Since around 1985, local arts, cultural and educational programs have benefited significantly from the unassuming and intelligent philanthropy of Margaret Mittelheuser AM (1931–2013) and Cathryn Mittelheuser AM, and since 2001 over 100 works have been acquired for the Collection through the generous patronage of sisters, placing them among the Gallery’s most consistent and longstanding donors.
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The Mittelheusers moved to Brisbane in 1945 for Margaret and Cathryn’s education, having enjoyed their early years on the family’s cane farm outside Bundaberg. Both bright and hardworking students, the sisters went on to distinguish themselves at the University of Queensland in finance and science, respectively: Margaret later became the first woman stockbroker in Australia (and one of the first in the world); while the equally talented Cathryn had an esteemed career as a plant physiologist and academic. As pioneers in male-dominated fields, the Mittelheuser sisters’ early professional experiences mirrored those of many women of that era. With their naturally progressive attitudes, they were quick to challenge any implication that they weren’t on equal terms with their male counterparts, and encouraged other women to succeed through working hard and ignoring distractions and hindrances.
Although the Collection as a whole has been enriched by Margaret and Cathryn’s generosity, the Gallery’s holdings of Indigenous Australian art, and particularly Aboriginal women’s work, have been most significantly enhanced. Due to her experiences as a nurse with John Flynn’s Australian Inland Mission, their mother, Jeanie, encouraged her daughters to assist Aboriginal women where they could, and their involvement with the QAGOMA Foundation has been an ideal avenue through which to address her wishes. Consistent with their own values, many of the works that Margaret and Cathryn have helped the Gallery acquire are also by senior women of knowledge and style, with a similar vision and drive to educate and influence lives through creativity and hard work.
One such woman is Anne Dangar — a significant Australian artist who, despite living in France for many years, made an important contribution to the development of Modernism in Sydney. A painter and ceramic artist, Dangar bravely left Sydney in 1930 to join the small artistic community of Moly-Sabata at Sablons on the eastern bank of the Rhône.
Dangar created the domestic-inspired Tea service c.1945–51 while living in a cultural landscape rooted in a simpler past. Inspired by the lifestyle of physical labour at Moly-Sabata and the rhythms of the rural environment, she successfully fused modernist design principles with traditional artisanal methods.
Gija artist Mabel Juli reiterates her knowledge of law and culture through ceremonial singing and dancing, and also in paintings that embody her rich experience of the sparse Kimberley environment where she lives. In Marranyji and Dinal 2004, she has applied six layers of finely ground natural pigments to achieve a seductive painted surface evocative of the elusive shimmer of the Western Australian desert. Using minimal imagery, Juli tells the story of an old woman searching for her lost dog, which she discovered eventually — together with a kangaroo — inside a water-filled cave. The dense black charcoal pigmentation represents her initial efforts to find the dog by burning the surrounding grass. Woman, dog and kangaroo can be seen today as a trio of monumental stones at Darragyn, south of Warmun.
Some works are as notable for the innovation of their creators as they are for their form. Two sisters, Liyagawumirr artists Margaret Rarru and Helen Ganalmirriwuy, have lived all their lives on Langarra and Yurrwi, small islands off the northern coast of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Their Bathi mul (black baskets) are woven from pandanus leaves coloured with a rare black dye they create by mixing local leaves and substances. The closely woven black strands emphasise the elegant lines of the forms and highlight surface patterns and subtle gradations in colour.
Overall, the works supported by Margaret and Cathryn Mittelheuser represent a broad expanse of territories (including remote and urban Australian and international locations) connected with their experiences growing up and their subsequent interests and intrepid travels. In the late 1980s, for example, their adventurous spirits took them on a two-week camping tour to the Kimberley and to Arnhem Land with a mixed party of art enthusiasts and experts in their fields, including Queensland artist Judith Wright. They established an enduring personal connection with Wright, and their keen interest in her work led to their support for the 2004 acquisition of Blind of sight III — a fine suite of three Jungian influenced paintings on paper, interpreted as Wright balancing the joy of motherhood with the loss of her daughter 30 years prior.
Following Margaret’s death in 2013, Cathryn has continued donating to the Collection, and in 2014, she supported the acquisition of Kunawarritji by Great Sandy Desert artist Nora Wompi (b.c.1939–2017) in Margaret’s memory. A powerful work painted by the artist at age 77, Kunawarritji encompasses the metaphysical essence of the landscape, the blinding whiteness of the vast salt lakes, and the fading light of the setting sun. Much-admired by Gallery visitors, it is a fitting memorial from Cathryn to her sister.
Diane Moon is Curator, Indigenous Fibre Art, and curator of ‘Two Sisters — A Singular Vision’, in Gallery 14, Queensland Art Gallery, until 31 January 2021.
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Two Sisters – A Singular Vision
The souvenir publication Two Sisters – A Singular Vision: Celebrating the Gifts of Margaret and Cathryn Mittelheuser is a richly illustrated 112-page publication which accompanies the exhibition of the same name. The exhibition honours Margaret and Cathryn Mittelheuser as true friends of art and of artists, and for their quietly consistent support of QAGOMA. Through their generosity, Queensland’s cultural life has been immeasurably enriched. Available at the QAGOMA Store and online
Featured image: ‘Two Sisters: A Singular Vision’