moder­nity

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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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