The history of art from the Deserts is a long and storied one – beginning of course with the explosion in Papunya in 1971. To its east, Utopia gave us the wonders of Emily Kngwarrey and Kathleen Petyarre. Further north, the Warlpiri painted their school doors and were soon on canvas as well. The Papunya founders themselves moved west to Kintore, etc and continue to delight. But further south, the Pitjanjatjara were reluctant joiners – partly because their sense of spiritual propriety meant they needed persuasion to reveal their cultural secrets, partly because the storerooms at the Australia Council were full of unsold paintings, so they were encouraged to concentrate on crafts! But, under the APY Lands banner, you can’t stop them painting today!
Anangu, Pitjanjatjara, Yankunytjatjara are relatively familiar tribal names. The Ngaanyatjarra, on the other hand, who are closely related, are mostly over the border in WA, and are, as a result, relatively unknown and under-appreciated. Being a patriotic Westy mob, the Perth-based facilitators, FORM, are trying to remedy that with the opening of a group show from the four major art centres in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, plus work from the Alice Springs-based Tjanpi Weavers (which collects across into WA) and the sales consortium at Maruku – based at Uluru.
Oddly, FORM has entitled the show, ‘Really One Story’, though curator Andrew Nicholls wants to assure me that Ngaanyatjarra art is “absolutely distinct” from its Desert neighbours – though he does admit that they were lumped with their Pitjanjatjara neighbours in being discouraged from painting until the late 90s. “As a result of that time when woodcraft and fibre work was encouraged, they’re a very multi-disciplinary lot, crossing over between artforms”.
“And there’s a freshness and audaciousness in the work”, Nicholls conbtinued; “they’re a very dynamic, almost Wild West group!”.
And he cited the work of Cynthia Burke at Warakurna, who says she’s been painting since she was about 10. “When I’m painting it’s like I’m in that place. I think about the landscape like I’m looking down from a plane seeing a lake or spinifex”. But she also does wooden Punu work decorated with hot wires, fibre sculptures and baskets. There’s even a Punu-design tie on the Maruku website!
When one looks through the websites of the centres like Warakurna, Minyma Kutjara (at Irrunytju), Papulankutja (Blackstone) and Tjarlirli at Tjukurla, one sees how youthful many of their artists are – though the leadership surely comes from elders such as Katjarra Butler, Bob Gibson, Roma Butler, Jackie Giles and the late Jimmy Donegan – many of whom have continued their art-making careers in the Wanarn retirement home with wonderful late-life works. Of course it was the late Kantjupaya Benson at Papulankutja who opened up the fairly ladylike Tjanpi weaving world in 2005 by masterminding the NATSIAA-winning ‘Grass Toyota’.
And Irrunytju’s Roma Butler is still innovating with what Andrew Nicholls describes as “a sensational stop-motion animation, taking us all on a hunting trip to catch a feral cat, giving us an amazing insight into some of the realities of desert life”.
Irrunytju, of course, was the contentious home of the late great Yannima Tommy Watson, who left his desert home for exploitation in Alice Springs when his prominence attracted excessive humbugging. Much bitterness and black-listing ensued when the dealer who rescued him, John Ioannou, briefly took over the community art centre. Now the women there have restored order and, appropriately, given their art centre the name Minyma Kutjara – the Two Women Dreaming.
Unrepresented in Perth is art from Warburton, which is in many ways the fulcrum of Ngaanyatjarra art. The former mission has had dynamic art activity and many current artists now in other communities began their painting there. But, as Sydney (and later China) experienced, the community wanted to keep its art for itself in a community museum rather than go to market. A huge, sandy-floored exhibition at the Casula Powerhouse many years ago introduced the wider world to this unique concept of self-sufficiency.
At one time they produced only wonderful slab glass bowls and panels for sale – as revealed in the excellent 2012 book from the University of WA Press, ‘Ngaanyatjarra : Art of the Lands’, edited by John Carty and Tim Acker. It should be on sale at the FORM Gallery – as the art and artefacts will be. An online catalogue has now gone up online and is linked below.
‘Really One Story: Art from the Ngaanyatjarra Lands’ is now at the FORM gallery and cafe in Claremont, Perth until May 7.
Artist: Emily Kngwarrey, Kathleen Petyarre, Tjanpi Weavers, Cynthia Burke, Katjarra Butler, Bob Gibson, Roma Butler, Jackie Giles, Jimmy Donegan, Kantjupaya Benson, Yannima Tommy Watson, George Ward Tjungarrayi,
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Tags: Anangu , Andrew Nicholls , Bob Gibson , cynthia burke , emily kngwarrey , FORM , george ward tjungarrayi , jackie giles , Jackie Giles and the late Jimmy Donegan , Jeremy Eccles , jimmy donegan , Kantjupaya Benson , kathleen petyarre , katjarra butler , Ngaanyatjarra , Pitjanjatjara , roma butler , tjanpi weavers , Yankunytjatjara , yannima tommy watson ,