It could hardly be further from the rich wetlands of the Roper River on the Gulf of Carpentaria coast at the southern fringe of Arnhemland. But the Wagga Wagga Art Gallery in dry old New South Wales has just opened the ‘Colour Country: art from Roper River’ exhibition as part of the City Council’s Indigenous Winter Program, Mawang (Altogether).

The exhibition consists of approximately fifty works from artists who painted in the Roper River region of the NT from 1987, some of them still working in Ngukurr today. The bulk of the exhibition features historically significant spectacular, large-scale works by major artists who’ve died – such as Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, Djambu Barra Barra, Willie Gudabi and his wife Moima Samuels, Gertie Huddleston, Dinah Garadji and Amy Jirwulurr Johnson. Artists who are still painting today include Huddlestone’s and Garadji’s sister, Angelina George – and they’re just three of the five painting Joshua sisters, all children of the first Aboriginal pastor at Ngukurr mission.

There is also a full-colour catalogue, with contributions by curator Cath Bowdler, Judith Ryan and Nicolas Rothwell the author, who’s latest book, ‘The Red Highway’ features an Angelina George painting on its cover.

It’s twenty years since artists first started painting in acrylics at Ngukurr. Art from the community burst into public consciousness when the raw and very brightly coloured canvases appeared at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA) in Darwin in 1987, exploding on to the scene. Those early paintings from Ngukurr, characterised by bold colour and a stylistic individuality that was partly the result of different tribal affiliations and partly happening in the absence of a community art centre to homogenise the painting, represent some of the most remarkable paintings in the history of Aboriginal art.

Willie Gudabi – the Douanier Rousseau of this fertile landscape – Amy Jirwulurr Johnson and Djambu Barra Barra were there when the first painting workshops, organized through NT Adult Education, took place in 1987. Together with Ginger Riley – who’d been originally inspired by seeing Albert Namatjira at work down in the Desert – these artists gained acclaim and their works were soon collected by major institutions. Despite this stellar beginning, paintings from Roper River have only been exhibited together in a major public gallery once before. In 1997 Ngundungunya: Art for Everyone accompanied the Ginger Riley retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria.

This exhibition is timely as it stresses diversity in Indigenous art production and explores individual artists’ unique artistic visions.

Colour Country: Art from Roper River’ opened at Wagga Wagga Art Gallery on June 5 2009, and will appear there until July 29.
A national tour then goes to the following venues:
* Flinders University Art Museum, Adelaide 4 December, 2009 – 14 February, 2010.
* Drill Hall Gallery, Canberra – 25 February – 11 April, 2010.
* Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin, 22 May – 1 July, 2010.

Melburnians – denied the art – can savour the music of Ngukurr when Paul Grabowsky and the Australian Art Orchestra work with the ‘manikay’ musos of the Yugul Band at the Recital Centre in August in a project called ‘Crossing Roper Bar’.