Monday, March 19, 2012

YIWARRA KUJU – The Canning Stock Route

Nyaru 2007
Brandy Tjungarrayi
Warlayirti Artists
149 x 74.5cm 
image courtesy of Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route
National Museum of Australia 2010 

Australian Museum, Sydney - until April 29, 2012

In Western Australia, in that vast, inhospitable outback terrain, three deserts merge; the Great Sandy, Little Sandy and the Gibson. This hot and isolated land was the birthplace of Rover Thomas, one of Australia's most acclaimed artists. It was also
the territory traversed by the Canning Stock Route, built in the 1930s to trek cattle. The route happened to cross the traditional lands of many Aboriginal people and it is this interface that is explored in the Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route exhibition at Sydney's Australian Museum.

Although our National and State art galleries hold significant collections of Aboriginal art, for many locals the exposure to Aboriginal art is via the plethora of tacky souvenirs depicting mass produced dot paintings, plastered over tea towels and t-shirts. The popularity of cheap Aboriginal art and its mass manufacture has saturated and limited perceptions of what Aboriginal art is all about. 

As Germaine Greer wrote in The Guardian, (9.11.2005) "The punters may have realised that Aboriginal art, in common with all other art, is mostly bad. What they have now to learn is how to recognise the relatively high proportion of Aboriginal art that is not just good, but sublime."

Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route is an exhibition that has amassed the sublime, the ethnographic ‘otherness’, which remains a mystery to the ordinary viewer.  It is an historic exhibition, a vivid explanation of the stock route history, its colonial chronology, the topography of the land, its geographic specificity. Yet the visual brilliance of this exhibition, and its over- riding spiritual power overwhelms the factual historic story utterly. It enables us to attempt to appreciate what this vast expanse of land means to the exhibiting Indigenous artists and it is nothing but overwhelmingly spiritual.

We have so few words that do justice to what this art evokes. “Spiritual” is such a loaded word, the associations are so new age and irritating.   The exhibition looks at what “country” means to Aboriginal people.  The land is seen not as a landscape, but as a spiritual being, the sacred core of the many indigenous people who continue to share it.

Looking at the exhibition and attempting to decode meaning through the parameters of western art is simply unfulfilling.  A purely formalist interpretation will perceive the intensity of colour relationships, spatial arrangements that echo abstract expressionism, composition that could, at times, be categorised as na├»ve, flat, one dimensional.  Yet through a western prism we see nothing but the outline of a cosmology that is so much more complex. So “other worldly”  that although this exhibition has trailed through my consciousness for months I still struggle to find language that in some way reflects the emotive impact of the relationship between these artists and their mother land.

The Ngurrara Canvas by Ngurrara artists and claimants
1000 x 800cm
image courtesy of 
Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route
National Museum of Australia 2010 

The Canning Stock Route is an 1850 kilometre track that was forged between water holes in the desert. It operated as a stock route for a few decades in the early 1900s yet its significance was its incursion across ancient Aboriginal land and the conflict and cross-cultural encounter that occurred as a result.  
The forging of the stock route led to the dispersal of many of the Indigenous people whose blood relatives had lived in this expanse of West Australian desert for millennia. Interestingly, many of the painters that returned from this vast diaspora to their ancestral soil painted their land with the intimacy of undisturbed memories; small scale, detailed paintings of home and earth.  Some painters also recalled historic events that occurred on the Stock route, and depicted the radical intersection of white explorers with ancestral spirits and serpents that inhabit the water holes.

Yiwarra Kuju, came about as a result of a collaboration between a West Australian arts organisation, called FORM, that took 100 or so artists with enduring connection to these lands, back to the stock route for a series of outback art camps, to commemorate the 100 years of Alfred Canning’s expedition.  127 finished works, including paintings, contemporary cultural objects and documentary material form the basis of this exhibition.

Kiriwirri 2008
Jan Billycan, Yulparija Artists
Acrylic on linen, 79.5 x 59.5
image courtesy of Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route
National Museum of Australia 2010

One of the most interesting features of Yiwarra Kuju is the collaborative works done by several members of a clan simultaneously. In this example, 3 artists working together paint the ancestral story of the Seven Sisters, Minyipuru Jukurrpa. This collaborative art making is a powerful display of shared history, ancestral knowledge and familial/cultural ties. It reflects a worldview that most non aboriginal people will never experience. 

Minyipuru (Seven Sisters) 2007
Muni Rita Simpson, Rosie Williams, Dulcie Gibbs - Martumili Artists
Acrylic on linen
image courtesy of Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route
National Museum of Australia 2010 
For the stockmen and explorers, the Canning Stock Route was a vital route for delivering cattle from the West Kimberley to growing populations in the south west of the state. For the Aboriginal people of this area it was their desert country sacred to them, the Ngurra kuju walyja, a term desert people use to describe one family, divided into distinct cultural family groups. Each group had special responsibilities and sacred dreaming knowledge. This radical juxtaposition of what land means, what water in a desert-scape means, what place, time and history mean is beautifully examined in this stunning exhibition. On the one hand, Alfred Canning’s detailed, clinical maps provide a geographic/historic context, a useful anchor for a non-Indigenous viewer.  Yet cleverly, the exhibition unfolds to show us that the Canning Stock Route is not so much about a road with wells but about the way Aboriginal artists view the ancient land the Route crosses, and the mapping of their continuing relationships between themselves and their country.

Artists' bush camp at Well 36
photograph by Tim Acker, 2007
image courtesy of Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route
National Museum of Australia 2010

The National Museum of Australia in Canberra is the owner of the entire Collection on display. In 2010-2011 the exhibition was held at the National Museum. It was brilliantly presented and well attended. It is now on view at Sydney’s Australian Museum. Unfortunately the current exhibition in Sydney is a little more dowdy than the National’s,  the lighting and hang is disappointing, the rooms feel somewhat tired and drab despite the luminous brilliance of the artwork. However, this example of institutional cooperation is to be commended and we hope future sharing of collections continue. The strength of Yiwarra Kuju - The Canning Stock Route more than compensates for the Australia’s Museum’s technical limitations and does carry itself proudly irregardless.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Inga Dalrymple

Velvet Head 2011 (45x60cm)

Sydney painter Inga Dalrymple's latest exhibition at Sydney's A. M Gallery is a kaleidoscope of intensely emotive colours, abstract patterns and relationship. Viewing her work is an opportunity to sense the synergy between this painter and her practise, the intensity of her love for what she does so well. A prolific, emerging artist, this collection invites you to view her inner world where colours are married to perfection and a patina of contemplative satisfaction seems to imbue each work.

Inga has managed to combine motherhood, a full time teaching career with an active art practise. Her love of painting sustains her and her practise is her creative anchor, solace and inspiration. She is productive and hardworking. Her studio is crammed with projects underway. Interestingly, she paints surrounded by a circular arrangement of paintings which she works at simultaneously, entering into a defined space of creativity and colour where she paints for hours, entranced by the development of each piece. Viewing this exhibition enables one to sense the artist's absorption, the almost meditative, intimate concentration applied through her relationship with colour and form.

Black and Blue, 2011 (30 x40cm)

The combination of colours and texture in this exhibition is particularly beautiful. A stormy fusion of mauve, grey and prussian blue dominates. The paintings titled Black and Blue, Velvet Head and Deep Dark are extraordinarily sensual, textured and vivid. Beneath a surface which has been scraped, sanded and tumultuously brushed lies an underlying silver sheen, like moonbeams on a torrid sea. Modestly proportioned, each canvas has a quiet impact, emotive and yet  restrained. Dalrymple uses oil paint lavishly and the textures she achieves is beautiful, the colours in her oil paintings are deep and complex.

Although not a landscape painter, Inga is affected viscerally by the urban environment and her practise involves recording the often ignored minutiae of objects found in the inner city, graffiti, garbage, discarded objects. This eye for urban detail echoes the interest of artists she admires such as Prunella Clough and Thomas Nozkowski. Yet Dalrymple's perception of environment is rarely figurative, it is seen, recorded, detailed in her sketchbooks yet the vast imprint is an emotive one which translates quietly through her work. Although the artist draws inspiration from the city, the quality of the work, its organic jumble of shape, form and colour suggests a visual spaciousness often more resonant with the natural landscape.