Sung Into Be­ing – Jeremy Ec­cles

Art Almanac - - CONTENTS -

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.

Master­works in­deed.

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

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