The Noon­gar as­cen­dancy

An over­looked art style is on the rise, and not a dot paint­ing in sight, writes Vic­to­ria Laurie

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.