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
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