All the artist knows is brought to bear in the work itself, but some forms of that knowledge remain hidden. They live in corporeal memory, which struggles towards a representation that feels right – verbal, musical or visual.1 Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking and Looking, Picador, New York, 2012, p. 286.
In recent years Indigenous Australian women have emerged as artists of astonishing innovation and eloquence, a phenomenon that has positioned them at the forefront of contemporary Indigenous art practice. Their rise to prominence and validation is in part attributable to the universally acclaimed paintings of senior Anmatyerr woman Emily Kam Kngwarray, who produced a remarkable body of work during the last seven years (1989–96) of her life. Kngwarray, who died at the age of eighty-six, was a mark maker extraordinaire whose work effected a revolution insofar as it resisted interpretation as encoded map-making, sacred design or landscape: it was neither notation nor narrative, but visual music of mass appeal.
Like Kngwarray before them, the Indigenous masters of light and colour represented in this special NGV Collection Focus exhibition inform their paintings with a profound knowledge and cultural memory of Country and its sanctity. In painting their identities, these artists have initiated a conversation with non-Indigenous viewers that, despite being circumscribed and partial, provides the foundation of cross-cultural dialogue and enquiry. Their works embody experiences both physical and mnemonic that predate European contact and the consequent cultural and intellectual assailment of Indigenous people. Dislocated from Country and its sources of spiritual power, their defiant and joyous paintings become custodians of sanctity, expressing the artists’ deep affinity with place, as explained by Wade Davis:
Imagine for the moment if all the genius and intellect of all generations that have come before you had been concentrated on a single set of tasks, focused exclusively on knowing a particular piece of ground, not only the plants and animals but every ecological climatic, geographic detail, the pulse of every sentient creature, the rhythm of every breath of wind, the patterns of every season. This was the norm in Aboriginal Australia.2 Wade Davis, The Wayfinders, University of Western Australia, Perth, 2010, pp. 156–7.
The eight intrepid practitioners of contemporary art represented in Visual Music: Indigenous Masters of Light and Colour have simultaneously come to the fore in two distinct regions of Indigenous Australia: the vast inland deserts and a tiny island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Queensland. Together they decisively engage with the physicality of paint and the fearlessness of colour, unfettered by precedent or white preconceptions of Indigenous art. For these women artists the act of painting is an animated and gendered performance which connects them holistically to events in the past, present and future, and corresponds to their ritual song and dance.
Six of the artists, heirs of the 1971 Papunya Tula painting revolution, inhabit the Tanami, Gibson, Victoria, Great Sandy and Little Sandy deserts and share intimate kinship, social, cultural and ritual interconnections. They speak closely related languages and dialects of the Pama-Ngungan language family of the Western Desert bloc. These custodians of Country and law also have parallel experiences of first encountering Europeans, of adapting to the enormous social and economic changes that ensued, and of making art with introduced materials on unaccustomed rectangular and square surfaces of increasing scale for the commercial market. They use a mnemonic visual language learnt in ceremonial contexts, but radically transform this inherited iconography into free gestures, layered stippling and stretches of colour to memorialise and celebrate Country.
The canvases of Pulpurru Davies, Alkawari Dawson, Lorna Napurrula Fencer and Wingu Tingima pulse with lines of dancing women, curved markings of body painting and hair-string belts that summon forth the spectacle, music and exultant rhythms of women’s ceremonies. Whereas animated surfaces are commonly built up through layering of spontaneous gestures and dotting, in the expansive works of Milly Kelly and Wakartu Cory Surprise textured colour fields and fluid lines prevail over dots, invoking the salt lakes and sandhills of the Great Sandy Desert.
Sally Gabori and Paula Paul are part of a tiny island community of Kaiadilt people that was evacuated from Bentinck Island to Mornington Island mission in 1948. This relocation disrupted the transmission of Kayaldild language to their descendants, and consequently Gabori and Paul are two of only five remaining Kaiadilt speakers of Kayaldild language. Because Kaiadilt culture does not include body, ground or rock art, the iconography of Gabori’s and Paul’s paintings, unlike those of their Western Desert counterparts, does not issue from a painting tradition. Rather, Gabori and other Kaiadilt women have authored an entirely new luminescent and vibrant language to express their specific cosmology, locus and cultural memory.
Beyond the titles given to their works by Gabori and Paul, both artists have remained reticent about exact interpretations of their work. The Kayardild linguist Nicholas Evans, however, suggests that Gabori’s paintings
are worked up from the distinctive blocks of light or colourations of the land and sea that dominate as one sits at the locations she names, transmuted so radically that the landscapes which inspired them are barely recoverable.3 Nicholas Evans & Penelope Johnson, ‘Bilda Miburiji Kurrij (Seeing with far eyes): the root of Kaiadilt women’s art’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, no. 49, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, p. 63.
Siri Hustvedt’s following observation might just as easily apply to the work of Gabori and Paul:
These works have their own oblique vocabulary, their own internal logic or anti-logic, their own stories to tell, that resist placing an external narrative. Their meanings are made in the encounter between the viewer and the art object, an experience that is sensual, emotional, intellectual and dependent upon the attention and expectations of the person doing the looking.4 Hustvedt, p. 247.
These Indigenous artists are radical risk-takers. Their work runs counter to the stylistic tendency evident in many parts of Indigenous Australia towards ever finer and more nuanced abstraction focused on lines, dots, fluctuating linear rhythms and shifting tonalities of an increasingly restricted palette. Instead, their paintings are conjunctions of iridescent colour, forms, textures, public and sacred stories and tactile sensations that point up transcendent powers sensed in freshwater or saltwater Country; their designs and gestures bear the strength of whole bodies, not merely of fingers trained to hold a pencil. The visual music of these sentient ‘Countryscapes’ is not a form of abstraction or minimalism, but rather is an ultimate expression of the artists’ groundedness and joyous connection with nature.
1 Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking and Looking, Picador, New York, 2012, p. 286.
2 Wade Davis, The Wayfinders, University of Western Australia, Perth, 2010, pp. 156–7.
3 Nicholas Evans & Penelope Johnson, ‘Bilda Miburiji Kurrij (Seeing with far eyes): the root of Kaiadilt women’s art’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, no. 49, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, p. 63.
4 Hustvedt, p. 247.