In this article Japingka’s Ian Plunkett discusses the work of five contemporary fine dot artists.
When it comes to fine dot painting, I definitely have my own favourites. These are people who I admire and whose technique is taking this exciting style of art in a slightly different direction.
Jorna is the most radical of all these artists and she is probably one of the finest dot painters around. She’s from the Warakurna way in the Western Desert. Her uncle is the famous Tommy Watson. He’d be nearly ninety or so now. His works sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. She’s worked with Tommy and been taught by him. Some of her early paintings reflect his influence in the way they are constructed. Her dots were always finer than Tommy’s but that’s possibly an age thing. Since her early work she’s branched out. Initially her paintings had a little bit of Tommy in them and that’s no longer the case.
Jorna’s paintings are all incredibly finely executed. I’m so impressed by the patience, the skill, the eyesight to be able to produce this work. In a painting which is probably a metre square you can see how dense and detailed it is. Each one of those is a free-hand dot that gives a three-dimensional effect. At the end of the day, it is a collection of dots but the skill in composing that is really something. You know, one mistake would virtually ruin the whole painting because your eye would be drawn to it yet the errors are not there. She just continually produces art to such a high standard and the best part is it doesn’t look like any other painting you’ve seen. It’s not derivative, it’s unique, and it’s inspirational.
I love her fire dreaming stories. You can almost see the flames licking up into the sky and the way the wind goes through and moves the fire with it. We call them fire dreamings. She also paints consistently about her mother’s country. Her mother was responsible for the custodianship of the stories associated with the desert winds that blew through there, and of course fire and wind often go together.
Jorna’s got at least three different styles at the moment, all of them different. In fact if you looked at them you may not even think that they were the same artist. That’s her skill, her diversity, and her eclectic influences. She sees the world in a way that only a real great artist can see it. She transforms a blank canvas into such a staggering thing of beauty and also awe. Seeing work like this is when you really come to appreciate indigenous art. Some people describe aboriginal art, “Oh, it’s just dots.” Well, firstly that’s not true but secondly, even if it was, “Yeah, but look at those dots,” is what I’d say. Look what you can do with it. It’s so much more than that. I think Jorna is an artist to watch.
The next artist I have a lot of admiration for would be Sarrita King. She’s an amazing woman. She’s about twenty-seven now but she’s already had exhibitions in Paris and Berlin and Singapore. She’s just unique, but again her work has that same attention to detail. She paints really fine work dots that actually create a pattern. Her ancestor dreaming paintings are stunning.
The aerial views of her country and the main spiritual centres of those countries are depicted in dots but it looks like you’re just looking out of an aeroplane window as you’re flying over one of the desert areas. It’s such a effortless depiction of her country.
In some way she’s does all the elements, too, because she does the lightning dreaming, the fire dreaming and the water dreamings as well. All the elements are represented in her paintings. Sarrita is going to go a long way.
Maureen Hudson Nampijinpa
The next artist I’d like to talk about would be Maureen Hudson Nampijinpa. She’s a real star and she’s been painting for a long time. She’s a Walpiri artist. Some of her paintings are of the waterhole dreaming, which are aerial views of maps of all the waterholes in her country and how they’re all interconnected among all the sandhills. What’s interesting is that she knows where all the waterholes are and she depicts them in an aerial view or a map. However if you’re flying over the country you wouldn’t see those waterholes because they’re all underground. You’d actually have to dig down to get to that water. It’s not on the surface but it’s a tradition the way the indigenous people depict waterholes is these circles or concentric circles in the landscape. In reality you wouldn’t be able to see them.
For desert-dwelling people water is a matter of life and death. Waterholes have much mythology built around them and much importance. The people who are the custodians of the dreamings associated with waterholes are very important people in the community and the society as a whole. This is because their knowledge and their custodianship of one of the main resources.
Maureen Hudson is unique in that she has larger dots than any of the other people we’re talking about. She is using an almost double dotting technique. You can see a faded dot inside each one of her dots and every second or third dot is what’s called a disappearing dot in that it’s in a different palette so it tricks the eye a little bit when you’re looking at it. It’s there sometimes and other times it’s not, but she paints these enormous landscapes of sandhills and, again, just using this disappearing dot technique of interspersing different colours in the dots she creates these three-dimensional landscapes. If you look at her paintings you can see the valleys between the sandhills that she paints. You can see the rise and fall of the sandhills and it’s really quite hypnotic. She’s one of the few artists that I know who creates these optical illusions. A few of the more famous Pintupi artists are also renowned for creating optical effects but they tend to do it in a different way, usually with lines, not always dots.
Lily Kelly Napangardi
Next I’d like to look at Lily Kelly Napangardi who’s from Mount Liebig in the Northern Territory. Lily also paints sandhills but she paints them in a very different way. Sometimes you get the impression of the wind blowing the tops off these sandhills through the line of dots she creates coming off the top of the sandhills. It’s almost a plain-air and aerial view in the same painting.
Lily Kelly Napangardi was one of the first of the famous artists from the Watiyawanu Art Centre at Mount Liebig. She had major sell-out shows in Sydney back in the early 1990s. She was one of the first artists from that community to make an international name for herself. She’s still painting today and still painting these beautiful paintings, and still taking as much time and care with each dot that she places on the canvas.
People don’t realise how difficult it is to do these extremely fine dots because they tend to be done with, more often than not, just a thin stick. The thing with painting with these sticks is you can only use it maybe ten times, do ten dots and then dipping it back in the paint, and the stick’s useless because it’s clagging up and it’s got paint all over the end of it. You can no longer get the fineness so you have to start with another stick and that way you do another ten dots, and away you go. It is incredible. I personally wouldn’t have the patience to do it, I mean I’m in awe of these people who can do that. Believe me, not everyone can.
The other main fine dot artist I admire is actually from the same community as Lily Kelly, and that’s Wentja Napaltjarri. Now Wentja’s different again. She’s similar in some ways in she uses the same very fine dotting technique as Lily Kelly Napangardi but she has little blocks of sandhills in hers and they’re not so obviously sandhills as different patches of land.
It’s as if you’re looking out from an aeroplane window, ten thousand metres up and seeing all these varying colours and hues through the landscape. She intersperses one lighter colour block, though her palette is fairly limited between yellows, and blacks, and whites and a little off-white, I guess.
What makes it even more staggering is the way she throws in these enormous concentric dotted circles on a black background which represent the main waterholes among all these sandhills. They give a three-dimensional effect but also take it to another level. It’s not just the fine dot work but it’s the composition of these red, and black, and white concentric circles and the way they lift the painting and give it another worldly feel. It shows a really strong innate understanding of the land in which she lives and the connectedness of the country and the water. The paintings show how powerful and important the waterholes are to survival and also depicts the spirits that live in the waterholes, the waterspirits themselves.
Wentja’s had major shows in Europe and she’s a senior artist. She is a leading artist from what used to be called the Watiyawanu Art Centre at Mount Liebig. The other famous artist from there was Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri, who’s since passed on. Wintjiya’s now carrying the torch for the community. She’s a remarkable artist. Her works have sold for up to eighty, ninety thousand dollars and in fact a couple have gone for over a hundred thousand. Given the way the overall art market is at the moment her smaller works tend to sell for five, six thousand up to maybe twenty-five thousand for a major work. It’s a great time to buy her art.
Gratitude and Timing
In the past I’ve had experience working with some Western artists and at times found myself working with enormous egos. For these dot art artists, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. They are very humble, almost unaware of their immense talent, and very grateful for their career and the chance to work on what they love.
In terms of timing for collectors, for these artists and also many others, now is a great time to be buying their artwork. It’s never been more affordable, and there are bargains out there. You get some of the best artists on the planet for a lot less than you pay for a Western artist just leaving art college. These works will stand the test of time. They are stunning, unique talents.
The five women that I’ve discussed here can be grouped together because of their fine dot art work but in every other respect they’re unique. These paintings maybe a collection of dots on linen or canvas, but look at the difference in the styles, and the effect, and the way it speaks to you, and the way it affects your emotions. It’s an amazing skill.
Our next exhibition is an overview of three generations of Kimberley ochre painters. The collection contains some very traditional and well-known artists including Rover Thomas, Jack Britten, Hector Jandany, Henry Wambini and Queenie McKenzie.
Many of these artists have passed away now and they are now regarded as the most significant names of the East Kimberley ochre painting tradition. As ochre painters they sourced materials from the natural environment to make their work – red and yellow earth oxides, black from ground charcoal, and white from pipeclay.
In terms of subject, many were painting extraordinary maps of country from the Kimberley, particularly from the Warmun and Turkey Creek part of the East Kimberley. We’ve also have works from Jack Dale from the West Kimberley, works that he painted towards the end of his life.
You’ll also see some fantastic contemporary works painted by living artists such as Freddie Timms, Charlene Carrington and Willie Kew.
The third dimension of the exhibition is the new generation of painters like Marcia Purdie and June Peters. These artists are a direct line from their elders, people like Shirley Purdie and Queenie McKenzie.
They have continued the ochre traditions, painting with the same natural materials that their elders used. To the same extent they’re talking about the country that is familiar to them, their own home country, and maybe places where they go to hunt with family.
They are painting some of the stories that the elders have also painted about. These are continuous stories, really historical stories as much as Dreaming stories.
Many of the places that they paint about are either very significant because of their Dreaming, creation background. Others are important historically, because they mark all sorts of events that happened for Aboriginal people in the Kimberley.
These places include massacre sites as well as routes that the indigenous stockmen used when they mustered cattle. All these are references to the landscape. The newer works are fresh and very small scale, compared to the older painters. So you can expect to see a range of works across a range of prices. It is an exhibition that includes some historically important names as well as rising stars from this painting tradition.
History of Kimberley Ochre Exhibitions
Over the years, we’ve exhibited a lot of the senior people from the Kimberley ochre painters. Freddie Timms and Jack Dale have held solo exhibitions at Japingka Gallery. Rover Thomas, Hector Jandany, and Queenie McKenzie have exhibited at Japingka, as well as at the gallery’s predecessor at this site. Their older works go right back to the mid and late 1980s, when this gallery was called Birukmarri Gallery.
Some of the very early pieces were exhibited here, and subsequently went into some of the major collections in Western Australia. There’s a continuous history of those people exhibiting and the quality signifies just how important they have been over the years.
Works Exhibited For First Time
There’s some works in this exhibition that haven’t been on display before even though they were painted fifteen or twenty years ago. Some small works by Jack Britten and a very soft work by Hector Jandany would fall into this category. This is the first time they’ve seen by the public.
There really are some fantastic works in this show. I think my favourite is going to be the early Rover Thomas. It’s from around about 1984. It has all the traits that Rover Thomas became famous for and it’s an extraordinary work.
The exhibition opens on Friday 19th February and I hope you can see these works in the context of this special collection.
We have a new exhibition opening this month in Gallery 2 featuring the works of Turbo Brown. Turbo has made a bit of a name for himself painting these very direct images of birds and animals from the Australian bush.
Born in 1967, Trevor ‘Turbo’ Brown is a Latje Latje man who grew up in Mildura in Victoria. As a youngster he had a hard life. He was born with an intellectual disability and was abandoned by his own family when he was quite small. He seems to have more or less brought himself up on the banks of the Murray River.
As he headed into his teenage years Turbo was adopted by an older family, Uncle Herb Batten and his wife, Aunty Bunta. They subsequently took Turbo with them when they moved to Melbourne. At this point his life improved from those difficult early days. He went to painting classes with his adopted parents and found he had a real knack for storytelling. As well as being an artist Turbo trained in boxing and became a “keen rapper”. His nickname Turbo comes from the 1984 breakdance movie Breakin’.
Turbo paints the mood of the animal world. He says it reminds him of the time when he was homeless and living out on the riverbanks and animals were his only friends.
In this exhibition you’ll see these very alive paintings of kookaburras calling out first thing in the morning, and birds in flight, and rows of galahs on fence-lines. There are all sorts of animals in his paintings and he uses imaginative freelance too. You’ll see subjects like whales and numbats. In one painting there’s a wall of echidnas stomping across the country.
He has a fantastic imaginative but probably more emotional kind of release in the paintings. Often the sun’s bursting out and the birds are singing or winging through the sky. You can see that he’s creating a world that was pretty important. It got him out of his own more difficult times and into the natural world, which he preferred to be in.
He paints with a real directness in a naive style. You can see the brush strokes, he puts big layers of colours on. He’s got flying parrots with fantastic colours of reds and greens as they fly across the sky or are perched in the trees. People can respond very quickly to the type of artwork he does.
Turbo’s work has been widely exhibited since 2001 and he has had over ten solo exhibitions. A number of his paintings are included in important collections such as the National Gallery of Australia as well as the National Gallery of Victoria.
This is fresh exciting work and I hope you get a chance to see this exhibition when it opens on 19 February.
View: Turbo Brown Exhibition
Petrina Bedford is a third generation contemporary indigenous artist. Her grandfathers were the famous painters Jack Dale Mengenen on her mother’s side and Paddy Bedford on her father’s side. Her mother is the Ngarinyin artist Edna Dale. Encouraged by Jack Dale, Petrina painted from a very young age. In this interview she talks about this relationship with her Grandpa, growing up in Imintji and her life as an artist.
How did you come to be an artist?
The reason I’ve become an artist is because of my Grandpa, Jack Dale. He just picked me for some reason. Then he made me talented, in different ways. Now, I can’t believe I do all those things. It just makes me want to be more creative.
Did he share his history?
He talked to me a lot while he was painting.
Telling you traditional stories?
I can hardly remember, I was so young. I wish he was still here with us.
Did you like painting with him, or was it work at first?
Work at first, and then we talked.
It sounds like you had a close relationship with your grandfather?
Yeah. Really close.
What is it that you want to say to young people in your community who are scared and on the outside of the art? How do they find their way in?
That’s the thing I’m trying to figure out for myself. I see a lot of young people. I’m a young artist too. I want to get around and know people. Explore new places. I think, why don’t they want to do that? Why don’t they want to be like that? Why are they so ashamed and hide their talents away? Me, I’m just expressing it all out. I don’t want to be closed in. I want to be open to people. I want them to know who I am, and what I can do.
Do you have many other young people in the art centre?
Mostly it’s just me and my partner.
When you paint do you feel like you are actually showing yourself?
Yeah I really do.
That takes a little courage.
Yeah, I know.
You have famous artists on both sides of your family. Jack Dale on your mother’s side and the famous Paddy Bedford on your father’s side.
I can go 2 ways. Ngarinyin and Gija. Mother, father’s side. I am really painting my family stories from Grandpa Jack Dale. No one is carrying on the stories and history from Paddy’s side. I wish I could help. I need to learn more about it. I need to hear the stories and spend time with the old people and the younger people.
How do you explain the connection to the land?
This is a big story. It’s very different. We’re connected with the land and the old people’s stories. We can’t just leave it. We’ve got to stick together to make the land stronger.
Did you enjoy growing up on your country?
A lot. With my sister growing up. Going swimming. Hunting. Everything. Going to school there. It’s really nice out there.
Did you do any art in school?
Yes, I did. Sketching. I started drawing. Then, that’s when I got the idea of drawing the Wandjinas. Drawing on boab nuts. Carving. The print. That’s where I got my skills from.
When did you start print making?
About a few months ago.
Can you tell me a little about what it was like going from painting to print making?
When I first started it, I wasn’t too sure what to do. I was thinking, “What am I doing?” I’m sitting in the chair, looking at everything. The engravers. The engraving machines. The board right there. The pencil.
I had to learn how to do the board, and the flooring. Cut the board out, and shape. Do it with the engraver. Everything. The patterns on the body. Then, put it out with the ink. Then, we make the prints.
You were thinking, how are you going to do this?
Yeah, I didn’t know at first. I was thinking, “Hide.” Then I started to draw. Then, I started to carve. Then I think, “Oh, now I know.” Then I started. I said to Rosie, “Is it okay to cut the body out and do something and do the print ?” That’s when I did the single bodies. They’re bodies of the Arawadi and Wandjinas with the dots.
What was it like when you pealed back your first print?
I was so proud. I couldn’t believe that I did it. Truely.
How does it feel different to you? From painting to print making?
Well I do three things at once. I can do it all in one day. If I get spare time. I can do carvings, a lot of boab nuts. I sell to art galleries or to just random people who want to buy boab nuts on the street. Anywhere. I do carving. I do paintings. Now, I’m doing prints. So that’s three different things I’m doing. That’s a good thing.
There’s going to be more that I want to do. I just don’t want to be doing those things. I want to get more creative and inspire more young people to be like me.
You’ve gone through different stages of painting.
When I first got back to painting at the age of fourteen, at Mark Norval’s Gallery, there’s just one thing. When I put out my canvas. I set all my paint brush. Put my pencil aside. I wasn’t too sure what to draw again after grandpa left. I was shaking for some reason that day, when I’m stuck. I couldn’t believe it. It was like, “Why am I shaking?” I could feel him just across the table.
Do you feel his presence, even while you’re working?
Everywhere. Even when I think of him, I can get flash back of memories a lot. It hurts me, but I don’t want to forget. I just keep it all inside. Be strong.
When you look at your work, how do you feel about it? When you walk in there, and you see your work, what’s your feeling towards the work on the wall?
It makes you feel proud?
Yeah, it does. Happiness. Happy thoughts. I can’t believe what I’ve done, with my own bare hands. It just makes me want to do more. I think I might do more.
In this interview Kimberley artist Edna Dale talks about her famous father, the artist Jack Dale Mengenen.
About Jack Dale, Jack was born with European/Indigenous parentage at a time when this was unacceptable within both cultures. Jack’s mother hid him from the welfare workers who routinely removed mixed race children from their families. Jack grew up in the country with his mother learning the traditional ways of her family. He started to paint in his seventies exploring themes of traditional knowledge and culture and painting the Creation spirits, the Wandjina.
About Edna Dale
In this interview his artist daughter Edna Dale talks about her father and how he encouraged her to paint and keep those stories alive. Edna still lives on her traditional land, painting and encouraging others to use art to tell their stories and keep their culture strong. She has a seventeen year old daughter Petrina, also an artist, who is carrying this painting tradition on to a third generation.
A Hard Life
Edna, your father had an incredible life. When you meet young people who don’t know about him, what’s the story that you tell when they say, “Who was Jack Dale?”
I tell them a lot of stories, the history. What really went on. What he told me. I try and carry it on, too, with my paintings.
How do you describe him as a man?
I think Dad was a rough fellow. He grew up very hard, and he tried to be hard with me, too. Being the only daughter, I think that he had to. With Dad’s life, it was very hard growing up in the old days. He used to tell me a lot of stories about his father and his mother. You know, European and the Natives. He wanted to love his father. He also loved his mother. He used to tell us about the welfare patrols and the treatment of half-castes and all that. I look at people now and it’s so hard to believe all that happened. People sometimes think life was easy back then, you know? It was a hard life. These people grew up hard.
I think Dad just put everything into painting his story. If anybody asks me, “Who’s Jack Dale?” I go, “That’s my Dad!” I’ve got a lot of history. I have a book and I say, “You want to know about my father? Look at this book. It’s at our Art Centre.” They tell me, “Gee, your father was a very strong man,” and I’m proud. Some people ask me back home, “Is it okay to say his name?” I say, “Well, for me it’s okay, because I don’t want my father to ever be forgotten. I want him always remembered.”
Your father came to painting quite late in his life?
Yes, in his 70’s, I think he started painting because all he wanted to do was sit back and relax. He had this good memory inside of everything in the past, what happened.
Do you remember when he started painting?
Yes, about seventeen years ago when Petrina was only a baby.
A Father’s Influence
Did he talk to you about the art?
Yeah, I’d sit there and he’d tell me, “Come on Edna. You got to come over here. You got to help me do this and that,” and I’m saying, “But Dad, I don’t even know how to paint.” It was like that. I didn’t want to do paintings because I thought if I’m going to touch the brush and do paintings, I might just muck it all up. I didn’t even know how to do a Wandjina back then.
Coming to exhibitions with Japingka, with Dad and I’ll be just looking at the paintings thinking, “I don’t think I’ll ever paint a Wandjina in my life.” That was in my early 20’s. I didn’t really know what the future was going to bring me. As I was growing older, I stayed with my Mum and Dad and with Petrina and the other kids.
I think growing up and just watching, keep watching, and we learn. He’d always tell me, “Come on, Edna. Let’s go do some paintings.” I wouldn’t say no or yes. I’d just come and put the brush out, the canvas, and then he’ll start doing his paintings and he’ll say, “Can you straighten it up for me?” I’m like, “But Dad, I don’t know how to do it.” It was always Dad pushing me to do the paintings and to help him. He got me to where I am today, I think.
He was telling you the stories of the Wandjinas?
Yeah. A lot of stories. Mainly the stories of Imintji and Bell Gorge. That’s our traditional area because he always told me, “We can’t claim other people’s land. We have to stick to our own stories and our own Wandjinas.” That was the main part.
A Medical Crisis
Can you talk a little bit about that growing confidence and the things that helped you move forward as an artist?
I think the main thing that pushed me was when Dad had the fall and broke his hips. He came down to Royal Perth Hospital. It was a big experience to come all the way with him, to be with him and to see him suffer. I said to myself, I have to make him happy. Then I started painting.
Sometimes I’d finish a painting and I’d think, “Is that really mine?” I’d be shocked myself because I wouldn’t really think I’d be able to do it, you know? I can’t believe it’s my Wandjinas. Then Jenny Wright, the Manager at Mowunjum Arts Centre, would come and say to me. “Come on, Edna. I need some more of those Jack Dale’s daughter’s paintings.” Then I’d do so much, and then she’d encourage me, “Oh, Edna, come on. Keep going.” You know the Art Centre has been very supportive of me, especially after Dad passed. They helped me through a difficult time. I’m so grateful for that.
How did your father react when he started seeing your paintings?
Oh, Dad was so proud to see them. He said, “You keep going now because I don’t think I’m going to be here very much longer.” He was already at the nursing home. Being at the nursing home really made him down. I knew I had to make him happy. Every time I’d do a painting back home at Imintji, I’d bring some in and show him what I was doing. I’d tell him that at Imintji were going to have our own Art Centre and how things were still going back home. It really made him so happy and proud.
A Family Painting Together
He had quite a surprising new lease of life at some point there, didn’t he? Can you tell us about what happened?
When he moved to the nursing home the carers knew that he was an artist. They spoke with a gallery owner in Derby called Mark Norval. Mark told the carers they could bring Dad in any time. Dad started doing his paintings there. I’d come in from Imintji, we’d all meet up at the gallery. Every time Mark would see us as a team. Me, Petrina and Dad would all be on a table sitting down and doing the paintings.
We’d always be together because Petrina started when she was 4 years old. “Come on, Petrina. We’re going to get going. Do this, do that.”
I wasn’t going to be an artist, but then I saw Dad. I saw how he was down and then how he picked up when he saw us doing the paintings. I said, “I’ve got my own art exhibitions.” Also when he knew I was going for the Revealed Artists, I showed him all my paintings. He was just happy. Just to know that he was happy inside meant a lot to me.
When did you start to actually accept that you’re an artist?
I think it was in 2012. I’ve always helped Dad and probably seeing him and telling me all our stories, I picked it up inside. Dad has been a big influence. He inspired me in a lot of ways through art. I reckon if it wasn’t for Dad, I wouldn’t even be sitting here. In that way and I’m happy because I could still carry it on. To myself I was thinking if I don’t do the art, there would be no more stories. I had to carry Dad’s name because he’s got a really big name in Derby through his art.
My paintings are about that connection to our home. To Imintji, Bell Gorge. That strong connection to the past. All our knowledge was learnt. We learnt it off my Dad. I have to carry it on, otherwise it will be lost. He’d always tell me, “You’ve got to be an artist. Always. You’ve got to start painting. Don’t stop.”
Preserving The Stories
Not everyone in your community feel able to paint do they?
A lot of Aboriginal people, they’re ashamed. That’s how I felt too when I was young.
It seems you’ve been motivated to overcome that in order to preserve the stories of your father?
It could have been lost so that’s why I had to carry it on. Just to keep that painting and our story alive. He’d always talk about our homeland, Imintji.
The Imintji Community
Edna can you tell me about where you live and your life there?
It’s like 220 kms from Derby, and I’m the Chairperson, the Director, and the traditional owner, and then I’ve got 7 girls to look after. Then I’ve got to care for my Mum at the same time. My Step-Mum. It’s really a big responsibility at home.
How many people live where you live?
I’d say now there’s about 50 people in our community. The Art Centre’s part of that little community.
Do you get out onto country very often?
Yes we go out hunting or fishing. Mainly when I have my spare time.
Do any members of the community still gather bush tucker? Is that still relevant for them?
Yeah, we’ve still got a lot of bush tuckers back home. A lot of stuff out there. We’ve got these little green plums now. It happens during Christmas time. They’re little green plums, and they’re really sweet for the kids. They can just put a bucket, shake the tree, fill it all up, go home, they crush them up, and then mix it with little bit of sugar.
Are there yams and vegetables out there?
Yeah. There’s a lot of food.
Art Benefits Community
I wondered if you wanted to talk about the ways that art practice benefits Indigenous communities.
Having an Arts Co-ordinator like Rosie helps a lot. She’s a good teacher. We really like Rosie. She’ll just come out to visit us at Imintji. We talk, and tell yarns and enjoy a laugh. We just do our art and we talk about things. It’s really good.
We’re trying to build the Imintji Arts Centre slowly. It’s only a little small donga (portable building) we had in the community. It’s a little project for our community fellows. They’ve just redone it, painted it up, did the floors, and now it looks so new. I cannot believe it myself.
Imintji put up its own money so we could have our own Art Centre. I tell all artists, I encourage them, come to Imintji. Do some paintings, and it will help them and their family. It’s all about trying to get other people involved. We give our own people most of the money made from sales. We only keep 5% of sales for the Art Centre itself.
Being part of the Art Centre has really made us understand more about the tourists who come in and what they enjoy. I could see that they need to understand the story. They need to meet the artists as well. I’m always at the Arts Centre. I try and tell them about everybody’s stories.
Because I’m there, they would just want to buy my paintings. They enjoy meeting the artist. I try to encourage everyone else in our community to come and get involved. I support the other artists too. I don’t want to just be selling my own work. I’d like them to buy other member’s of the community’s work too.
What sort of questions do visitors ask you?
Visitors to the Art Centre sometimes ask why the Wandjina doesn’t have a mouth. I say well they are spirits. Sometimes I’m confused myself. It’s the way they’ve always been. That’s how Wandjinas are formed in the caves. That’s just how our ancestors left them. All Wandjinas don’t have a mouth.
Visit To See The Ancient Traditional Art
What do you feel when you go to those ancient rock paintings?
You could feel that presence of the ancestors in the caves and in art they’ve done. I only flew around to see the rock art about 3 or 4 years ago with Dad. He showed me how Wandjinas are carved in the rock. It was so moving, like, “Ahh.” To see them still there after all those years.
It was like a gift, just seeing it. You could touch it. Your old people, the ancestors. It was just right up inside an open cave. I saw that with my Dad.
Three Generations of Contemporary Painters
What would Jack Dale think about his exhibition?
I reckon if he was here he’d be really proud to see me and Petrina together as artists and seeing our Wandjinas. I can just see his face. Just smiling and happy. That’s something I did for Dad is to carry his stories on because he had a big name, you know. Everybody knew who Jack Dale was.
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 than 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.
Attitude To Mistakes
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 Papunya 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.