionately by a powerful, individualistic woman, they project a unique understanding of the world. In their beauty and grace, they offer a guidebook that invites us to feel the indelible essence of this sacred land.

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Mina Mina Jukurrpa: Kelly Napanangka Michaels & Alma Nangala Robertson

The following essay was written to accompany the exhibition Mina Mina Jukurrpa: Kelly Napanangka Michaels & Alma Nangala Robertson at Mossenson Galleries, Perth, Western Australia, from June 1, till July 4, 2010

Alma Nangala Robertson, Mina Mina Jukurrpa 2010

Far to the west of the remote Indigenous community of Yuendumu, in the distant reaches of the Tanami Desert, lies one of the most important ceremonial sites for the women of the Warlpiri. Mina Mina is a sacred landscape made up of two large clay-pans guarded by a feathery sentinel of desert oaks, where, in the Jukurrpa (Dreamtime) a series of karlangu (digging sticks) emerged from the ground. Taking up these sticks, a large group of ancestral women began a heroic journey north to Jayinki and then eastward through Alcoota country. Marching in joyous exultation, their paths shaped the landscape, permeating it with the spirit of their songs. According to the Warlpiri, the spindly desert oaks at Mina Mina are an embodiment of these first digging sticks and of the ancestral women who brandished them.

The story of Mina Mina is of profound spiritual sustenance to the Warlpiri. It helps explain the genesis of the landscape, and circumscribes their relationship to it. Despite being over 300 kilometres from Yuendumu, it remains an important site of ceremonial and custodial obligations. Not surprisingly, it has also been one of the great sources of artistic inspiration for Warlpiri women. At the hands of Yuendumu’s great chroniclers it has revealed itself in a myriad of ways: some artists have chosen to focus on the desert oaks (Kurrkara), others the hair-string skirts (Majarrdi) worn during ceremony, others still have focused on the edible fungus (Jinti-parnta) or vine (Ngalyipi) first collected by the ancestral travelers. Combined, these stories create a stunning vision of place, united by the indelible spiritual identification that is felt by the Warlpiri, and in particular those of the Napangardi/Japangardi and Napanangka/Japanangka sub-sections for whom this place resonates with personal significance.

Kelly Napanangka Michaels, Majarrdi Jukurrpa (Ceremonial Dancing Skirt Dreaming) 2010

In contrast to the other early epicentres of desert painting, such as Papunya and Lajamanu, the painting movement at Yuendumu did not coalesce around senior men, but began in 1983 through the efforts of a group of senior Warlpiri women. Encouraged by the anthropologist Françoise Dussart, the women helped forge the dynamic ‘Yuendumu style’, which, as Judith Ryan has noted, was “characterised by vibrant colour, large brush-strokes and an almost messy, gestural freedom.”[1] In 1985, the artists formed Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation, through which they have refined the style, adding a level of accomplishment and elegance, while retaining the intensity of colour and spontaneity of design that defined the early movement. Subsequent generations of Yuendumu women have gained international acclaim as artists, including Maggie and Judy Napangardi Watson, Bessie Nakamarra Sims and Betsy Napangardi Lewis. Despite generational change and aesthetic transformation, the presence of Mina Mina in Warlpiri art has remained an iconic constant.

It is this legacy that is taken up in the paintings of Kelly Napanangka Michaels and Alma Nangala Robertson. Born in the late 1960s, Michaels (b.1965) and Robertson (b.1969) heard the Jukurrpa stories from their elders, and saw them painted with passion and dedication by their artistic forebears. Now they pass these stories onto their children and grandchildren, retelling them in a kaleidoscopic explosion of colour. The influence of their elders runs through their work; the dominant iconographies of Warlpiri painting are clearly present, as is the characteristic Yuendumu palette of pink, mauve, purple and blue. However, this is not a slavish form of imitation. In the paintings of Michaels and Robertson, influence exists as an aesthetic undercurrent that bubbles to the surface like the spiritual residue of the ancestors that informs the landscape. The influence of their artistic precursors becomes a song that infuses the canvas, filling it with the authority of cultural continuity and uniting it with the performative actions of song and ceremony that connect the Warlpiri to the Jukurrpa.

Alma Nangala Robertson, Mina Mina Jukurrpa 2010

In Michaels’ depictions of Mina Mina, two key elements of the story dominate: the ceremonial dancing skirts (Majarrdi) and the edible fungus (Jinti-parnta) collected by the women on their journey. Majarrdi and Jinti-parnta are painted with a jutting angular intensity, which makes them appear to quiver across the canvas. Using extremes of contrasting colours (including a distinctive use of black and white outlines), Michaels creates a fluttering tension between foreground and background that makes the Majarrdi appear to float above the canvas as though suspended by invisible dancers. This creates an ethereal sense of spiritual presence, while the thickly painted ground of the canvas anchors them to the temporal materiality of the landscape. Like her artistic precursors, Maggie and Judy Napangardi Watson, Robertson’s focus is the sacred Ngalyipi vine and the desert oaks (Kurrkara). Her paintings are swirling evocations of the landscape that shuttle between the narrative of travel and the fixed nature of place. Meandering lines sink into the landscape, evoking the residue of ancestral travels that simmer below the surface. Mina Mina pulsates in a spiral of colour that alludes to the constant spiritual undercurrents of ancestral travels, which shape and inform this place.

Kelly Napanangka Michaels, Majarrdi Jukurrpa (Ceremonial Dancing Skirt Dreaming) 2010

In drawing attention to this continuity of ancestral presence, both Michaels and Robertson testify to the continuing power of the Dreaming – a power that runs through all things, and unites all time and place. In their paintings, culture, aesthetics, history and place unite in a joyful continuum of colour and song. The Jukurrpa of Mina Mina is carried forward; its transformative power is expressed in an artistic evolution that pays homage to the past, while presenting a new vision for the future. On these fresh tongues, the exultant songs of the ancestral women are given new breath, proclaiming the creative power of Mina Mina for future generations.


[1] Judith Ryan, Mythscapes: Aboriginal Art of the Desert from the National Gallery of Victoria exhib. cat. (Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1989), 69.
 

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Carved out of Life: The Art of Emu Egg Carving

The following essay was first published as a preview for the exhibition Carved out of Life curated by Clinton Nain and held at at Craft Victoria from 18 June till 24 July 2010. The essay was published in Art Guide Australia, July/August 2010.

Installation image of carved Emu eggs by Lucy Williams.

Two years ago, the contemporary Indigenous artist Clinton Nain acquired his first emu egg. It was by Esther Kirby – a family friend of Nain’s, and the daughter of renowned Wiradjuri ‘boss carver’ Sam Kirby. The object resonated with the young artist, its muted patina of green and grey whispering softly as though each incised layer revealed a hidden world. And yet, as he delved into this verdant haze, Nain could find little clarity or illumination: carved emu eggs have rarely appeared in critical literature or major exhibitions. In frustration, he decided to curate his own survey, Carved out of Life: the Art of Emu Egg Carving at Craft Victoria, in a valiant attempt to “highlight the importance and significance of a neglected medium.”

To most Australians, carved emu eggs are items of kitsch, synonymous with craft markets and tourist outlets. Amongst southern Indigenous peoples, however, they are objects of considerable communal identification. Brenda Croft has noted, that by the mid-20th Century, carved emu eggs were a popular decorative item in Indigenous homes, serving to “affirm and Indigenous identity within the domestic environment.” [i] For Nain, however, their significance is more profound: “Denied traditional forms of cultural expression, Indigenous communities adopted the emu egg as a medium to tell stories, explain totems and reveal knowledge of land, place and identity … strengthening and retaining links to the past.”

With the rise of post-colonial theory, this kind of claim has been a common refrain in Indigenous art criticism. Colonial modes of art production are reclaimed as acts of artistic subterfuge through which forbidden pre-colonial knowledge is preserved beneath the cover of western aesthetics.  The problem with this kind of revisionism is that it creates a static and uniform criterion of value, in which Indigenous artworks can only be ‘significant’ or ‘important’ insomuch as they contain some hidden cultural cache; some link to the past; some authentic ‘Aboriginality.’ This is not to suggest that carved emu eggs might not be rich in such ‘traditional’ cultural content, but rather, that such an emphasis obscures a more complex cultural history that might offer a greater insight into this enigmatic medium.

Carved emu egg by Jonaski Takuma, 1895 – 1905, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

The practice of carving emu eggs arose in the mid-19th Century. It was not originally considered an Aboriginal medium, in fact, one of the most successful early carvers was a Japanese craftsman named Jonaski Takuma who set up shop in Sydney’s Strand Arcade in 1893. The aesthetic of the first carved emu eggs belonged firmly to the ornate decorative style of the late Victorian era. Their content, on the other hand, was resolutely nationalist, reflecting the idealised bush ethos pioneered by The Bulletin, Henry Lawson and the Heidelberg painters. In the post-War years, this aesthetic and ideology was superseded by a more modernist vision of Australian design and identity. Coupled with new government restrictions on the harvesting of emu eggs, the practice of carving emu eggs became increasingly rare amongst non-Indigenous artisans.

It was around this same time that the carving of emu eggs began its remarkable ascendancy amongst Indigenous communities. This coincidence is illuminating, for just as non-Indigenous Australians were dismantling the vision of bush nationalism embodied in carved emu eggs, it was appropriated by Indigenous artists for an entirely different ideological purpose. Like the Hermannsburg School of watercolour painting, emu egg carving was an introduced medium that demonstrated skill, craftsmanship and expertise, while its content professed a uniquely Aboriginal affinity with the landscape. The medium itself neatly balanced a dichotomy of assimilation and self-assertion: carved onto an objet whose acquisition required the knowledge of the hunter-gatherer, it suggested an inherent physical link to Indigenous heritage, while the realist images etched upon it implied a reconciliation with western aesthetic values.

Prior to the 1970s, there was little discernible difference in either content or style, between carved emu eggs produced by Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists. In some instances, artists of both cultures worked side by side. However, as issues such as land rights and Indigenous self-determination began to gain momentum, many Indigenous artists began to seek a more assertive vision of Indigenous identity. Carvers like Bluey Roberts, Badger Bates and Adrian ‘Ringo’ Morten began to replace realist imagery with an array of neo-traditional Aboriginal designs, drawing upon elements of rock art, desert painting and the traditional markings of their southern Indigenous tribes. Others, like Esther Kirby or Western Australian artist Barry Belotti, retained the realism of their predecessors, but used it to critique colonial incursion. Writhing from the surface, Kirby’s depictions of Indigenous faces wear a mask of suffocating anguish, as though silenced by the confines of an imposed visual language.

Esther Kirby, Carved Emu Egg, 2010.

Clinton Nain is absolutely correct in arguing that carved emu eggs deserve greater critical attention. For the past century, southern Indigenous people have been exploring the medium, changing its style and content to reflect their changing historical, social and political situation. Critically evaluating these developments offers a unique opportunity to explore the complex cultural history of southern Indigenous people, their continued negotiation with modernity, and the historical forces that have constructed contemporary Indigenous identity. They reveal how seemingly fixed notions of identity, place or culture are remodelled, reappropriated and reused for changing political, ideological or personal reasons. It is precisely these indicators that show how artists negotiate the forces of history and shed light upon the world in which we live. Just as Indigenous and non-Indigenous craftsmen once worked side by side, perhaps in these tiny globes we might see a vision of the world that we share, as much as the differences that we inscribe upon it.


[i] Brenda Croft, ‘The Gift of Seeing with Fingers’, Tactility: Two Centuries of Indigenous Objects, Textiles and Fibre, exhib. cat., National Gallery of Australia, 2003.

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Shane Pickett: 19 February 1957 – 15 January 2010

The following is an extended version of a tribute that was first published in Art Monthly Australia, Issue 227, March 2010, pp.29-30.

Shane Pickett, On the Horizon of the Dreaming Boodja 2005, National Gallery of Australia

I last saw Shane Pickett in the week before his death. Ever an industrious artist, he was busy putting the final touches on a series of delicate figurative landscape paintings intended for a solo exhibition in Melbourne. Spindly gum trees and gently undulating hills glowed with an outback haze against the white walls of his studio. In the past decade, Pickett had garnered widespread acclaim for his commanding abstract paintings, but few outside of Western Australia were aware that this was where his artistic journey first began. Flashing his famously impish smile, he quipped at the surprise that these works would elicit amidst the cosmopolitan Melbourne scene.

Although lauded as an abstractionist, Pickett never ceased to consider himself a landscape painter. In returning to figuration, he hoped to draw attention to the continuity of his concerns; to show the close connection his paintings maintained to his Nyoongar landscape. At the same time, he wanted to show just how much he had developed, to reveal the cultural, spiritual and artistic journey that underpinned his career. He titled the exhibition Djinong Djina Boodja – a Nyoongar phrase meaning ‘look at the land that I have travelled.’

It was a rare moment of retrospection from an artist whose career had been characterised by a restless forward trajectory of transformation and reinvention. After a career spanning three decades, Pickett had much to look back upon with pride. He had held at least 27 solo exhibitions and been involved in nearly 100 group shows. His works had travelled to America, Europe and Asia, and had been acquired by many of Australia’s most important collections, including the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

And yet, these were not the things that most interested Pickett. Although a proud man, he was never vainglorious and rarely spoke of his successes or achievements. When questioned, he preferred to speak on the cultural aspects of his art and career, measuring his journey not by accolades, but by his deepening knowledge of his Nyoongar heritage. For Pickett, art and life were united in an ever-expanding process of learning, in which spiritual and artistic developments were combined in a continually evolving process of creation.

A metaphor for this process can be seen in Pickett’s many representations of the moment of creation. This was the theme of his first important abstract work – Supernova 1988 – and it culminated in one of his best known paintings On the Horizon of the Dreaming Boodja 2005 (National Gallery of Australia). In the latter work [pictured above], delicate beams of light break through an abyss of white impasto, signifying “the birth of life, breaking through the warmth of eternity, bringing the beginning of the Dreaming Boodja, a place mankind calls earth.” In visualising this moment, when everything is born from the vacuum of nothingness, Pickett created a profound meditation on the nature of being. The viewer is held in suspense, literally stuck in the space between existence and non-existence, suspended forever on the horizon of being.

Shane Pickett, Three Faces of the Sun 1986, Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.

Pickett’s life and career presents a similar ontological conundrum. Like a supernova, he was an incredible creative source. Through his inspiration and influence he helped guide three decades of development and change in Indigenous art, culture and identity, particularly amongst the Nyoongar community of Western Australia. On the other hand, Pickett was very much a man of his time, with much of the resonance of his artwork and personal philosophy coming from their perfect articulation of the changing moods and attitudes of the world around him.

The son of Fred and Dorcas May Pickett, Shane Pickett was born in 1957 in the wheat-belt town of Quairading, about 170 kilometres east of Perth. Surrounded by athletic siblings but suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, Pickett gravitated to art from an early age. In 1988 he recalled, “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a pencil or brush in my hand.” The Nyoongar people had a strong artistic lineage, springing from the figurative landscape style that emerged from the Carrolup River Native Settlement in the 1940s. It was a style that Pickett quickly mastered, taking the intense colours of the Carrolup school and matching it with a rugged lyricism. After completing high-school, he moved to Perth, where in 1976 he held his first solo exhibition at the New Era Aboriginal Centre.

Much like the school of watercolour painting that evolved around Albert Namatjira and the Luthern Mission at Hermannsburg, the Carrolup style represented a very particular Indigenous response to colonialism. In an era in which assimilation remained official policy, these styles allowed a subtle communication of the significance of the Indigenous landscape, camouflaged within a palatably European medium. The spiritual and cultural underpinnings of these works remained largely unnoticed, and their subversion of Western perspective unrecognized.

By the early 1980s, as issues such as land rights and Indigenous self-determination began to gain momentum Pickett, like many Indigenous people, had begun to seek a more assertive vision of Indigenous identity. Taking the skills learnt as a landscape painter, he moved into the realm of magic realism. Again, a landmark work from the period concerned the moment of creation. Waagle – The Rainbow Serpent 1983 (Art Gallery of Western Australia), was a graphic, fantasy-style representation of the Rainbow Serpent in the act of creating the Nyoongar people. Swathed in atmospheric layers of paint, it was a lurid visualization of an epic story, and showed Pickett assertively extending himself beyond the picturesque boundaries of the Carrolup style.

Shane Pickett, Waagle – Rainbow Serpent 1983, Art Gallery of Western Australia

Pickett’s confidence in his Nyoongar cultural identity was matched with an increasing visibility in the local community. Pickett moved in a circle of supportive and ambitious young Nyoongar men, which included playwright Richard Walley, actor Ernie Dingo and artist Lance Chadd, all of whom cite him as a source of wisdom, counsel and inspiration. In 1981 Pickett produced the sets for Jack Davis’ play Kullark – The Dreamers, and he volunteered his time to many Indigenous groups including the Aboriginal Planning Group, the WA Aboriginal Artists Advisory Council and the Australia Council’s Visual Arts and Craft Committee for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts. It was around this stage that Pickett’s career began to flourish. In 1986 he was awarded the Museum and Art Galleries Award at the Third National Aboriginal Art Awards (for the work Three Faces of the Sun reproduced above) and in 1988 he was declared Western Australian Aboriginal Artist of the Year.

While his landscape and magic realist tableaus brought him great respect and admiration in Western Australia, it was his move to abstraction in the late 1990s that saw Pickett‘s recognition as an artist of truly national standing. This coincided with a long association with gallerist Diane Mossenson of Indigenart, Mossenson Galleries. At Mossenson Galleries, Pickett found the stability and encouragement to experiment, developing a unique personal style of gestural abstraction. His decade-long association with Indigenart was the most productive and successful era of his career, and saw him included in numerous important exhibitions including South West Central (Art Gallery of Western Australia, 2003) and Culture Warriors: The National Indigenous Art Triennial (National Gallery of Australia, 2007). In 2006 he was granted a retrospective at the Perth Institute for Contemporary Arts. In the same year he won the Sunshine Coast Art Award and the Joondalup Invitation Art Award, and in 2007 he was awarded the $40,000 first prize in the inaugural Drawing Together Art Award.

Pickett’s move to abstraction was driven by a desire to find deeper, more intuitive spiritual meanings in the landscape. According to Nick Tapper, “Pickett came to feel that representation of the skin and hair of the environment – its landforms, flora and fauna – missed the resonant undercurrents flowing amongst these elements.” As he matured, and his cultural knowledge increased, Pickett increasingly felt that traditional representations were incapable of expressing his deeper understanding of the landscape.

Shane Pickett, Wanyarang the Calling Season for Rain, 2006, Caloundra Regional Art Gallery.

With this knowledge, he realised, came a greater responsibility. This was something that Pickett felt strongly about – both in respecting his elders and passing his knowledge to a younger generation of Nyoongar people. Shortly before his death, he confided that his proudest achievement was his participation in the monumental Ngallak Koort Boodja (Our Heartland) canvas produced on behalf of the Nyoongar elders for the 2006 Perth International Arts Festival. Pickett took great pride and pleasure in the extensive consultation with both the community and elders of the Nyoongar nations that occurred before commencing work on the monumental piece. He saw the project as being an important galvanising moment in the Nyoongar community, and felt that it was imperative that it correctly reflected the teachings and values of his elders.

Between 1980 and 1983, Pickett completed a Diploma in Fine Arts at the Claremont School of Fine Arts in Western Australia. Although he valued the technical skills he had learnt there, Pickett often lamented the lack of Indigenous teachers. He sought to redress this imbalance, offering his services in numerous community workshops, primary and secondary colleges, along with teaching Aboriginal prisoners at Canningvale Prison. An important role model in his community, he dedicated considerable time to assisting with troubled or disaffected youth, guiding them quietly and calmly with his gently spoken cultural teachings.

Pickett was also influential for young Nyoongar painters. Between 1996 and 2003, he worked as a lecturer at TAFE in Midland and Bunbury, helping to develop the Diploma of Aboriginal Visual Arts course. Pickett’s influence and stewardship led to the widespread adoption of his style amongst a younger generation of artists. The success of his abstractions inaugurated a new school of Nyoongar painting whose influence can be seen in the work of many young artists, including Ben Pushman and Troy Bennell.

At its heart, Pickett’s move to abstraction had a cross-cultural mission. From his earliest works, he saw himself as an ambassador for Nyoongar culture. Although a softly spoken, quiet advocate, Pickett was unwavering in his championing of Nyoongar cultural values. Generous with both his time and knowledge, he was a popular speaker, always willing to patiently explain the complex philosophical minutiae of Nyoongar teachings.

Shane Pickett, Wanyarang Lightning Calling 2005.

Pickett’s abstract paintings communicate these teachings intuitively to an uninitiated audience. According to Pickett, “A lot of them don’t know what they are seeing, but often they’ll have an idea. When they do know what the story is about, they get drawn in.” For Pickett, abstraction was a method for leading people to their own personal communication with the Dreaming, and through this, to a respect and understanding of Indigenous values. Perhaps this explains the popular appeal of Pickett’s work, for like Pickett, they were never judgemental, but softly guided the viewer into a dialogue with the magical world of the Dreaming. In 2007, he noted, “The Dreams do run strongly through the views of my life.” This is perhaps his lasting legacy; in Pickett’s Dreaming we find a dialogue that crosses all cultural barriers, uniting all people within his a powerful cosmology of reconciliation.

Shane Pickett died on Friday 15 January 2010 following a sudden bout of illness. He is survived by his wife Violet, his sons Roger and Trevor, and his five grandchildren.

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Gladdy Kemarre: Anwekety (Bush Plum)

The following essay was first published in the exhibition catalogue Utopia produced by Mossenson Galleries on occasion of the 2010 Melbourne Art Fair. It was later reprinted in both English and Korean in the exhibition catalogue Josie Kunoth Petyarre & Gladdy Kemarre, produced by Mossenson Galleries on occasion of the 2011 Korean International Art Fair.

Gladdy Kemarre, Anwekety (Bush Plum), 2011, acrylic on canvas.

There is a transformative element to the paintings of Gladdy Kemarre. As we stare into their delicate calligraphy of dots, we could be gazing into the night sky, watching the seven sisters be chased across the Milky Way. If we squint, perhaps we can imagine ourselves looking from the window of an aeroplane as it whisks us over the suburbs of Melbourne, Sydney or Perth. Or perhaps is it a more distant, empty landscape that we are viewing from a great height: a landscape that seems to move beneath us as the shifting light of the sun dances across its open plains.

In the paintings of Gladdy Kemarre, the viewer floats into the canvas, just as her delicate skeins of dots shimmer across our horizon. Once immersed, the effect is very literally like that of a dream, the gentle soaring feeling of stepping into the engulfing desert heat, whose thick red winds swelter round the body as though bobbing in a flooded river of extraordinary antiquity. We are transported to places that we have never been, and yet which haunt us with an uncanny familiarity. For in the paintings of Gladdy Kemarre we are transported to her country, a county that she knows intimately; so intimately, that it cannot be expressed in words, but requires a language of intuition and emotion. With a patient refinement, they offer a gentle, motherly reflection on the interconnectedness of all things, a sparkling meditation on the Dreaming as it binds us all together. These are women’s stories, told through generations as part of a contract with the landscape. This contract ensures its fertility, its regenerative power, and its ability to spiritually and physically nourish the Anmatyerre.

Gladdy Kemarre, Anwekety (Bush Plum), 2011, acrylic on canvas.

Gladdy was born around 1950 at Mount Swann in her father’s country. The daughter of Clara Kngwarreye and Kwementyay Pwerle, she was brought up in the Harts Range region with her late sister Ally Kemarre and her brother Billy Benn Perrurle. The siblings grew up learning the traditions of their Anmatyerre people and how to paint through ceremonial body designs. From the 1970s, she was involved in art at Utopia, firstly through the Utopia Women’s Batik Group and later as a painter of considerable acclaim. She was involved in the landmark exhibitions A Picture Story (1988) and A Summer Project (1988-9) and has participated in major exhibitions in Australia, Europe and America. Her works have been acquired by many major public collections, including the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In 2009 she was a finalist in the Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and was awarded first prize in the both the Mount Buller Art Awards and City of Swan Art Awards. This year, Gladdy’s success has continued to rise through her selection as finalist in The King’s School Art Prize, The Stanthorpe Art Prize, The Albany Art Prize, The Fletcher Jones Painting Prize and The Waterhouse Natural History Prize.

In a career spanning four decades, a single motif has dominated Gladdy’s paintings, continually finding new expressions, just as the rolling seasons bring new life to the desert.  Anwekety or ‘bush plum’ is a Dreaming story given to Gladdy by her grandmother. A type of bush tucker with needle-like leaves and small round edible berries, women collect the fruit into coolamons, to be eaten fresh, dried or mixed into paste. Viewed from above, the changing seasonal colours of the bush plum dominate the flora on the ground in Ahalpere Country. The story of the bush plum is crucial to Alywarre and Anmatyerre women’s ceremonies, and is intricately intertwined with the Dreaming songlines of the whole country. It is a story not only of physical nourishment, but also of spiritual sustenance, being closely connected to the sacredness of Ahalpere Country.

Gladdy Kemarre, Anwekety (Bush Plum), 2011, acrylic on canvas.

Shimmering constellations of fruit emerge in these paintings from tiny points of colour that are meticulously worked into shifting layers that evoke the desert landscape. As a result, they produce a sparkling vision of country that shows the unity of all things – of place, people, flora, ceremony – with the sacred Dreaming.  Through their reference to ceremonial body painting and their invocation of the continuum of the Dreaming, the present both a spatial and temporal circularity that acts as a metaphor for the relationship between the local and the universal. The joyful rhythms of the canvas reflect Gladdy’s pride in passing down the story of the bush plum, just as her grandmother did before her, and her keenly felt joy of renewing her traditions. Just as the changing seasons come to renew the landscape, the paintings of Gladdy Kemarre challenge us to transform the way we see the world, to float upon their Dream into the far reaches of the Eastern Desert to the sacred Ahalpere Country.

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Josie Kunoth Petyarre: Sugarbags

Below is an extended version of the essay, ‘Preview: Josie Kunoth Petyarre: Sugarbags’, first published in Artist Profile Magazine, Issue 15, May 2011, pp.122-123. It was later reprinted in both English and Korean in the exhibition catalogue Josie Kunoth Petyarre & Gladdy Kemarre, produced by Mossenson Galleries on occasion of the 2011 Korean International Art Fair.

Josie Kunoth Petyarre, Sugarbag Story 2011, acrylic on canvas, 61 x 151 cm.

For many people, Aboriginal art is an impenetrable mystery. Despite its stunning beauty, there is a lingering sense that it will forever speak of a distant world, unreachable to those uninitiated into its sacred mysteries. But for those who take up the exquisite challenge posed by Aboriginal art, the question remains: how do we interpret these works, which speak such an alien visual language? Faced with this problem, many viewers first response is to ask for the story or ‘Dreaming’ that informs the artwork, in the hope that this narrative might offer some entry point into these difficult abstract works.

In approaching the latest body of paintings by the Anmatyerre artist Josie Kunoth Petyarre, this is certainly one interpretative route that we could take. Although best known as a figurative painter, this new body of work represents the most sustained body of abstract paintings in Petyarre’s 25-year artistic career. However, one should be careful not to limit one’s reading of these paintings to a breakdown of their ‘Dreamings’, nor should one make too much of Petyarre’s recent moves into abstraction. For that would be to miss the clear lessons of Petyarre’s career, and to replay the primitivist desires that have sought to continually cast Aboriginal art as part of an arcane, primeval cultural context.

Josie Kunoth Petyarre, Sugarbag Story 2011, acrylic on linen, 122 x 183 cm.

If we survey Petyarre’s career, we find a marked continuity of concerns. Central to these concerns has been the centrality and adaptability of the Dreaming cosmology that shapes the Indigenous worldview. In his influential 1956 essay, ‘The Dreaming’, W.E.H Stanner described the Dreaming as the guiding principle by which Aboriginal Australian’s understand the universe. It is, he argued, “a kind of logos or principle of order transcending everything significant for Aboriginal man.”[1] While it is easy to conceive this concept in the complex iconographies and hidden spiritual depths that underpin the cryptic forms of Aboriginal abstraction, in the paintings of Josie Kunoth Petyarre we see the Dreaming, not as something distant and mysterious, but something ever present, which runs through all places, people and things, from the past to the present, the sacred and the everyday. In this sense, they are a perfect illustration of the pervasiveness of the Dreaming logos described by Stanner.

The daughter of Polly Kngale, Josie Kunoth Peytarre was born in 1959 at Utopia Homestead. Occupying 1800 square kilometers of the remote Eastern Desert, Utopia Station was been part of the last great push of pastoral expansion into Australia’s wilderness. Its red open plains, dusted lightly with Spinifex and wildflowers, offered the promise of serenity and prosperity. However, scorching hot days and freezing nights, scarcity of surface water and sparse vegetation, untold legions of flies and mosquitoes, all conspired to make conditions intolerable for the new settlers. By the 1970s, only the crumbling Ozymandias-like remnants of the station era remained, paving the way for a successful land rights claim, which in 1980 returned the newly designated Utopia Aboriginal Lands to their traditional owners.

Like many women at Utopia, Josie Kunoth Petyarre began creating art as part of the Utopia Women’s Batik Group that emerged in the late 1970s. In 1987, she was included in the landmark exhibition, A Picture Story, which brought the practice of batik to its sumptuous conclusion. Containing all of the major artists from Utopia, it highlighted the resplendent diversity of approaches to the medium. The following year, she was included in the exhibition A Summer Project, which introduced these same artists to the practice of acrylic painting on canvas, creating the conditions for emergence of one of Australia’s most important painting movements.

Josie Kunoth Petyarre, Sugarbag Story 2011, acrylic on linen, 122 x 183 cm.

In 1987, Josie Kunoth Petyarre was still a young woman. The catalogue for A Picture Story shows her as a beaming 28-year-old, a young mother with a wistful smile and an unflappable demeanour.[2] It was the older artists in the exhibition who garnered the most attention, in particular, Petyarre’s aunt Emily Kame Kngwarreye (c.1910-1996). With their striking visual affinity to American abstract expressionism, Emily’s grand abstractions opened new possibilities for the understanding and appreciation of Indigenous art. At the same time, they cast a long shadow that has obscured the diversity of artistic practice that has been a continual presence at Utopia.

Whether bold and gestural (such as the paintings of Emily Kngwarreye or Minne Pwerle) or delicate and ethereal (Kathleen Petyarre or Gladdy Kemarre), the art of Utopia quickly became indelibly associated in the popular imagination with abstract painting. However, as the batik created by Petyarre for A Picture Story reveals, abstraction was always only one part of the art tradition at Utopia. Ngayakweneme (The Hungry People) is a vibrant Dreaming tableau in which armed warriors feud over the distribution of food, while tiny ethereal spirits haunt the crevices of the landscape. Twenty years later, this flair for action and detail would culminate in Petyarre’s grand narrative paintings of bush football carnivals and community life at Utopia.

In the shade of Utopia’s celebrated abstractionists, the work of figurative artists has often been dismissed as naïve or ‘inauthentic’ fusions of western and Indigenous traditions. Such criticisms are nearsighted, ignoring the fact that figurative elements were present from the genesis of Utopian art, even amidst the artworks of celebrated abstractionists like Emily Kngwarreye and Kathleen Petyarre. The distinction that is commonly assumed between ‘abstract’ and ‘figurative’ works is a peculiarly western one. In part, this is because western aesthetics does not have the same sense of the inherent sanctity of decoration that is present in Indigenous culture (that is, the power of abstract designs to convey secret or sacred meanings). For Indigenous artists, traditional designs are rarely non-objective in the way that is implied by the categorisation of ‘abstract art’. Historically, when Indigenous art-styles have become more abstract, it has been through either a desire to hide or obscure secret/sacred content, or in an effort to tailor the work to suit market trends. If we move beyond this dichotomy of abstract and figurative, we can begin to see the figurative tradition at Utopia as offering its own peculiar insights into the development of art at Utopia. This neglected movement offers a unique insight into both traditional and contemporary existence at Utopia, while revealing its own internal processes of artistic innovation and development.

Josie Kunoth Petyarre, Sugarbag Story 2011, acrylic on linen, 91 x 121 cm.

For most of her life, Petyarre has lived on remote outstations, where the production of art is a ubiquitous part of the daily routine. Petyarre, however, remained in the background, producing occasional works, but never really stepping out of the shadow cast by her celebrated elders. This would change rapidly in 2005, when she began working with the art-advisor Marc Gooch. Starting primarily as a carver, Petyarre produced one of the most innovative bodies of carvings to ever emerge from Utopia.

Using wild colours and unexpected forms, she produced works that reflected her life and personality. According to Marc Gooch, “Each one was like a self-portrait, revealing her spontaneity and individuality.”[3] Petyarre’s first body of sculptures contained all the conventional motifs of Utopian carving – there were extraordinary figures in ceremonial dress, feathered birds, and a colourful array of dogs, echidnas and camels. But alongside this wild menagerie, a different picture of life at Utopia began to emerge, as Petyarre produced a series of more contemporary objects including a bright pink Toyota and a meticulously detailed police van.

Soon, Petyarre’s husband Dinni Kunoth Kemarre also began producing sculptures. Together, the pair would ‘head out bush’ with their axes to find the soft-wooded Bean Trees (Erythrina vespertilio). Sometimes these trips would require 100 kilometre long drives to find appropriate trees. After felling the tree, they would bring the trunk back to their camp, where they would carve it using tomahawks, files, sandpaper and a large rasp. Together, the pair would produce 16 football players (one for each team in the Australia Football League) which would be make up the exhibition Centre Bounce held at the AFL Hall of Fame in Melbourne between March-July 2007.

The opening of Centre Bounce afforded Josie and Dinni the opportunity to visit Melbourne. It was an eye-opening event for the pair, never having travelled before to such a metropolis. While older artists often view cities with an unflustered nonchalance, Josie and Dinni were captivated. The scale, the lights, the country and the fauna (including Melbourne’s ubiquitous possums) inspired a new body of works that perfectly captured the meeting of these two very different worldviews.

Josie Kunoth Petyarre, Melbourne Story 2007, 153 x 122, acrylic on canvas.

Returning to Utopia, Petyarre unexpectedly embarked on a series of paintings that sought to synthesise all of the complex experiences of their visit to Melbourne. They produced several extraordinary large-scale canvases that assimilate the cityscape of Melbourne into a Central Desert sense of geography. These maps of the city incorporate Melbourne landmarks – the MCG, St Kilda beach and pier, Luna Park, the Royal Exhibition Building, Fitzroy Gardens, Swanston Street, St Paul’s Cathedral and Federation Square – into an Anmatyerre spatial logic. In a fascinating and vivid meeting of two visual experiences, the paintings present an engrossing, enlivening picture of the urban landscape as seen from a radically different cultural background.

What was most notable about these paintings, was that for Petyarre, urban and remote were placed in an even and connected system of exchange – in a very similar way to which sites of significance are connected in Tingari paintings. This equality of exchange was made brilliantly explicit in a spectacular diorama that Josie and Dinni created for the inaugural Basil Sellers Art Prize held at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at Melbourne University in 2008. In this installation, scenes of professional and community football were literally placed side by side as part of a co-joined narrative. The cultural diaspora of football was no longer framed as one-directional, but working along a songline mentality in which all action and places are connected. By this relational logic, travel and movement unites significant places – the MCG becoming just one stop on a football songline that unites Utopia with the capital cities of Melbourne or Perth.

A similar episteme can be seen the series of ‘bush football’ paintings which Petyarre commenced around the same time. Structurally, these works bear a striking visual affinity to the classic ‘circle and grid’ paintings of first generation Papunya Tula artists like Old Walter Tjanpitjinpa or Anatjari No.III Tjakamarra. In the archetypal Tingari painting, a central circular motif is used to represent a significant gathering place, ceremonial ground or waterhole, from which travel lines radiate outwards to other points of connected significance. Just as the circle provides both the visual and narrative focal point in these Tingari paintings, in Josie’s bush football scenes the centre point is provided by the oval football field. From this point in the painting, action radiates outwards in a series of dramas that are both connected and independent of the central event. As Nick Tapper has observed:

In these football paintings, the central motif of the oval as a capacious elliptical space organises two different types of action: the regulated play on the field, and the carnival atmosphere off it. The representation of football becomes not just about the players’ participation, but about the overall participatory spirit enjoyed by sportspeople and spectators alike.[4]

The result is a vivid tableau of all-over action. Although it acts as pivot to this action, the football match itself is not exclusively preferenced, and in some works is completely overwhelmed by the scale of events going on around it. In this way, the whole world is absorbed and united within this immutable and adaptive cosmology of the Dreaming.

Josie Kunoth Petyarre, Bush Football Carnival 2010, acrylic on canvas, 151 x 151 cm.

How then, might we extend this logic to a reading of Josie Kunoth Petyarre’s most recent paintings of ‘Sugarbags’, which explode across the canvas like fireworks of brilliant colour? Dr. Diane Mossenson, who has represented and championed Petyarre’s work since 2005, and knows her paintings intimately, has described these paintings as an artistic breakthrough for Petyarre. Mossenson is undoubtedly correct; in these works, there is a clear sense of an artist refreshing herself, finding liberation with a representational form that is both tradition, but open enough to allow for considerable personal expression. Bruce McLean of the Queensland Art Gallery has noted:

Josie and Dinni are true innovators within their tradition, effecting change and integrating it into everyday practice. Tradition and change are intrinsically linked. Change is inevitable in all living cultures, and the form that change takes relies on the vision of the instigator. In the [art] of Josie Kunoth Petyarre and Dinni Kunoth Kemarre we get a sense of past, present and future.[5]

This fusion of innovation and tradition is clearly evident in Josie’s Sugarbag paintings, where the recognisable forms of desert paintings are flung together with a compelling joie de vivre that shows an artist clearly relishing the experimental possibilities of the motif. After several years of mining the world around her for inspiration, the openness of this format is clearly vivifying.

Josie Kunoth Petyarre, Sugarbag Story 2011, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 200 cm.

However, it would be wrong to overstate the extent that this expressive freedom is derived from the ‘abstract’ nature of the sugar bag motif. In Indigenous Australian parlance, the term ‘sugar bags’ is used to describe the sweet honey made by one of around 14 species of native stingless bees found across Australia. As a visual motif, it is one of the most variable and iconic in Australian Indigenous art. For thousands of years, sugar bags have adorned the faces of rock-art sites in the Kimberley, Arnhem Land and the Central Desert. With the dawn of the Indigenous art movement, the sugar bag emerged as an emblem of seemingly endless iconic possibility. In the paintings of artists as diverse as Bardayal ‘Lofty’ Nadjamerrek, Jack Britten, Barney Ellaga, Jimmy Wululu and Lucy Ward, it has provided both a source of sweet inspiration and potent formal potential.

In most instances, the sugar bag is a symbol of tripartite significance. On the one hand it refers directly to the bush honey collected from the hollows of trees or crevices of rock shelters. On a more abstract level, the sugar bag usually refers to a particular Dreaming associated with a specific place. Lastly, the painting of sugar bags is often used to assert a totemic or ancestral connection to that particular place. In this sense, therefore, it is a visual metaphor of physical, personal and spiritual dimensions. According to Petyarre, these paintings contain ‘all the sweetness of the bush’ – not just the sugar bags themselves, but also the colourful bush grevillea and corkwood flowers that produce the honey, the changing colours of the season, and the travel of the bees across the landscape. In Petyarre’s case, this is landscape of her father’s Alhalkere country of Utopia in the eastern desert, to which the sugar bag Dreaming is associated.

In Petyarre’s sugar bag paintings we can see an artist using a stored cache of visual ideas – circles, dots, dashes – and twisting them in order to find new ways to depict the overlap of country and culture; to represent the shifting metaphors of the physical, geographical and spiritual. What could be waterholes or sandhills, winding rivers or desert blooms all come together in a personal experiment in colour and form. This is not a form of experimentation structured along modernist lines of non-objectivity, but rather, one structured around a particularly Anmatyerre reasoning, in which the sugar bag as bush tucker is as much a lived reality as the ancestral connections that it connotes in both the spiritual and everyday environment. If we see Josie Kunoth Petyarre’s sugar bag paintings, not as a break from her figurative works, but as a parallel articulation of the same episteme, we can begin to see them as two different, but complimentary articulations of a world is absorbed and united within the immutable cosmology of the Dreaming. The alchemy of Petyarre’s innovation is her ability to continually find new ways to express this ancient cosmology.


[1] W.E.H. Stanner, “The Dreaming,” (1958) reprinted in The Dreaming and Other Essays (Melbourne: Black Inc. Agenda, 2009), 58.

[2] Annemarie Brody, A Picture Story: 88 Silk Batiks from the Holmes à Court Collection (Perth: Heytesbury Holdings, 1990)

[3] Marc Gooch, personal correspondence with author, 2010.

[4] Nick Tapper, “Bush Football: The Kunoth Family,” exhibition room brochure, Mossenson Galleries, Melbourne, 18 August-5 September 2009.

[5] Bruce McLean, “Dinni Kunoth Kemarre and Josie Kunoth Petyarre,” in Xstrata Coal Emerging Indigenous Art Award, exhib. cat., Queensland Art Gallery, 11 July-12 October 2008.

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Bob Gibson Tjungurrayi

The following essay was written to accompany Bob Gibson Tjungurrayi: The First Solo Exhibition held at Mossenson Galleries, Perth, November 10 till December 5, 2009. The exhibition was presented in conjunction with Tjarlirli Art (Tjukurla, Western Australia).

Bob Gibson Tjungurrayi, Walatu, 2009, acrylic on canvas.

In a haze of incandescent orange and green, a series of concentric squares pulsate with the searing heat of the Western Desert. The colours meld and overlap, creating a transparency of paint that flutters across the ground of the painting. These are the designs of the Tingari ceremony – secret men’s business that takes place near the remote community of Tjukurla on the edge of Lake Hopkins. Each square is roughly painted, revealing the artist’s hand as it moves with a gestural intensity across the canvas, giving them a pulsating irregularity. These works sing of the majesty of the Western desert with a tongue rough-hewn by the shifting sands.

Bob Gibson Tjungarrayi was born at Papunya in 1974, before moving with his family to Tjukurla during the time of the homelands movement. The son of renowned artist Mary Gibson, Bob paints his ancestral stories with a raw intensity. His palette of wild hues reveals an unrestrained joy for experimentation, tempered with nostalgia as he recalls his father’s country around Patjarr and his mother’s country of Kulkuta.

Bob Gibson Tjungurrayi, Walatu, 2009, acrylic on canvas.

In Bob Gibson’s paintings, the raw, physical experience of country is transmuted into paint. Underpinning this representation is the attendant spiritual and cultural knowledge that informs the Anangu view of the landscape. Gibson’s works are not simply unmediated depictions of country, but integrated and resolved extensions of cultural knowledge. His works are filled with uncanny, indefinable artistic allusions – whether the rigid Tingari of Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, the dense over-painting of Lorna Fencer Napurrula or the fiery brushwork of Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula. Each is transformed into Gibson’s personal style. The artist’s hand becomes an expression of the cultural continuum, picking up on a wealth of knowledge and influence, and using it to create something entirely new.

The Dreamings that underpin Gibson’s ancestral country are brought forward via his unique painterly style. This double-take between the familiar and the idiosyncratic is the central tension that drives the work. This distinction between the shared/communal cultural experience and the highly personalised artistic vision – between the iconic and the aesthetic – creates a visual metaphor for the difference between ‘seeing’ the country and ‘knowing’ the country. This latter form of viewing is not the unmediated sight of the tourist or visitor, but rather, the informed understanding of an initiated viewer. It sees beyond the physical manifestations of the landscape, focusing instead on the underlying spiritual dimension. This is why, under Gibson’s hand, the Dreaming sites at Lake Hopkins can be portrayed in such a myriad of ways, each revealing a different aspect of this sacred geography.

Bob Gibson Tjungurrayi, Walatu, 2009, acrylic on canvas.

For the Western viewer this is a highly challenging visual problem. After four decades of the Aboriginal art movement, there has developed a familiarity with the classic iconographies of desert painting, along with its predominant artistic styles. Some may even consider themselves ‘connoisseurs’ of Aboriginal art, able to rattle off the names of collectible artists from every corner of the country. And yet, what is this but the superficial frosting of a market driven appetite? Perhaps all we can see are brush-strokes on the canvas, the expressions of a profound knowledge of which we will never truly comprehend. The secrets of the Tingari remain hidden.

In the work of Bob Gibson we find an invitation. Gibson’s paintings are all about inter-relation; of colour and form, of tension, reaction and interplay; the challenge of raw brushstrokes against flat planes of colour. They are a celebration of individual expression within the cultural continuum. In doing so, they ask us to question the nature the aesthetic, the very ways in which ancient iconographies can be remodeled and innovated, and show us how one artist can create a unique artistic statement, while remaining true to their ancient cultural knowledge.

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