A dream of a studio
The Jirrawun art company has been reborn, writes
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.
Declaration of cultural autonomy: The Jirrawun arts centre in north Kimberley
Haunting: Rammey Ramsey’s Warlawoon County
Independence: Major by Freddie Timms