That’s a phrase that’s come into my life twice recently.
Reviewing a mighty tome on the Burrup Peninsular’s extraordinary petroglyphs, I was introduced to that phrase as the words of the Yaburara people who’d created that extraordinary ancient rock gallery used to describe their Dreaming. As the Yaburara are almost certainly extinct following 19th Century massacres, it had a sad resonance.
Now it turns up more cheerfully at the Chalk Horse Gallery in Sydney. There it’s the translation of Ngurra Nyujunggamu, linking the Yaburara’s still very extant neighbours, the Yindjibarndi back to a time when Marrga spirits named and shaped the country, then its birds and animals, and finally the Yindjibarndi themselves “ before disappearing into its rocky rivers and gullies.
So it’s the title for the second Chalk Horse showing of paintings by the Yinjaa Barni artists of Roebourne on the edge of the Pilbara “ a group that only came together to paint in 2006. In 2007, they started winning prizes at the local Cossack Art Awards, and the local Shire (with miner Rio Tinto’s help) gave them a fine potential studio in a heritage-listed house. Involved in the reconstruction of that studio was Jasper Knight’s father-in-law “ and Jasper is an artist on the board of Chalk Horse.
Accompanying this second show is a film shot in The Pilbara “ showing the land and the artists at work “ and in Sydney when Australia Council assistance allowed a group of the artists to come South to promote their first show. Very successful that was, too “ the show sold out in two days. But the film also contains delightful commentary from Knight “ a rare example of a Western artist analysing Black art from a professional viewpoint. His bemused thoughts on experiments in mark-making which the Yinjaa Barni artists probably see as the only way they know to create the images they need to, are marvellous examples of cross-cultural serendipity!
Indeed, this is confirmed by Roebourne art coordinator, Patricia Floyd, who introduced art to the potential painters and who makes it clear that from her viewpoint their power lies in this unique way of under-painting even when the surface appearance is dominated by dotting.
The artists themselves are no mean communicants “ having presumably had to deal with pastoralists and miners for the last 100 years. Sad that they weren’t asked their views on the industrial exploitation of the Burrup Peninsular back in 1964 when Rio Tinto’s iron-ore port set in train the polluting rot that now includes gas and ammonia plants.
There’s no trace of the threatened petroglyphs in the Yindjibarndi work. Much looks to be gently-toned abstraction with little room for story, mapping or spirituality. But artist Wendy Derby is quite clear in her intentions to reflect an aerial view of the vast landscapes of the Pilbara where a greater creator has sprinkled all those colours. And Patricia Floyd amplifies this aspect of her charges’ work in a curatorial note which explains: The direct nature of these works conveys local knowledge and ancient stories of the land as opposed to a constructed, literal narrative (of the sort) we tend to experience in European painting. This work is not about how the terrain would look if you photographed it. It is about the experience of living on, and being from that land.
Most recognised of the artists, Clifton Mack “ who had gorgeous experiential paintings in the first Chalk Horse show “ is concentrating on the Jarman Island lighthouse this time. Does he love the building and the play of various lights upon this source of light? Or is it an iconic symbol of an aggressive Western intrusion on his horizon? The presence of unchanging nature in the form of seagulls footprints on the rock holding the Jarman suggests the latter interpretation is the more likely.
Yinjaa Barni also show at Japingka in Perth.