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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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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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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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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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Choosing Who Will Keep the Stories Strong: The Garrawurra Artists of Milingimbi

Ruth Nalmakarra and Joe Dhamanydji at the opening of Goyurr Manda Dja’nkawu and the Morning Star at Mossenson Galleries, Melbourne, January 2007

The following article appeared in Artlink, Vol 29, no. 3, 2009

In the wake of the Federal Government’s 2007 Emergency Intervention in the Northern Territory, negative portrayals have dominated media coverage of remote Indigenous communities. Reports of violence and substance abuse have been held as symptomatic of the breakdown of Indigenous family structures and the annihilation of Indigenous culture. This narrative has spilt into art criticism, where the works of senior Indigenous men and women are often viewed through the prism of a cultural mausoleum. In a discourse steeped in the melancholy longing for lost authenticity, each mark upon the canvas is framed as the last glimpse of a fading world.

This is the story of group of contemporary Indigenous artists on the small island of Milingimbi, off the coast of central Arnhem Land. It is not a story of cultural annihilation, but rather, one of renewal. It shows the resilience and adaptability traditional Indigenous family systems, and how one community has internally guided transformations in familial and clan relationships in order to meet their changing needs in the modern world.

In early 2006, the renowned Liyagauwumirr painter Mickey Durrng Garrawurra passed away in his home on Milingimbi. For many years, Durrng (1940-2006) and his brother Tony Dhanyala (1935-2004) were the only people authorised to paint the Liyagauwumirr’s most important clan designs: the Djirri-didi painted on the body during the Ngarra cleansing ceremony. There is a refined elegance to these designs: at their simplest they consist of nothing more than a series of austere horizontal bands of yellow, red and white. To the Liyagauwumirr, however, they contain all the mysteries of their ancestral homelands. According to Durrng, “These designs are the power of the land. The sun, the water, creation, for everything.”[1] Rich in ‘inside’ meanings, the full ‘story’ contained within these designs was traditionally known only to initiated Liyagauwumirr men. Before his death, however, Durrng made the seemingly unorthodox decision to pass this knowledge and authority to his sister Ruth Nalmakarra (b.1954) and her family. What followed was a flowering of tradition, as Nalmakarra and her sisters used this broadened authority to instigate a cultural revival that united their community around these ancient designs.

The striking visual power of the Djirri-didi first came to widespread attention in the early 1990s, when Durrng began painting them on bark. His combination of strict geometries and flat-plane fields of colour was in marked contrast to the fluidity and fine cross-hatching for which much Arnhem Land art was admired. As Djon Mundine has noted, Durrng’s work was met with a mixed critical response, with many curators, collectors and critics claiming that his paintings looked “too modern.”[2] In some cases, the crispness and formal order of Durrng’s barks was mistaken as a calculated acquiescence to the aesthetic of late-modernist abstraction. In other instances, it was simply that his cool contemporaneity was out of step with an art market that festishised the primitive.

But Durrng’s primary concern was always tradition and continuity, as opposed to any aspirations towards modernism. Although ‘modern’ in appearance, his designs adhered strictly to those painted on the body during the Ngarra ceremony. Ostensibly a mortuary rite performed to remember the dead and to prepare their spirits for the afterlife, the Ngarra ceremony is also a celebration of regeneration and renewal that recalls the ancestral travels of the Dja’nkawu Sisters. According to legend, during creation time, the two sisters Dhalkuwrrngawy and Barradawy crossed the landscape giving birth to the first people of the Dhuwa moiety. The sisters created the Dhuwa’s clans, languages, names, ceremonies and customs. During the Ngarra ceremony, the Liyagauwumirr paint their bodies and ceremonial objects in the tri-colour of Miku (red), Watharr (white) and Buthjalak (yellow) in recollection of the Dja’nkawu Sisters’ travels. The participants hands are painted white to signify the Sisters’ landing on the mainland at Yalangbara (near Groote Eylandt), while other markings symbolise key moments on their journey, such as sites at Garriyak and Dhambala, where they created sacred waterholes by piercing the ground with their digging sticks.

Lena Walunydjunalil, Djirri-didi, ochre on canvas, 100 x 75 cm, 2006. Private Collection, Melbourne. Courtesy of Milingimbi Art Centre and Mossenson Galleries.

Chris Durkin recalls vividly the first time he met Mickey Durrng. Fresh from a tenure as a field-officer for Papunya Tula Artists, in 2005 Durkin was employed by the Milingimbi Council to re-establish an art centre on the island. As an artist at the end of his life, Durrng was desperate to continue recording his stories and designs. The artist approached the newly appointed arts coordinator saying, “I’m Mickey and I’m a famous artist. I’ve had exhibitions in Paris and London. You’ve got to give me materials to paint.”[3] Through the auspices of the new Milingimbi Art Centre, Durkin began providing the ailing artist with materials so that he could produce what would be his final body of work.

As Durrng’s health deteriorated, Durkin got to know the artist’s extended family. Durrng was one of the last senior men of the great Garrawurra family of ‘seven fathers’. Durrng’s grandfather sired seven sons, of whom Durrng’s father Nupurray Garrawurra was the youngest. An artist in his own right, Nupurray fathered around 10 children of his own, including the artists Margaret Rarru (b.1940), Lena Walunydjanalil (b.1944) and Helen Ganalmirrawuy (b.1955). After the death of his elder brother Madanggala Garrawurra, Nupurray also raised his brother’s children, which included Ruth Nalmakarra.

In the often-patriarchal systems of Indigenous law, Durrng’s decision to pass clan authority to his sister may seem like a drastic measure, indicative of the breakdown of family structures and the lack of male role-models. In reality, the reasons for Durrng’s actions are far more complex. Firstly, by chance, both Madanggala and Nupurray fathered more daughters than sons, meaning that Mickey’s generation was dominated by women. More importantly, however, the decision was based on a considered concern for the survival of these stories. Ruth Nalmakarra explains:

Elders have a responsibility to choose who should take over the leadership to carry on the stories. It happens this way because people are passing every day, every month, every year. In that case, before they pass, they have to call on those people that they can choose to keep the stories strong. They look to people with strong feelings and a strong voice. They appoint them to know and to carry on the story.[4]

The key responsibility for elders such as Durrng is to ensure they select the person best suited to keeping the stories strong. In the case of the Liyagauwumirr, it was not simply that there were no available men, but rather, that Durrng saw Nalmakarra as the best advocate for these stories. In his view, she was the strongest cultural person; more knowledgeable, committed and vocal than her surviving brothers. Moreover, it is important to note, that although these were traditionally ‘men’s’ stories, no cultural knowledge was lost in this transaction. Lindy Allen, Senior Curator of Northern Australian Indigenous Collections at Museum Victoria argues that often senior women’s knowledge of important ceremonial stories is underestimated: “They are not expected to speak about such things, but they often know them.”[5]

In October 2006, after a period of mourning for their brother, Nalmakarra and her sisters began to revive the clan designs that he had entrusted to them. Although many of the women were accomplished weavers, the gender restrictions on their clan designs meant that none had painted before. After tentative beginnings, soon a prolific outpouring of paintings began to emerge. Durkin recalls:

It was unforgettable! They left it for a while after Mickey’s death, but then all of a sudden all these paintings started coming in from everywhere. And they were not ordered or repetitive, but crazy, like they had been hanging out to paint them forever. There were so many amazing designs.[6]

Helen Ganalmirrawuy, Gapu Milminydjarrk ( Waterholes at Garriyak), ochre on bark, 2007, 113 x 63 cm (variable). Private collection Perth. Courtesy of Milingimbi Art Centre and Mossenson Galleries.

John von Sturmer has argued that in Yolngu art, “Every painting carries with it the claim or the assertion: ‘I am entitled to paint this.’”[7] In Durrng’s work, this manifest itself in his commanding understatement; as though his aesthetic restraint alluded to the power withheld from his representations. In the women’s paintings this sense of entitlement was revealed quite differently. Where these works lacked the crisp precision of Durrng’s paintings, they replaced it with a keen sense of excitement, spontaneity and formal inventiveness. Whilst this was undoubtedly due in some part to their lack of training, Durkin argues that it was also indicative of their excitement at their new authority. He notes, “While big law-men often paint in a strict controlled manner, these works are about playing with the designs, having great passion that reflects love, enjoyment and family. The women are embracing the opportunity to own it, to be proud of it.”[8]

This is best illustrated in a comparison between Durrng and his sisters’ depiction of one of the key Liyagauwumirr stories: the Gapu Milminydjarrk or Waterholes at Garriyak. In Durrng’s depiction of the story, the waterholes are always evenly sized and spaced, gaining their charge from the contrast of light and dark colours in a rigid geometric order. In approaching the same design, his sister Lena Walunydjanalil abandons this sense of order, irregularly arranging her waterholes so that they pulsate unevenly across the bark in a movement that comes more from her use of line than from tonal contrast. Margaret Rarru, on the other hand, utilises the irregular shape of the bark as a springboard for her designs, creating a tension between frame and content as her forms appear to push outwards against the border. In 2007, one of Rarru’s works was awarded the bark painting prize at the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. Helen Ganalmirrawuy maintains some of Durrng’s geometric order, but has developed a much busier and complex decorative schema that relies heavily on white outlines – a technique rarely seen in her brother’s work. In fact, of the sisters, it is Nalmakarra whose work remains the strictest adherent to tradition. Nalmakarra’s paintings maintain a stately restraint, and in some instances, such as her use of cross-hatching, appear to hark back to even older aesthetic modes. Durkin speculates that this strict adherence is a result of both Nalmakarra’s respect for her brother’s legacy, but also the intense sense of responsibility that she feels for these designs. According to Durkin, “She knows she must be beyond indictment.”[9]

In the variations of the Liyagauwumirr women, we see a cultural and epistemic moment when shifts in family structure result in the rapid influx of new approaches to a traditionally restricted and highly formalised mode of art production. Howard Morphy has noted, that although Indigenous geometric designs appear stable over time, in reality they are “the springboard for creativity and diversity … responsive to the subtleties of aesthetic practice and the parameters of possible variation.”[10] For the non-Indigenous art historian – necessarily ignorant of the restricted ‘inside’ meanings of the Djirri-didi – this presents a singular moment for aesthetic engagement when judgements can be made upon precisely those elements with remain constant and those which are open to experimentation and change. In doing so, it suggests alternative critical methodologies which are responsive to both cultural continuity and aesthetic innovation. Put simply, as Nalmakarra clarifies, “There are different ways of painting and different patterns, but they mean the same thing. We know the stories, so we know which ones to choose.”[11]

If this broadening of cultural authority has created a unique moment for non-Indigenous engagement with Liyagauwumirr design, under Nalmakarra’s stewardship it has also been an important moment for engagement within the community at Milingimbi. With Durrng’s authority, Nalmakarra and her sisters have made their clan designs available to a wide range of Liyagauwumirr artists, including a younger generation of artists such as Susan Yirrawuy (b.1974), Jocelyn Gumirrmirr (b.1974), Angelica Bulurruwuy (b.1986) and Durrng’s son Robert Djawdjawku (b.1971). Not only has this kept the designs strong within the Liyagauwumirr, but it has provided an important economic and cultural outlet at Milingimbi. The biggest problem facing the community at Milingimbi, according to Durkin, is “a lack of meaningful engagement with the Balanda (non-Indigenous) world.”[12] Whilst young people at Milingimbi have strong traditional culture, they struggle to find value for this knowledge in the wider world. Durkin continues, “The only way this can be reconciled is by employing people in culturally relevant ways, such as at the art centre and school.” And this is precisely what Nalmakarra hopes to achieve through painting the Djirri-didi:

We want the children to learn that it is important for their culture, it is important for their art to be alive. That is why we have the art centre: to keep the paintings that the old people passed onto us, to keep them alive so we can pass them on to the next generation.


[1] Mickey Durrng, quoted in Brenda Westley and Steve Westley, ‘Mickey Durrng: Artist of East Arnhem Land’, Aboriginal Art Online, [http://www.aboriginalartonline.com/resources/articles2.php]

[2] Djon Mundine, The Native Born: Objects and Representations from Ramingining, Arnhem Land, exhib. cat., Museum of Contemporary Arts, Sydney, 1996, p105.

[3] Chris Durkin, phone interview 12 June 2009.

[4] Ruth Nalmakarra, phone interview 29 May 2009.

[5] Lindy Allen, interview, Melbourne Museum, Carlton, Victoria, 11 June 2009.

[6] Chris Durkin, phone interview 12 June 2009.

[7] John von Sturmer, ‘A Limping World: Works in the Arnott’s Collection – Some Conceptual Underpinnings’, They Are Meditating: Barks from the MCA’s Arnott’s Collection, exhib. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2008, p.50.

[8] Chris Durkin, phone interview 12 June 2009.

[9] Chris Durkin, phone interview 12 June 2009.

[10] Howard Morphy, Becoming Art: Exploring Cross-Cultural Categories, University of NSW Press, Sydney 2008, p77.

[11] Ruth Nalmakarra, phone interview 29 May 2009.

[12] Chris Durkin, phone interview 12 June 2009.

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Review: Emerging Elders at the National Gallery of Australia

Below is the extended version of a review that first appeared in Art Guide Australia, January/February 2010

As the Indigenous art movement has developed in Australia, it has continually been refreshed, renewed and reinvigorated by the appearance of new, elderly artists. Whilst this has been something of a unique feature to Indigenous art, it follows a certain internal logic. It is these older artists who remain closest to the pre-colonial cultural traditions which make Indigenous art unique, and, as Indigenous culture places a premium on seniority, it is these ‘elder’ artists with the greatest cache of cultural knowledge to draw upon. The Indigenous art market, in particular, has helped reify the notion of ‘elder’, making it a common refrain of commercial gallery sales pitches, in which each and every geriatric Aboriginal artist is carefully positioned as a profound repository of arcane spiritual and cultural knowledge.

Unfortunately, this simple reification of age does not accurately reflect traditional Indigenous power systems, which are based on far more complicated stratifications of ceremonial knowledge, clan affiliations, gender, custodial rights and responsibilities. The reduction of cultural seniority to the egalitarian category of ‘elder’ fails to recognise the personalities and backgrounds of individual artists. Just because an artist is elderly, it does not necessarily follow that they are an Elder in a ceremonial, custodial or leadership capacity.

This may seem like a pedantic point – particularly in relation to an exhibition as gloriously celebratory as Emerging Elders (National Gallery of Australia, 3 October 2009 – 14 June 2010). And yet, it points towards a profound disjunction between traditional Indigenous cultural and aesthetic values, and the art market. On the one hand, the market supposes to hail the continuation of culture – celebrating Indigenous art for its ‘stories’ and cultural knowledge. On the other hand, it is often not the most culturally important works or artists who are most popular in the marketplace. In some instances, senior artists work is considered too ethnographic or rigidly traditional for a market which prefers bold, individual expressionism. In other cases, the more culturally knowledgable artists work across too many styles or stories – something which gives them great kudos amongst their peers, but is less attractive to a marketplace that favours easily identifiable ‘trademark’ designs.

These are questions that overshadow the reception of Indigenous art. They are questions in dire need of address if non-Indigenous Australians are to begin to have any meaningful engagement with Indigenous art. They are not insurmountable questions, but ones which require a patient, careful and considered cross-cultural dialogue on aesthetics and value.

Despite being evoked in the exhibition’s title, however, these urgent questions are not answered in Emerging Elders. First and foremost, Emerging Elders is a celebration of contemporary masterworks from the National Gallery of Australia’s collection. Like the Gallery’s 2007 Triennial of Indigenous Art, it lavishly showcases the institution’s ongoing commitment to collecting and exhibiting the finest examples of contemporary Indigenous art. Indeed, many of the nation’s leading artists are represented with major works. Gulumbu Yunupingu’s shimmering bark paintings of Garak, The Universe make a majestic centrepiece to the exhibition. And yet, their presence inevitably causes one to question the category of ‘emerging’. Gulumbu is a former winner of the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, her designs adorn the ceiling of the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris and in 2006 she was awarded the Deadly Award for Visual Arts. By every possible standard, Gulumbu is an established and major figure in Australian art. The same could be said of many of the artists in Emerging Elders – such as Ningura Napurrula, Shorty Jangala Robertson or Dorothy Napangardi – who have all had long and distinguished careers. Others seem to have emerged to the very point of over-exposure, such as the prolific Bentinck Island Elder Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, who has been a ubiquitous presence in recent Indigenous art exhibitions.

But perhaps more confusing, is the inclusion of artists whose position as ‘elders’ seems less assured. Anmatyerre painter Billy Benn Perrurle is represented with a monumental depiction of his homelands Artetyerre, whose glissandos of overlapping brushwork brilliantly reveal his development from a painter of small, delicate landscapes into a rugged, De Kooning like expressionist. In another room, a large canvas by Tiwi artist Timothy Cook shows the artist finding a new maturity – balancing his typically idiosyncratic sense of form with the addition of fine over-dotting. The work retains the raffish charm of Cook’s early paintings, but tempers it with a sense of cosmological delicacy. And yet, whilst both works are indisputable highlights of the exhibition, as outsider artists, neither Cook nor Benn properly fit the mould of ‘elder’ in the sense of cultural knowledge, leadership or responsibility. Both artists belong to communities from which there are both older and more culturally senior artists. One surmises, they have been included for their artistic rather than cultural pre-eminence. In this sense, they seem to fit neither categories of ‘emerging’ nor ‘elder.’

It is the artists who fit most comfortably into both categories whose voices speak most commandingly in Emerging Elders. Born in 1928, Harry Tjutjuna of Ernabella is represented with a spectacular depiction of the Wangka (Spiderman) Tjukurpa. Glowing in an incandescent haze of orange, red, yellow and black, it is like a grand, pop-art rendering of an ancient Dream. It speaks with a bold visual inventiveness that asserts its presence and the authority of knowledge it contains.

Other works speak just as authoritatively, but in a hushed voice, whose gentle overtones whisper of a different time and place. Kimberley elder Alan Griffiths painting of dancers engaged in the Mindarr and Waringarr ceremonies bristles with the action of a giant carnival while locking into an ancient schemata that fills it with a still, silent nostalgia for past times. Elizabeth ‘Queenie’ Giblet’s Pa’anmu (Headbands) for Laura Festival (above) evokes a faded memory of ancient ceremonial markings through her understated and elegant use of grey, black and white. These works conjure the air of a passing epoch – a time when the ceremony ground would fall silent in anticipation of the Elders’ command. And yet, they also show the continuing power of this voice in contemporary art. They show how the Elders’ voice can continually emerge, to be reshaped into dynamic and relevant contemporary statements. It is these works with the power to once again strike us silent with awe.

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