In this interview Mowanjum artist Leah Umbagai talks about Wandjinas, ochre and the Mowanjum artists exhibition coming up at Japingka. She is joined by Rosita Holmes who is the Art Development Co-ordinator for Mowanjum Art and Cultural Centre.
The Mowanjum community represents more then one language group. Which groups are those and why were they drawn together?
Leah: There are three tribal groups. They are Worrorra, Ngarinyin and Wunumbal and the tradition of the three tribes is combined under Wandjina which combines the three in shared customs and the law of country. We believe that Wandjina is the creator. He created the country, the people and the land since the beginning when people were first together.
Rosita: The three groups share a kinship system different from other places in the Kimberley.
The work of artists from this area is distinctive in that it represents Wandjinas. Can you describe what this figure means to these artists?
Leah: The people draw about their three different language group areas. Wandjinas are associated with family groups, tribal groups, even people. It doesn’t stop there, it is different in many different ways. It represents different areas. The Wandjinas gave the language, the culture and the laws of the country. They told us how we have to work the country and how we have to live. So all the laws, language and traditions we got from the Wandjinas. This is a very powerful person or spirit being that we believe in. We are here because of the Wandjinas.
Who is allowed to paint Wandjinas?
Leah: The Wandjinas can only be painted by the Ngarinyin, Worrorra and Wunumbal people. We have had people in the past who didn’t know the procedures and protocols for painting Wandjinas. It has really hurt us in the past that people have painted and done all sorts of stuff with Wandjinas. It only belongs to this one area. We were given Wandjina to look after this particular country and it belongs to only the three tribes. Therefore it is only the people who are Ngarinyin, Worrorra or Wunumbal who can paint Wandjinas.
Rosita: Through the hard work of Arts Law and the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC) the Wandjina is the first indigenous iconography to be trademarked in Australia. This means that it is now recognised by Australian law to belong to Ngarinyin, Worrorra and Wununbal people. People who are not part of those three language groups are not allowed to use the word or the image of Wandjina without appropriate permission.
Is there an initiation process before artists can paint the Wandjina?
Leah: We have a process that we go through ourselves, those of us associated with the Wandjina and the area we come from. So yes you have to be initiated to be a strong person for that area. People from other places have a different identity. It is very hard for them to understand the whole concept of Wandjinas and how important they are to us. Our people identify with who they are and where they come from. They are Wandjina and they can paint that.
This figure is represented on ancient rock paintings. How far back does the tradition of painting this figure go?
Leah: We believe it comes from the creation time. We believe the Wandjina is the creator of the land, the country and everything that’s in it. This does go beyond our understanding today. There was a time before Wandjina as well. We believe he came from a higher ranking power. Wandjina tells us to take care of the area we belong to.
Mowanjum is referred to as “ochre country”. What is the importance of ochre in this particular exhibition?
Leah: The ochre is very important for our kinship system. Different colours belong to different areas. Red ochre is from one country. The other is a white yellowy ochre that belongs to that particular kinship system. This kinship system gives us our identity as a person. The ochre is very important because it tells of the country. How it was formed, where it is and how it represented on anything – rocks, caves and in contemporary art. This is how we try to express ourselves about where we live now.
Rosita: Mowanjum Arts in-house media team ‘Barnjamedia’ have created a short documentary film about ornmul (ochre) that will be shown alongside the exhibition at Japingka Gallery. This can also be viewed online.
Some of the exhibition works are painted in ochres from the traditional country?
Leah: Yes all of the paintings in the exhibition are in ochre. They tell the story of the artist and their country. They tell of what Wandjina has given to us. We are to have a connection to country and keep strong in ourselves. We have painted with different material in the past. However, using the ochre is more about who we are.
Can you describe the arts centre to me? How many artists work there?
Leah: We’ve got about 120 artists ranging from 3 years old to 90 years old and they come from all different tribal areas. They are male and female. It’s not only artists. We do painting, songs and Junba (dancing). These are all different ways of connection to the country associated with the ochre. It comes not only in the painting, the dancing, the colours that we use on our bodies, female and male. It plays a major role in everything that we are.
Do any of the artists sing when they are painting?
Leah: Yes mainly the older ones. Now we are encouraging our children to be part of the songs and the dances. You know here you are born into a hierarchy system where you’re not only a dancer or a painter. You have all these different levels of understanding about where you sit especially with tradition. Knowing and keeping up this responsibility, particularly to children or teenagers or adults, it comes connected to who you are and where your ancestors travel or where they belonged. Sometimes you are given dreams. Passing on the traditions in all the different ways you can identify. These are strong areas and you become that person.
Is art the major source of employment for people in the Mowanjum community?
Leah: There are all different sorts of revenues that come. Yes at this particular time, art is a big source of income. But art is more than that – it’s about getting people to tell their stories too. In that way it is not so much a job. It’s more of a giving back to our children, teaching them. It is a teaching process so that they know who they are.
Rosita: 11 of Mowanjum Art and Culture Centre’s 14 employees are from Mowanjum Community. These positions range from trainee’s to full-time senior staff members and include retail, administration, workshop, studio, archive and media assistance. However recent funding cuts mean that we will lose one of these positions every year for the next 6 years.
What do you find exciting about this particular exhibition?
Leah: Knowing that the ochre is from the country and using that. We have to travel a long way to get to our country and the places where we can collect ochre, this hasn’t always been possible in the past. So people came to use whatever they could, like acrylic paint. Now we’ve got ochre again, we can use a more traditional type of painting on the bark, on the wood, on the rock. People used to share, they used to travel. It is exciting to share our art with people outside. We’re giving them a taste of us and where we come from and who we are.
This is an exhibition of emerging artists. can you tell me about that?
Leah: This exhibition has encouraged a lot of people to want to try different mediums. It’s given an opportunity for people to enjoy working and expressing themselves. So the ochre is more than just a medium. I’ve been painting for a very long time and now I’m using ochre I feel more connected because of my kinship to the art and the paint itself. The young artists who are coming up can identify with that and share their stories and the ochre.
The younger ones and the old people have recently had the opportunity to go back to the old country and collect the ornmul (ochre) from there. It means more to us know because we live in a different area now. Going back and gathering the ochre is giving people a reason to go back to their country to live, hunt and to tell stories. Getting the artists the ochre gives them an opportunity to express themselves. The ochre is our identity and it plays a major part of who we are.
Rosita: Some people are combing the traditional techniques with contemporary techniques. Petrina Bedford, Marylou Divillia and many other artists have been using techniques of carving or incising that have been applied for a very long time to rock and wood, pearl shell or boab nut. They are now applying these skills to make woodblock prints. So it is a new technique linked to the long tradition of Mowanjum people and their skills and knowledge of making marks on objects or in the landscape.
There have been several organisations who have directly and indirectly contributed to the making of this exhibition. Country Arts WA provided funding for Petrina Bedford and Edna Dale to come to Fremantle for the exhibition opening. Country Arts WA has also supported the on going project ‘Stronger Ground’ that brings together art development, harvesting of materials and language. Batchelor Press, through its Endangered Languages program works in partnership with the art centre to deliver ‘language of art’ workshops. Ground Up community support network have also provided funding towards the language program.
In October an exhibition of Aboriginal art work featuring several hundred paintings opened in Bucharest in Romania. Japingka took a collection of work to that exhibition. For many in the European audience it was their first opportunity to see Aboriginal art and they asked some interesting questions. In this article David Wroth discusses the question of what matters more for Aboriginal artists, the process or the outcome?
What Matters More, Process or Outcome?
This question is interesting. It was put to us by someone who worked in the arts area in Europe. I suspect they were looking at some of the paintings of the older artists. Maybe people like Pegleg Tjampitjinpa, and to a lesser extent Ronnie Tjampitjinpa and Luurn Willie Kew from the Kimberley.
They were looking at the degree of finish that the artists focused on for their paintings. I explained that artists often sang the story that they were painting as the artwork was produced. The artist is very much in the moment in terms of being with the story that they are painting.
The person asking the question wondered whether the paintings should be more polished, more finished? These were paintings done by senior people so from a European point of view maybe they felt that there should have more attention to detail. I suspect the answer is that the process is extremely important to Aboriginal people, and no doubt the finished process matters but to a lesser extent.
Artists At Work
There’s many examples of artists who walk around their paintings, and give an indication they feel they’ve created something that is really, very impressive. They’ll either give a big smile, put up one finger as number one. This demonstrates “I’ve made a really number one painting here.”
There’s pride in the finished work but the real value to an Aboriginal person is the process of connecting with the cultural story as they made the painting. Many artists seem to be fairly indifferent or certainly objective about the process once the painting is finished.
In other words, they are resolved – it’s finished, it’s done, they don’t need to keep coming back to look at it. The process of making the work was the thing that gave them a lot of sense of accomplishment. Then after that that’s it, finished, what else? What are we doing next? What happens next?
Seeing A Body Of Work
I think when artists see a body of their own work set up in the gallery they do take great pride. I’ve seen artists go around and touch the paintings, and reconnect to the story as they remember when they painted it. It could have been six months or a year ago but you can see the joy as they walk around all the different paintings that they’ve made, and connect with them, and move on to the next one. Once again in a way, they are really connecting with the process, and the story, and they are not going to look and say, “There’s a blob of paint there that I should have fixed up.” That’s almost immaterial to Aboriginal artists. Often there’s very little concern about bits and pieces that accidentally happened while a painting’s being produced.
Aboriginal artists are rarely, if ever, fretful about their work. You don’t see them concerned that there’s fine detail that they might have done this way, or that way, or changed. In fact, for many of the artists once a painting is made there’s little interest in revisiting it as an editing process. They don’t say things like “This would have been much better if it had been red”. It’s rare that they’ll go back and change paintings. They paint until it’s finished, and at the point at which they stop then it really is finished. They don’t seem to want to make changes to reinterpret anything.
Difference With Western Art
I think this approach is definitely different to a Western artists’ approach. Perhaps it comes down to the idea of making aesthetic judgement. Aboriginal artists are not making aesthetic judgments about how successful the painting is. They are making other sorts of judgments about how well it conveys the story that they’ve got in their head. The idea of aesthetic considerations are much more in the realm of European art than it is in the world of Aboriginal art.
The Surface of The Painting
I don’t think Aboriginal people are analytical about the surface of the painting. They are probably analytical about the meaning that sits behind the surface of the painting. Perhaps Western artists are more analytical about the surface of the painting – the appearance, and less about the story that sits behind it. Both artists place some value on the appearance and some on the message. The difference lies in the degree of importance attached to each.
So in answer the question – I do observe that process is more important to Aboriginal artists than the outcome of what is produced.
Maybe this is a metaphor for the difference in the two cultures. The Western way is often concerned with the appearance of things whereas in the Aboriginal world the meaning of things has a higher value.
Recently I was speaking at the opening of the exhibition by Deborah Young Nakamarra and Katherine Marshall Nakamarra. Half way through the talk I looked around at the whole exhibition and suddenly saw it in a new light. I thought I might tell you about that moment.
Artists sometimes tell us the story behind their paintings. They usually give their works a title which gives us some information about what a work might mean. Very often, we as viewers respond to the painting using that information as a guide.
We put together a meaning that is partly suggested by the artist and partly relates to our own experience. In this way the meaning of a work might be quite different from person to person. This is especially true of abstract paintings. It can be true of individual paintings and it can be true of a whole collection.
Let’s go back to that opening night. The paintings in the exhibition related to two artists and their mother’s great story about the ceremonial grounds, the sacred women’s areas on their country. Looking around at the powerful repeating images, colours and rhythms I suddenly thought of another way of viewing the works.
I’m familiar with the idea of Aboriginal paintings being a type of map and on top of the map may be a kind of spiritual map of what the country means, rather than what the country is as a topography. I was looking at the exhibition and I was reminded of music. The paintings were suggesting to me thoughts of musical plans or sheet music for a song.
I’ve been told that these artists are telling us about their country and about the ceremonies and sacred sites that belonged to, Walangkura, the mother of the two artists exhibiting. She is a very famous artist who created the iconography about the ceremonies. The women gathered there to sing their ancestors songs that create the country and the great Katunga ancestor who travels through this country. By singing the ancestor’s journey across the country, the performers in the ceremony are retelling a creation journey.
Here we have a family of artists who are all painting one story about these women’s sacred sites across the land and there’s 30 paintings on the wall, all from one family group. I was looking across them and to me, at that moment, every one of them seemed like a piece of the song.
It is as though it was a group of symbols that had it’s own rhythm and it had all it’s own interconnected notes and it had it’s own dynamic. It occurred to me that the women singing up the country and singing up the ancestors were also the subject of the paintings. I felt this because I could see a kind of rhythm in the paintings.
If you want to take one of these large pieces of artwork, you get a kind of a visual version of a song line or a section of a ceremonial song that women are singing to the ancestors.
Individually, these pieces may not have generated that idea. It was when I saw them as a collection, I felt the combined power of those paintings. Individually they are paintings that are quite abstract and the iconography is very strongly Western Desert. They are very strongly connected with the artistic family who created them.
When you see them together, you can see these recurring motifs, you can see these connecting lines. You can see a kind of echo happening and that sets up a rhythm around the room across the paintings. I feel it sets up a kind of a percussive beat as you move from one to the other.
When I hear Aboriginal music, without knowing anything about it’s content, I can hear a series of reinforcing ideas that get repeated over a long cycle of music. That creates this very strong impression of rhythm and the paintings seemed to me to echo that.
It was a privilege to host this exhibition. I’ve been moved by the power of these works and the stories this talented family have shared with us. Since that opening night I think about this whole collection a little differently. It has taken on an even greater meaning for me and I’ve really enjoyed that.
In this article David Wroth discusses the question about who started the modern Desert Aboriginal Art movement – Aboriginal or white Australians? This question was asked at an exhibition of Aboriginal Art in Bucharest, Romania earlier this year.
Who Started The Modern Desert Aboriginal Art Movement?
I said it was like an accident. In a sense, it was the accident of school teacher Geoffrey Bardon being posted to Papunya in 1971. He asked the young children to make paintings that were about their culture not using the Western traditions for their paintings.
Then the old people who worked at the school said to him, “Why are you asking young children to demonstrate our culture when we are the ones with authority for this ?” Old people understand culture, and children have to be brought into the culture through initiation, and through law practice over time. That was a revelation for one school teacher.
Geoffrey Bardon was then able to make arrangements with the Aboriginal elders who worked at the school. These were very senior people who were law men but worked in the school as helpers. They painted the first mural on the wall of the school. They then went on to make the first collections of individual paintings by desert artists.
In this sense, there was an accident because a teacher asked the children to open a door into Aboriginal culture. He then found that the real people to open those doors were old people. Those old people then built a trust relationship with Geoffrey Bardon, and made those first paintings.
In a way, I feel that it was an accident, but it was also possibly an idea whose time had come. At the time children were still forbidden to use Aboriginal languages in many schools. They had been more or less forced to take on modern Australian values, and ways of doing things. Schools discouraged anything that had traditional content.
It was the 1970s. Things were changing, certain attitudes in Australia changed, and politics changed. The availability of acrylic paint was another factor that made painting in the desert possible. The initial accident was perhaps backed up by a certain goodwill and good luck.
Goodwill came from the Aboriginal people that they, in spite of the history of Aboriginal and white relationships, were interested in opening up the door to their culture. That was a big decision and a big process where they had to decide what parts of their culture they could share with outsiders. They were dealing with the issues of secret and sacred nature, and the sharing of the knowledge that they were prepared to make paintings about.
There was a great deal of goodwill on behalf of the Aboriginal people in simply believing that there was any interest. Geoffrey Bardon must have indicated that some white people would be interested and despite everything they were prepared to believe him.
No doubt it seemed that white people were interested in business, and control of the land, and other things that were quite foreign to Aboriginal culture. Geoffrey Bardon must have developed a sense of trust that enabled him to suggest what he did. Selling the artworks was a business that had a lot to do with Aboriginal culture, it was a very much an unknown for both parties.
Bardon felt his credibility was on the line with those senior men. He went a long way in collecting stories, and encouraging the whole process to go forward.
However an important group of elder men at Papunaya who made the decision to open up their stories using art. That decision spawned an art movement.
So who lit the spark that became the fire of this remarkable art movement? There were certainly enabling influences. I think it was courage and vision of the Papunaya elders that lit the spark. It was their co-operation with each other and their decisions that really started it all.
It was a strange feeling then, to be having that experience again three decades later. This time it was in a Romanian gallery just a few weeks ago. I was there with a major exhibition of Aboriginal work titled “The Dreaming” organised by Seeds Foundation.
The exhibition was in three sections. One was called Genesis, which was the traditional work that had its roots closest to where the contemporary art movement began those 30 years ago.
Then there was another section called Explosion, which covered more contemporary work, including Northern Queensland and some Western Desert work.
In one area of the exhibition were artworks related to rock art and sand painting and Tingari designs, all very much as things were 30 years ago.
Then in the later section were more recent works which were radically different. There was a lot of color, and there was ther use of expressive brushmarks and paint application.
In a way, the Romanian people were having a very different experience because they were seeing what we saw for the next 30 years all in one day. It was quite an experience for them and for me to be watching their response.
So what was different and what was the same? Both audiences said, “we’ve never seen anything like this.” Both audiences were genuinely excited. Interestingly the most obvious difference were the mobile phones. Everywhere people were taking photos. They were keen to record this event, to share with others, to talk about it.
There was this suggestion that Aboriginal people had taken or opened this door of meaning, showing their culture to the contemporary Australian society. I think the Romanian people had two levels of response.
Firstly this was clearly an Australian art form reflecting our light and our space and that is so different for a European audience. Secondly they could see the parallels between an Aboriginal group reconnecting with modern Australia by showing their ancient values in contemporary painting and their own lost culture.
They ask themselves, “Okay, this is an extraordinary story from Australia. Does it have anything to do with us? Yes, maybe it does. We have embedded folkloric traditions, much of which could be nearly lost. Are there ways to bring these into the modern world that gives them new vitality, and new meaning, and still maintain some values that they have traditionally?”
I think there were many Romanians who will draw inspiration from this exhibition. They might feel that against impossible odds an ancient past can be reborn and celebrated.
These are some of the new paintings that Jorna’s getting ready for an exhibition, and this one is about burning off.
We’re looking at a canvas that is two thirds red with sweeping red lines and dots over on one side. Then there’s the country in a sort of a pale yellow and white area on the left. This is the story of burning off.
This is a time when people actually come together for ceremonies. It is the time when they manage the land and they also have the larger number of people to feed, so they combine the burning off with the hunting process so that animals are herded and they hunt for however many people they have to feed.
It’s a subject that’s tied into ceremony and culture and meaning, but it’s also about land management.
What we are seeing in this painting is the emergence of a new style. The kind of marks that Jorna Newberry makes are not typical of her region. They’re a bit more like the innovation that happens in a place like Utopia in Central Australia where the women started off as batik fabric artists and developed some amazing innovations that came from other traditions.
This is just a great example of someone who has a fantastic artistic mind and who is finding ways of expressing an idea and a style to make it work.
The Utopia group are very inventive like this. They’ll find all these different ways of mark making. They’ll even find different devices to put the paint on with. Often they don’t even use brushes.
I’ve sometimes argued that the success of Utopia is partly to do with the process of batik because in batik you have to work from lightest to darkest because the dark just buries the previous ones, so you’re building it up, you can’t do it from the opposite direction, it doesn’t work. People have to think from the background forward.
This this innovative style painting in Jorna’s art reminds me of that process.
See more: Art by Jorna Newberry
I think the answer is no. We wouldn’t have had access to seeing anything like it. For a start it would be a very rare thing to see an Aboriginal symbol or depiction shown anywhere.
There was some knowledge of the bark painting coming out of the Northern Territory. People knew of the bark painting styles, like the crosshatching and the x-ray designs from Arnhem Land. They were in museums and art galleries and people also knew Albert Namatjira landscapes of Central Australia.
There were also anthropologists collecting artefacts or very sacred items, perhaps a stone tjuringa that had designs on it. Those items may have had dot embellishments on them. However the chances of someone in the broader community seeing something like dot painting would have been very slim.
Mostly there were many various Aboriginal cultures across Australia whose identities were totally not understood or not seen by anyone outside their own community.
We started seeing dot painting in art galleries in Perth after the mid 1970s. The Central Desert art movement had begun to get going and there were collections of works being shown in the Art Gallery of Western Australia. I think the first time I ever saw a dot painting was around 1975 or 1976.
There might have been some in publications, but pre-1970, you just wouldn’t have seen very much of it anywhere.
Now if you ask an everyday person in the street how would they describe an Aboriginal artwork, a typical response would likely be a description of dot painting. If you ask a child to do an Aboriginal style artwork they’ll start dot painting. Those aesthetic qualities have captured people’s beliefs and understandings of what Aboriginal art is.
This Central Desert style has created the contemporary movement in Aboriginal art. It’s captured the impetus, it’s reached every part of Australian society. Therefore I think it is recognised as the prototype Aboriginal style.
You can probably show this work to anyone with a bit of artistic exposure and interest and they’ll probably be able to recognise this, whether they’re Australian or not. That’s how deep it has gone in terms of recognising dot painting as belonging to a particular cultural group; it’s quite extraordinary.
The desert area is enormous, it’s getting up towards two thirds of the inland part of Australia, and the culture is shared, and the dot painting style belongs right across that region. So it is true that many think of this as what Aboriginal painting is.
Some Aboriginal painters who are not in that genre say, “Actually, we’ve been swamped. We’ve been swamped by the success of dot painting and it’s really hard for us to make our mark from under the shadow of this huge movement that’s had so much success.”
So in a relatively short period of time a style has come to dominate what is thought of as Aboriginal art. It is good to reflect that just as there is great diversity within indigenous communities there is also great diversity in the style of art that is being produced by those communities.
If you scroll down the Japingka Artists page you’ll see instantly that contemporary Aboriginal art is dot painting and so very much more. Many of the indigenous artists at work in Australia today are extremely innovative.
It is still a joy to see exhibitions of dot painting coming in that take your breath away. It is also a joy to see new styles emerging that take traditions and build on them in exciting new ways.
I believe there is still so much life and possibility to this intriguing art movement. Even now, thirty years down the track for us, we are all still excited and curious when the new works come in. Whatever the style of paintings we see passion, commitment and a universal language that speaks for itself.
In October an exhibition of Aboriginal art work featuring several hundred paintings will open in Bucharest in Romania.
It is the brainchild of an entrepreneurial executive in Romania who come out to Australia and was entranced by the Aboriginal art.
He saw a deep connection between what has happened in Australia and the scenario in his own country. He observed a very ancient Australian culture finding a way to reach into the contemporary world through art. He saw this was achieved while holding the traditions and holding the symbols and meanings, everything that is significant to the indigenous culture.
His name is Dan Cristea and he observed that art provided a way to open a conversation with a much wider part of the country that is not generally closely integrated or connected with the Aboriginal culture.
What Cristea saw happening in Australia excited him. He has a vision of similarly offering guest workshops and programs that might regenerate the folkloric tradition that has existed in Romania that was deeply suppressed over the last half century under Soviet rule.
Cristea has organized a very large aboriginal exhibition called “The Dreaming”. The exhibition includes a big cross section of work, from northern Queensland right through the Central Desert into the Western Desert, and including the Kimberley and some from Arnhem Land.
It is a single man’s vision, and it is a very exciting concept. He feels he will get a good response from the community in Bucharest. He feels they will be surprised, amazed and delighted to see what is happening with Aboriginal art work.
I think he also hopes that this work will feed the vision of his group called Seeds Association. It is his hope that seeds of creativity and seeds of positivity that will come from this Aboriginal exhibition will feed into the artistic tradition of rural Romania.
We’re sending over 100 paintings along with photos and cultural information and there are other galleries involved. The timeline was challenging for the organisers. They will be educating as well as exhibiting for their local community. There will be didactic boards and information and a website and Facebook page to give people the background that they might need.
For the majority of people who walk into the exhibition it will be their first opportunity to see Aboriginal art. The organisers are attempting to give enough background information for people to be able to at least grasp the founding ideas that are involved in the Aboriginal art work.
It is an exciting project and I am looking forward to seeing how it is received by the people of Romania.
The artists are Katherine Marshall Nakamarra & Debra Young Nakamarra. They are the daughters of the equally famous, the late Walangkura Napanangka and these paintings just sing off the wall.
They’re very dynamic and they have great energy. The daughters are carrying on the tradition of their mother Walangkura in painting the sacred women’s sites that belong to their ancestors. It’s country around Kintore in the desert area of West Australia near the Northern Territory.
The colour sings, the structures are dynamic. They really leap off the walls. It is just a powerful body of work, and it reflects their commitment to their women’s Dreaming stories and their mother’s art.
This exhibition is paired with an exhibition by the daughters of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. Michelle Possum and Gabriella Possum have also painted traditional country, referring more to their grandmother’s tradition.
They have stylistic elements that are related to Clifford Possum’s way of painting. However they have also drawn in the women’s stories, which was obviously not part of Clifford Possum’s painting repertoire.
These are the Possum family stories relating to women and they carry on the family painting tradition into the new generation.
People often ask us how is the future of aboriginal art. How is it being passed down from the great founding artists to their children and then on to their children? I think this exhibition exemplifies how a younger generation have carried on the tradition in a remarkable way.
This week we started saying our good-byes to this really major painting by Mijili Napanangka Gibson. It’s three metres by two metres and it’s an extraordinary colour painting. By most people in the industry, it’s considered to be her masterpiece.
She was nearly 80 when she painted it and it took her nearly nine months to paint. We’ve got photographs of her painting it that were taken by her family. You can see all the different layers that she’s applied. I love that there’s a whole layer on there that’s just been over painted and hidden, but it is a part of the painting because it’s secret women’s business.
The painting itself is an aerial view, a map of Lake Mackay right on the remote Northern Territory, West Australian border. It shows the women’s ceremonial grounds. Mitjili was a senior Pintupi woman and custodian of this very important dreaming story.
We’ve had this painting for nearly five years. It’s been one of the few, if not the only painting, we’ve ever had that’s brought people into the gallery purely by word of mouth. People saying, you got to see this painting in Japingka Gallery. We’ve had people coming in saying, “I’ve been told I’ve got to see one special painting, oh there it is.”
It’s that sort of painting. It’s a major piece and it’s a very high price point, but not for what it is. Who knows what it will be worth in years to come. At the moment it’s worth just over $100,000 but in years to come, I think there’s no limit to it’s value. It’s an exceptional painting of major importance.
To be honest with you, I’m going to miss it when it’s gone. It’s been a big part of my daily life for five years. It was sponsored by an American couple from New York who are collectors but not of indigenous art. The husband is the head of a major philanthropic organisation.
People are a little surprised when I mention that it’s going to New York as the apartments there are usually small and this is such a big painting. I guess not all New York apartments are small.
The couple who bought the painting just saw it and fell in love with it. They were here on holiday. I advised them at the time, think about it, don’t rush into it. They were going down south for a tour of the Margaret River wine region and to take in the beautiful countryside down there. While they were away, they couldn’t stop thinking about it and that’s always a good sign that maybe you should consider buying it.
I always advise people to take your time, because whatever you buy you’ll probably have for the rest of your life. When they came back, they just had to have it. It’s exciting, it’s a major purchase and it’s probably in effect, their first indigenous art purchase. Most people start at a lower price point, maybe a couple hundred dollars or something. But they just loved it and had to have it. I guess the most interesting element was that they have said to us that once they pass on they want this painting to be to be returned as a bequest to a national public collection in Australia.
Really they’re just going to be custodians of the painting before returning it to Australia. It’s a lovely story and while I hate to see a painting of this importance and beauty leave the country, it’s reassuring to know at the end of the day, it’s really just on loan and it will be coming back to Australia one day in the future.