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that artist’s potential, backed her, shown her and made, single-handedly, the case for her work. She had seen, or sensed, what the curatorial experts and academic advocates had missed. ALL seemed fair set, but nothing in the desert art game is ever wholly smooth in its unfolding, or predictable, or without an unstable edge. The market slumped in the wake of the global financial crisis and stayed down, kept in the hole by perverse shifts in government policy.
The Northern Territory intervention had changed the underlying atmospherics of remote communities: Balgo was in troubled times. O’Connell’s relationship was with Warlayirti, but a new art centre, Martumili, had opened up in Newman, far to the west, and was servicing Wompi’s main base at Well 33. Was O’Connell in a business relationship with the artist or the art centre?
Things grew murkier. Both art centres began releasing Wompi works and offering certificates with slightly different background information. O’Connell spoke as often as she could to Wompi at Balgo by Skype, but there are limits when you don’t have a language in common.
What was she to do? What stars of song and music do when things seem dark: shine yet more brightly. O’Connell pressed ahead: she hired a large gallery space on Flinders Lane in Melbourne and held a bravura Wompi solo show. Vast, overwhelming works, works on a scale beyond most desert artists, colour swaths that seemed more like abstracts than topographies, more like premonitions of some transformed future than readings of ancestral times.
Together with the manager from Warlayirti, Wompi flew down for the launch. She made a dramatic entry: slight, dwarfed by her own canvases, elegant in a cerise-red jacket and purple top. There were welcomes, formal words, photos with the collecting elite. A high point. But Wompi was still a puzzle artist: so strong she stood alone, so expressionist she was beyond the pleasing, well-established desert mainstream. And she was a puzzle for O’Connell too. ‘‘ I knew her work could have an almost physical effect on people. I knew she was an engaged, life-loving woman. But there was a lot I didn’t know.’’
It was clear: the time had come for her to go out to Wompi’s country; to see the Great Sandy Desert for herself. She made contact with the art centre manager at Martumili, Gabrielle Sullivan, the ultimate remote area fieldworker. There was much to discuss, about future plans and about another breakthrough: Wompi had just been chosen for the finals of this year’s West Australian Indigenous Art Award.
Sullivan suggested flying out to Well 33 by charter, the standard route for diehard enthusiasts. But O’Connell wanted to experience the bush and see the country at ground level, take the long track by four-wheel-drive from Newman out. ‘‘ Where did the work come from? I’d always wanted to know how it came alive and seemed to move on the canvas; what gave her those loose brush strokes and the flow; what the emblems and the symbols mean. Things move you and you don’t know why. That’s art’s mystery, and maybe you don’t want to arrive at the destination where the nature of an art is revealed, or you understand at last what it is that brings two people from such different worlds together — but I felt I’d like to spend some time with her. I had that idea of Kunawarritji in my mind: a barren place, dry waterholes, harsh. I needed to see.’’
It was late May when O’Connell reached the Pilbara: hard land, red soil. She met the Martumili art centre team. Sullivan’s eyes widened a little when she saw the new visitor’s matching set of four Vuitton suitcases. O’Connell, for her part, was unsure about the sheets in the swag that had been made up for her. What was the thread count? Were they really Egyptian cotton? Off they drove, a long pull on rough dirt: Parnngurr community, Punmu — then on, into nothingness, a half day more, until the little roofs of Kunawarritji began to show. They found Wompi at the aged-care centre along with her constant companions and fellow artists, Nora Nangapa and Bugai Whylouter, all three of them with their hair freshly dyed jet black. There were hugs and kisses. O’Connell had brought well-chosen presents for her art star: new rosary beads and a handbag: ‘‘ white leather — not Prada, though, a good sturdy desert choice instead’’. But the weather was worsening; the sky turned dark, the rain set in. Wompi had wanted to take O’Connell feral cat hunting; that seemed ruled out. They fell back on karaoke: O’Connell felt it might be a nice gesture to try her famous, sultry version of What’s New, Pussycat.
Days passed. The women became closer. It was time for story sharing. Wompi had her camp-dog with her, Teabag, black as night, and O’Connell had her iPad, so she could show off photos of her pet pomeranian, Coco, an animal with 50 changes of clothes and a Facebook page.
There was some surprising news to ponder: Wompi had changed her name, to Nyapuru, and wanted to be known just as ‘‘ Nora’’ from now on: something of a problem for the next solo just weeks away.
But what about the well? What about the sacred waterhole, that still, central resonating point of desert art? Too cold! At last, the skies relented, the sun came through the clouds.
It was an odd time; Sullivan kept up her field notes. After all, O’Connell was the first art dealer to make the drive out to that remote corner of the desert and she seemed happy enough to join in things; why, she was even filming their excursion with a GoPro camera strapped to her head. A short quarter-hour more, through sparse bush and low dunes, and there it was at last, the journey’s goal: Well 33, just off the ribbon of the Canning Stock Route. A dip in the landscape, a soakage point ground zero, Kunawarritji.
‘‘ We stopped, and walked across,’’ O’Connell says. ‘‘ The women were all pointing to places on the horizon and speaking with great urgency. I could tell at once it was a place of great significance for them — and for me, being taken there by them. The clarity of that world! I felt very comfortable in my time there: not awkward, but happy, at peace, loved.
‘‘ Nora’s got the most intimate relationship with her country. And because I’d been looking at the images in her work for so long, it cemented things for me, just being there, seeing where she comes from, and how she is there. I could almost say I felt for the first time I understood her work and where the beauty stemmed from. I came to realise it was a kind of magic — magic in broad daylight.’’ The strangest friendship in Australia had reached a new plateau.
Suzanne O’Connell, expensive luggage in tow, heads off to the desert, top; O’Connell, the glamorous Gold Coast performer, above