The Noongar ascendancy
An overlooked art style is on the rise, and not a dot painting in sight, writes Victoria Laurie
AKANGAROO skin cape was draped over the shoulders of Ken Wyatt when, as the first indigenous Australian elected to the House of Representatives, he gave his maiden speech last year. It was a rare public symbol of Noongar culture: Wyatt was born and raised in southwest Western Australia, in traditional country that straddles five sub-groups of the Noongar people.
At about 27,000, the Noongar are among the most numerous indigenous people in Australia, and in 2006 they won one of the nation’s biggest land claims covering the southwest corner of the state (claims to some parts were later overturned on appeal).
‘‘ I learned some Noongar language growing up, but not enough,’’ says Wyatt, a former education bureaucrat who supports efforts to teach it in WA schools, ‘‘ because with it comes a growth of understanding of the cultural context in which it’s used’’.
Wyatt senses a growing interest in all things Noongar, from Noongar radio to the many welcome to country ceremonies conducted by elders. In 2006 Noongar culture was featured in the Perth International Arts Festival when director Lindy Hume commissioned an 8m-wide canvas, Ngallak Koort Boodja (Our Heart Land). The canvas was painted by Shane Pickett, Lance Chadd Tjyllyungoo, Troy Bennell, Alice Warrell, Sharyn Egan and Yvonne Kickett, artists and elders whose names were barely known beyond Perth.
Noongar culture has suffered from a lack of attention, yet it wasn’t always the case. Victorian era anthropologist Daisy Bates erected a tent on the banks of the Swan River and lived among the Noongar, drawing up genealogical records that were used as evidence in the land claim a century later. What emerged was a vivid picture of several groups — Ballardong, Yued, Whadjuk, Wardandi, Pinjarup, Bibbulmun, Wilman and Mineng — all speaking dialects of a common language and sharing the same laws and customs, until white colonisation in 1829.
When the Art Gallery of WA held its first comprehensive survey of Noongar art in 2003, it was shaped by the intense curiosity of Brenda Croft, then AGWA’s indigenous curator. Where, she wondered, were the Rover Thomases and Mary McLeans of wheatbelt and forest country?
‘‘ Time and time again, the glamour is seen as being in the north, and the mob down here get overlooked,’’ Croft said at the time. ‘‘ It’s weird to have that demarcation. For them, it’s been a really hard trot.’’
Croft chose well. For Southwest Central: Indigenous Art from South Western Australia she selected several artists who have since broken through into bigger careers. Pickett’s Waagle — Rainbow Serpent depicted the story of the creation of the Noongar; at the time of his sudden death last year, Pickett’s elegant, semi-abstract paintings of creation forces sweeping across country had been purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, the National Gallery of Victoria
and the AGWA. Croft’s choice of works by a mother-and-son duo was especially apt. Sandra Hill, the third generation in her family to be removed to an institution, explored the tragedy of the Stolen Generations with Halfcaste — A Social Experiment and Dear Mr Neville, a title that refers to A.O. Neville, who held the post of chief protector of Aborigines in WA in the early part of the previous century.
Her son, Christopher Pease, winner of the 2002 Telstra Art Award painting category, explored the past with Monnop, an eerie representation of his great-uncle’s decorated, dancing figure, based on a photograph taken by Bates. But the most startling Pease work was Noongar Dreaming: in a style reminiscent of Jeffrey Smart, it depicts an Aboriginal man standing defiantly on a desolate stretch of unopened Perth freeway, as if claiming his place.
Hill understands the lingering effect of institutional control over Noongar lives, high rates of premature death, homelessness and imprisonment among them. She has also paved a creative pathway out of that disadvantage, setting up and running Curtin University’s first contemporary indigenous art program. After five exhausting years she left and the course collapsed, but not before 15 artists had graduated into degree courses.
Pease was among the graduates (Hill’s younger son, Ben Pushman, is also an artist represented in national collections). Pease’s sophisticated paintings command high prices and interest from prominent collectors, among them Janet Holmes a Court. Many of his works reinterpret the earliest colonial paintings, and he explores the clash between European and indigenous concepts of land use by superimposing spidery maps of colonial land grants over a landscape inhabited by hunting and foraging tribes.
Urbanisation has robbed Noongar art of shared motifs or techniques, Hill says, unlike for artists in tightly knit communities in northern Australia. ‘‘ Basically, we’ve become isolated in the city and we’ve been forced into expressing our own individual style. All the old people were removed from our young people so all that [cultural legacy] went.’’ Even records of traditional patterns and markings are rare. Pease’s portrait of Monnop, showing his intricate body decoration, derives from only a handful of historic images. ‘‘ The desert mob can do all the beautiful dots — we can’t, it’s not our country,’’ Hill says. Nor is there a huge cache of material culture. The WA Museum has only 750 Noongar items, including modern toys and footy jumpers.
A strong Noongar tradition lies in the figurative landscape style that emerged from the Carrolup River Native Settlement in the 1940s. Like many aspects of WA’s history, the extraordinary story of Carrolup’s institutional child artists is little known outside the state. Yet they were the first indigenous Australians to have their work formally exhibited overseas.
The children were removed from their families and schooled in an isolated bush setting. Encouraged to draw, they produced luridly hued landscapes peopled with lively figures, often shown hunting or performing ceremonial activities that — ironically — the children were prevented from participating in. A wealthy patron from Victoria collected dozens of the Carrolup pictures, took them to Britain and displayed them to collectors.
Pickett absorbed the Carrolup style early in his career but moved far beyond prosaic scenes of his beloved southwest. Born in a wheatbelt town in 1957, he was one of few people of his generation to gain a diploma in fine arts, awarded by the Claremont School of Fine Arts. By the mid-1980s he was winning national art awards and named WA Aboriginal artist of the year.
Pickett considered himself a landscape painter, but increasingly adopted a semiabstract aesthetic to capture elemental aspects of creation. Of one of Pickett’s 30 solo exhibitions, entitled Djinong Djina Boodja (Look at the Land that I have Travelled), AGWA senior curator Gary Dufour wrote that Pickett’s work ‘‘ inhabits the spiritual space between what is concealed and revealed. His recent paintings explore the Noongar season cycle and in so doing create complex visual analogs for the persistence and renaissance of Noongar culture.’’
His premature death shocked his friend Hill. ‘‘ It galvanised me and I thought, ‘ I can’t waste any more time to get on with my art.’ ’’ It was a crushing blow to the entire WA art scene, says Dufour, now deputy director of AGWA. ‘‘ Shane had really hit his stride, his work was being recognised widely and he acted as an important mentor.
‘‘ One of the things that perhaps holds the southwest back is that there isn’t an art centre down there. You can go north to Warmun, Warburton, Balgo and they all have them. What’s missing is a nucleus around which Noongar artists can congregate,’’ says Dufour. The only centre operating in the southwest, Mangart Boodja in rural Katanning, opens one day a week.
Urban-dwelling Noongar tend to enrol in Perth-based TAFE courses to pursue art training, but the drop-out rate is high and even successful artists lack places to display their work. ‘‘ Some galleries don’t get it that life is difficult for Noongar people,’’ Hill says. ‘‘ They tend to live from week to week with little money, and gallery owners don’t understand the level of support they require. The key to success for southwest art is exposure.’’
On most days, artist Rod Garlett sits painting in the historic limestone gallery at Kidogo Arthouse, overlooking the beach at Fremantle. A former welfare worker, his pathway into art was only made possible by Kidogo’s patronage. ‘‘ Most of the galleries around Fremantle and Perth get their work from up north and central Australia, and there’s hardly any Noongar art. But when tourists see you sitting here and making art, they want to buy it,’’ Garlett says.
Kidogo’s proprietor, Joanna Robertson, is a savvy promoter with impeccable social connections among Perth society who plans to thrust Noongar art on the international stage when, in October, media hordes descend on Perth for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and, in December, on Fremantle for the World Sailing Championships.
Last August, Robertson invited affluent Perth art collectors (including Holmes a Court), mining executives, politicians and AGWA’s director Stefano Carboni to a dinner at Kidogo, where they were seated alongside 50 Noongar artists.
‘‘ The event gave local Aboriginal artists the chance to voice their needs,’’ Robertson says, ‘‘ and it became clear that an arts centre where they can create work and socialise is desperately needed. People who were put into missions and disempowered are not going to put their hand up to set up an art centre on their own.
‘‘ They’ve experienced being knocked back all their lives. When I was given a no to funding for a three-year course, I was surprised. But they’re not. In the eastern states, people would be much more outspoken about such knock-backs.’’
The fact remains that no Noongar artist has yet won the Telstra Art Award or AGWA’s Indigenous Art Award, which takes place each year on Noongar country. Glen Pilkington, the gallery’s curator of indigenous art, says it’s just a matter of time. And the fact the gallery’s collection holds more Kimberley art than southwest art is ‘‘ because of long histories and legacies, and the prolific nature of artists up north’’.
Pilkington, himself of Noongar descent, believes that city-based art courses need to take more notice of indigenous sensibilities. ‘‘ We need to ask ourselves what makes it important for indigenous artists to come together to paint or weave, or create art. What is their aim in making work?’’
He says that aim is often to strengthen community or observe ceremony, and art teaching needs to accommodate those aims. ‘‘ And if it did,’’ Pilkington says, ‘‘ then we could leave lasting legacies.’’ Noongar Country 2011, to July 10, Bunbury Regional Art Gallery. Mohawk and Noongar: Art of Contemporary Indigenous Women; Evolving Identities: Contemporary Indigenous Art 1980-2010, both to July 6, John Curtin Gallery, Perth.
Noongar artists Sandra Hill and Christopher Pease
Ken Wyatt, the first federal indigenous MHR, makes his maiden speech last year