Tag Archives: Australia

Nicholas Chevalier: Buffalo Range from the West [1862]

The following catalogue entry was first published in Christopher Menz (ed.), Visions Past and Present: Celebrating 40 Years, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, 2012, pp.42-43

Nicholas Chevalier: Buffalo Range from the West 1862, oil on milled board, The University of Melbourne Art Collection, Gift of Dr Samuel Arthur Ewing 1938.

It is easy to pinpoint the location of the scene depicted in Nicholas Chevalier’s Buffalo Range from the West [1862]. It is a vista near the town of Nug Nug, approximately 250 kilometres north-east of Melbourne. Nestled between the Buffalo River and the sloping range, it is a beautiful spot, and one can easily imagine the scene, on a still, quiet morning, as the sun slowly rises behind the peaks, bathing the horizon in a luminous haze. It is somewhat harder to ascertain when the artist might have visited Nug Nug in order to experience such an impressive view.

Nicholas Chevalier arrived in Australia in 1854, after studying painting in Lausanne, Munich, London and Rome. In Melbourne, he fell quickly into the company of artists such as Eugene von Guérard, Edward LaTrobe Bateman and S.T. Gill. Alongside von Guérard, Chevalier joined the 1858 expedition to the Dandenong Ranges and Baw Baw Plateau led by Alfred Howitt. Despite the artists’ enthusiasm to find picturesque views, the expedition was delayed when the pair arrived in fashionable, but inappropriate footwear for such a rugged journey. By the 1860s, however, Chevalier was a more seasoned traveller, joining Georg von Neumayer on two explorations in Western Victoria. Unfortunately, neither Howitt nor von Neumayer’s expeditions went anywhere near the Buffalo Ranges, so the source of Chevalier’s inspiration remains unclear. It is even possible that it came from a sketch by another artist, such as von Guérard.

But perhaps this is to miss the point of Chevalier’s Buffalo Ranges from the West.  Amongst critics then as now, Chevalier’s work has tended suffer in comparison to von Guérard’s, being seen as decorative, and lacking in visual tension. But Chevalier’s intentions are markedly different to those of his close companion. Von Guérard sought to capture the picturesque whole of the landscape by close attention to its minute details. In contrast, Chevalier’s paintings are not interested in either natural detail or the picturesque. In Buffalo Ranges the view is deliberately distorted; the vista is greatly foreshortened and is coupled with the delicate play of dawn light in order to present a much more imposing than accurate visage. In 1821, William Hazlitt described the picturesque as a yearning for “ideal deformity, not ideal beauty.” In Buffalo Ranges from the West, Chevalier is not trying to present something particular, but something universally beautiful. Rather than looking for tension or naturalism, we should just enjoy the warm, reflected glow of Chevalier’s vision, and allow it to transport us, not to Nug Nug, but to the arcadia of the cosmopolitan artist’s imagination.   

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William Strutt: Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia, 1852 [1887]

The following catalogue entry was originally published in Christopher Menz (ed.), Visions Past and Present: Celebrating 40 Years, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, 2012, pp.38-39

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William Strutt, Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia 1852 1887, oil on canvas, The University of Melbourne Art Collection, Gift of the Sir Russell and Mab Grimwade ‘Miegunyah’ Bequest, 1973

After an arduous flight from London, the ailing Sir Russell Grimwade was carried off the plane at Melbourne airport. Despite his deteriorating health, he had undertaken the voyage in order to acquire William Strutt’s Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia 1852 [1887]. A systematic and discerning collector of Australiana, the painting would be the jewel in his collection. Within three months, Grimwade had died, making it the definitive culmination of his collecting passions.

Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887, Bushrangers was based upon accounts of a brazen robbery that occurred near St. Kilda Road in Elwood while Strutt was resident in Victoria. The story had been thoroughly covered in the press, stoked with sensationalist vigour by the Argus. Three decades later, when Strutt came to immortalise the scene, the exploits of the Kelly gang lent it a contemporary currency. At the First Colonial Convention in London in 1887, questions of colonial law and order predominated, and Strutt’s painting spoke directly to the Imperial neuroses that young colonies were being torn between bourgeois respectability and the lure of vice. In Strutt’s tableau, the stricken female figure – an easy stand-in for Queen Victoria – seeks comfort in the arms of her ineffectual consort, while remaining at the tantalising mercy of a handsome rogue. As the rule of God and law are strewn aside, the moral of the story is simple: vigilance was necessary to keep the young colonies on the righteous path.

At the time that Grimwade acquired Strutt’s painting, the figure of the bushranger was making a final, heroic resurgence in the Australian national narrative, via the paintings of Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker. As Grimwade’s final great acquisition, Strutt’s Bushrangers could not have been further from the radical nationalist ideal of swagmen, larrikins and bushrangers that these artist’s embodied. His was a genteel brand of nationalism that celebrated the pioneering efforts of explorers, pastoralists and industrialists, men like his father Frederick Sheppard Grimwade. These were the kind of men pictured on the right of Strutt’s composition, and as sexy as the vagabond figure of the bushranger might be, it was on this side that Sir Russell Grimwade saw himself, and the tide of Australian history.

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Mina Mina Jukurrpa: Kelly Napanangka Michaels & Alma Nangala Robertson

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

Alma Nangala Robertson, Mina Mina Jukurrpa 2010

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

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

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

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

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

Alma Nangala Robertson, Mina Mina Jukurrpa 2010

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

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

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


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

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Bob Gibson Tjungurrayi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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