The final piece, ˜The Collector’, is by Nicolas Rothwell, perhaps our finest essayist. This subtle, sublime piece ” 14 pages long ” was first published in The Monthly. It documents how in late June 1956, the Paris-trained Czech artist Karel Kupka, powerfully influenced by the ˜master-thinker of the surrealists’, AndrÃ© Breton, ˜stepped for the first time into the elusive world of Arnhem Land’.
Fascinated by Aboriginal art, and having survived a plane crash on the Star of Australia, Kupka’s mission was to gather a collection of art from northern Australia, including carvings, bark paintings and totemic emblems, ˜that would catch the spirit of that world’.
When he arrived at Milingimbi Island, Kupka was met at the airstrip by the staff of the Methodist Overseas Mission. They drove him through ˜the stringy-bark forests, past the swamps and salt-flats, to their little community of mud-brick homes. Nearby, along the shore, beneath tall tamarind trees, the native people kept their camps, segregated by family and by clan affiliations.’ As Rothwell nicely puts it, ˜Visitors of any kind were infrequent then at such remote mission posts; no one had ever seen or heard of an art collector.’ Within a few weeks, Kupka had established a close relationship with two impressive clan leaders, Djawa and Dawidi.
Soon Kupka ranged far and wide, to Yirrkala, Port Keats and to the delightful Tiwi Islands. The ambiguous country he describes thus: ˜The continent belongs to the Earth’s past. It is a land of strange beauty, so unlike other continents¦ Immense expanses generally end in a perfectly straight horizon. There are few mountains, and those that do exist are usually isolated. The ground is often rocky; the shallow rivers, when not dry, irrigate an apparently sparse vegetation.’
While on the Tiwi Islands, Kupka was befriended by Bishop John Patrick O’Laughlin who was building a new cathedral in Darwin. Kupka readily accepted O’Laughlin’s invitation to paint an Aboriginal Madonna for St Mary’s Star of the Sea. Such a radical proposal presented a number of artistic problems, not least that of the Madonna’s pose. Kupka solved the problem thus: ˜Instead of cradling the Christ-child in her lap, the Madonna is carrying her son on her shoulders, in the fashion of Aboriginal women from the Tiwi Islands and the Daly River, with one of her hands clasping the baby by the ankle and the other resting gently on his hip.’
In the end notes we are informed that Rothwell’s essay is the prologue to a new book, The Red Highway, which canvases tradition, loss and return in Aboriginal Australia. I can hardly wait to read it.
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