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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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