For better or worse, it is the strangest and most beautiful show of abstract paintings I have seen in a long time.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s art critic, Terence Maloon was bemusedly describing his response to the first ever commercial showing of Aboriginal art on canvas in Sydney in January 1982 “ all works from the then 10 year old Papunya Tula Artists collective. They were to be seen at Paddington’s premier Gallery A in the context of its regular exhibitions of contemporary white Australian artists.
Gallery A Director, Ann Lewis also began collecting Aboriginal art at that time so that it formed a substantial part of the collection which she recently donated to three NSW public art galleries “ Moree Plains (where she lived as a child), Newcastle, and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney “ where a selection from all three galleries is currently on display.
And it’s so stimulating to find a brand new Sally Gabori resonating with a mature John Firth-Smith; to find an early Rosalie Gascoigne construction talking to a Kitty Kantilla print; to find a 5-canvas suite of Emily Kngwarreye’s bold lines criss-crossing with Ildiko Kovacs’s vertical linearity; or to find a vast downfall of leaves (or is it water) by Gloria Petyarre sweeping all before it in the exhibition’s opening salon. And where did Lewis find that Curley Barduguba ‘Rainbow Serpent’ on bark from 1982?
It all came together in a very haphazard fashion, Ann Lewis admits today. Basically, I had to like the work, it had to say something, or I had to be aware that the artist needed money!. Lewis was also on the board of the early promoter of Aboriginal art “ the Aboriginal Arts & Crafts Company. It was so important to give the artists back their dignity’, she recalls, so that they thought good about themselves. Of course I’d grown up in Moree before the days of the Freedom Ride; I was horrified by the treatment of Aborigines then. And that’s why it’s been so important to give their gallery a substantial indigenous collection so that they know others are validating Aboriginal art.
Not that great public store was set by that pioneering 1982 show at Gallery A. There was a ‘cool’ reaction, says Lewis “ using the word in its 1980s meaning. In fact the National Gallery bought a glorious big Johnny Warangkula for $4000, and Jack Heinz (of the baked bean family) took home two others from a selection that included most of the founders of the Papunya painting movement “ Billy Stockman, Turkey Tolson, Mick Namarari, Uta Uta Jangala, ‘Two Bob’ and the cousins Clifford Possum and Tim Leura. The latter’s work could be had for a mere $400.
The cousins had already appeared in Sydney at Bernice Murphy’s Perspecta at the Art Gallery of NSW in 1981. Indeed, the late Nick Waterlow had included Aboriginal art in his Sydney Biennale in 1979. But as the Maloon quote indicates, it was still pretty unknown stuff just 10 years after its ‘invention’ in a marketplace that Ann Lewis described elsewhere as limited by two questions: Had the artist won a prize; or had Patrick White bought their work???.
She, on the other hand, was described by photographer Jon Lewis “ no relation, but surely entering Ann’s collection especially for his ability to capture the dignity of Aboriginal people “ as having a glow of expectation about the creativity every time she went into an art exhibition.

Paintings from Moree’s Ann Lewis Aboriginal Art Collection are on show in the Moree Plains Gallery until 3 March 2010.