It’s certainly a rich time for the publication of books by or about Indigenous artists, or concerning the wider field of First Nations culture. In October, for instance, I finally got round to reviewing the masterpiece that is ‘Balgo : Creating Country’ and encourage you to consider that. But many more books have come my way, and I’m delighted to draw them to your attention at this ‘giving’ season.
Early in 2021, for instance, I was drawn to former broadcaster Jane Singleton’s self-published book, ‘What Katie Did’. It sounds like a children’s book; but it’s in fact an exploration of the relatively unconsidered life of Katie Langloh Parker, a distant relative of Singleton’s. She was briefly (from 1879 until the 1891 drought) a squatter’s wife on Bangate Station in North West NSW. However, a riding accident made her unable to mount a horse again, trapping her at home. Here she declared “I shall do my mental digging in their minds” – they being the local Eulahlayi people (nowadays called Yuwaalaraay), still “free from the mission taint”.
By 1896, she had published ‘Australian Legendary Tales’, dedicated to Peter Hippi, King of the Noongahburrahs, and illustrated by an uncredited Tommy McRae – the pre-eminent 19th Century Aboriginal artist. But women ethnologists were given short shrift in those days, and it hasn’t been much better in recent times when academics and Blak gate-keepers took it upon themselves to claim both exploitation of Hippi and revelation of secret/sacred material.
However, Singleton claims that Parker’s process was pretty rigorous. An elder was invited to tell a public story to a younger man; who then reversed the process and checked he’d got it all right. It was then translated and written down by Parker – also repeating the process in reverse. Her language word lists are now a major source of information in the Lightning Ridge Language and Culture Nest. And no less a radical than Ghillar Michael Anderson (he of the original Tent Embassy) has declared that his people are lucky to have their legends written down with such respect.
Sad then that reprints of the ‘Legends’ have gone out as “Selected by Henrietta Drake-Brockman” and illustrated with some very appropriated imagery by Elizabeth Durack, as though their names would sell Langloh Parker’s dedicated work. Singleton’s lively work should sell itself too – via firstname.lastname@example.org
A much more recent publication is a hot buy and a prizewinner. For journo and academic Dean Ashenden has recently won the inaugural $10,000 Australian Political Book of the Year Award for ‘Telling Tennant’s Story: The strange career of the great Australian silence’. Could anthropologist and inventor of that telling phrase, WEH Stanner, possibly come into the story?
I can’t improve upon the eminent judges’ comments in coming to their selection: “Dean Ashenden’s book … answered all [our] early questions about what a Political Book of the Year should look like in 2022”, they said. “His work—combining memoir, history and journalism—gives Australia one of the most powerful accounts yet of the sorry story of White Australia’s repeated assaults—and clumsy interventions—on Indigenous Australia since the arrival of the First Fleet.
He tells that story intimately through the lens of what has happened at Tennant Creek, and to the people who had lived there for thousands of years: people who come to life with real names and faces and stories over the historic episodes he recounts, as well as people he once glimpsed in the distant spinifex as a small boy, whom he returns as an ageing man to meet, who have survived it all.
But while Ashenden may be telling Tennant’s story, he also puts it in a much wider and more troubling context, both over time and into the present day, with a knowledgeable and clear-eyed view of the failings of the legal system, the degradations of political opportunism, the battle over history, and the confronting question of why most of us know so little of this story”. From Black Inc Books.
On to the late Jimmy Pike, who has been celebrated by a book from AIATSIS – ‘Ngirramanujuwal – The Art & Country of Jimmy Pike’. I assume it was part of a deal in which Pike’s widow, Pat Lowe donated 440 artworks, 1600 photos and 300 minutes of audio to the Canberra institute. Many of the artworks pictured in the book are her favourite felt-tip drawings by Pike where she feels he was “freer, less formal and often intensely colourful”.
Many images are accompanied by the Walmajarri artist’s own words of description and appropriate photos by Lowe of Jimmy or of place. As Lowe explains, she had plenty of experience of Great Sandy Desert life because after Pike was released from the prison where they met and where he started painting, they spent 3 years camped beside a remote claypan, living a totally traditional life.
There’s no denying that Pike had picked up a Western way of visualising the world in his Fremantle prison cell, where he’d been jailed for a payback killing. But, for many people that colourful way of representing the mysteries of his world will communicate better than many an apparently abstract dotted desert painting. From Aboriginal Studies Press.
The bravest publication in 2022 must be ‘Everywhere : Everywhen’ from the Melbourne Publishing Group. For, borrowing the semi-sacred word everywhen from WEH Stanner – who in 1953 wrote: “In Aboriginal time, all things that have happened are still happening now. The past is not just ‘events that happened before’ as in a linear reading of time. In everywhen temporality, the past is still alive in the eternal present, and this is the framework within which all potential and possible events can unfold. Everywhen is all that has happened, is happening now, and all that will continue to happen” – will surely upset people that the book’s source, Neil McLeod, has managed to offend often before.
For ‘EE’, as I’ll call it, is not by McLeod but is a selection of his diaries and field notes chosen by Dindy Vaughan (writer) and Luisa Adam (illustrator). But we learn much about the man behind the writings as well – animal photographer (indeed, International World Wildlife Magazine’s Photographer of the Year in 1978), honoree of the Oceanic Society of Australia for his work in PNG, museum founder, co-author of five books on the Indigenous and horses, and wholesaler to many a commercial gallery of art by a range of First Nations artists such as Rover Thomas, Queenie McKenzie, David Mowaljarlai. Jack Dale, Bobby Nganjmirra (and family) and Djawada Nadjongorle.
And would the world have even heard of Anguburra and Anjolu, two idiosyncratic lady artists from the west Kimberley without McLeod’s patronage?
Mind you, the cover illustration is an emu by Ralph Nicholls, the Melbourne-based son of Pastor Doug Nicholls. And this may be because young McLeod was first introduced to the Indigenous by the Pastor, who’d set up Camp Jingai in the 1970s as a rare place for Black and white youth to meet. McLeod met and befriended David Gulpilil there, going on to produce a book with him.
McLeod’s ‘crime’ is that he has remained outside the increasingly controlled Aboriginal art system since the mid-80s – just like two of his mentors, Dorothy Bennett and Mary Macha. Somehow they have escaped calumny while he has been called a carpet-bagger for dealing directly with artists and building long-term relationships with them, both on Country and in his studio in Melbourne. The book, however, gives the clear impression that they were happy to share both their life and mythic stories with him. Full of good yarns.
Twenty years of effort by Dr Marie Geissler are now collected in a thumping big compendium book: “Dreaming the Land : Aboriginal art from remote Australia”. One hundred artists profiled will cost you $100. A dollar each! You get basic biography, artistic assessments from a wide range of reputable sources (art institutions, auction houses, gallery catalogues and books), and at least one image for each artist. The copyright fees must have been massive!
The result is not the equivalent of Vivien Johnson’s magisterial “Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists” as Geissler just doesn’t have the lived experience that Johnson did in and around Papunya. But it’s a very brave effort to picture the geographical breadth of what she calls “the early evolution of contemporary Aboriginal art”. Western-trained urban artists (apart from Lin Onus, who at least made the effort to link with Yolngu man, Jack Wunuwun) are excluded, but may appear in a complementary book.
I naturally turned first to the great Tommy Yannima Watson – whom I knew, but whom Geissler has already written a book about. It’s as accurate as expected. But also perhaps limited by a decision to leave out the tragic politics of Watson’s life which saw him choosing to leave his remote community and operate directly through dealers. Sadly, the gate-keepers of Indigenous art then saw his work excluded from competitions and, more importantly, from the collections of our major institutions.
Those institutions might care to read the essay by Margo Neale from the National Museum. For she makes the case for curation as a “community activity”, suggesting an model in which curator, academic and archaeologist would work together across racial boundaries in the same way that traditional ceremonial is structured through bringing together as equals knowledge owners, managers and participants.
Inevitably in such a massive array of facts, there are errors. The amazing Emily Kngwarreye held her first solo painting show at Sydney’s Utopia Gallery thanks to the links between her Desert god-son Rodney Gooch and Utopia’s Christopher Hodges. The Holt family’s links to Chandler Coventry produced a later outing in 1990.
In Arnhemland, the ten year old Djambawa Marawili did not play a role in the Yolngu’s 1963 Native Title Claim though undoubtedly learnt from that unsuccessful experience when winning the Blue Mud Bay sea rights claim much later.
And the Jirrawun Art Group had nothing to do with the first generation of great East Kimberley artists, as claimed. But it did take the Gija artists of Warrmun into new territory for a few brilliant years under Melburnian Tony Oliver. I’m grateful, though to Geissler for introducing me to the ‘Jirrawun Suite’ created in Melbourne by three stars – Paddy Bedford (working mainly in watercolour), Hector Jandany and Rusty Peters. It would be great for the AGNSW to hang it complete in their new gallery.
Finally, a mystery and a magnificent typo! Why is Echuca on the useful map of art centres? None of Geissler’s artists appears to work from there. And how did Ben Quilty, non-Indigenous contemporary artist slip through for Paddy Quilty, the murderous bastard who committed the Bedford Downs Massacre in the 1920s yet demanded that the baby Paddy Bedford be given his name??
Thames & Hudson are Marie Geissler’s publishers.
Last but not least, a book for specialists. It’s a decade of drawings in an elegant slip-case by Wiradjuri artist Jonathan Jones. Such often-disregarded works on paper, are invariably as essential preparation for the artist’s major public works, such as ‘The Garden Palace Suite’ which lead to his major Kaldor commission in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens.
These seven suites discuss the histories, textures and patterns of south-east Australia. Jones’s projects are grounded in research requiring him to work closely with community to tell their stories.
Edited by his partner Genevieve O’Callaghan, the book pairs Jones’s suites of work with texts by leading Aboriginal elders and south-eastern artists to explore his ideas from other angles. The texts are written by Barkandji artist Uncle Badger Bates, Walgalu curator Aidan Hartshorn, Gomeroi researcher and academic Dr Heidi Norman and a Wiradjuri team consisting of artist Lorraine Connelly-Northey, language expert Uncle Stan Grant Snr, writer/poet/academic Dr Jeanine Leane, and poet and artist Jazz Money.
A delicate work at a substantial price, approaching $70; from formist editions.
My final selection and most recent publication is Sydney University Press’s ‘Tiwi Textiles’. It’s by artist/designer Bede Tungutalum and his long-time collaborator Diana Wood Conroy. But it’s such a lovely book, I want to give it pride of place early in 2023.
Artist: Tommy McRae, Jimmy Pike, Rover Thomas, Queenie McKenzie, David Mowaljarlai. Jack Dale, Bobby Nganjmirra, Djawada Nadjongorle, Anguburra, Anjolu, Ralph Nicholls, Lin Onus, Jack Wunuwun, Tommy Yannima Watson, Emily Kngwarreye, Djambawa Marawili, Paddy Bedford, Hector Jandany, Rusty Peters, Jonathan Jones, Badger Bates, Lorraine Connelly-Northey, Bede Tungutalum,
Tags: Anguburra , Anjolu , Badger Bates , bede tungutalum , Bobby Nganjmirra , David Mowaljarlai. Jack Dale , Dean Ashenden , djambawa marawili , Djawada Nadjongorle , Dorothy Bennett , Dr Marie Geissler , emily kngwarreye , hector jandany , Jack Wunuwun , Jane Singleton , jimmy pike , jonathan jones , Katie Langloh Parker , lin onus , lorraine connelly-northey , margo neale , mary macha , Neil McLeod , paddy bedford , queenie mckenzie , Ralph Nicholls , rover thomas , rusty peters , tommy mcrae , tommy yannima watson , WEH Stanner ,