IN RE­MEM­BRANCE PASS­ING OF TIMES

Death is call­ing the great painters of the desert art world. Where now for the move­ment they be­gan, asks Ni­co­las Roth­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

IN the early days of Jan­uary, deep in the Great Vic­to­ria Desert, artist and tra­di­tional healer Nyakul Daw­son, a man of the ut­most charm and self- pos­ses­sion, met his end, stranded while driv­ing to­wards Tjun­tjun­t­jara on the mar­gin of the Nullar­bor. His death in­au­gu­rated a year of dev­as­tat­ing losses in the in­dige­nous art do­main: losses that raise a dis­qui­et­ing ques­tion mark about the move­ment’s fu­ture, its evo­lu­tion and its place in the na­tional imag­i­na­tion.

Just two weeks later, at Balgo Hills on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert, the artist and healer Tjumpo Tjapanangka died, aged about 70.

‘‘ Enig­matic, in­ven­tive, fit and strong be­yond his years,’’ the art co- or­di­na­tor at Balgo who most loved and un­der­stood him, Erica Izett, called him in her speech at the funeral. ‘‘ He was such a fear­less true man, with Tjukur­rpa ( an­ces­tral re­li­gion) flow­ing through his veins, fill­ing his heart, his mind, his can­vas: he is one with it now.’’

Th­ese two se­nior men were cus­to­di­ans of coun­try, artis­tic and re­li­gious tra­di­tions for the far south and the far north, re­spec­tively, of the desert cul­tural bloc. In the weeks fol­low­ing their fu­ner­als, the Cen­tre, the heart of the desert so­cial land­scape and the core of its creative en­er­gies, would be dev­as­tated in its turn.

Early in March, the dis­tin­guished artist Frank Ward, a wry, sub­tle mem­ber of the Pa­punya Tula school, who loved to tell wild tales of his wan­der­ings across coun­try, and the trans­for­ma­tions of that coun­try in cre­ation times, died in a hospi­tal bed in Alice Springs. In May, at the Wa­narn old peo­ple’s home, a desert man of the high­est dis­tinc­tion, Jimmy Ward, passed on. A few days later, his brother, John Ward, who was both artist and cer­e­mo­nial rain- maker, died, as though swept away by grief at the loss he had just sus­tained.

John Ward’s funeral, held at the re­mote com­mu­nity of Kar­il­wara, was a som­bre af­fair, for with him, some­thing grand, stat­uesque and pro­found seemed to reach its term on earth.

Some Western­ers knew and ad­mired him, but his true dis­tinc­tion was in the in­dige­nous realm. Even in the an­ar­chic, spread- out so­ci­eties of the desert, he was uni­ver­sally seen as a man of power: he em­bod­ied the world of law.

It was John Ward who presided over the cre­ation of the art move­ment in the west­ern reaches of the Gib­son desert, 17 years ago, at Kar­il­wara, in the blaz­ing sum­mer heat; and all the fash­ion­able art cen­tres dot­ted through the Ngaany­at­jarra lands to­day — Warakurna, Black­stone, Kay­ili — are de­scen­dants of his vi­sion. So is the War­bur­ton Arts Project, which holds in trust the largest col­lec­tion of in­dige­nous art owned and cared for by Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple them­selves.

A few weeks af­ter Ward’s death, the most dis­tinc­tive Pin­tupi artist of the new gen­er­a­tion, Martin Tjampitjinpa, passed away at the clinic in Kin­tore, the es­tab­lished cap­i­tal of the desert paint­ing world: a brief ret­ro­spec­tive of his paint­ings will be held, by way of mourn­ing and com­mem­o­ra­tion, in Alice Springs next month. Though Tjampitjinpa was barely 40, his death was al­most the equiv­a­lent of the pass­ing of a se­nior man for, in the words of Paul Sweeney of Pa­punya Tula Artists, ‘‘ we ran out of old paint­ing men in Kin­tore years ago’’.

If you widen the hori­zon, the view stays much the same. In the East Kim­ber­ley, the most cel­e­brated of the Gija artists, Paddy Bedford, died on July 14; he was pre­ceded into the dark­ness by his dear friend Hec­tor Jan­dany, who helped set up the paint­ing move­ment at Turkey Creek. In the Cen­tral Kim­ber­ley, in Fitzroy Cross­ing, the scythe has just claimed one of the best- known Wal­ma­jarri artists of the north­ern desert school, Pi­jaju Peter Skip­per; other painters from Fitzroy’s Mangkaja art cen­tre who have died re­cently in­clude one of the high­est re­li­gious lead­ers of the Great Sandy Desert,

Char­lie Nun­jun, as well as the much- ad­mired Paji Hon­ey­child and Ngarta Jinny Bent.

In the Top End, too, funeral ac­tiv­ity has been al­most con­stant: se­nior men and women have been dy­ing ev­ery week. Of­ten, th­ese have been fig­ures of the great­est sig­nif­i­cance in the realm of rit­ual, who hold, through this promi­nence, a nat­u­ral place in in­dige­nous art- mak­ing. Mickey Gar­rawurra Dur­rng, one of the stars of the aus­terely classical Milingimbi paint­ing school, died a year ago, as did two of the most cel­e­brated artists ac­tive at Ramingin­ing, Tom Djum­bur­pur and Jimmy Wu­l­ulu. Only this month, on El­cho Is­land at the very tip of north­east Arn­hem Land, Ge­orge Li­wukang, a leader of the War­ramiri clan, a singer of dis­tinc­tion, a philoso­pher and a widely col­lected bark painter, was laid in his grave.

Most of th­ese men and women had reached the age of 70 or 80 years and had lived full lives in the con­text of the colo­nial fron­tier, ris­ing through their own cul­ture’s knowl­edge sys­tems even as they de­vel­oped strate­gies to pre­serve and trans­mit that knowl­edge to their peo­ple and, through the medium of art, be­yond. Each of them was a galaxy, a uni­verse.

‘‘ A re­mark­able world spews forth re­mark­able peo­ple; that is what we have lost,’’ wrote the an­thro­pol­o­gist John von Sturmer, in his brief re­sponse to the death of John Ward. ‘‘ To grasp such peo­ple you have to grasp their ori­en­ta­tion to things, their sure knowl­edge, their sto­icism, their sure- foot­ed­ness.’’

* * * THE sense of their ab­sence is dev­as­tat­ing for those who knew them: but most of th­ese dead were, even in life, pure shad­ows in the wider world of Aus­tralia.

By mark­ing co­in­ci­dence, this tide of mor­tal­ity swept through the re­mote cor­ners of the con­ti­nent as the in­dige­nous art bazaar was record­ing new tri­umphs. High- profile auc­tion sales and records, sell- out big city gallery shows, glossy books, the hec­tic dis­cov­ery of hot ‘‘ new’’ art cen­tres pour­ing out sup­plies of bright, dis­tinc­tive work.

The so­cial and ide­o­log­i­cal con­text has also been telling: in mid- year, the Se­nate in­quiry into car­pet­bag­ging and the fu­ture of the in­dige­nous art trade ap­peared, af­ter months of an­guished pleas from in­ter­est groups keen to ex­tend and profit from the ap­petite for Abo­rig­i­nal art. On the day the in­quiry’s re­port came out, the fed­eral Min­is­ter for Abo­rig­i­nal Af­fairs, Mal Brough, an­nounced the ‘‘ na­tional emer­gency’’ in­ter­ven­tion in the re­mote com­mu­ni­ties of the North­ern Ter­ri­tory, the heart­land of the in­dige­nous paint­ing move­ment. And in the week be­fore launch­ing the elec­tion cam­paign, Prime Min­is­ter John Howard placed the sym­bol pol­i­tics of Abo­rig­i­nal rec­on­cil­i­a­tion back on the agenda with his pledge to hold a con­sti­tu­tional ref­er­en­dum on recog­nis­ing the spe­cial place of in­dige­nous Aus­tralians.

The way th­ese two worlds look past each other com­pels a familiar re­frain. It is a di­vided coun­try: one realm is lost in grief and so­cial chaos, one swept up on a surge of prof­its and re­formist po­lit­i­cal zeal. But be­fore we get to the lack of shared vi­sion, there is the lack of vis­i­bil­ity: what other mod­ern art move­ment has lost so many of its great masters with­out the art­lov­ing pub­lic even know­ing of their deaths? And with the masters dy­ing, who comes now? Is there, de­spite all the fren­zied lob­by­ing for ex­tra funds for art cen­tres, any fu­ture for the art of the deserts and the north?

This dis­qui­et­ing ques­tion comes into sharper fo­cus when one con­sid­ers that the past year has merely marked a crescendo in the con­stant drum­beat of art fu­ner­als; and when one looks around and no­tices that al­most all the ‘‘ new’’ in­dige­nous art stars of the re­mote world are methuse­lahs: Mick Jawalji of the North Kim­ber­ley is 88, Sally Ga­bori on Morn­ing­ton Is­land 85, while both Jimmy Baker and Eileen Stevens at Nya­pari in the Pit­jan­t­jat­jara lands are about 90 years old.

There are strong ad­vo­cates of the idea that the art tra­di­tion is blos­som­ing still, that ap­pren­tice painters and carvers work­ing within tra­di­tional frame­works are com­ing through, and that the guild struc­ture of Abo­rig­i­nal so­ci­ety, with its pref­er­ence for the pass­ing on of knowl­edge and rights in de­signs down the gen­er­a­tions, ac­tu­ally favours such trans­mis­sion.

Art cen­tre co- or­di­na­tors, nat­u­rally keen to sight the new wave, point to the emer­gence of young tal­ents. And they are there: at Man­ingrida, for in­stance, Ire­nie Ngal­inba, and at Yir­rkala, Wanyubi Marika, both ex­plor­ing their in­di­vid­ual vari­a­tions on es­tab­lished styles and themes. At Fitzroy Cross­ing, the younger gen­er­a­tion is rep­re­sented by the cere­bral Mu­rungkurr Terry Murray, while in the Pin­tupi world of the West­ern Desert, artists such as Yukultji Na­pan­gati are the new stan­dard­bear­ers of tra­di­tions.

And the sheer spread of the idea of a dis­tinc­tive Abo­rig­i­nal sen­si­bil­ity has com­pen­sated, in the eyes of at least some en­thu­si­asts and cu­ra­tors, for the thin­ning of the es­tab­lished ranks in the re­mote world. One great theme in the past decade in the Aus­tralian art mar­ket has been the broad­en­ing of the look, the brand, the cat­e­gory of in­dige­nous art. If the in­spi­ra­tion lies in the land and past, the prac­tice is com­ing, in­creas­ingly, to rest with younger ur­ban artists, or with the con­scious renovators of re­mote tra­di­tions: de­scen­dants of tra­di­tional prac­ti­tion­ers, fig­ures such as Den­nis Nona from the Tor­res Strait and Daniel Wal­bidi at Bidyadanga.

The push to ex­alt th­ese new cur­rents is trans­par­ent: it lies be­hind such re­cent ex­trav­a­gan­zas as the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia’s tellingly ti­tled first in­dige­nous art tri­en­nial, Cul­ture War­riors. The ar­gu­ment be­hind the dis­play of old bush masters along­side con­tem­po­rary Abo­rig­i­nal artists is qui­etly ide­o­log­i­cal. It ad­vances the claim that the gift of sen­si­bil­ity passes through blood and de­scent as much as mi­lieu and lan­guage. It seeks, also, to over­throw the prej­u­dice of col­lec­tors in favour of the idea of in­dige­nous art as some­thing closely con­nected to the sa­cred, some­thing near to Aus­tralia’s hi­er­atic, puls­ing heart: let it be po­lit­i­cal and so­cial, and lim­i­nally trans­gres­sive as well!

Col­lec­tors, though, ob­sti­nately per­sist in feel­ing the lure of the pri­mal, and pay­ing for it: hence the need to dis­turb the nona­ge­nar­ian artists of the desert and ex­tract the last juices of their tra­di­tion while they still live.

A dark fear sub­tends this ap­petite. For ev­ery­one knows the old, the pure, the un­con­tam­i­nated in Abo­rig­i­nal art is rare, if not largely van­ished; and even the first paint­ing at Pa­punya was in truth work made for out­siders. One of the most strik­ing as­pects of the list of newly de­ceased desert and north­ern artists with which this ar­ti­cle be­gan is the shared na­ture of their early ex­pe­ri­ences. Most of them were brought up in the bush, un­aware of the ex­is­tence of main­stream Aus­tralia, and only came into con­tact with the wider world in their teenage years, af­ter their eye and spirit and be­lief­sys­tems had been formed and set.

Can their in­her­i­tors — even their own chil­dren and grand­chil­dren — in­herit their eyes, let alone their ways of be­ing in the world? Can the strug­gle of re­mote Abo­rig­i­nal so­ci­eties to adapt to moder­nity be waged in such a way that tra­di­tional pat­terns and words sur­vive? The day is fast ap­proach­ing when the last artist born in the bush and formed in the sole em­brace of Abo­rig­i­nal tra­di­tion will die. What re­mains then will be nos­tal­gia, and con­scious art.

Is nos­tal­gia enough to pre­serve and deepen a cul­tural re­nais­sance based on dif­fer­ence, and an out­side world’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion of that dif­fer­ence? This is the un­men­tioned anx­i­ety hang­ing, in th­ese days of fu­ner­als, over the vast com­mer­cial and in­sti­tu­tional en­ter­prise of Abo­rig­i­nal art.

Tra­di­tional healer: An un­ti­tled work by artist Nyakul Daw­son, who died this year on the Nullar­bor

Gija artist: Paddy Bedford’s Mid­dle Brand

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