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Ngarra (c.1920-2008)

The following is an extended version of a tribute that was first published in Art Monthly Australia, Issue 216, Summer 2008, pp.42-43

Ngarra_Brring.nga and Wanda

Ngarra, Brring.nga and Wanda, 2005
synthetic polymer paint on paper, 50 x 70 cm,

When European pastoralists swept through the Kimberley hinterland towards the end of the 19th Century, they employed the traditional colonial strategy of divide and conquer. Like the landscape they inhabited, the Indigenous occupants were subdivided into manageable groups. There were those who could be of use to the colonizers, who accepted the hegemony of the pastoral industry, obeyed its rules and learnt its ways. There were others, however, who resisted the occupation; who remained faithful to their traditional customs and lifestyle; refusing to be subsumed into station life. This latter group were given the derogatory title of myall; wild bushmen who lacked the sophistication of the ‘station blackfella’. For much of his life, Ngarra felt burdened by the label of being myall. It was only late in his life, when he began to internalize his significance as an artist, elder and cultural leader that he began to re-evaluate and reclaim the epithet. “Myall,’ he declared in 2005. ‘That’s why I’m in the lead with the biggest name all over the world. Station blackfella got no name: just rubbish riding tail.”

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Ngarra, Ngamangray, 2007
synthetic polymer paint on paper, 50 x 70 cm

In an art world in which the gloss of ‘superstars’ shines brightly, Ngarra’s words seem somewhat incongruous. In the last 14 years of his life, he had a distinguished career as an artist. He exhibited widely throughout Australia and overseas, his works were acquired by numerous public collections and he was a five-time finalist in the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. And yet, throughout his life, Ngarra remained something of an unheralded artistic figure, overshadowed by the success of many of his contemporaries. To his peers, however, he was a figure of singular importance, whose knowledge of culture, law and mythology were unparalleled in his generation.

Ngarra was born around 1920 in the bush near Glenroy Station in the central west Kimberely region. Orphaned as a young boy, he was put to work on the stock camps, mustering donkeys, mules and horses. After receiving a harsh beating from one of his relatives, Ngarra fled the station to find his maternal grandfathers Muelbyne and Larlgarlbyne. These old men, or mananambarra as they were referred, had not reconciled with the pastoral industry. Speaking Andinyin and Kitja, they lived traditionally in the mountain country, upholding their traditional customs, laws and ceremonies.

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Ngarra, Yal.yalji, 2005
synthetic polymer paint on paper, 50 x 70 cm

Muelbyne and Larlgarlbyne imparted to Ngarra their knowledge of bush survival and schooled him in the ancient philosophies, law and mythology of his people. This education sharply contrasted with Ngarra’s contemporaries, who were living on the stations and learning the skills of cattlemen. The teaching of the old men made Ngarra one of the most important ceremonial leaders of his generation. Until recently, when he declared himself ‘too old for the job’, Ngarra was the senior manambarra for ceremonies throughout a vast stretch of the Kimberley. Speaking on Ngarra’s importance, the late artist Timmy Timms declared “This Ngarrangarri standing up here, if him bin Catholic, then him Pope and everybody gotta bend at the knee.”

As a young man hoping to get married Ngarra chose to rejoin his station kinsfolk. Beginning what was to be a long and successful career as a cattleman, Ngarra’s bush skills made him a master stockman and drover. During the break from station life imposed by the wet season, Ngarra would walk the country with his fellow workers and lived a traditional nomadic life, attending to the ceremonies of life, death and the afterlife.

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Ngarra, Tcherramangki, 2007
synthetic polymer paint on paper, 50 x 70 cm

In 1994, Ngarra made a simple proposition to his old friend, anthropologist Kevin Shaw; “I want to become a big artist.”  Despite Shaw’s protestations that “I don’t know anything about art”, Ngarra was insistent, telling him “Well, you had better find out.” The pair embarked on a 1600 kilometre four-wheel drive journey to collect ochre from places that Ngarra had visited on foot and on horseback more than twenty years before. With Ngarra’s extensive bush knowledge they were able to collect over twenty separate colours. Later, Ngarra reflected with pride, “I had 23 Kimberley bush ochre colours. Most people only know five or ten bush ochre colours.” For his first works, Ngarra used this broad palette to decorate traditional wooden bowls known as kudi. These kudi were designed along two sets of principles: the first being decorated in the ‘old style’ taught to him by Muelbyne and Larlgarlbyne, and the other bearing innovative designs that revealed Ngarra’s earliest transformations of his knowledge of the Ngarrangkarni (Dreaming), country and mythology into visual imagery.

When age and illness made collecting and grinding ochres too difficult, Ngarra switched to acrylic paints, where he immediately shone as a master colourist. Ngarra colour-mixed his own paints to produce an endless and stunning array of colour combinations. His dedication and integrity to both his art and culture inspired his peers and Ngarra became a formative influence on several artists including Mick Jowalji and Jack Dale.

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Ngarra, Stars and Moon Phases, 2005
synthetic polymer paint on paper, 50 x 70 cm

A lifelong smoker, emphysema and the weariness of age gradually restricted Ngarra’s movement and forced him to retire from painting in 2002. A lifelong perfectionist, he felt frustrated at his physical inability to make his paintings “clean and lively.” However, it was not long before he returned to his art practice, but his fragile health dictated that he restrict himself to producing small, delicate works on paper. He made the medium his own, and this late revival represented a second flowering in his career as a painter. In the final four years of his life, Ngarra devoted most of his waking hours to his works on paper, producing his most sustained body of works.

Ngarra’s paintings transform elements of his traditional culture and life into compelling visual and political statements. To Ngarra, painting presented both a personal and political mission to record his “really bush contracts” in the face of corporate development and the disappearance of traditional culture. And yet, they are equally defined by their visual inventiveness, their humour and wit and their joyful sense of experimentation. Ngarra’s privileged cultural position meant that he felt free to innovate and adapt his imagery for visual or allegorical effect. When asked to describe the motivation behind one of his paintings, he disarmingly replied, “I’m just fucking about to see what the idea looked like.”

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Ngarra, Janderra, 2005
synthetic polymer paint on paper, 50 x 70 cm

Ngarra was a unique individual: an artist whose work spoke of ancient knowledge systems, whilst maintaining an entirely contemporary vision of artistic experimentation and innovation. As Shaw noted, he was “one of the few remaining people on earth who lived through the superimposition of pastoral capital over the hunter-gatherer way of life.” This very fact gives his work a historical and cultural significance that is yet to be fully appreciated. But one cannot overlook the singular artistic vision that is reflected in his works, which sparkle with the fire of artistic experimentation. On 1st November 2008, Ngarra died peacefully in his Derby home from complications secondary to pneumonia. He left the world with a body of works whose power may take several generations to truly comprehend.

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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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Josie Kunoth Petyarre: Sugarbags

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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Bob Gibson Tjungurrayi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Peter Newry: History Paintings

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

Peter Newry, Laargen, 2009

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

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

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

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Peter Newry, Ngirnginy, 2009

 

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

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

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

Peter Newry, Laargen, 2010

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

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Loongkoonan and Lucy Ward: Ngarranggarni Mananambarra

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

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

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

Loongkoonan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucy Ward, Wandjina, acrylic on canvas, 2006

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] The plural form of the singular Manambarra.

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

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

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Shane Pickett: Kaanarn

Kaanarn: ‘There is Truth in the Landscape’

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

Shane Pickett, Guardians of the Good Energy Spirit, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shane Pickett, Bunuroo Heat Wave, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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