A dream of a stu­dio

The Jir­rawun art com­pany has been re­born, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - Ni­co­las Roth­well

MORE dream than build­ing, its white out­line gleams against the stunted boabs, the far ranges and the hazy, smoke- stained sky. A mad fan­tasy from the last reel of some out­back Fitz­car­raldo , a dec­la­ra­tion of cul­tural au­ton­omy in steel and glass, a white cube of Gija modernism: the new stu­dio of Jir­rawun artists in north Kim­ber­ley is each of th­ese things, but above all else it is a tem­ple, ris­ing amid the salt- flats and the scrub.

‘‘ Here I am,’’ it says. ‘‘ Leave your pre­con­cep­tions be­hind. For­get ev­ery­thing you knew. This is the way for­ward for Abo­rig­i­nal art.’’

No site could be bet­ter cho­sen for drama, and for con­cen­trated mean­ing. It is the end of the road: Wyn­d­ham, the hottest port town in Aus­tralia, the place where seven great rivers meet, where the tallest moun­tains of the far north clus­ter round and rise to the Bas­tion, high above the still, steamy wa­ters of the Cam­bridge Gulf. Here, in de­fi­ance of ev­ery con­ven­tion and as­sump­tion in the in­dige­nous cul­ture game, a new or­der is be­ing born. The most suc­cess­ful Abo­rig­i­nal art cor­po­ra­tion is rein­vent­ing it­self.

The story be­hind it is well known. In the mid1990s, at a gallery open­ing in Flin­ders Lane, Melbourne’s con­tem­po­rary art sven­gali Tony Oliver en­coun­tered Fred­die Timms, a Gija painter from the dis­tant East Kim­ber­ley. Timms felt he and his fel­low artists were be­ing ripped off. He in­vited his new friend to join the re­mote com­mu­nity at Croc­o­dile Hole and set up a paint­ing ven­ture there.

Up went Oliver, eyes wide: he found jew­els of art and cul­ture, and a land­scape of gorges, pink cliffs and so­cial col­lapse. ‘‘ The hor­ror, the hor­ror,’’ mut­tered Oliver to him­self, drunk with ex­cite­ment, as he danced his way into the dark, se­duc­tive depths of the Gija world.

From this un­likely mar­riage a new tra­di­tion was born. Oliver, strongly in­flu­enced by his days with Andy Warhol and Philip Gus­ton, had clear ideas about the tasks and scope of fron­tier art: its nec­es­sary strength of spirit and its need for style and el­e­gance.

He found old Gija men and women wait­ing for him with pat­terns in their minds.

He bonded closely with one of them, Paddy Bedford, and turned him into the most ad­mired and most ea­gerly col­lected of to­day’s in­dige­nous artists. Bedford’s ret­ro­spec­tive this year at Syd­ney’s Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art capped that tra­jec­tory and dis­played the Jir­rawun look in de­ci­sive man­ner: a great cap­i­tal city gallery came alive with the Kim­ber­ley’s reds and blacks and plung­ing, abyssal can­vas voids.

In its first phase, Jir­rawun notched up a num­ber of star­tling achieve­ments: it es­tab­lished a set of new art stars, in­clud­ing Bedford, the con­cep­tu­al­ist Rusty Peters and the self­drama­tis­ing ‘‘ ac­tion painter’’ Peggy Pa­trick.

It made its artists rich; it gave them tax ac­coun­tants and the best med­i­cal spe­cial­ists; and it staged a se­ries of un­com­pro­mis­ing shows, bring­ing be­fore the eyes of south­ern au­di­ences the East Kim­ber­ley’s mas­sacre past as well as the ghetto vi­o­lence that pre­vails in its bleaker com­mu­ni­ties to­day.

All this Jir­rawun did with­out tak­ing a cent of pub­lic money. And then: noth­ing. The com­pany went un­der­ground, or so it seemed. There were deaths. Jir­rawun’s guide and in­struc­tor, the de­light­ful Turkey Creek artist Hec­tor Jan­dany, passed away; Bedford’s health de­clined; a mood of burnout be­came pal­pa­ble.

‘‘ Jir­rawun had been un­der the pump for 10 years,’’ re­flects Oliver. ‘‘ Dead­lines and projects all the time. We haven’t done much for the past few months, and that’s been de­lib­er­ate. We just wanted to have a breath­ing space, a space to look out and see our­selves and where we’ve been.’’

Oliver and sev­eral of the Jir­rawun in­ner cir­cle re­treated from their base at Ku­nunurra to a meat­works cot­tage near re­mote Wyn­d­ham. Sev­eral of the artists went on their own trou­bled jour­neys; some even painted whole shows for ri­val art com­pa­nies. Be­neath the sur­face, though, re­gen­er­a­tion was un­der way. The se­nior fig­ures in the Jir­rawun group wanted to en­trench their revo­lu­tion. They felt their new art tra­di­tion should have its own cen­tre: their power should be based in coun­try.

Oliver, mean­while, was dream­ing his grand dreams, and yearn­ing, like a Mis­sis­sippi river­boat gam­bler, to stake ev­ery­thing on an­other throw of the dice. He had al­ways longed to build a stu­dio for Jir­rawun, a place where artists could live and paint on their own terms.

The com­pany’s in­de­pen­dent board and the se­nior painters backed a star­tling scheme: Melbourne ar­chi­tect Jose Alfano, an old friend of Jir­rawun, was en­listed to con­ceive a build­ing that would match the Ngar­rang­garni, the Gija Dream­ing sto­ries.

What Alfano de­signed, af­ter long con­sul­ta­tions, was a cave of white­ness and sim­plic­ity; its con­struc­tion cost less than $ 500,000.

It has only been stand­ing for a few weeks and al­ready it has its Gija story: it is the cav­ern where the cheeky Nowan, the bat hero of the main Gija comedic cy­cle, eludes his pur­suers as they chase him down with spears and fire.

A dance per­for­mance drama­tis­ing the Nowan story and the his­tory of Jir­rawun is be­ing read­ied by the artists and will be pre­miered at a for­mal cer­e­mony when the ex­tended stu­dio com­plex is com­pleted next year.

‘‘ The past 12 months,’’ says Oliver, ‘‘ have been about the re­align­ment of Jir­rawun. It was ei­ther go­ing to be static and fad­ing, or . . . re­born. The women artists have come to the fore now: they are tak­ing the project and the fu­ture on.’’ The old ladies of the com­pany, Goody Bar­ret and Phyl­lis Thomas, have been work­ing in the stu­dio even as it awaits its fi­nal fit- out. Their new­est paint­ings hang in splen­dour on the white walls and rhyme with the view of the dis­tant peaks.

But this is a time of sad­ness as much as a time of be­gin­nings. Bedford, frail, wheel­chair- bound, yet clear and com­posed, was driven up to Wyn­d­ham to see the stu­dio for the first time the other day; he sat with Oliver and they looked out at their shared cre­ation and the land­scape through the plate- glass win­dows. Oliver wrote a brief note about that en­counter and what passed be­tween them in those mo­ments with­out words.

‘‘ The beau­ti­ful eyes sunken back now into his frag­ile old age and his del­i­cate smile made my heart break, be­cause I knew then that he was say­ing good­bye and that in the fu­ture we could only meet in dreams. But then again, as he has taught me, we have al­ways met in dreams.’’

As Oliver feared, a few days af­ter that con­ver­sa­tion Bedford passed away, and with him went much of the me­mory and tra­di­tion of the old, fast- van­ish­ing Gija world.

Deaths, and end­ings, bring forth new re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. In the first ses­sions in the new stu­dio, the leader of Jir­rawun’s sec­ond gen­er­a­tion, Ram­mey Ram­sey, has be­gun to take on Bedford’s man­tle. There is a sub­lime ap­pro­pri­ate­ness to this de­vel­op­ment. Ram­sey was brought up by Bedford and is his son in tra­di­tional Gija ge­neal­ogy.

He is also the sleeper among the Jir­rawun artists. There have been few solo shows of his work, which has moved in strik­ing di­rec­tions in re­cent years. Ram­sey at first ap­peared to be a Gija tra­di­tion­al­ist, paint­ing in the man­ner of the old Bow River sta­tion boss Timmy Timms, who first framed the idea of an in­de­pen­dent, art- based econ­omy on the East Kim­ber­ley’s Abo­rig­i­nal lands. Ram­sey’s early paint­ings were black and ox- blood grids of min­i­mal­ism. Then, in con­cert with Oliver, he em­barked on a se­ries of haunt­ing pink- toned works, painted with long brushes while he stood, bent over large can­vases spread out on the stu­dio floor. Those pieces, wildly pop­u­lar with Melbourne con­nois­seurs, have an odd air of Rothko about them. They look like vi­sions of some evanes­cent al­tar, or per­cep­tual field dis­ap­pear­ing into a void: they are in fact schematic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of wa­ter­holes.

Ram­sey re­sumed this trend two months ago. He fal­tered: it was hard for him with­out Bedford paint­ing be­side him in the stu­dio. He went back to his old style; then he shifted to­wards a hy­brid, fus­ing his two tech­niques. It was a new path and he was on his own.

Jir­rawun is also fol­low­ing a new road. Oliver, on the verge of men­tal col­lapse af­ter a decade of Kim­ber­ley sad­ness, is soon to be mar­ried to a Viet­namese wo­man and will step back some­what from the day- to- day run­ning of the com­pany.

Hands- on con­trol passes to his lieu­tenant, Ken Wat­son, a for­mer star cu­ra­tor of in­dige­nous work at the Art Gallery of NSW, and to new man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Stephanie Stonier, who crafted the land­mark in­dige­nous agree­ment at the nearby Ar­gyle di­a­mond mine.

The Wyn­d­ham stu­dio has be­come the fo­cus of Jir­rawun now. Paint­ings will be made there and dis­played for the in­ner group of private col­lec­tors who wish to buy di­rect.

Few Jir­rawun- sourced ex­hi­bi­tions will be held in south­ern gal­leries.

‘‘ The idea,’’ says Oliver, ‘‘ was not just to have some­thing beau­ti­ful and wor­thy of the artists, and of in­ter­na­tional stu­dio stan­dard, but also to place the bulk of our econ­omy in coun­try, so we no longer have to give com­mis­sions to gal­leries. Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple will run their own space up here and deal­ers in the south won’t have con­trol of the prod­uct. To be truth­ful, if we’re go­ing to sac­ri­fice work for gal­leries, we think it’s bet­ter to do that in Europe and Asia, where we’re build­ing an in­ter­na­tional mar­ket.’’

At a meet­ing of the artists in Wyn­d­ham last month, a num­ber of key de­ci­sions were taken. Jir­rawun, for all its suc­cess, has been plagued, like other lead­ing Abo­rig­i­nal art com­pa­nies, by the scourge of car­pet- bag­ging: some of its best- known painters have been tempted into do­ing hur­ried, low- grade work for other out­lets.

Now ex­clu­siv­ity agree­ments bind the artists to Jir­rawun and each Jir­rawun artist will re­ceive a $ 500 weekly re­tainer. Fred­die Timms signed the first such con­tract, to last five years ( he asked for 10). ‘‘ We’ll be go­ing ahead,’’ says Timms. ‘‘ With this stu­dio, it’s a good place to work.’’

The plans have a wider reach. Artists’ liv­ing quar­ters and a pub­lic ex­hi­bi­tion gallery are to be built close by. Younger Gija artists, tied by fam­ily con­nec­tions to the Jir­rawun painters, will work there; col­lab­o­ra­tors and guest artists, both Abo­rig­i­nal and not, Aus­tralian and in­ter­na­tional, will visit for work­shops and res­i­den­cies.

Of all this, the stu­dio is the sym­bol. Its ap­pear­ance chang­ing with each shift of the light, it stands just as Alfano and his Gija clients planned. ‘‘ Ev­ery time I go there,’’ Alfano muses, ‘‘ I find some­thing slightly dif­fer­ent: I’m not into static things.’’

Inside the build­ing, cloaked with a tight skin of plas­tic com­pos­ite, a cool, wel­com­ing do­main stretches away: air con­di­tion­ers can­cel the Kim­ber­ley heat; white walls and con­crete floor slabs mimic an in­ner Melbourne gallery’s calm, neu­tral ex­panse.

In the main space, be­yond the en­trance hall with its gleam­ing es­presso ma­chine, hang the new­est works from the Jir­rawun stable. To one side is a Fred­die Timms dip­tych, its arcs and curves beat­ing out the Kim­ber­ley rhythm of range and river chan­nel. Op­po­site are the ac­tion can­vases of Peggy Pa­trick, hand- prints and paintswirls like some hec­tic pop ver­sion of cave art by early man.

And on the far walls, fram­ing the glass door­way, are two works by Phyl­lis Thomas: grey on black, all scar- lines and washes of blood. Ev­ery­thing leads the eye out to the land­scape and to the van­ish­ing- point: the ram­parts of the far- off range. Coun­try — and the Ngar­rang­garni — is what lies be­hind, and un­der­pins, this cre­ation. An art palace. A me­mory tem­ple. A folie de grandeur as well?

In the eyes of Oliver and his crew of painters, it would have been mad­ness not to dream their dream and make it real.

‘‘ It had to be here,’’ says Oliver. ‘‘ It would be a folly if it wasn’t here: that would have meant we were just an­other brief ca­su­alty of north­ern life. We’re all proud it’s here, and Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple now have the finest piece of ar­chi­tec­ture in the re­gion, a build­ing that com­ple­ments their art and shows who they are. It is ac­com­plished. The first part of what we set out to do is done.’’

Dark­ness falls. The light fades. The cliffs gleam pink and grey — Jir­rawun’s colours — through the pic­ture win­dow as night ap­proaches and the shel­ter­ing earth turns.

Pic­ture: Peter Eve

Dec­la­ra­tion of cul­tural au­ton­omy: The Jir­rawun arts cen­tre in north Kim­ber­ley

Haunt­ing: Ram­mey Ram­sey’s War­la­woon County

In­de­pen­dence: Ma­jor by Fred­die Timms

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