Sung Into Being – Jeremy Eccles
You won’t actually hear any singing at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) when visiting this exhibition of Aboriginal ‘Masterworks from the Janet Holmes à Court Collection’. But of course, much singing almost certainly went into the artworks’ production, as evidenced by the title of the Diana James book about Desert art ‘Painting the Song’ (2009). And in the case of the great Kimberley artist Rover Thomas (c.1926-98), his switch from stockman to artist occurred after he had ‘dreamt’ the songs and dances that became the Goorirr Goorirr ceremony, kick-starting the East Kimberley school of painting and taking him to the Venice Biennale in 1990.
And Thomas is the big name in this exhibition, even though he contributes only eight of more than 100 works on display. For the Perth-based Holmes à Court’s were close to the major early source of his art – the dealer Mary Macha. She had been a field officer for Aboriginal Arts & Crafts Ltd in The Kimberley and had spotted some dance boards made for the Goorirr Goorirr ceremony in the township of Turkey Creek. They’d been painted on old bits of board that were lying around. When the Gija people had finished dancing with them, they sold the set to Macha as long as she promised to supply new boards. And when Thomas saw that there was money to be made from painting, he set out to establish the unique East Kimberley style – areas of Country given earthy colours by local ochres, surrounded by white dots to delineate significant geographical, story or massacre sites. Soon Macha was supplying canvases instead of boards and finding a ready market for them in the mid-80s.
The majority of works in the show, however, come from Arnhem Land – specifically the Arts & Culture centre established on the central coast in Maningrida, a township that was intended to bring about the assimilation of local Aboriginal people, as Papunya had been in the desert. Fortunately, in both regions, the people rebelled – using art as a way of showing off the strength of their culture, and emphasising its difference to non-indigenous culture. In outstations like Gamerdi, just a few sheds beside the Arafura Swamp, artists lived on their lands and poured out a flow of significant bark paintings.
The names chosen for this show are England Bangala, Terry Ngamandarra, Jack Wunuwun (1930-91), John Bulunbulun (1946-2010), Jack Kala Kala (c.1925-87) and Les Midikuria, and the period 1985-1994 was both their peak and the time when QAG curator Diane Moon was working as art coordinator at Maningrida. As such Moon was involved in both encouraging these artworks into being and finding a home for them in private collections – or the National Gallery of Australia. One work she tried desperately to recover for this show from Canberra was the product of the unpredictability of those times. No telephones operated then, so news of ‘a Big one’ by Jack Wunuwun on the radio saw Moon heading out into a gathering storm to meet Wunuwun at a major river crossing. Heading up-river was a canoe paddled by Wunuwun, his two wives holding a massive, tarpaulin-wrapped bark over their heads. It overflowed her car’s tray, but they got back to the art centre just before the storm broke. Unwrapped, it was a magnificent rendition of Barnumbirr the Morning Star (1985) – so significant that families came into the art centre to admire and discuss it as long as it hung there.
Sadly, its condition today is too delicate to travel to Brisbane. But other versions of the Morning
Star story will certainly be there – for it is the ultimate anti-assimilation narrative. It seems the Aboriginal people are the children of the Morning Star, given the land, upon which they’ve been ‘cooked’ by the sun, while balanda/white people (and fish) were sent off ‘raw’ to live in the chilly sea. However, Wunuwun was prepared to admit that balanda seemed to be finding their way back to the land in Australia today!
While this level of graphic story-telling – involving malevolent Namorodo spirits, powerful Rainbow Serpents and even (in a Les Midikuria work) the trope of a youthful petrol sniffer mirrored by his skeleton, still clutching a can – predominates, the work of Ngamandarra, the only one of these great artists still alive, offers something out of the ordinary. His waterlilies, for instance, are reduced to a grid of repeating triangles.
Jeremy Eccles is a specialist arts writer who has been writing, broadcasting and film-making about Indigenous culture since 1985.
Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art 22 July to 22 October, 2017 Queensland
Jack Wunuwun, Murrungun/Djinang people Banumbirr Manikay, Morning Star Song Cycle, 1988 Janet Holmes à Court Collection Courtesy Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane