Art and cars: Kayili artists

 

Kayili artists Mary Gibson, Mrs Kumana Ward, Pulpurru Davies, Nola Campbell and Jackie Kurltjunyintja Giles have each indulged a love of colour, animating their car bonnet’s surface with shimmering, cryptic, topographical maps of their country, and the ancestral journeys that formed it.

Patjarr, home to the Kayili artists, is a small community of around 20–30 people, situated 1,000 kilometres west of Alice Springs, Northern Territory, in the heartland of the Western Desert. The Kayili were amongst the last of the nomadic Indigenous desert peoples forced into settled life through government intervention. The first white people they encountered arrived by car in the early 1960s — an experience akin to having a spaceship land in the main street of your home town — and now many desert elders have their own car.

Pulpurru Davies ‘Toyota’

Pulpurru Davies, Australia b.1943 / Toyota 2007 / Synthetic polymer paint on metal / 104 x 136 x 21cm / Purchased 2008. The Queensland Government’s Gallery of Modern Art Acquisitions Fund / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Pulpurru Davies

When you’re a few hundred kilometres by dirt road from anywhere and the bush abounds in delicious wildlife, owning a car makes sense. But with unsealed sandtracks in the vast Ngaanyatjarra desert lands, owning a car can lead to misery.

For the Kayili, the car is a desirable possession and takes up much time and energy. Cars are a vital part of desert life: life travels smoothly when they are running well and frustration sets in when they are not. Days and nights can be spent waiting on the side of the road for the next vehicle and the chance of help, and the search for tyres and fuel can be long. Then there are the family days: visiting relatives, attending football matches, collecting honey ants and chasing kangaroos (by crashing through the scrub), or travelling for sorry business. These trips are also a chance to recount tales of the journeys of known and much-loved motor cars.

A road journey through the desert can be a memorable experience: travelling ancient pathways, always fearing the consequences if protocols are transgressed. At times, convoys of people snake along rough bush tracks for men’s ceremonial rites. Roads are closed to the uninitiated, and no women are allowed. Following the faint image of a number plate on the car in front, drivers and passengers share the intense experience of night–time travel in overladen vehicles without headlights.

Jackie Kurltjunyintja Giles ‘Valiant’

Jackie Kurltjunyintja Giles, Australia 1937–2010 / Valiant 2007 / Synthetic polymer paint on metal / 152 x 142 x 10cm / Purchased 2008. The Queensland Government’s Gallery of Modern Art Acquisitions Fund / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Jackie Kurltjunyintja Giles.

Enigmatic images painted onto handy surfaces, such as rusted shipping containers, appear regularly in Patjarr. Lots of second–hand vehicles come to the desert (often bought with artists’ painting money); they die there and are abandoned. The Kayili artists saw these discarded motor cars as inviting surfaces on which to mark ancestral dreaming tracks. These five car bonnets have lain for years in the desert, half buried in red sand with the scent of seasonal bush flowers drifting over their surfaces. Preserved by the dry desert climate, and having escaped the occasional visits of a wrecker, they were retrieved from their shallow graves, cleaned of sand and rust, and primed for painting. The artists have indulged their love of colour in animating these unlikely surfaces with the shimmering, cryptic topographical maps of their country and the ancestral journeys that formed these lands. As Michael Stitfold from the Kayili Artists Cooperative commented:

Bonnets and people seemed to match up — there was the ideal bonnet for each artist. In some cases the artist knew its history: who owned it, when and where it had come from, its life at Patjarr.1

Jackie Kurltjunyintja Giles just had to have the formerly stylish Valiant (now riddled with bullet holes), rescued from the side of the road in South Australia and hauled back to Patjarr on a roof rack, while Pulpurru Davies chose the Toyota as she simply felt a connection with it.

Mrs Kumana (Ngipi) Ward ‘Nissan’

Mrs Kumana (Ngipi) Ward, Australia 1949-2014 / Nissan 2007 / Synthetic polymer paint on metal / 145 x 122 x 13cm / Purchased 2008. The Queensland Government’s Gallery of Modern Art Acquisitions Fund / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Mrs Kumana Ward

Onto a Nissan car bonnet, Mrs Kumana Ward has painted a series of freshwater claypans, Murrman, Yirril and Patantja, which lie on the road to Banghor (the Canning Stock Route). Ward traces the sandhill landscape and its features in vibrantly coloured lines. As one of the greatest goanna hunters in the region, she knows these paths intimately and can survive in this country for days at a time.

Pulpurru Davies is highly regarded for her extensive cultural knowledge and here, in Toyota 2007, she depicts the story of Nyinangnya, a big walatu (saltpan lake) and an important soak water site north of Patjarr, where there are big kurrkapi (desert oak trees) and many rabbits to hunt.

Malu (kangaroo) is Jackie Kurltjunyintja Giles’s tjukurpa, or dreaming, and in Valiant 2007 he depicts the epic journey of the ancestral kangaroo. Malu came from the north to Tjamu Tjamu in Giles’s father’s country and camped there for a while with a group of women before travelling on to Tjutalpi, Witunkuntja, Wirti, Makarra and MiUmillpa. A rock hole at Tjamu Tjamu was named Kurril Kurril after the kangaroo spirit.

Nola Campbell ‘Holden’

Nola Campbell, Australia b.1946 / Holden 2007 / Synthetic polymer paint on metal / 154 x 134 x 12cm / Purchased 2008. The Queensland Government’s Gallery of Modern Art Acquisitions Fund / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Nola Campbell.

Nola Campbell has painted Ngiyari, a female thorny devil, onto a Holden car bonnet. The Ngiyari ancestor created a route through the artist’s country, digging holes in which to deposit her eggs as she travelled. These holes remain as a series of freshwater wells, and include Kunangarra, a deep, underground hole where cool fresh water can be found.

Similarly, Mary Gibson has depicted the country around Kulkurda, which lies north of Tjukurla and south of Kintore. The large unpainted space on the Toyota HiLux bonnet is the soak water site called Nyinmi, which is the place of tjila (water snake). She has also painted tali pirni (many sandhills) and a big lake called Tuuwa, south of the sandhills.

These senior artists paint with an intensity that reflects their responsibility as bearers of tradition who constantly invent new ways to record their culture and portray their desert world. After working on comparatively bland fields of canvas, the undulating forms and rich textures of car bonnets have inspired works of strong visual impact. By recounting ancient travel tales, they create new stories for the cars (bullet holes and all) on the next stage of their journey. A beautiful irony exists in these painted wrecks now they are given new life, and travel back to the cities from which they came.

Diane Moon is Curator, Indigenous Australian Fibre Art, QAGOMA

Edited extract from ‘Kayili artists: Art and cars’ from Contemporary Australia: Optimism, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, 2008.

Endnotes
1 Michael Stitfold, telephone conversation with the author, June 2008.

Mary Gibson ‘Toyota HiLux’

Mary Gibson, Australia b.1952 / Toyota HiLux 2007 / Synthetic polymer paint on metal / 135 x 102 x 12cm / Purchased 2008. The Queensland Government’s Gallery of Modern Art Acquisitions Fun / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Mary Gibson

Acknowledgment of Country
The Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art acknowledges the Traditional Owners of the land on which the Gallery stands in Brisbane. We pay respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders past and present and, in the spirit of reconciliation, acknowledge the immense creative contribution First Australians make to the art and culture of this country.

It is customary in many Indigenous communities not to mention the name or reproduce photographs of the deceased. All such mentions and photographs on the QAGOMA Blog are with permission, however, care and discretion should be exercised.

Featured image detail: Mrs Kumana (Ngipi) Ward Nissan 2007
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Below the earth’s surface

 

Though Australia’s link with the land is strong, and the ways in which we’ve used it have largely determined the Australian character, our interaction with the land is often contested. Here, we gain insights into works that respond to mining in Queensland.

Mining in Queensland

For Indigenous Australians, the land is everything. Through their care, the land — their ‘mother’ — has ensured the survival of countless generations. However, nonindigenous exploitation and historical injustices have deeply affected the cultural, social and economic lives of Aboriginal people, and fractured their ties with country.

We feature four Aboriginal works associated with the land that are part of a broader discourse on the removal of resources from beneath the earth’s surface. Though the inevitable sense of loss is inherent in their work, the artists deal creatively with their diminished role in managing and caring for their country. Rather than depicting damage to the land and its people through mining ventures, they take a positive approach to educate their audience and ameliorate past wrongs.

RELATED: Delve deeper into Australian Indigenous art

Mawalan Marika, Rirratjingu people, Yolngu, Australia 1908–67; Wandjuk Marika, Rirratjingu people, Yolngu, Australia 1927–87; Larrtjanga Ganambarr, Ngaymil/Dathiwuy people, Australia c.1932–2000;  Nurryurrngu Marika, Rirratjingu people, Yolngu, Australia unknown–1979; Mowarra Ganambarr, Dathiwuy people, Australia c.1917–2005; Mithinarri Gurruwiwi, Galpu people, Australia 1929–76; Gungguyama Dhamarrandji, Djambarrpuyngu people, Australia c.1916–70; Munggurruwy Yunupingu, Gumatj people, Australia c.1907–78 / Yalangbara c.1960 / Natural pigments on eucalyptus bark / 183 x 63cm / Purchased 2003 with funds from the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Appeal and the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © The artists

Yalangbara c.1960 is a rare collaborative painting on bark by eight ceremonial leaders from north-eastern Arnhem Land, it illustrates the major creation story of the Djang’kawu (two sisters and their brother) forming the land and laying down the cultural and social laws by which people were to live. In Yolngu law, Yalangbara constitutes a deed of ownership of the artists’ clan estates.

Yalangbara predates subsequent important collaborative barks: the magnificent Yirrkala Church Panels of 1962–63, and the historic Yirrkala bark petition. Presented at Parliament in August 1963, the Yirrkala petition was a bid to persuade the government of the time to reconsider a deal with Swiss Australian company Nabalco (North Australian Bauxite and Alumina Company), which would allow mining exploration on 300 square kilometres excised from Yolngu land on the Gove Peninsula. Although unsuccessful, this foray into native title litigation (known as Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd) triggered a greater awareness and recognition of Indigenous Australian people, and paved the way for constitutional change acknowledging their rights to control their land. The petition still hangs in Parliament House, Canberra.

Though financial compensation and protection of sacred sites were negotiated, the concept of extracting minerals from the land was foreign to the Yolngu, and seen as a severe transgression of Aboriginal culture. Since then, endless tonnes of earth have been extracted for bauxite, which is transported on rubber conveyor belts for offshore processing into aluminium, which, as Bonhula Yunupingu comments, returns to Yirrkala ‘. . . as a can, as a beer can’.1 Painful residual scars, on both the land and the people, persist.

Gunybi Ganambarr, Ngaymil people, Australia b.1973 / Buyku 2015 / Conveyor belt rubber with natural pigments and sand / 182 x 90cm / Purchased 2016 with funds from Gina Fairfax through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Gunybi Ganambarr

Gunybi Ganambarr, whose family members contributed to those early barks, has grown up with the bauxite mine. As part of a healing process, he has responded to the mine’s unsettling presence by repurposing lengths of its abandoned conveyor belt rubber as an artistic medium. For Ngaymil 2015, he gouged his Ngaymil clan designs into three metres of the dense, black, industrial rubber. In Buyku 2015, sand and natural pigments from his land are layered across its surface in complex, evocative patterns, made permanent with commercial glue. The discarded material becomes a ‘canvas’ on which the young artist reiterates Ngaymil knowledge and reclaims ownership of their land.

Shirley Macnamara, artist, Indjalandji/Alyawarr, Australia b.1949: Nathaniel Macnamara, assistant, Indjalandji/Alyawarr, Australia b.2004 / Cu 2016 / Hand-coiled copper wire and raw copper / 22 x 25 x 25cm / Purchased 2017 with funds from Gina Fairfax through the Queensland Art Gallery I Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane / © Shirley Macnamara
The environment around the abandoned copper mine at Mt Guide Station, Mount Isa, Queensland / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library / Photograph: Shirley Macnamara / Image courtesy: Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne

Indjalandji-Dhidhanu/Alyawarr artist Shirley Macnamara also reuses the detritus of mining on her family land in western Queensland. Known for her exquisite works of twined spinifex strands, in Cu 2016, she has wound discarded copper wire around a screwdriver to create multiple coils, creating a deeply rounded form to mirror the scarring holes of abandoned copper-mining sites. Loss of vegetation is also a concern, and Macnamara’s work includes an above-country view of the ‘snappy gums’ that grow on top of hillocks there, since levelled through mining. Cu is a reminder that these trees take decades to grow in the hot, dry climate of western Queensland, and their destruction by mining, even long ago, is felt for generations. The artist’s grandson, Nathaniel Macnamara, assisted her in the design and construction of the raw copper-and-wire ‘trees’. Cu tells an all-too-familiar Queensland story of the destructive consequences of unregulated mineral exploration and exploitation, and the resulting destruction of the environment. In a positive response by Macnamara, though, she occasionally includes a particular soft yellow clay found in the abandoned pits to enhance her signature spinifex pieces.

Djardie Ashley Wodalpa, Wagilag people, Australia b.1952 / Ngilipitji stone spearhead quarry 1989 / Natural pigments on string-bark / 154 x 82cm / Purchased 1990 with funds from ARCO Coal Australia Inc. through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Djardie Ashley Wodalpa/Copyright Agency 2020

In contrast with these works, Djardie Ashley Wodalpa’s bark painting Ngilipitji stone spearhead quarry 1989 depicts his Wagilag people’s industrious production of ngambi (stone spearheads), demonstrating their control over a clan resource. In a traditional economy based on hunting and gathering food, stone tools were important commodities. As Ngilipitji stone was of very high quality, the clan gained rich rewards and prestige through their astute management of the quarry in accordance with traditional law. They selected only the correct type of stone for removal, and maintained quality control by testing the fragments rigorously before making them into tools. The Wagilag people observed strict protocols in their trade negotiations, which saw the ngambi, wrapped in a protective paperbark djalk (skin), passed over long distances in exchange for vital commodities such as food and sacred ochres.

The Wagilag trace their ownership of the quarry to Aboriginal creation times, when their ancestral spirits first carried ngambi across Arnhem Land to Ngiliptji. Wodalpa’s identity — his madayin (sacred beliefs) and matha (language) — is embedded within his painting of ngambi, which is a personal motif for the artist, intended for transposing onto the body, on bark and on burial poles.

Though the very real impact on Indigenous Australians of the removal of resources simmers below the surface, these works demonstrate that art plays a vital role in promoting discussion, and points the way to a more optimistic future.

Diane Moon is Curator, Indigenous Australian Fibre Art, QAGOMA

Endnote
1 B Knight (ed.), The Extractive Frontier: Mining for Art [exhibition catalogue], Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne, 2017, p.6.

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Featured image detail: Djardie Ashley Wodalpa Ngilipitji stone spearhead quarry 1989
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A Singular Vision: Supporting the Collection

 

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.

Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, Kaiadilt people, Australia 1924-2015 / Dibirdibi Country 2008 / Synthetic polymer paint on linen / 200 x 600cm / Purchased 2008 with funds from Margaret Mittelheuser AM and Cathryn Mittelheuser AM through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda/Licensed by Copyright Agency
Sally Gabori Dibirdibi Country
Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, Kaiadilt people, Australia b.c.1924 / Dibirdibi Country 2012 / Synthetic polymer paint on linen / Purchased with funds from Margaret Mittelheuser, AM, and Cathryn Mittelheuser, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda/Licensed by Copyright Agency
Kunmanara Williamson (Artist), Pitjantjatjarra people, Australia, 1940-2014 / Nita Williamson (Collaborating artist), Pitjantjatjarra people, Australia b.1963 / Suzanne Armstrong (Collaborating artist), Pitjantjatjarra people, Australia b.1980 / Puli murpu (Mountain range) 2011 / Synthetic polymer paint on linen / Purchased 2012 with funds from Margaret Mittelheuser, AM, and Cathryn Mittelheuser, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © The artists
‘Two Sisters: A Singular Vision’

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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.

Anne Dangar, Australia/France 1885–1951 / Tea service c.1945–51 / Wood-fired glazed ceramic / 18 pieces / Purchased 2011 with funds from Margaret Mittelheuser AM and Cathryn Mittelheuser AM through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

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.

Mabel Juli, Gija people, Australia b.c.1933 / Marranyji and Dinal 2004 / Natural pigments on canvas / 140 x 220cm / Purchased 2005 with funds from Cathryn Mittelheuser AM through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Mabel Juli/Copyright Agency

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.

Margaret Rarru (b.1940) and Helen Ganalmirriwuy (b.1955), Liyagawumirr people, Australia / Mindirr 2018 / Pandanus with natural dyes / Purchased 2011 with funds from Thomas Bradley through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © The artists

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.

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Judith Wright, Australia b.1945 / Blind of sight III (detail) 2001 / Synthetic polymer paint on paper / 199.3 x 201.8cm / Purchased 2004 with funds from Cathryn Mittelheuser AM and Margaret Mittelheuser AM through the QAG Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Judith Wright
Blind of sight III 2001 installed in ‘Two Sisters: A Singular Vision’

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.

Nora Wompi, Kukatja people, Australia b.c.1939-2017 / Kunawarritji 2011 / Synthetic polymer paint on Belgian linen / 300 x 120cm / Purchased 2014 in memory of Margaret Mittelheuser AM through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Nora Wompi/Copyright Agency

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’

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’

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Shirley Macnamara: fibre artist

 

Shirley Macnamara is a fibre artist with a significant career dating from the mid 1990s. Her work Wingreeguu 2012 is a woven sculptural installation based on traditional Indjilandji/Dhidhanu Alyawarre spinifex shelters. Macnamara spoke to Diane Moon about her work.

Shirley Macnamara, Indjalandji/Alyawarr, Australia b.1949 / Wingreeguu 2012 / Spinifex (Triodia pungens), turpentine bush (Acacia lysiphloia), yellow ochre / 190 x 241 x 160cm / Commissioned for APT7. Purchased 2013. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Shirley Macnamara

Shirley Macnamara | I live on a cattle station which I run with my son and he and his family live there as well. A lot of time’s taken up working, but I make time for my art work.

I was born in Mt Isa but my traditional country is Indjilandji/Dhidhanu, which is in the Camooweal region in far western Queensland, 13 kilometres east of the Northern Territory border. My father is an Alyawarre man and we’ve had a wonderful connection to his people at Lake Nash, across the Northern Territory border. So, I’m a bush person and I’m very proud of that.

I used to paint. I started off painting, though I have never had any real art training. There was a lady that painted, and I went to a few classes, but  I work in isolation basically.

I started looking for something to use from the land itself; I needed to use a natural fibre. There was no one in my family working in any of those materials and so I did search for quite a number of years and discovered that spinifex is very resilient. It lives and survives in a very harsh environment and you can’t kill it.

So I discovered the spinifex and thought, ‘Well, this is what I’m going to use’ and spent a couple of years experimenting with it to see whether it was going to last and it has done. And I have. My work changed from two-dimensional to three-dimensional and initially, when I started out working in spinifex, I felt there were probably some things made from spinifex that were used traditionally but I hadn’t seen them, and so I chose to construct things of my own shape and size. I did not want to do anything that was or had been made before. I wanted to work entirely in a contemporary style. I called my first set of vessels Guutu, because that means a container, or vessel, in my traditional language. But in this contemporary style none of my works are meant to be functional. They’re basically representative of the very harsh, dark, dry region that I live and work in.

RELATED: Shirley Macnamara

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Spinifex

Spinifex runner roots stripped of their outer layer / Photographs: Nathaniel Macnamara / Images courtesy: Shirley Macnamara

Shirley Macnamara, Indjalandji/Alyawarr, Australia b.1949 / Guutu (vessel) 14 2001 / Woven spinifex (Triodia pungens), emu feathers, nylon thread and synthetic polymer fixative / 24.3 x 22.5 x 21cm / Purchased 2002. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane / © Shirley Macnamara

Diane Moon | Could you tell me about the colour of spinifex and how seasonal changes affect it?

Shirley Macnamara | Well, spinifex in our country has always been considered as quite a rubbish material by the grazing industry, because the grass will grow in between the spinifex. Though, when there’s nothing else for them to eat, the cattle can actually survive on it. So we muster and do our cattle work in the cooler months of the year. We were mustering and I was racing around chasing cattle on a horse and spotted this spinifex that had been turned over by a grader and here were all these beautiful colours. I’d been searching for the right material and thought that I might use spinifex, and then I saw this beautiful colour underneath.

There are actually three layers of colour on each strand. I pick each strand individually and clean the outer layer off and there’s this beautiful colour underneath it. Quite often I’ve had people ask me if I colour the strands in some way. The colours vary; the variations are seasonal, I’ve found. In winter time they are a beautiful golden yellow. The colours are softer at first and then they gradually darken, sometimes into an orangey colour and even into a darker red. I think the heat may have something to do with that as well. But I didn’t even know that before I started using the grass (spinifex). I use the little individual runners that connect the spinifex clumps, which are quite strong, and I see them as representing how we manage and survive in the environment.

Shirley Macnamara, Indjalandji/Alyawarr, Australia b.1949 / Wingreeguu 2012 / Spinifex (Triodia pungens), turpentine bush (Acacia lysiphloia), yellow ochre / 190 x 241 x 160cm / Commissioned for APT7. Purchased 2013. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Shirley Macnamara

Diane Moon | Wingreeguu is quite a departure from your earlier vessels. Could you tell  us how it evolved?

Shirley Macnamara | Well the turpentine bush is another one of those things that grow out there. They grow very, very thickly and make it difficult to chase cattle as they can hide under it when you’re on a horse galloping through the turpentine. I’ve quite often seen them tipped over as this one was and for the last couple of years I’ve enjoyed the thought that I could do something with the structural shape of it, because it did remind me of traditional shelters from many years ago made by Aboriginal people that I had seen. Though the coverings had blown off them, the basic shape was there. I liked the shape and also the concept of using turpentine and spinifex together to represent the shelter. It’s the biggest piece I’ve done, and it took a bit of time, but it was very interesting to do. The idea has basically come from the plant itself, quite often tipped over by whirly winds out in the bush and you think you could come along and throw something over the top of that and there’s a place to stay if you needed it.

Turpentine shrubs growing on Shirley Macnamara’s western Queensland cattle property

The artist carrying an uprooted turpentine shrub on her property / Photographs: Nathaniel Macnamara / Images courtesy: Shirley Macnamara

Diane Moon | Could you explain your approach in covering the outer surface of Wingreeguu with circles?

Shirley Macnamara | I wasn’t too sure how I was going to use the strands, but I’ve often used rings in my work and with the little strands running down, so I thought this would be the best way for me to do it. Those little rings and strings have always been representative of tracks or storylines and the connecting link between us, as well as a link to where we are and who we are and where we come from. Quite a strong belief in my life is the idea that though we go around and around in circles, you always go back to where you came from, to the place where you expect to live and die.

Diane Moon | Tell us something about the yellow ochre because I know that’s very important to you.

Shirley Macnamara | Well I have a strong connecting link with the yellow ochre and it is very special. I’ve used it in my other works as well. The yellow ochre comes from a very special place and has a very special meaning. It needs to be cared for and is also a nurturing essence that belongs to us and I believe it carries the essence of where we belong.

Diane Moon | And not surprisingly, in all these years, nobody else has taken up weaving with spinifex have they?

Shirley Macnamara | After two and a half weeks my hands recovered. I wear one glove that becomes black from the spinifex wax, a beautiful resin that comes out of the spinifex used traditionally as an adhesive for gluing stone tools onto their shafts. It goes black when you’re picking spinifex and sticks to your hands.

You heat it up to soften and mould it to use. I have a safety pin on my shirt which I use every now and then to dig a piece of spinifex out. It has some really good things about it as well.

Diane Moon | Would you could call it a love-hate relationship?

Shirley Macnamara | It’s about bringing a part of that bit of bush where both those plants grow to the Gallery. It’s also about making use of what we have in our area and looking after our environment (ours is quite a harsh one). And to be able to be creative, making something from what’s there and sharing that with everyone else.

Diane Moon is Curator, Indigenous Fibre Art, QAGOMA

On 10 December 2012, during the opening weekend of ‘The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT7), Shirley Macnamara spoke to a small group eager to hear about her life and work.

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Shirley Macnamara: Dyinala, Nganinya is the first monograph on the artist and showcases 20 years of her practice, including all major works held in public and private collections. Stunning studio photography presents the beauty and diversity of her sculptures for the first time, and scholarly contributions from Diane Moon (exhibition curator), Julie Ewington and Paul Memmott reflect on the observations of nature that underpin Macnamara’s practice, as well as on her cultural background. Available from the QAGOMA Store and online.

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Shirley Macnamara: Dyinala, Nganinya’ is at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) from 21 September 2019 – 1 March 2020. The exhibition highlights Macnamara’s unique sculptural pieces crafted from the spinifex plant and its runner roots.

APT7: Shirley Macnamara In Conversation

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Feature image detail: Shirley Macnamara Wingreeguu 2012

Acknowledgment of Country
The Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land upon which the Gallery stands in Brisbane. We pay respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders past and present and, in the spirit of reconciliation, acknowledge the immense creative contribution Indigenous people make to the art and culture of this country. It is customary in many Indigenous communities not to mention the name or reproduce photographs of the deceased. All such mentions and photographs are with permission, however, care and discretion should be exercised.

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The beauty of Lola Greeno’s necklaces

 

Despite the ravages of colonisation, Palawa people have made necklaces of lustrous strings of pearlescent shells collected from the cool waters surrounding Lutruwita (Tasmania) and its islands in a cultural practice extending back thousands of years.

Though for most of us a shell necklace captivates with its beauty and mystique, for the makers it is a profoundly meaningful emblem of their integration with the land and with history 1

Like many Palawa women, Lola Greeno first learnt to string shells in the classic style from her mother. Their creative partnership lasted for over 20 years, during which time Greeno mastered techniques and absorbed cultural wisdom and precise protocols around the making of shell necklaces. Growing up on Cape Barren and Flinders Islands in Bass Strait off the north-east coast of Tasmania, collecting shells was an intrinsic part of her childhood. It was later in life that her deep knowledge of the shells’ habitats — and of the tides and seasons when they could be found in abundance — enabled her to develop a rich repertoire of unique designs.

Related: Some kind of island paradise

Lola Greeno, Australia b.1946 / Netepa menna (and detail) 2018 / Abalone shells spaced with echidna quills / 43.5cm (diam.) / Purchased 2018 with funds from The Hon. Ashley Dawson-Damer AM through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Lola Greeno

Reflecting the brilliant colours of the sea, multiple strands of each species included in the artist’s works in ‘The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT9) emphasise the shells’ particular characteristics. The translucent green/blue of maireener shells, the icy tones of pointed silver kelp, the iridescence of abalones, and the patterned warrener, contrast with ten long strings of dense black crow shells, which act as a foil for the others’ brilliance.

Lola Greeno, Australia b.1946 / Winnya (and detail) 2018 / Warrener shells / 41cm (diam.) / Purchased 2018 with funds from The Hon. Ashley Dawson-Damer AM through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Lola Greeno

Perhaps the most spectacular is the aptly named king maireener (rainbow kelp shell), found amongst slippery jagged rocks, where leathery kelp fronds undulate beneath the water’s surface. Taking as long as a year to collect enough for one work, their rarity and preciousness is acknowledged by Greeno in Teunne (king maireener shell crown) 2013, a ‘crown’ of the large shells threaded on stainless-steel wire.

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Lola Greeno, Australia b.1946 / Green maireener necklace (and detail) 2007 / Green maireener shells threaded with double strength quilting thread / 180 x 1.5cm / Purchased 2008. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Lola Greeno

In ancient Palawa tradition, shell necklaces, given as gifts to those arriving and departing, and as a mark of esteem, are often presented to important visitors. Over a two-year period, Greeno sourced 143 shells for a 2014 commission for Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art to honour performance artist Marina Abramovic. After meeting Abramovic, Greeno was satisfied that the intensity of the visiting artist’s personality matched the brilliance of the stunning neckpiece.2

The essential beauty of Greeno’s work lies in the natural materials she uses, enhanced by the artist’s selection, and in the centuries-old cleaning and polishing processes involved. Greeno’s intimate knowledge of shells and her inherent sense of design are evident in the harmonious pairings of luminous colours and perfect forms that require only minimal presentation to highlight their subtle elegance.

Greeno’s shell necklaces speak to our essential need for stillness and simplicity — states of being implicit in the meditative process of threading shells — and maintain the artist’s connectedness with her island home. As a Palawa Elder, she ensures that their ethereal light shines through the generations, teaching others with great patience and dedication, and engaging the support of her family to continue ancient traditions. It is little surprise that Lola Greeno was the first Indigenous artist to be recognised as a ‘Living Treasure – Master of Australian Craft’ in 2014.3

Diane Moon is Curator, Indigenous Fibre Art, QAGOMA

Endnotes
1 Julie Gough, Lola Greeno: Cultural Jewels, Object: Australian Design Centre, Surry Hills, NSW, 2014, p.113.
2 Lola Greeno, interview with Diane Moon, Launceston, 21 November 2017.
3 An initiative conceived in 2004 by the Australian Design Centre, Sydney; see ‘Living Treasures: Masters of Australian Craft’, Australian Design Centre, <https://australiandesigncentre.com/explore-promo/pastexhibitions-and-events/living-treasures/>, viewed June 2018.

Lola Greeno collecting maireener shells at Yellow Beach, Flinders Island, Tasmania / Photograph: Rex Greeno

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APT9 has been assisted by our Founding Supporter Queensland Government and Principal Partner the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body, and the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy, an initiative of the Australian, State and Territory Governments.

Feature image: Lola Greeno Green maireener necklace 2007

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Some kind of island paradise

 

Australia has roughly 8000 islands within its maritime borders. While many are sites of difficult histories, they also maintain their unique identities through song, stories, dance and visual art, often in environments characterised by isolation and significant external influences. Here is an overview of the Indigenous Australian artists and projects from Tasmania, Arnhem Land, the Torres Strait and the Pacific — who combine their geography and creative talents to honour their island heritage.

Aerial view of Milingimbi, Northern Territory / Photograph: Rosita Holmes

Island life is often likened to living in ‘paradise’. Though this is rarely true, island life offers numerous Indigenous Australians opportunities for creativity and continuity. Of the 8000 islands within Australia’s maritime borders (both offshore and in mainland rivers), many are renowned for their Indigenous artists.1

Many Australian islands are sites of difficult histories. Due to their isolation, Indigenous Australians have, at times, unwillingly harboured misfits and mercenaries and had wrong-doers incarcerated in their midst. Similarly, their enclaves have been commandeered to enact cruel control over their own people. Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders have also endured the exploitation of their rich marine resources. They have been forced to provide safe ports for trade ships, to engage in border and quarantine protection, and to perform governance and administrative roles for the mainland.

Related: Beacons of hope

Lola Greeno collecting shells at Lady Barron, Flinders Island, with her mother-in-law Dulcie Greeno / Image courtesy: Lola Greeno

Despite these incursions and ongoing restrictive government policies, many Indigenous island cultures maintain their unique identities, and enrich the spectrum of Australian life immeasurably through song, stories, dance, visual art, and a poetic and practical understanding of the natural world. Four of Australia’s largest islands include Bathurst and Melville in the Tiwi Islands in the Northern Territory, and Mornington and Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria. All are known for their art. Consciously engaging with the arts and creating celebratory occasions to memorialise their histories are acts that provide residents with social cohesion that nourishes and inspires, and also opens pathways to the wider world.

Lutruwita (Tasmania) in the south is, of course, Australia’s largest isle. Tayaritji (Furneaux Group) to the north-east of Lutruwita is made up of remnants of an ice age land bridge that connected to the southern tip of Victoria. Growing up in Tayaritji on Cape Barren and Flinders Islands, Palawa woman Lola Greeno enjoyed a rich community life surrounded by the cool, clear waters of Bass Strait, where she learnt the ways of collecting and preparing shell species to make exquisite necklaces, as practised by generations of her ancestors.

Lola Greeno making her shell necklaces at her home in Tasmania / Image courtesy: Lola Greeno

In her twenties, Greeno moved to mainland Launceston with her family and studied the ancient art further with her mother. Together, these women played an important role in an intergenerational movement responsible for a vibrant reworking of shell necklace making. The opalescent beauty of the necklaces commands world attention, and Palawa artists continue in the spirit of ‘waranta takara milaythina nara takara’ (‘we walk where they once walked’), ever mindful of honouring their ancestral heritage.

Lola Greeno, Australia b.1946 / Winnya (and detail) 2018 / Warrener shells / 41cm (diam.) / Purchased 2018 with funds from The Hon. Ashley Dawson-Damer AM through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Lola Greeno

Disturbingly, though, the formerly pristine marine domain of the artist’s home is altering, making even the most common shells difficult to source. Changing weather patterns and climatic disturbances are causing radical environmental damage to the shell beds on the ocean floor. Even one degree of the water warming can kill kelp forests and marine flora. On Tasmania’s east coast in early 2018, Greeno and her family were shocked to find tonnes of sand, dumped by freak wave action, burying the penguin shells they were to collect. Sadly, too, the magnificent king maireener shells, once plentiful, are now rarely found.

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Margaret Rarru with Märrma’ mul mindirr (two black dilly bags) / Image courtesy: The artist and Milingimbi Art and Culture, Milingimbi

Helen Ganalmirriwuy with her Mul mat / Image courtesy: Helen Ganalmirriwuy and Milingimbi Art and Culture, Milingimbi

In the far north of Australia, Margaret Rarru and Helen Ganalmirriwuy have spent most of their lives on their tiny island home of Langarra in the Arafura Sea. The sisters now live on nearby Milingimbi (Yurrwi), the largest of the Crocodile Islands. Milingimbi’s richly layered histories are marked by remnants of its bombing by the Japanese during World War Two, and subsequent occupation by the Royal Australian Air Force. In addition, groves of ancient tamarind trees remain after hundreds of years of seasonal occupation by the Macassans from south Sulawesi, who came in their large wooden perahu to collect and process trepang (sea cucumber) for sale to the Chinese. Macassan history is celebrated on Milingimbi in colourful ceremonies, songs and dances that recall their knives, swords, pottery, textiles, palm-flower wine and sailing vessels, as well as the trade winds that enabled their journey to and from Marege (Australia). Intermarrying and sharing language cemented their connection, with over 1000 ‘loan’ words now incorporated into the Yolngu languages. In pre-Macassan times, only rock, clay and charcoal pigments were used to colour weaving fibres; however, the cooking pots they introduced were used by Yolngu to boil plant materials, producing a larger range of colours. In a process they hold secret, Rarru and Ganalmirriwuy (both master weavers) experimented with local leaves to find the rich black dye that now distinguishes their remarkable works.

Always open to new influences, pop icon Madonna — whose music rang out from boom boxes and discos in north-east Arnhem Land in the 1980s — and her corset like costumes inspired Rarru to make her ‘Madonna bras’: simply two small conical baskets bound together with a woven string harness. These days, the music is more likely to be by Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu (1971–2017), the revered Australian musician who grew up on nearby Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island).

Artists from a community group in Bethanie, Lifou, Loyalty Islands, draw together on the combined project / Photograph: Erub Arts

Erub (Darnley Island) is the furthest Australian territory to the north-east. In 1871, English and Kanak missionaries sailed across the Coral Sea from Lifou in the Pacific’s Loyalty Islands to introduce Christianity. The faith spread from Erub throughout the Torres Strait, and elaborate annual ceremonies mark the ‘Coming of the Light’, a melding of Christian and customary beliefs in contemporary island life.

Artists from a community group in Bethanie, Lifou, Loyalty Islands, draw together on the combined project / Photograph: Lynette Griffiths

Jimmy K Thaiday and Joshua Thaiday trace the initial body outline for Sea Journey: people without borders 2018 / Photograph: Lynette Griffiths

Many of the Lifou missionaries stayed on Erub and lost contact with their families; however, an emotional reunion in 2011 between distant relatives sparked new connections. The resulting project explores bloodlines, heritage and spiritual connections with the land and sea. Initiated on Lifou, the two groups drew around each other’s bodies using charcoal on lengths of paper, a process from which significant narratives and personal memories emerged. Back on Erub, the works were embellished by the Torres Strait Islander artists. The project sees its completion at GOMA, with Jimmy K Thaiday drawing directly onto the Gallery’s walls. These powerful drawings, presented for the first time in APT9, are testament to the ties that will forever connect Erub and Lifou.

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Erub/Lifou Project, Est. 2011 / Erub, Torres Strait Islands, Queensland, Australia / Lifou, Loyalty Islands, New Caledonia / Lead artist: Jimmy K Thaiday / Community consultation/artists: Lorna Mcewan-Lui and Joshua Thaiday / Erub artists: Ethel Charlie, Solomon Charlie, Rachael Emma Gela, Florence Gutchen, Nancy Naawi, Robert Oui, Racy Oui-Pitt, Ellarose, Savage, Jimmy J Thaiday / Lifou artists: Katia Cimutru, Olivier Delachaux, Emile Iwan, Bisso Iwane, Robert Jene, Humune Jiane, Louise Jone, Pastor Var Kaemo, Harela Kaloie, Peter Kaudre, Motaie Kaudre, Simei Midraia, Hala Ngazonie, Jymmy Ngoizoni, Atre Pawawi, Kegen Uedre, Edouaid Wamalo, Kevin Xowie / Sea Journey: people without borders 2018 / Charcoal on Fabriano Accademia drawing paper and mural / 3 parts: 420 x 150cm / Commissioned for ‘The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT9) / © The artists and Erub Arts

These practices reveal Australia’s island cultures to be far more than a fictionalised ideal. Lola Greeno continues Palawa traditions, while bringing attention to the environmental threats to our fragile marine ecology. Margaret Rarru and Helen Ganalmirriwuy make art in an ancient culture, more recently influenced by centuries-old trade routes, while artists from Erub and Lifou come together in observation of strong historical ties. Often working in environments characterised by isolation and significant external influences — both historical and contemporary — these artists use their geographical conditions and considerable creative talents to reveal elements of ‘paradise’ of their island lives.

Diane Moon is Curator, Indigenous Fibre Art, QAGOMA

Endnote
1 In addition to Australian island-based artists, APT9 also includes: Mao Ishikawa (Okinawa), Kapulani Landgraf (Hawai’i), Martha Atienza (Bantayan Island), Tongan-Australian artist Latai Taumoepeau, the Jaki ed Project from the Marshall Islands, Chris Charteris and the Tungaru: The Kiribati Project, and the Women’s Wealth project connecting women from the Autonomous Region of Bougainville and the Solomon Islands.

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APT9 has been assisted by our Founding Supporter Queensland Government and Principal Partner the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body, and the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy, an initiative of the Australian, State and Territory Governments.

Feature image: Lola Greeno, Australia b.1946 / Netepa menna (and detail) 2018 / Abalone shells spaced with echidna quills / 43.5cm (diam.) / Purchased 2018 with funds from The Hon. Ashley Dawson-Damer AM through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Lola Greeno

#APT9 #QAGOMA