Monthly Archives: September 2012

Peter Newry: History Paintings

The following essay was written to accompany the exhibition Peter Newry: History Paintings at Mossenson Galleries, Melbourne from April 7 till May 2, 2010.

Peter Newry, Laargen, 2009

A series of meandering lines roll across the canvas. Each one wavers delicately, but determinedly, as it breaks through rich veins of fulvous ochre. This is Laargen, located deep within the Keep River National Park, where during the wet season, dozens of small creeks unite to become a gushing torrent of water that breathes life into the desert landscape. It is the ancestral country of the Miriwoong, and in Peter Newry’s painting, it is depicted with a majestic solemnity. Newry’s hand is one of dignified restraint; his marks dance on the canvas like an arcane calligraphy, each line a Zen-like meditation on time and space.

In Hitsuzendo, the Zen art of calligraphy, a single line can evoke an entire world of meaning. The aim is to reach Samaai: the unification of the individual with the highest reality. In the act of calligraphy, Zen masters focus intensely to become one with the meaning of the characters that they depict. In the paintings of Peter Newry, a similar focus can be found. The landscape pours from his brush in simple lines that cut across broad swathes of ochre, invoking both the spiritual essence and material presence of place.

As Darren Jorgensen has noted, Newry is one of the Kimberley’s most restrained minimalists, taking the already austere planar style of East Kimberley painting – popularised by artists like Rover Thomas and Paddy Bedford – and reducing it to an enigmatic sparsity. In western art and literature – from Sidney Nolan to Patrick White – the desert’s broad spaces induced fear as identity was dissolved amidst the oppressive infinity of the wilderness. For Newry, however, it is from these seemingly empty spaces that identity is revealed. Through his simple lines, the form of the landscape is evoked in absence. Landmarks are not so much depicted, as alluded to; space is evoked along cragged ridges, whose jutting edges speak of a long life in the Kimberley.

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Peter Newry, Ngirnginy, 2009

 

Peter Newry was born around 1939 at Newry Station in the East Kimberley, where he lived for the next fifty years. According to Newry, he “grew up on the back of a horse.” A skilled stockman, he worked on the station until the 1970s, after which he was employed in numerous hard labours, including picking cotton and working as a builder’s labourer during the construction of the township of Kununurra. Although an important cultural man of the Miriwoong, Newry approaches this role with a dignified humility, reticent to reveal too much of his knowledge to outsiders. The spiritual content of his work and the sacred places it depicts, is often left understated or unexplained in Newry’s paintings.

Nevertheless, it was the very task of recording his sacred geography that inspired Newry to commence painting in 2002. Newry was persuaded to commence painting by the late, great Gadjerriwoong artist Paddy Carlton (c.1926-2006), who extolled the importance of Newry recording his knowledge of his traditional country. Charged with this weighty task, Newry’s early works were frenetic cartographic exercises, as he attempted to depict vast areas of country in great detail. More recently, however, Newry has restricted himself to a smaller number of specific locations – those places with a profound personal resonance. These works are not so much about mapping, as becoming one with the country through painting. Newry is no longer attempting to produce encyclopaedic maps of Miriwoong country, but rather, trying to achieve a unity that embodies the landscape, becoming more realistic by its ability to transcend representation to embody the very essence of the landscape.

Newry describes these paintings as “history paintings.” For Newry, ‘history’ is a term filled with gravity; his use of it reflects the weight and seriousness with which he views his art practice. The history to which it refers is that of his Miriwoong country: the true stories of how places were made. In ascribing them the gravity of ‘history’, Newry confirms his paintings as stories told the ‘right way’, as they were passed down by his ancestors. And yet, this is not history painting in the western sense, for unlike his academic predecessors, the ‘history’ of Newry’s paintings is not something limited to the past, but rather, is continually unfolding. Unlike the paintings of David or Vernet, the history embedded in Newry’s paintings is not depicted, but revealed via the residual ancestral presence that sanctifies the landscape and connects it to the sacred Ngarrangarni or Dreaming.

Peter Newry, Laargen, 2010

According to Cathy Cummins, Manager of Waringarri Aboriginal Arts, “Peter Newry’s paintings invite us to acknowledge a level of understanding that is poetic, intelligent and deeply connected. At a time when Indigenous art teeters on the balance of what it has achieved and what more is possible Peter Newry stands up and reminds us that the land is poetry, it is history, it is the story of a culture whose truths are increasingly vulnerable.” In Newry’s paintings, we find a Zen-like unity with the landscape whose power derives from its temporal and spatial connection with Ngarrangarni. As he works to pass this knowledge onto his children, grandchildren and relatives at Waringarri Aboriginal Arts, Newry creates his own history, moving East Kimberley painting to profound new boundaries.

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Loongkoonan and Lucy Ward: Ngarranggarni Mananambarra

The following essay was written to accompany the exhibition Loongkoonan and Lucy Ward: Ngarranggarni Mananambarra at Mossenson Galleries in Melbourne, March 23 – April 23, 2006.

Loongkoonan, Bush Tucker in Nyikina Country, acrylic on canvas, 2006

When I was young I footwalked all over Nyikina country. Footwalking is the proper (only) way to learn about country and remember it. I paint Nyikina country the same way that eagles see country when they are high up in the sky.

Loongkoonan

I remember when I first saw the paintings of Loongkoonan. It was December 2004, and although aged in her 90s, Loongkoonan had only recently commenced painting. Sparse and raw, with ragged and scratchy brushstrokes jutting awkwardly across the canvas, her paintings betrayed little of the refinement and elegance that would soon emerge in her art. And yet, exhibited as a body of 26 small canvases in the exhibition River Stories,[1] they evinced a palpable sense of experimentation. Each canvas revealed an artist eagerly trialling a range of iconographies and styles in order to depict her beloved Nyikina country. Within the blank expanse of the canvas, Loongkoonan was exploring the sacred places that defined her and her people. By depicting them on canvas, she was at once revisiting these places and at the same time entering new territory. In these crudely painted canvases, the artist was setting to work on an epistemic project that would mature into a uniquely Nyikina representation of place. As the first Nyikina artist to undertake such a project, they represented a profoundly significant and unmediated ‘first sight’.[2]

Installation image showing Loongkoonan: River Stories, Mossenson Galleries, Cartlon, 2005

If this first exhibition signaled the commencement of such a project, the past twelve months have seen Loongkoonan refine it into a singular vision that balances grace and delicacy with an unmistakable emotive urgency. Far from the sparse roughness of her early paintings, Loongkoonan’s new works are gentler, softer – yet at the same time much more busy. Covered in overlapping dots, they shimmer with a delicate melding of colour and form that is reminiscent of early post-Impressionism. Beyond a purely painterly or aesthetic refinement, however, this development is indicative of an intense distillation of the culturally specific visual language that Loongkoonan was searching for in her earliest works. In order to grasp the significance of such a development, it is necessary to understand the social and cultural circumstances that define and bound the art and life of Loongkoonan and her painting partner Lucy Ward.

Although they belong to different language groups, the experiences that shaped Loongkoonan (born circa 1910) and Lucy Ward (born circa 1920) have considerable parallels. Both artists were born on the burgeoning cattle stations of the Kimberley. As young women, they worked on these stations, cooking, riding horses and mustering sheep and cattle. Like many Indigenous pastoral workers, they looked forward to the arrival of the Wet Season when they would footwalk their clan estates collecting bush tucker, medicine and spinifex wax. These experiences were formative for both artists and instilled in them a respect for the traditional systems of culture and learning that had guided their people for millennia. This knowledge is encapsulated in the concepts of Ngarranggarni and Mananambarra referred to in the current exhibition’s title.

In his book Mates: Images and Stories from the Kimberley, the anthropologist and sociologist Kevin Shaw describes the Mananambarra[3] as the senior custodians of Indigenous Law. Their lives and world-view, he argues, are shaped by their adherence to the fundamental and mystical truths of the Ngarranggarni. Usually equated with the concept of the Dreaming, Ngarranggarni is an all-encompassing term that refers to creation, history and traditional law of the Indigenous people of the Kimberley.[4] According to Shaw, the Mananambarra are “barometers of community spirit, respect for individuality, creativity and passion for environment and justice”. Their principle value system, derived from the Ngarranggarni is based on a complex agglomeration of knowledge and learning acquired through persistence and hard work. These values are clearly reflected in the dedication with which Lucy Ward and Loongkoonan have thrown themselves into painting. Both artists choose to paint almost every day, and the focus and energy of these women is testament to the incredible work ethic of the Mananambarra, which rejects idleness and sloth. In a more profound sense, however, this dedication reveals a desire to record their stories as part of the duty of Mananambarra to preserve this knowledge for future generations.

Loongkoonan, Bush Tucker in Nyikina Country, acrylic on canvas, 2006

It is this desire to document and preserve the knowledge of the Ngarranggarni that has propelled the visual program within Loongkoonan’s painting. This can be seen in the subtle shift in Loongkoonan’s work between specificity and totality. Take for instance, the distillation of themes that has occurred in her work since River Stories. Of the 26 paintings included in River Stories, most works depicted specific places within Nyikina country. In both their titles and imagery, the paintings referred to clearly identifiable locales, such as Mount Anderson (Jarlmadanka), Udialla and Liveringa Hill. In contrast, most of Loongkoonan’s new works bear the seemingly generic title of Bush Tucker. Far from being generic, however, these works perform a complex double-take between specificity and totality. Whereas the early works were sparse in their composition and generally referred only to a single geographical locale, Loongkoonan’s new works are packed with detail. Snakes, rivers, bush plums, coolamons, mountains, floodwaters, dancing grounds and springs all jostle for position in these loaded canvases, as though Loongkoonan is trying to literally enact Emily Kngwarreye’s metaphysical claim to paint the ‘whole lot’.

That said, in a more figurative or allegorical sense, these works are complex mappings of substantial cultural knowledge. This is clearly evident in the proud and central discursive position that Loongkoonan places on knowledge of bush skills.

In my time there was plenty of tucker in the bush. My mother and the old girls who grew me up taught me how to find sugarbag (bush honey) in trees and in the ground. They showed me how to make limirri (processed spinifex wax). Limirri from Nyikina country is Number One.

Beyond a simple botanical reference, ‘bush tucker’ acts as a metonym for the accumulated knowledge of the Mananambarra. Just as Loongkoonan laments the declining availability of ‘tucker in the bush’ – undoubtedly due to the ecological degradation caused by the pastoral industry – ‘bush tucker’ serves as a referent for a different time, when the hierarchies of knowledge and learning were respected. In many ways, this nostalgia lends the works a sense of solemnity and loss. And yet, this sorrowful tenor rarely impedes the sense of pride and joie de vivre that dominates Loongkoonan’s paintings. As much as these works lament the decline of the cultural values upheld by the Mananambarra, they are also defiant statements of the continuation of Indigenous culture, offering a vision of hope that this cultural knowledge can be saved and passed on to future generations.

Lucy Ward, Wandjina, acrylic on canvas, 2006

This optimism is, in part, due to the temporal resilience of the Ngarranggarni, the way in which it resists being defined purely in terms of the past but is instead involved in a constant back-and-forth dialogue between past, present and future. This is clearly evidenced in the paintings of Lucy Ward. As a Ngarinyin woman, painting plays a central role in the remembering process that connects Ward to her country and culture. For thousands of years, the Ngarinyin have used the painting of Wandjina spirits to forge a direct connection to the Dreaming. During the Dreaming, Wandjina controlled the elements and were instrumental in shaping the landscape and law. The Wandjina left their images on the cave walls in order to watch over the land and the Ngarinyin people. By repainting the Wandjina, the Ngarinyin create a direct and unbroken link to the Dreamtime. It is with immense fondness that Ward recalls watching her father and grandfather paint these spirit figures on the cave walls, and it is with great reverence that she continues this tradition on canvas.

Like Loongkoonan, Ward also paints ‘bush tucker’. Ward’s bush tucker, however, is generally restricted to the painting of ‘sugarbags’ or bush honey pods. These ‘sugarbags’ are Ward’s personal totem and connect her to the country of her birth. “I was born in Ngarangarri country,” she declares. “Ngarangarri is the honey dream; ngara minbinya, honey is good tucker.” Ward’s sugarbags are depicted as an array of brightly coloured dots, often organised into irregularly shaped squares. As a simultaneous symbol of the physical, spatial and the personal, these seemingly abstract shapes create a complex metaphor for identity and country. They become part of a sacred and personal geography that Marcia Langton has termed ‘placedness’ or “site-markers of the remembering process and of identity itself.”[5] This ‘placedness’ transcends Western notions of temporality. For Ward, the past is not, as L.P. Hartley famously suggested, ‘a foreign country’, but rather a familiar (and specific) country that situates and unites all moments in time.

Lucy Ward, Wandjina and Sugarbag, acrylic on canvas, 2006

As it is the act of painting that constitutes this ‘remembering process’, placedness preferences the process of painting over the final product. Each mark on the canvas becomes like a fingerprint, betraying the trace of its creator’s application. Both visually and semiotically, this trace becomes a potent metaphor for the shuttling between time and space that underlies these paintings. Just as this shuttling allows Loongkoonan to balance nostalgia with hope, so it also allows Ward to balance an idiosyncratic playfulness with the profound pathos that emerges from her heartfelt respect for the traditions and rituals of her people. Simultaneously innovative and traditional, these works inhabit a temporality that is neither past, present, nor future, but is rather part of the sacred link that connects Loongkoonan and Lucy Ward to the timeless and sacred Ngarranggarni.


[1] Omborrin and Loongkoonan: River Stories, Indigenart, The Mossenson Galleries, Carlton, Victoria, 23 February-23 March 2005.

[2] Prior to Loongkoonan, the only noted Nyikina artist was Butcher Joe Nangan. Born around 1902, Nangan established a reputation for his skilful engravings on boab nuts and pearlshell, before turning his talents to producing delicate and detailed figurative images of flora, fauna, along with scenes of ceremonial, historical and mythological significance. Whilst Nangan’s works reveal an immense cultural knowledge, they remained rooted in the Western figurative style and therefore signify a markedly different visual and epistemological project than that of Loongkoonan. See Kim Ackerman, ‘Butcher Joe Nangan’ in Sylvia Kleinhart and Margo Neale, The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2000.

[3] The plural form of the singular Manambarra.

[4] Kevin Shaw, Mates: Images and Stories from the Kimberley, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2004.

[5] Marcia Langton, ‘Sacred Geography: Western Desert traditions of landscape art’, Hetti Perkins and Hannah Fink (eds.), Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius, exhib. cat., Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, 2000, p. 267 and Marcia Langton, ‘Dreaming Art’ in Nikos Papastergiadis (ed.), Complex Entanglements: Art, Globalisation and Cultural Difference, Rivers Oram Press, London,
2003, 42-56.

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Shane Pickett: Kaanarn

Kaanarn: ‘There is Truth in the Landscape’

The following essay was written to accompany the exhibition Shane Picket: Kaanarn at Mossenson Galleries in Perth from February 17 till March 11, 2006.

Shane Pickett, Guardians of the Good Energy Spirit, 2006

For three decades, Shane Pickett has defined himself as a painter of the landscape. “There is truth in the landscape,” he declares. “It is from the landscape that all our culture and beliefs come.” In recent years, this project has seen Pickett move from the delicate figurative landscapes of his youth, into large-scale abstract paintings of the type that have culminated in his current exhibition Kaanarn. The title of Pickett’s exhibition draws on the Nyoongar word meaning ‘true.’ Consistent with his statements, Pickett cites this move into abstraction as being part of his progress towards uncovering the illusive ‘truth’ in the landscape.

In the works I have made and the life I have lived I have been very much honest to nature. Nature is honest and I try to bring that out. My career has been a journey, expanding in scope; as I have grown in maturity, my work has become less like a photograph and has tried to explore the deeper meaning of the landscape.

I would like to begin this catalogue essay by asking the meaning of this transformation in Pickett’s work. In the history of Western art, the movement from figuration to abstraction has been a common one for many artists. Amongst Indigenous artists, however, it is a decidedly less common phenomenon. This question takes on an added pertinence when one considers Pickett singular role in inaugurating a revitalised tradition of Nyoongar abstraction as seen in the recent works of emerging artists like Troy Bennell and Ben Pushman.[1] In order to answer this question, I would first like to return to the unlikely time and place of France in 1905.

Considering Pickett’s invocation of the ‘truth’ in nature, it is difficult not to recall Cezanne’s famous letters to Emile Bernard. In a letter dated 23 October 1905, Cezanne wrote to Bernard, “I owe you the truth in painting and I will tell it to you.” In the letters that followed, Cezanne argued that in order to achieve ‘truth in painting’ it was necessary for the painter to absorb him or herself in the study of nature, and to “forget everything that has gone before us.” Truth in painting could not be achieved through imitation, but rather by learning to create paintings that worked like nature.

Through this distinction, Cezanne was attempting to establish a viable relationship between imitation and abstraction – between the desublimated, haptic act of being ‘in nature’ and the sublimated, mediated and perspectival act of painting. Sadly, Cezanne would die in 1906 without ever really reconciling this space between vision and representation, and the negotiation of this space would remain one of modernism’s defining problems.Whilst this may seem a digression, it is my belief that Pickett’s work presents a profound and critical response to the epistemic space created by this question – a question that might be seen to propel the course of Western modernism and its colonising claims toward universalism. In order to explore this connection, it is necessary to return to the very beginning of Pickett’s artistic journey where we might find the seeds of Kaanarn.

Shane Pickett was born in 1957 in the wheat-belt town of Quairading, east of Perth. From an early age, he was encouraged and inspired by artistic family members. By his late teens he was exhibiting regularly in a landscape style that was easily reconcilable with the Carrolup tradition of Parnell Dempster, Revel Cooper and Reynold Hart. And yet, despite his familial and cultural connections to this tradition, Pickett’s works were quite markedly different to those of his Carrolup predecessors. Unlike his cousin and contemporary Lance Chadd/Tjyllyungoo, Pickett did not appear to adopt the theatrical schemata that distinguished landscape painting of the South West. His approach to the landscape was considerably more lyrical and textured – characteristics that have led Brenda L. Croft to rightly suggest a closer affinity to the works of Albert Namatjira.

This comparison is illuminating. Like his cousin Tjyllyungoo and his elder brother Byron, Shane Pickett began painting in the 1970s at a time when young Indigenous Australians were finding a new faith in their Aboriginal voice. Whilst Shane’s work was never as politically explicit as that of his elder brother, its political dimension should not be dismissed. As Brian Fitzpatrick has noted, Shane has always exhibited “a quiet form of social activism.” The desire for recognition and respect of Nyoongar cultural values is a regular refrain of Pickett’s artist statements and interviews.

Shane Pickett, Bunuroo Heat Wave, 2006

If artists like Bryron represented a very visual and politically explicit side of urban Indigeneity, Tjyllyungoo and Shane Pickett were more concerned with the spiritual and metaphysical side of Nyoongar culture. Their political defiance lay less in activism than in the reclaiming and preserving the long held spirituality of their Nyoongar people. One of Pickett’s earliest works in the Art Gallery of Western Australia quite literally encapsulates this spiritual dimension. Entitled Waagle – Rainbow Serpent 1983, the work presents a fantasy-style representation of the Rainbow Serpent in the act of creating the Nyoongar people.

It is in this context that the attraction and influence of Namatjira must be understood. For although Namatjira’s landscapes were depicted in the realist Western mode of watercolour painting, by the late 1970s the hidden cultural depths of these paintings were beginning to be recognised. In the subtle differences between Namatjira’s paintings and those of his tutor Rex Battarbee, critics began to see a critical space in which Namatjira used mimicry to present a concealed Indigenous view of the landscape. Through this tactic, Ian Burn and Ann Stephen argued that Namatjira created a ‘double vision’ that articulated “a crisis of authority” in which the hierarchy of Western vision was disrupted. In Namatjira’s art, they declared, “for the first time, the landscape looks back at us: it meets and deliberately crosses the viewer’s gaze of possession.”[2]

For an advocate of ‘quiet social activism’, this strategy must have seemed an ideal way of slyly reempowering Nyoongar cultural values. Certainly it offered a culturally specific way of exploring and representing the ‘deeper meaning’ of the landscape. And yet, by his abandonment of figurative landscape, we might presume that this was a tactic whose usefulness Pickett soon exhausted. A clue to his reasoning can be found in Pickett’s comments regarding one of his first tentative explorations into abstraction.

In 1988, Shane Pickett was commissioned to produce an image for the Fifth Marcel Grossman conference at the University of Western Australia. Whilst the choice of the art of a young Nyoongar artist to represent a conference of international physicists might have seemed incongruous, Pickett took the conference’s theme ‘Views of the Universe’ as an invitation to explore the possible intersections between his Nyoongar spirituality and the conference’s focus on universal phenomena. Entitled Supernova, the painting Pickett produced combined dappled areas of texture with brilliant bursts of colour in a symbolic depiction of an exploding star. Speaking on the work, Pickett commented:

I see the supernova as a natural force that is the source of all energy and all life. Some people might call it ‘God’ but I see it as a spiritual creator with no name.We try to tie everything down with a title, but when we do most people mistake the title for reality.[3]

Whilst Pickett’s comments rearticulated the metaphysical and spiritual concerns of his earlier works, they also signify one of his earliest articulations of a suspicion of the space between nature and representation – precisely that space that preoccupied Cezanne. That this acknowledgement of this space occurs with his first moves away from figuration provides a telling insight into the motives behind Pickett’s move from figuration into abstraction and reveals the conceptual limits that Pickett found in the strategy of mimicry adopted from Namatjira.

The strategy of mimicry is a typically postcolonial strategy of resistance. And yet, as a strategy it is forged with difficulties. The most central of these is that it necessitates difference and therefore repeats the very structures of otherness that it attempts to subvert. In an incisive article on the problems of postcolonialism, Rasheed Arareen notes that in this situation, cultural difference is not situated as a site of continuity, but rather as a sign to maintain difference.[4] Namatjira’s work then, gets caught in an inescapable circularity in which it can only be defined by its similarity and difference to the dominant cultural paradigms. Namatjira’s art can only be critical in so much as it assimilates Western art, but at the same time it can only be critical in so much as it is incomplete in this assimilation. In a passage that helps shed considerable light on Pickett’s move away from the allegorical landscape style of Namatjira, Rex Butler comments:

If in one way the first [desublimated, tactile, preceding vision] precedes the second [sublimated, panoramic, perspectival], in another way it can only be perceived within it, it is only a retrospective effect of it … it is lost in being found, and thus found in being lost. It is not a blindness opposed to sight, but a blindness within sight or a blindness that allows sight … The problem set by the painting , therefore, is … how do we pass from a seeing without reading (that first, haptic experience of the landscape, that of the explorer making his way through it) to a reading without seeing (that second, exclusively visual experience of the landscape, that of the art historian)?[5]

It is precisely this difficulty that we can see in Pickett’s frustration at the ontological space between nature and representation articulated in his comments about Supernova. When I pressed Pickett on the meaning of these comments, the artist provided a fascinating and thoroughly unpredictable response. “Naming’, he declared, ‘has done a lot of damage to Indigenous families. It has caused a lot of struggle hurt and hate.” Pickett’s direct association of this passage between nature and representation as being inherently colonial provides a direct answer to Butler’s question of how one passes between this space. As Butler continues, the problem is the missing ahistorical kernel that propels the whole system – that allows this system of Western vision to take place in the first place. For Pickett the answer is stunningly obvious. This whole process, from Cezanne to Namatjira and beyond, is propelled by modernity and its attendant bugbears of imperialism, capitalism and colonialism.

It is this system that Pickett seeks to evade in his transition to abstraction. Signalling a move away from the ‘photographic’ (synecdoche) to the ‘deeper meaning’ (totalised), Pickett attempts to entirely evade the paradigm of modernism by entering an entirely different temporal zone. Pickett achieves this through the metaphysical nexus of the ‘Dreaming.’ In a symbolic rejection of the notion of modernism’s progress, Pickett adopts the supposed peak of modernism’s progress (abstraction) while at the same time using this abstraction to refer to an older origin (that of pre-colonial Nyoongar culture). In entering into the secret and sacred cosmology of the Dreaming, Pickett distances himself from the problematic space between seeing and reading, and instead places the emphasis on a hierarchical system of information and learning. In a gesture that completely confuses Western teleology, Pickett creates a new tradition from these origins, while at the same time abandoning another tradition (that of the Carrolup painters.)

Shane Pickett, Campfires of our Yesterday’s People, 2006

This temporal zone of the Dreaming is however, intrinsically linked to the world of the present. As David Abram has noted, the Dreaming “was never wholly cut off from the sensuous world of the living present. They were not projected entirely outside of the experienced world, but were felt as the mystery and hidden depth of the sensuous world itself.”[6] It is this secret ‘truth’ that Pickett uncovers in the landscape and it is this truth to which Pickett refers in two of his most majestic works included in Kaanarn. In the paintings Campfires of our Yesterday’s People at Closing Day and its companion piece Embers of the Dreaming during Wanyarang, Pickett allows the glimpse of fire on the horizon. “In the Dreamtime’, he tells us, ‘the properties of fire were stored in a number of places: the Balga and Banksia bushes, harder timbers such as Jarrah and Redgum, and the flints of certain rocks.” Pickett has defined his aims as a painter as being the ‘rekindling of cultural strength’ amongst young Nyoongar people. In this context, the metaphor of the balga and the banksia bushes is a powerful one, for it reveals the emergent possibilities of the Dreamtime. This fire is always within the Dreaming, ready to rekindle and renew to those who know where to look.


[1] It is a remarkable fact that in 2003 when the Art Gallery of Western Australia surveyed Western Australian Indigenous art from the South West for their landmark exhibition South West Central, there was an almost complete absence of abstract painting. Pickett was included with eight works spanning his career, of which only one – the monumental triptych Traditional Story 2001 could be considered truly abstract.

[2] Ian Burn and Ann Stephen,“Albert Namatjira:The White Mask”, in Rex Butler (ed.), Radical Revisionism: An Anthology of Writings on Australian Art, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2005, p.231.

[3] Shane Pickett quoted in Alex Harris, ‘This artist brushes up on science’, The West Australian, 18 June 1988.

[4] Rasheed Arareen, ‘Come What May: Beyond the Emperor’s New Clothes’, in Nikos Papastergiadis (ed.), Complex Entanglements, Artspace, Woolloomooloo, p.138.

[5] Rex Butler, A Secret History of Australian Art, Craftsman House, 2002, p.116.

[6] David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, Vintage Books, New York, 1996, p.220.

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Two Way Traffic: Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route

The following review was first published in Art Guide Australia, January/February 2011, pp.45-48. Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route was held at the National Museum of Australia (Canberra) from 30 July 2010 till 26 January 2011.

Jan Billycan, Kiriwirri 2008 acrylic on linen, 79.5 x 59.5 cm

Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route, currently on display at the National Museum of Australia is a remarkable exhibition. It arose from a relatively simple premise to explore the Indigenous histories underpinning the lands traversed by the Canning Stock Route. It evolved into a groundbreaking partnership between FORM, the National Museum and nine remote Indigenous art centres, amassing an incredible repository of hundreds of paintings, tens of thousands of photographs and dozens of hours of video footage.

Like everything about the project, Yiwarra Kuju is the result of an exhaustive process of community consultation. Just as the project sought to uncover the previously maligned Indigenous histories of the Canning Stock Route, the exhibition seeks to alter the museum experience in order to give Indigenous voices authority within the hallowed cultural realm of the museum. This is certainly a lofty aim, and Yiwarra Kuju has set something of a new benchmark for community involvement in the museum sector. And yet, as with any project this ambitious, it inevitably raises as many questions as it answers.

Central to these questions is the sheer pragmatics of how to present an Indigenous voice within the museum context. To this end, Yiwarra Kuju has opted for a number of bold curatorial interventions. Some of these are simple gestures, such as the decision to hang paintings of the Seven Sisters story near the ceiling, so that one is forced to crane skywards in order to view them; others signify profound philosophical attempts to challenge the classical museum experience.

Nora Nangapa, Nora Wompi, Bugai Whylouter and Kumpaya Girgaba, Kunkun 2008, acrylic on canvas, 124.5 x 294 cm

The most startling of these is the overwhelming amount of support material on display in Yiwarra Kuju. The gallery spaces are simply bursting at the seams with text panels, video displays, text panels, photographs, text panels, multimedia displays and more text panels. In the lavish catalogue accompanying the exhibition, the artist Clifford Brooks declares:

We wanna tell you fellas ‘bout things been happening in the past that hasn’t been recorded, what old people had in their head. No pencil or paper. The white man history has been told and it’s today in the book. But our history is not there properly. We’ve got to tell ‘em through our paintings.

But despite Brooks’ faith in the veracity of painting, the 80 works in the exhibition are accompanied by literally thousands of words of text. The effect is so overwhelming, that one often feels that it is the paintings that are the support material, and not vice versa. Certainly, the aesthetic elements of the works are consistently downplayed in Yiwarra Kuju, and at a recent forum in Melbourne, the co-curator John Carty was at pains to stress, “It’s not about the art.” This raises the inevitable question, why use art as the bedrock for an exhibition that is ostensibly historical in focus?

At the heart of this is a question of cross-cultural engagement. The Canning Stock Route was not a traditional Indigenous passage, but was artificially forged between 1908-1910 by a team led by surveyor Alfred Canning. Cutting across the country of several different cultural and language groups, it was like a colonial scar that paid no heed to the pre-existing borders of traditional ownership. And yet, after its short life as a stock route, the Canning Stock Route was soon appropriated by Indigenous people to facilitate their own movement across country. By using the Stock Route as the locus for the exhibition, Yiwarra Kuju offers a complex double-take, eloquently described by community representatives Ngarralja Tommy May, Putuparri Tom Lawford and Murungkurr Terry Murray as a “two ways” story. On the one hand, the exhibition is all about tradition (the pre-existing ownership and stories that underpin the country the Stock Route bisects), on the other, it is a story about change, adaptation and engagement.

Painting provides the perfect metaphor for this cross-cultural story, presenting a unique testament to the stunning marriage of tradition and innovation. Unfortunately, this is a concept that only gels in a few salient points in Yiwarra Kuju. In part, this is due to the extraordinary democracy of the hang, in which most works are evenly spaced along two black walls, arranged, not according to style or visual affinity, but according to content, in a long run that is intended to replicate the process of crossing country. This curatorial decision creates inevitable visual tensions. There is a massive disparity of both styles and quality across the exhibition, and in many cases, works with similar content are not necessarily visually complimentary. The uniform dramatic spotlighting serves some works well, but it is inappropriate for others, particularly more subtle works, which get lost in the glary haze.

This rejection of traditional notions of aesthetics is symptomatic of the rejection of what are perceived as Western art historical values. This leads to a profound failure to recognise the cross-cultural dialogic work that these paintings already perform. Standing before the most stunning paintings in Yiwarra Kuju – such as those by Rover Thomas, Daisy Andrews or Jarren Jan Billycan – it is difficult not to be taken aback by these artists’ individual ability to create dynamic new visual languages for expressing ancient stories, and in doing so, to take their culture forward in dynamic an unexpected ways. The juxtaposition of related artists painting related stories about related places in vastly different styles raises inevitable questions about the diaspora of style in Western desert painting and the historical and social forces that have shaped its development. This invokes notions on the role of representation, the nature of cultural change and the changing role of aesthetics in Indigenous society.

Rover Thomas, Canning Stock Route 1989, ochre and natural binders on canvas, 105.5 x 60.5 cm, Holmes à Court Collection.

These are necessarily art historical questions that demonstrate the urgent need for new cross-cultural methodologies for Indigenous art history. Yiwarra Kuju: Canning Stock Route offers the first, imperfect steps towards a model of engagement in which Indigenous artists are able to present their history and culture in the manner that they best see fit. This should not mean that it is above criticism, but that it becomes part of an essential ongoing critical dialogue. Perhaps the most exciting thing about the Canning Stock Route project is that with the acquisition of the entire collection by the National Museum of Australia, it will become a permanent resource for future Indigenous artists, curators and historians. Over time, hopefully it will yield many more exhibitions, and through continued engagement with the collection, reveal many more as yet uncovered stories.

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Patrick Kunoth Pwerle

The following is an extended version of a catalogue essay published in Nicole Foreshore and Brian Parkes, (eds.), Menagerie: Contemporary Indigenous Sculpture, Object: Australian Centre for Craft and Design, Strawberry Hills, New South Wales, 2009, pp.80-83.

Patrick Kunoth Pwerle, Thipe (Yellow Bird) 2008

Patrick Kunoth Pwerle was born in 1981 at Artekerre in the remote eastern desert region of Utopia. Since commencing his art practice in 2007, Kunoth Pwerle’s oeuvre has been singularly devoted to the subject of birds. A wild aviary has sprung from his artistic imagination. Whether eagle, owl, emu or hawk, each is created unique, coloured with its own eccentric disposition. But beyond revelling in natural variety, Patrick Kunoth Pwerle’s dedication to avian form reveals an intuitively modernist project of repetition and refinement in which the artist explores the reductive potential of both the sculptural medium and his favoured motif.

Kunoth Pwerle is not the first sculptor to become obsessed with the figure of the bird. Almost a century earlier, the image of the bird in flight launched Constantin Brâncuşi on a forty-year journey of artistic refinement. Brâncuşi saw his art practice as an evolutionary search for pure form, never abandoning the natural world, but reducing it to its most basic elements in order to lay bare the underlying nature of the image. Comparing the sculptures of Brâncuşi and Kunoth Pwerle, the attraction of the streamlined avian form becomes readily apparent. For both artists, it is a form that is easily suggested using only a small number of oblique visual cues (the curve of the body for instance, or the point of the beak).

 

Constantin Brâncuşi, Bird in Space 1923, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Over his short career, Kunoth Pwerle has developed a skilful sculptural shorthand for depicting birds, which often relies on no more than a few brief incisions to indicate wings, tails or beaks. Unlike Brâncuşi, who saw the reductive process as a means of capturing the essence of the image, in Kunoth Pwerle’s work this process is used in deference to the unaltered natural medium. Carved from the soft wood of the bean tree (erythrina vespertilio), it is the medium (rather than the image) that dictates form, allowing the natural object to express itself in a totemic intensity. Not only does this enable Kunoth Pwerle to exploit a boundless, naturally occurring variety of forms; more importantly, it offers a distinctly Indigenous metaphor for the connectedness of all things. The figure and the form are united, not in opposition, but in a holistic union, with obvious parallels to the poetic mythos of the Dreaming. The birds are literally returned to the branches as the figure returns to the form; the object to the subject; the aesthetic to the natural order; and so on. Kunoth Pwerle’s project takes on an evolutionary aesthetic logic that provides a striking metaphor for the intersection of modern art and Indigenous cosmology; something that we might begin to see as a uniquely Indigenous modernism.

Patrick Kunoth Pwerle began making art in 2007 under the influence and encouragement of his parents Dinni Kunoth Kemarre and Josie Kunoth Petyarre. Since 2005, Josie and Dinni have spearheaded a revival in the Utopian sculptural tradition that first emerged in the late 1980s under the stewardship of art co-ordinator Rodney Gooch. Since 2007, Dinni and Josie have risen to prominence as consummate observers and compulsive chroniclers. In their art, the minutiae of everyday life becomes a worthy subject for artistic exaltation, demonstrating an artistic vision unencumbered by restrictive binary notions of ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary.’ Art has always been a part of the Indigenous cultural backdrop, connecting Indigenous people to the world around them and the immutable Dreaming. The art of Dinni and Josie showed just how adaptive this cosmology could be.

Kunoth Pwerle’s earliest works show a clear debt to his parents’ observational style. And yet, as Kunoth Pwerle gained confidence as an artist, he quickly abandoned their astute attention to detail in favour of a plastic freedom. As his parents’ work became more detailed and naturalistic, Kunoth Pwerle’s sculptures became more abstract, dispensing with all unnecessary representational elements.

 

Patrick Kunoth Pwerle, Thipe (Red Bird) 2008

Compounding this move towards a sculptural abstraction, Kunoth Pwerle’s works have more recently developed a painterly dimension that further distances any suggestion of naturalism. Drawing upon the broad gestural brushstrokes and overlapping dot-work that has characterised Utopian painting, Kunoth Pwerle’s use of paint often seems less about defining the form, than highlighting its very objecthood. At times, Kunoth Pwerle’s paintwork seems to allude to the ceremonial body painting tradition, further highlighting the totemic nature of the object. At other times it seems to almost camouflage the form, as though the sculptural object was no more than a sounding board for a painterly experiment. And yet, whilst Kunoth Pwerle’s sculptures push referentiality to its very limits, they maintain a confidence in their connectedness to the landscape, defiantly foregrounding the link between his modernist project and his Anmatyerre homelands.

Patrick Kunoth Pwerle was born at the dawn of the Utopia art movement. If artwork has been one of the principle fields upon which Indigenous Australians have engaged with the wider world – through which they have bridged the tribal and the modern and showed their traditions to be both contemporary and relevant – then Patrick Kunoth Pwerle has grown up at the frontier of this exquisite intersection of Indigenous cosmology and modernity. His work offers us a way to look beyond these rigid binary positions and see the very possibilities of a Utopian modernism.

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Drawing NOW: Jus’ Drawn’

The following article was written as an exhibition preview of Jus’ Drawn by proppaNOW at the Linden Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne. It was published in Art Guide Australia, September/October 2010, pp.34-35. The exhibition ran from Saturday, 7 August 2010 – Sunday, 12 September 2010.

Tony Albert, Bullet, 2010

 

A single black bullet is drawn starkly upon a plain white ground. It doesn’t look much like Aboriginal art; there are no dots or cross-hatching, nor any esoteric reference to an arcane Dreaming. It is just a simple, solemn image. It is a drawing by Tony Albert, one of the youngest members of the Brisbane-based Indigenous collective proppaNOW, included in the group’s first Victorian exhibition, Jus’ Drawn, on display at the Linden Centre for Contemporary Art. In the extended text panel that accompanies the work we are told that it refers to the artist’s grandfather, Edward Albert, who like many men of his generation, served in the Australian army during the Second World War. The text makes little overt reference to race; it is only in its final paragraphs that we are told that Edward belonged to the Kuku-Yalanji, Yidinji and Girramay language groups. Despite his distinguished service on the battlefields of Europe, as a result of his heritage he received none of the benefits afforded to other returning servicemen. In this tragic denouement, race becomes the sombre, inescapable reality that lurks disquietly within the silent image on the gallery wall.

Jus’ Drawn is the first exhibition in which the diverse group of artists that make up proppaNOW have worked across a single medium. It offers a unique opportunity to assess the marked continuity of their artistic concerns. At the centre of these is a desire to challenge the notion that ‘authentic’ Aboriginal art comes from remote regions or is concerned with the continuity of pre-colonial traditions and forms. For Albert, this distinction between urban/contemporary and remote/traditional is facile: “All Aboriginal art is urban,” he muses. ‘None of it is produced by artists living within a purely traditional setting. It’s all contemporary art.”[1] Fellow artist Richard Bell is less diplomatic, labeling remote Indigenous art as ‘Ooga Booga Art’, and arguing that it is based upon a false notion of tradition that casts Indigenous people as the exotic other. According to Bell, ‘Ooga Booga Art’ is a product of the white, primitivist gaze – an argument summed up in his much quoted “Bell’s Theorem: Aboriginal Art – It’s a White Thing.”[2]

For the artists of proppaNOW, it is their art that represents the real, ‘authentic’ Aboriginal art – one that speaks of the everyday realities of Indigenous experience while critiquing the ways in which Indigenous identity has been shaped by colonial vision. This theme runs throughout Jus’ Drawn in works such as Bianca Beetson’s text drawings, which opine, “SORRY for not being white enough. SORRY for calling myself ‘blak’” or those of Andrea Fisher, in which brown paper bags are delicately refigured as “everyday dilly-bags.”

 

Andrea Disher, Kurloo (From the Dilly Bag Series), 2010

 

And yet, the implication of Bell’s critique goes one step further suggesting an Indigenous complicity in the creation of a subjugated identity. In Bell’s own work, identity is forged from a mad jumble of appropriated signifiers, from sources as disparate as Roy Lichtenstein and Emily Kame Kngwarreye. The implication is that identity is created at the intersection of historically shifting subject positions. This destablises any claim to an ‘authentic’ Identity position of any kind, and problematises the entire paradigm of ‘Aboriginal’ art. What is the point of being the most ‘authentic’ Aboriginal art, if the very category is inalienably ‘A White Thing’ which facilitates its own othering?  As Stephanie Radok has speculated, “surely as long as we call it Aboriginal art we are defining it ethnically and foregrounding its connection to a particular culture, separating it from other art and seeing it as a gift, a ‘present’ from another ethnography.”[3] Whichever way the dichotomy is presented – between urban and remote, traditional and contemporary, proppaNOW and Ooga Booga Art – at the core is an essentialised notion of Aboriginal identity that is clearly unsettled by artworks whose raison d’etre is to explore the endless variety of experiences that inform contemporary Indigenous existence.

 

Vernon Ah Kee, Unwritten, 2010

 

According to Tony Albert, “The most important thing is how you choose to be labelled.”[4] And yet, as the story of his grandfather reveals, this is a freedom that has long been denied to Indigenous people. Indeed, Albert has literally enacted this classificatory violence, defacing pop-cultural images of Indigenous people with racist labels like ‘Coon’, ‘Abo’ and ‘Halfcaste.’ If, as Bell’s work suggests, identity construction is a continuing act of negotiation, the art of proppaNOW is about taking control of this constructive process. This is, perhaps, most poetically articulated in the drawings of Vernon Ah Kee. Since 2004, Ah Kee’s art practice has been dominated by a series of large-scale portraits of his family members. The source material for his first portraits came from archival photographs of his grandparents, in exile on Palm Island in the 1930s. According to Ah Kee, the photographs were taken by the administrators of the Aboriginal penal settlement as “a scientific record of the dying species of subhumans … this exotic ‘other’ that had been set aside.”[5] In enlarging these images to an imposing scale, Ah Kee returns power to their gaze. As their faces shimmer into being amidst an urgent flurry of pencil lines, they do not evoke an elegiac longing, but rather, a profound moment of presence – the immediacy of a unique, individual identity slowly taking shape from the haze. In this coming into being, we get a glimpse of the subtle but immense shift between the old paradigm of Aboriginal art, and a new understanding of contemporary art, produced by singular Aboriginal artists.

 


[1] Tony Albert, phone interview, July 30, 2010.

[2] See for instance Archie Moore, “‘Black Eye = Black Viewpoint: A Conversation with proppaNOW,”’Machine, 1:4: (2006): 4.

[3] Stephanie Radok, “The ethnographic present: Aboriginal art today – the gift that keeps on giving,” Artlink 29:1 (2009).

[4] Tony Albert, phone interview, July 30, 2010.

[5] Vernon Ah Kee, quoted in Message Stick: Born in this Skin, ABC1, first broadcast Sunday 13 December 2009.

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Kirrily Hammond: Swoon

The following essay was written to accompany the exhibition Kirrily Hammond: Swoon, Chapman & Bailey Gallery, 350 Johnston Street, Abbotsford, Victoria, 22 September – 10 October 2009.

Kirrily Hammond, Flight JQ3, 2009, oil on linen, 30 x 30 cm.

It is a crisp summer evening in Alpine Victoria. Across the vista, the dusk clouds roll in, changing the light from a gentle mauve into a rich dark blue. Soon nightfall will turn the clouds into a shapeless darkness upon the horizon, but for now each one is trimmed with a brilliant glow, as though they have been delicately edged by a heavenly seamstress. For one passing moment the world is still.

As I recall this scene, I am immediately struck by the dull inadequacy of language to describe such majesty. How could any representation, be it literary or painterly, capture the profound, haptic experience of being in nature? How could a painting evoke the encompassing awe that causes one to swoon in the face of the sublime?

Over the past fifteen years, Kirrily Hammond has explored many different landscapes in her paintings, prints and drawings. Her early works reveled in a fantasy world of the imagination, in which anamorphic trees jostled with ethereal spirits and circus ghouls. More recently, however, she has found her inspiration in the real world, taking the landscapes of Gippsland, Mount Buller and Japan as her subject. In doing so, she has pushed away from the enclosed, personal world of the subconscious, towards a much more universal experience. For as much as we have shared dreams and fantasies, the surrealist vision is a highly personalised one. In her most recent landscapes, Hammond has gravitated towards intentionally unspecific or generic settings. Her paintings, she stresses, “are not about the landscape” and she intentionally seeks scenes that are geographically unrecognisable. In Hammond’s paintings, the landscape is clouded with the hazy light of dusk or dawn, and seems to exist as little more than a prop for her experiments in light and texture. As such, they take on the uncanny possibility that they could be anywhere. Although impossible to pin down their precise location, each one has a striking sense of familiarity, as though it is a place that one has visited in the distant past.

Concurrent with this thematic development, Hammond has settled into a small format that perfectly suits her cause. Each work exists as an exquisitely sealed hermetic portal onto a distant, but disquietingly familiar world. Looking at her paintings of clouds, such as Flight JQ3 2009, it is impossible not to be reminded of the tiny cabin windows of commercial airliners, while in her Gippsland Twilight series, the format evokes the view from a speeding car window, or perhaps that of a blurry Polaroid snap-shot.

Kirrily Hammond, Gippsland Twilight XXX, 2009, oil on linen, 30 x 30 cm.

In these paintings, Hammond is asking how we frame the sublime. Not simply how we represent the majesty of nature, but also how we recall it, how we package it, and how we consume it. More pertinently, they question how we overlook this majesty in our everyday lives. In the safe, comfortable space of the aeroplane or automobile, how often do we fail to notice the sublime as we speed on by? Margaret Morse has termed this the ‘precondition of distraction.’ The car interior becomes a de-realised ‘non-space’ in which the traveller is insulated from the outside world, achieving what Morse calls a ‘mobile privatisation’ that displaces us from our surroundings.[1] A similar sense of ‘distraction’ might be conjured by the image of the tourist, unable to quantify any experiences not captured through the prism of their camera.

This is the challenge set by Hammond’s paintings, prints and drawings. For they are not about replicating the sublime, or even using paint to imitate nature in order to create a virtual swoon. Rather, Hammond’s vision is driven by a much more profound romanticism. As her paintings have become less reliant upon fantasy, they have insistently drawn attention to the beauty inherent in the world around us. Rather than being portals to an imaginary world, they point to a world just outside our windows; rather than a mystery beyond reality, these works point to the mystery within reality. It is this sentiment that causes one’s heart to swoon before Hammond’s paintings. As Sasha Grishin notes, “In Hammond’s depiction of the sublime, we do not experience the quality of terror and awe, but a sense of glowing inner radiance.”[2] This is not the classical sense of the sublime, for there is no fear in this world. The mystery of Hammond’s work comes from seeing the familiar anew; realising beauty where before there was only the ordinary; finding majesty in the mundane; grandeur in the generic; the sublime in our everyday lives. Hammond challenges us to be constantly aware of the wonder and beauty that surrounds us, and that through this mystery we might learn to swoon again.


[1] Morse, Margaret, “An ontology of everyday distraction: The freeway, the mall and television,” in Patricia Mellancamp (ed.), Logics of television: Essays in cultural criticism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990): 193-221.

[2] Sasha Grishin, “Formidable artist shows strength,” Canberra Times, Wednesday November 12, 2008

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