Preserving Western Australian art appealed to Janet and Robert Holmes à Court and the collection they created reflects decades of considered research. ‘Sung Into Being: Aboriginal Masterworks 1984–94’ profiles the works by eight Indigenous artists, drawn from the Janet Holmes à Court Collection.
Janet Holmes à Court and her husband, Robert (1937–90), developed their significant art collection from the 1960s to 1990, in parallel with their highly successful commercial ventures. They worked together to build their knowledge of art and bought selectively, aiming to acquire the best works available by artists who attracted their attention. As the collection grew, it became renowned for its important international works and many pieces of Australian cultural significance.1
Aboriginal art was a strong interest for the couple well before it was generally appreciated, and the idea of preserving Western Australian art to represent the state’s cultural development also appealed to them. Roderick Anderson, a former registrar at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, had been researching local artists through the 1970s and shared the Holmes à Courts’ passion for regional works. In 1980, they appointed Anderson as the curator of their growing collection. Eight years later, Anne Marie Brody, who held a senior role at the National Gallery of Victoria, was employed as curator, and the collecting focus shifted more towards Indigenous art. Since her husband’s death in 1990, Janet has continued to nurture and enhance the collection with judicious acquisitions. The paintings and sculptures in ‘Sung into Being’ have been generously loaned by the Janet Holmes à Court Collection.
Paintings by Rover Joolama Thomas (c.1926–98) were early acquisitions for the Holmes à Court Collection. A seminal figure, Thomas opened the way for the general acceptance of Aboriginal art both nationally and internationally and created opportunities for others of the east Kimberley school of artists. Though he ultimately lived in Warmun, Thomas always held a clear visual memory of his birth place at Kunawarriji, Well 33, on the infamous Canning Stock Route. His mastery in ‘finding’ songs and ceremonies through dreams gave Thomas the cultural authority to paint from a landscape and law beyond that of his mother’s or father’s country. In 1975, he dreamt the famous Gurirr Gurirr song cycle, which he expanded in his art to include elements explaining the devastation of Darwin by Cyclone Tracy. Rover Thomas forged new conventions in Aboriginal art, particularly in his use of minimal abstract markings to inscribe topographical and mythological references onto broad fields of colour, inviting the viewer to embrace a profound, immersive experience.
The Arnhem Land artists in the exhibition lived and worked in an area bound by the Blyth and Cadell Rivers. With their complex cultural ties and histories, their paintings embody both the stylised aesthetic of the east and the palette and imagery of southern Arnhem Land. Eastern Arnhem Land influences are most evident in two important series by brothers-in-law Jack Wunuwun (1930–91) and John Bulunbulun (1946–2010), in paintings of their clan manikay (song cycles). Wunuwun’s ambitious canvas traces the Dhuwa moiety Murrungun creation narrative, with 30 exquisite small bark paintings representing elements of the Banumbirr (morning star) song and dance sequence. Wunuwun’s imposing black sculpted torsos of he and his three brothers show their individual characteristics and personalities; rescued by curator Anne Marie Brody from an Alice Springs novelty store, they are exhibited here for the first time. A large portrait on canvas by Yorta Yorta artist Lin Onus (1948–96), a frequent visitor to Arnhem Land, shows Wunuwun in a typical pose at home at Gamardi on the Blyth River. Dreaming elements emanate from his brush, and a lone morning star in a blackened sky overlooks the scene. Wunuwun was known locally as the ‘morning star painter’.
John Bulunbulun’s strong, contemporary interpretation of the Ganalbingu people’s Murrukundja manikay tells the history of Macassan visitors to northern coastal Australia. A large canvas and 21 small barks depict the songs and dances performed in Yirritja moiety ceremonies, reimagining the travel routes, objects, historic events and ceremonies celebrating the connection with Macassan traders over centuries. The repetitive triangular pattern is a clan body design indicating the clouds that engender the winds on which the Macassans sailed. Knives, guns, pots, lengths of rope and people climbing the mast and rigging of a prau (the Macassan sailing boat) are all elements that sustain memories of a longstanding and close connection.
In 1985, Rembarrnga man Jack Kalakala (1925–87) met Western Desert painters Dinny Nolan Tjampitjinpa and Charlie Egalie Tjapaltjarri at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. Though he painted in the southern Arnhem Land style, Kalakala soon began incorporating elements of dotting and concentric circles into his paintings of mardayin (sacred) kunmadj (conical baskets). Kunmadj was itself a creative being, traversing the earth, naming sites, bringing language and laws and depositing its spiritual essence in sacred waters. The following year, believing that his life as an artist was complete, Kalakala concentrated on his ceremonial duties; with years of astute community leadership and a brief professional painting career behind him, he died soon after. Kalakala was so highly regarded that his funeral ceremony attracted choirs of song men from clan groups near and far, who sang through the night until his spirit answered their call.
Though Kalakala’s younger brother, Les Mirrikkuriya (1932-95), inherited his older brother’s artistic role, he brought a distinctive sensibility to complex paintings notable for their elegance and fine detail. Mirrikkuriya revelled in the use of unlikely natural pigments, mixing pinks, dull mauves, bluish tints and grey-greens. Spirit figures — loosely drawn with wiry delicacy — float on a background of rarrk (crosshatching). Superimposed over this fine linear network are stylised kunmadj, fish fences, spirit beings and naturalistic elements.
Gunardba man England Banggala (1925–2001) painted dynamic pictures of mythological events and the wangarr (spirits) that created his lands. His innovation lies in graphic boldness and confident broad brushstrokes, resulting in areas of solid black, white and soft yellow with dotted subdivisions. In a typically central Arnhem Land style, the rarrk patterning is used within the figures and motifs, rather than as background. Jin-gubardabiya, a primary subject for Banggala, is a freshwater ‘mermaid’ spirit in the form of a woven pandanus conical mat, who guards sites of power linked to the fertility of the clan.
Banggala, Mirrikkuriya and Terry Ngamandara Wilson (1950–2011) all lived at the Gochan Jiny-jirra outstation on the Cadell River, where they maintained their separate ‘studio’ spaces and painted in very different styles. Ngamandara shared custodianship of an area of a large swamp, Barlpanarra, where the dreaming tracks of two sisters converge (Murlurlu). In his landscapes, the rarrk patterning suggests grassy plains, and he has pared down living matter to its essential nature in repetitive images of gulach (edible spike rush corms), which are reduced to strong black triangles that float rhythmically over finely detailed crosshatching. The same triangular pattern is painted on the bodies of the dead during funeral ceremonies.
The paintings and sculptures in ‘Sung into Being’ were acquired with great foresight by Janet and Robert Holmes à Court. They are a visible aesthetic expression of the artists’ intimate knowledge of the creation of their clan lands, and a great Australian cultural legacy.
1 See Janet Holmes à Court Collection Overview, www.holmesacourtgallery.com.au
Diane Moon is Curator, Indigenous Fibre Art.
Feature image: Jack Wunuwun’s Banumbirr Manikay – (Morning Star song cycle) (detail) 1988