Sadly, a deluge of death has flowed through Aboriginal communities in recent days taking artists, art centre elders and even one of the most significant non-Indigenous art centre facilitators. For instance, the current Hazelhurst Art Centre exhibition of APY Lands men’s work has no fewer than four Kumanara names listed, indicating the recent deaths of Anangu men whose given names should not be used in community.
Kumanara (Ray) Ken is, therefore, the first on the list to be memorialised. He seemed to be aware of his mortality when quoted in the Hazelhurst catalogue saying, I will be resting soon and it will be the youngfellas turn to look after our Country. The youngfellas tribute to him was to name the whole exhibition after the most frequent subject and title for his paintings, ‘Weapons for the soldier’. But then, he was a leader for a long time on the cattle stations where many Aboriginal men called Ray their manager, says his nephew Frank Young. In the later part of his life he has been a leader in the arts….as one of the first men to paint on the APY Lands, and he was one of the men who started the kulata tjuta project, involving the young men of the lands in spear-making, ceremony and art-making.
Mrs (Phyllis) Thomas is another great loss in the East Kimberley. This Gija artist was a stalwart of the all-too-brief Jirrawun Arts movement which involved her in group shows from 1998 to 2006 such as ‘Blood on the Spinifex’ at the Art Gallery of WA and the Ian Potter Centre in Melbourne, in the 1999 and 2000 NATSIA Awards finals in Darwin, and in ‘Women’s Business’ at the Sherman Gallery in Sydney.
Her political art included ‘The Escape’ in 2000, showing her Uncle Mick successfully escaping from an armed white man in Purnululu, the Bungle Bungles. Asked why he was being pursued and shot, her reply: Just for nothing, in the way that they were always killing our people. Painting until the end, her 2018 selection into the Art Gallery of NSW’s Wynne Prize was called ‘My stolen sisters from Gija country’ “ showing the landscape where her two young sisters were taken by gardiya to the notorious Moola Boola station, a holding place for the stolen children. They never came home.
Further west in The Kimberley, Mangkaja Arts at Fitzroy Crossing has lost two major figures. Mrs (June) Davis was an occasional artist but a long-time art centre director, linguist and a stalwart fighter for her Fitzroy River Country. Indeed, a film going the round of festivals – ‘Undermined – Tales from the Kimberley‘ – follows young leader Albert Wiggan, veteran cattleman Kevin Oscar and Senior Elder Mrs Davis through a David-and-Goliath battles to preserve their homelands, asking the question: for whose benefit is this development of the area’s natural resources?, in the place the Federal Government likes to call the future economic powerhouse of Australia.
And then there’s the much-younger, wheelchair-bound artist, Lisa Uhl, whose kidney has failed on her. The ubiquitous subject of her canvases was turtujarti trees which grow out in the desert in Lisa’s mother’s country and are prominent at the iconic Kurtal waterhole. Amazingly, Lisa has never seen these trees. She creates her works through the stories and knowledge that has been passed on to her by her late auntie, Jukuja Dolly Snell, who raised her from an infant. In her country of Kaningarra they slept under those trees for a long time.
Down in the Desert, we’ve lost another Namatjira “ this time Mr (Kevin) Namatjira, grandson of Albert. His parents Maurice and Epana were also artists who raised Kevin in Hermannsburg along with his five siblings. He later lived in Alice Springs at the Namatjira Camp. Paintings by K Namatjira have been acquired by the Art Gallery of South Australia, MAGNT and the Parliament House Collection in Canberra. He was also heavily involved in ‘The Namatjira Play’ by Big hArt productions which toured to London in 2013, where he and his late sister Mrs (Lenie) were presented to the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
Finally, the writer and philosopher James Cowan will be remembered for his time in the 90s during the heyday of Balgo’s Warlayirti Art Centre in the Tanami Desert. With his wife Wendy, he encouraged such innovations as 3-artist triptychs, encouraged some of the best work from Sunfly Tjampitjin, Bye Bye Napangarti, Tjumpo Tjapanangka and Susie Bootja Bootja (selling much into the American Sam Barry Collection), and went on to write an insightful novel imagining a journey into the spiritual deserts with Sunfly. Cowan’s enthusiasm for Nomadism continued internationally, but his books such as ‘Mysteries of the Dreaming’ and ‘Sacred Places’ ensure that he will always have his place in the non-Indigenous interpretation of Aboriginal culture.
Artist: Kumanara (Ray) Ken, Frank Young, Mrs (Phyllis) Thomas, Mrs (June) Davis, Lisa Uhl, Jukuja Dolly Snell, Mr (Kevin) Namatjira, Mrs (Lenie) Namatjira, Sunfly Tjampitjin, Bye Bye Napangarti, Tjumpo Tjapanangka, Susie Bootja Bootja, Albert Namatjira,