Here was a kind of answer, at least to the most obvious questions.
But for Emily Rohr, the gallerist who shaped and guided the careers of the Yulparija artists, the disappearance raised strong emotions, which remain with her to this day. Rohr had always grasped Spider’s special standing in the desert world and had known how precious her time with the old Bidyadanga men and women was. So she paid particular attention when Spider took her aside one afternoon and urged her to look after the last surviving artists with great care. It was their final conversation. The mere fact it took place was unusual, for Spider was widely regarded as deaf and dumb. In fact, he simply chose not to speak to most people: he preferred gesture and non-verbal modes of communicating. Rohr suspects, from what old people have confided to her, that his silence was connected to deep, cataclysmic desert dramas from the past, involving the ceremony cycle at which Spider was initiated, during the darkest hours of World War II. This willed restraint lent him an extraordinary presence, almost an aura. When Rohr first met him, in 2002, at the One-Mile camp in Broome, she felt at once he was both physically imposing and far beyond the physical domain.
‘‘ He was the boss in that world,’’ she remembers. ‘‘ That was clear, and he had a wild temper, but he was always dignified and honourable. There was strong humour in him, too. He had a sense of play about life, he knew the seriousness of life and that it had to be laughed at. Fierce and gentle. Proud and humble; a real conundrum. You couldn’t help but be happy around him. Always, though, you understood that he was totally of the bush, that he was an extension of that landscape, that the landscape was his heart and essence.’’ Under Rohr’s tutelage, Spider’s painting career, similar to that of the other Yulparija artists, took off. The leading members of the Bidyadanga school were keenly collected; they were prized not just for their vivid colour sense but for the fierce emotions collectors read in their work: work of exile, suffused with longing for their abandoned desert home. Spider, though, provided little information about the paintings he made, almost all of which concentrated on sand-dune country near the Canning Stock Route. It often seemed to Rohr that his art was about something else, and reflected his preoccupations and the way he thought. ‘‘ Spider existed very much on the plane of ideas and metaphysics,’’ she says. ‘‘ And that’s really what matters most for all the old desert people.
‘‘ The physical world is the least important world for them — this surface world of theirs, that’s so damaged, now, and decimated — and that may well be one reason their society can endure so much hardship. What’s central to them are the things you don’t see, that belong to the further, higher world, and those are the subjects of their paintings as well.
‘‘ Decisions about right and wrong relate to this other dimension they can all sense, where the dead are alive and ancestors are present.
‘‘ And that’s why dreams are so important for
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