IT WAS DE­PICT­ING THE ESSENCE OF A STRETCH OF DESERT, NOT SUR­FACE, NOT MERE AP­PEAR­ANCE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

Ku­nawar­ritji

Clock­wise from far left, Nora Wompi; Wompi at work; her paint­ing

(2009); and with Suzanne O’Connell

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