ONLY rarely do the admirers of an art movement have the chance to see the key episodes in its evolution captured, its transitions made evident: the viewing eye can hardly ever trace the mystery of artistic transmission.
But this year’s Desert Mob show, newly opened at the Araluen Centre in Alice Springs, offers precisely such a spectacle: art by established masters from the painting centres of the inland hung alongside the strikingly assured works of their descendants.
On the walls, crowded together, are pieces by grandparents and grandchildren, by mothers and daughters. Not only are these sets of works proclamations of family lineages in paint, they also trace out a pattern through time. They show what has permanence and what is passing fashion in the Aboriginal art bazaar.
As in every iteration of the annual Desert Mob display, so it is this year. Bringing together almost 300 works from 30-odd art centres guarantees a riot of exuberance. Large-scale, resolved canvases by senior desert men look out across metal sculptures produced by inmates from a prison art program; ceramic pots and woven baskets stand close by soft-form sculptures in felt, and wooden nest-boxes festooned with painted images of birds.
Every conceivable kind of surface has been worked and decorated, almost every object on view announces a connection to landscape, history or culture – and in the context of the event, this joyous multiplicity makes sense.
Desert Mob remains the most engaging and successful of the myriad indigenous art exhibitions staged each year across Australia, its catch-all quality lies at the heart of its appeal, at every turn its different works seem to murmur of the Aboriginal presence lying in the landscape, here, there, everywhere, in the sands and ranges, in the winding creek-beds, in the minds of women and men. All links up. No group, no region is without its artistic mirror, the whole centre seems to be embodied in a chain of colours, themes and forms. In such a display, nothing could be less natural than judgment or discrimination between works.
The exhibition is not curated, rather it is built up from consignments of paintings and sculpted pieces chosen by each art centre across the desert region – but despite this open, almost random character, every Desert Mob highlights trends and preoccupations alive across the inland, and so it is again with this year’s 22nd show.
A hinge time has come in the desert, a hinge at once political, economic, cultural and generational. The politics is unprecedented. The newly formed Northern Territory government contains, for the first time, a sizeable bloc of indigenous parliamentarians from traditional communities, elected on a platform of strengthening remote communities and outstations, the places that make up the heartland of the desert painting movement. There are new constraints. Only last week the federal government’s regime of income management was extended to include the art-producing South Australian Pitjantjatjara communities, and the cross-border West Australian region is also likely to be enfolded in this system of social controls. The economic fundamentals of the market Desert Mob’s artists must sell into remain challenging, and few signs of improvement have been evident in the primary market in recent months. The administrative map also has changed; the umbrella Desart group that puts the show together is being run by a new indigenous chief executive, Philip Watkins, a man with ambitions more nuanced than those of his predecessors.
Across the art communities of the inland, the drive to hand down tradition is at its height: and this drive is what is most visible on the walls of the Araluen Centre.
Consider the set of paintings from the Tjungu Palya art centre in the little community of Nyapari, deep in the Pitjantjatjara desert. Tjungu Palya was built up during the past decade as the home base of old artists such as Jimmy Baker, the master of the emu story, and Wingu Tingima, the painter of the remote site of Kuru Ala. Both are now dead, as are many of the old generation who lived at Nyapari, and the founding co-ordinator, Amanda Dent, has moved on.
But here, surrounded by the works of established painters, are two suggestive canvases by new names. The version of Kuru Ala by Sallyanne Roberts echoes the iconography of Wingu, only in more vivid, expressionist style in rich, purplish reds and variegated ochre golds: no surprise, for Roberts is Wingu’s granddaughter.
Helen Curtis’s painting Cave Hill Area is a colour field of floating reds and mauves, and the airy, suspended quality of the work recalls the style of her mother, Angkaliya Curtis, whose trademark white-dot red-ground panel of desert creatures hangs alongside.
A gallery away, among the dazzle of large works from the neighbouring Tjala art centre, is a bright-hued, serpentine canvas that bring insistently to mind the paintings of Tiger Palpatja, the master of the Piltadi rockhole snake cycle who died last year.
It is the same theme, and the style is similar, but the accenting is cleaner, sharper, the meld of colours quite different. The work is, in a sense, from Tiger’s blood: it is a collaboration between his three artist daughters, led by Rini Tiger.
What process is under way here? The prolongation of a movement, the preservation of a tradition, the claiming of an economic opportunity? All three, in fact: the art current is being steered down these descent lines by its co-ordinators, who keenly wish to see younger artists at work in their studios, and by old desert men and women who view painting chiefly as a means to keep their law and culture vividly alive.
With each new generation in the desert centre, something is preserved, something changes, something dies: the art made today is vastly different from the sacred designs traced out on stones or in caves before contact, and different again from the jewel-like paintings on board first executed in frontier settlements four decades ago. The large, symphonic works by old men and women that dominate Desert Mob this year are of a loose, authoritative sweep and scale: expanses of colour, combined in ways no Western eye would easily choose.
And who will come in the steps of the old painters such as Dickie Minyintiri from Ernabella, Nora Nungabar from Well 33 or Harry Tjutjuna from Kalka? Who could hope to match the newest, freest works by Sandy Brumby, a painter of rich colour fields showing at Desert Mob and at the Raft Artspace gallery nearby? Who will paint works with the touch and beauty of Barney Wangin from Amata, or Milatjari Pumani from Mimili? Perhaps the initial answers are already on the walls of this exhibition, lurking in unexpected corners: not just in the works of the younger generations of fledgling artists in remote communities but in the rough bird drawings set down by Conway Ginger, an emerging painter at Bindi Art’s Mwerre Anthurre studio, or in the figurines now being made by Constance Robinja, Marlene Rubuntja and Rhonda Sharpe, the women of Yarrenyty Arltere Artists at the Larapinta Valley town camp. Profusion, creation, everywhere – but there is also a set of dilemmas lying in wait for Desert Mob, and for the Desart network of remote studios.
What future will there be for art centres and for the performance of indigenous culture on this vast scale for the wider world? It is hard to make out a coherent long-term future for Aboriginal communities across the inland, despite the recommendations aiming to design a thriving society in the bush. Desert Mob is the showcase for a generation-long cultural revival and a concerted project of increased governmental funding designed to strengthen the social fabric of remote communities.
Artistry, though, has not enhanced economic development: nor are all art centres equal, despite the principles of egalitarian distribution that underlie their funding. The contradictions in the management of the modern desert art movement multiply with each new scheme to regulate and direct it: uneasy coalitions of administrators, academics and market-makers cluster around the artists and their co-ordinators in a constantly shifting dance.
Culture is the product, program funding the means and prestige the goal. Yet a fundamental disconnect exists between the art-makers and those who promote and consume the art. Desert men and women of senior rank want to keep their traditions strong, and more and more to build a fence around the secrets of their law: many of the experts and art-world insiders who study and explore the desert’s cultures seek to break that wall. Then there is the deepest contradiction: how, in the absence of a strong market, to keep the movement alive.
A day-long symposium was held late last week at the opening of Desert Mob: not one of these issues was substantively addressed.
Desert Mob 2012 is on view at the Araluen Art Centre, Alice Springs, until October 21.
Artist: Jimmy Baker, Wingu Tingima, Kuru Ala, Sallyanne Roberts, Helen Curtis, Angkaliya Curtis, Tiger Palpatja, Rini Tiger, Dickie Minyintiri, Ernabella, Nora Nungabar, Harry Tjutjuna, Sandy Brumby, Barney Wangin, Milatjari Pumani, Conway Ginger, Constance Robinja, Marlene Rubuntja, Rhonda Sharpe
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Tags: Angkaliya Curtis , Araluen Centre , Barney Wangin , Constance Robinja , Conway Ginger , desart , Desert Mob , dickie minyintiri , ernabella , harry tjutjuna , Helen Curtis , jimmy baker , Kuru Ala , Marlene Rubuntja , milatjari pumani , nora nungabar , Pitjantjatjara , Rhonda Sharpe , rini tiger , Sallyanne Roberts , Sandy Brumby , tiger palpatja , Tjungu Palya art centre , wingu tingima ,