IT WAS DEPICTING THE ESSENCE OF A STRETCH OF DESERT, NOT SURFACE, NOT MERE APPEARANCE
orange shades, bright mauves and pinks. It soon became obvious that the most gifted exponents of this vivid, expressionistic style were women: Ningie Nangala, Elizabeth Nyumi and above all Wompi’s close countrywoman from the Great Sandy Desert, the recently deceased Nampitjin.
They were the drawcards: dealers and collectors began flying in to the little airstrip in their private planes to buy on the spot. A series of gifted art co-ordinators oversaw Warlayirti’s rise and its golden age, when the art centre was in profit and all its great names were painting together on the wide verandas every day. Wompi was there, too, but more as a fill-in artist, given small canvases to keep her occupied and express herself.
Of course the art centre workers knew there was something distinctive in her work: a fierceness, a vigour — but in that hectic furnace of creative energies, when keenly followed artists were pouring out new canvases every day and high-end gallery shows were being held each month, it was easy enough to overlook her little corner of the studio.
Step by step, the vogue for desert art grew: things began to shift at Balgo, as the years passed and contacts deepened with the wider world. There were outbreaks of petrol sniffing; with the art money came new cars for the young family members of the old artists, and easy access to Halls Creek and its hotel and grog take-aways. Wompi moved to Fitzroy Crossing, where many of the exiles from her stretch of the Sandy Desert were living: Cowboy Dick died; she became increasingly nomadic, travelling between Fitzroy, Balgo and the tiny outstation that had been set up in her own country, Kunawarritji, close to the Canning Stock Route’s Well 33.
But the art boom was roaring on: in early 2004 the co-ordinator at Warlayirti, Stephen Williamson, and the members of his committee hit on a novel scheme: Balgo would host a special exhibition of its best new work, a selling show of more than 100 paintings designed to promote a new generation of painters alongside the great, established names. An art sale in the middle of the Tanami? ‘‘ The logistics involved in bringing art buyers and collectors to view it has its own challenges,’’ Williamson wrote with wry understatement in the catalogue for the sale, which he titled, calendrically, Balgo 4-04.
It was a wet Easter Saturday when the light plane charters from Alice Springs flew in: there was water in the desert claypans; rainbows and cloud-veils were shimmering in the sky. Around the art centre, little rows of tents had been set up to accommodate the high rollers of the indigenous art market: curators, gallerists, elite collectors, all hungry for fresh work and emerging stars to promote. Morning came: it was grey and drear: the cold wind from the Western Desert blew. The art crowd stirred and took in their surrounds and dreamed vaguely of espresso bars and croissants — and the most stylish of their number was a new figure on the scene, a slender, immaculately clothed woman, platinum blonde.
O’Connell’s career in the bright lights had unfolded much as it began: success, repeat bookings, a degree of local fame. She worked the big Gold Coast venues: the casino, the Sheraton Mirage. She sang in the support spot for Dave Brubeck and Phyllis Diller on their south Queensland tours; she played ‘‘ supper club’’ piano sessions; she had her own ensemble, she appeared as the lead act with big bands — and always there was an intensity about her on the stage: she seemed to pour her heart out in her songs.
‘‘ It was a happening time,’’ she remembers. ‘‘ Jazz cabaret could take you places: conventions, corporate gigs, big functions.’’
Her father had become mayor of the Gold Coast; after he stepped down, she started working for the council in public relations and recorded the lushly orchestrated local promo anthem Gold Coast Paradise. PR led her naturally to work as a theatrical agent: she moved in the art world; she began collecting: Sidney Nolan, Charles Blackman, Australian classics — she had eclectic tastes. In about 2000, the Sydney Olympics year, when the first landmark show of Papunya art was held at the Art Gallery of NSW, she turned her thoughts to desert painting: it seemed to her strikingly like song, reaching always for the high notes, and, like live music, it held nothing back.
Desert art became her new enthusiasm and then her obsession. She had met the man who would be her partner for the next decade, developer Ian Thornquest. Together they made trips out to the bush communities of the Northern Territory and Western Australia; they found a warm reception. Soon they realised there was a market niche for them: no Gold Coast galleries were showing top-flight indigenous work. In late 2001, they started their own loft-like exhibition space, with art from Balgo as the opening show.
Such was the novice gallerist who moved through the crowds at Warlayirti, watching the old hands clustered, talking to each other, and looking at the old desert masters sitting crosslegged on the studio floor. Then her eye was caught by a small, wild canvas hanging in a side space, high up on a partition wall. She had an immediate attraction to the work. She felt she needed to know more about the artist. She walked off but she couldn’t get the painting out of her head. She went back to it. Who was it by? ‘‘ Oh, that’s a Nora Wompi,’’ the coordinators said. ‘‘ She’s not here right now.’’
O’Connell was on the hunt, of course, for an artist to make her own, someone she could promote from the ground up. Here was that artist: raw, and rough: ‘‘ Something spoke to me then, strongly. It wasn’t neat and tidy art, the art people expect to like. It was fresh, direct. I had a sharp response: excitement, an awareness of intensity, joy. There are things you can’t explain, and those are the things that mean the most.’’
Back in her gallery, O’Connell planned her forthcoming exhibition schedule: there would be new work from Warlayirti, with Wompi included. Eventually she told the managers at Balgo she wanted to represent Wompi exclusively and show her as a contemporary artist, not as some quaint offshoot of ancient traditions and nomad times.
Weeks later, Wompi called in to Warlayirti on a visit, and agreed, and set to work. Suddenly the canvases she was painting were larger and more resolved. Her use of colours had sharpened: there were yellows, oranges and mingling blues and purples in these new works. They found buyers easily.
A year or more passed. August approached: art month in Darwin, the time of the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. Wompi had a piece in the final, and travelled there; O’Connell as well. At an opening one afternoon Warlayirti’s Sally Clifford introduced them in solemn fashion, gallerist to artist. They sat down together, traditional style, cross-legged, in a shady spot on the parkland grass beside the Stuart Highway.
‘‘ At last!’’ O’Connell says. ‘‘ There she was. We said hello, and I showed her pictures of her work from my exhibition. She was very pleased. She was in a nice bright desert dress and wearing a cross around her neck:; she had a woollen beanie on her head. I was wearing something fabulous and tropical. And I thought to myself: this is the real deal — a tribal woman, born in the bush. True art, no influences!’’
O’Connell held a series of Wompi solo shows. The pattern became clear at once. Almost all the work sold, but to a narrow range of buyers. Wompi’s large, swirling Wagnerian canvases weren’t for everyone, but those who liked her found her art essential to them; they needed to have more than a single work. Soon there were whole houses in southeast Queensland festooned with little galleries of Wompi’s art. State and national collections began to show interest.
A couple of years on, Warlayirti sent down a roll of paintings to the Desert Mob art centres show in Alice Springs: canvases by the most famous Balgo artists, with a Wompi in their midst. Desert Mob is treated widely as an index of new trends, and the Wompi piece was a litmus work.
Nothing quite like it had ever been seen in Western Desert art: it was small and painted with great precision, yet it had a freedom in its lines, its colours seemed to float and interpenetrate. There was a cool quality about it, too; it engaged the eye, it held itself apart. If it was depicting desert topography, it was depicting the essence of a stretch of desert, not surface, not mere appearance. The pigments were red, aqua green, ice blue and a sombre, recessive off-white. It made a strong impact. It seemed to come from a distant world. What did it show? Kunawarritji, Wompi’s childhood country, and her present home.
O’Connell saw it and felt vindicated — with reason. She had done what few other gallerists had done: found an unknown desert artist, felt
Clockwise from far left, Nora Wompi; Wompi at work; her painting
(2009); and with Suzanne O’Connell