Desert artists sadly missed

If anyone wanted proof of the tribal differences that still define Aboriginal Australia then the individual painting styles that four recently dead women artists made their own ought to be sufficient. 

Story by Jeremy Eccles

Sadly, in the last few months, we've lost Angelina George from Ngukurr on the Roper River, Sally Gabori from Bentinck and Mornington Islands, Munmarria Daisy Andrews from Fitzroy Crossing via the Great Sandy Desert and Myra Cook from the Ngaanyatjarra Central Desert lands.

In a sense, Angelina and Daisy both painted the places where desert met mountain ranges, and both reflected the murderous expansion of those pastoral 'pioneers' who all-too-often killed the people whose land tenure system they couldn't comprehend but whose lands they coveted - but how differently they saw them as a result of both geography and centuries of acculturisation. 

For Daisy Andrews, her 'Kaningarras' and 'Lumpu Lumpus' were blood-red with unhappy memories of lands lost, relatives shot, sacred water-holes defiled and songlines disrupted. Yet she used synthetic polymer paint on paper to create deceptively appealing landscapes - so successfully that the West Australian Opera commissioned a 12 metre backdrop for their production of 'Alcina' in 1996. I wonder if Perth opera audiences recognised their complicity in Daisy's pain? "I knew that country in my mind from my brother Boxer. That country is empty now. It made me cry. I tell you I was just upset".

Meanwhile, Angelina George had a mix and match childhood involving traditional ceremony in the mountains south of the Roper River and Christianity in town, school and chapel (where her father was the first Indigenous pastor), and she worked assiduously for a decade to find a way to capture the importance of the land to her. Sidney Nolan's outback paintings have been associated with the result in her 'Ruined Cities', which she shows as something between a real world swirling in constant motion, and abstraction. Romantic (with a capital R) has also been used by a critic who felt the touch of Casper David Friedrich. Yet Angelina's emphasis actually was: "I have special memories from my travels ... I can paint my memories and imagination ... not exactly what it looks like. You know. Traditional way and law. My imagined country never stops in my memory."

Such a powerful force, memory - especially when these elders had at least first-hand reports of the days before the white man came and spoilt everything.

In Sally Gabori's case, the missionaries did their best to negate her Kaiadilt memories of life on the strands of Bentinck Island - cut off from both black and white intrusion for centuries - by forcibly transferring them all to Mornington Island when drought, a cyclone and tribal fighting combined to threaten their existence. These untamed people were thus opened up to Christianity - and Gabori's husband Pat lost 2 of his 4 wives. But..."Such was the trauma of this forced shift that for several years no child was born and survived, rupturing forever the chain by which one sibling transmits language to the next". Dr Nicholas Evans of Melbourne University has written about vanishing languages internationally, inspired by his Kaiadilt studies. But in human terms, this trauma meant that Sally Gabori could never pass her tribal lore on to the offspring of her own 11 children through song or conversation. Painting was the only way. 

And she dedicated the last 9 of her 90 years to playing catch-up with canvas, delighting the market with her unpredictable blocks of "sizzling scarlets, piercing yellows (and) opulent blues" which somehow reflected essential facets of her island home. Actually, I suspect Gabori's black and white paintings will best stand the test of time. 

Did Myra Yurtiwa Cook down in the Gibson Desert have such a tough time? She seems to have moved in and out of Country freely with her family, bringing her children up in Blackstone and Warnan. The pioneering Warburton Art Project gave her the first opportunity to paint in the classic way of desert dotting. But after that, reality caught up with her as her life was tossed and turned between opposing forces in the Aboriginal art business. The purists at Desart in the Noughties sought to restrict artists to working only in community art centres; some artists wanted to make their own choices. And the 'notorious' John Ioannou was standing there to assist them. For a time, he actually ran a community art centre at Irrunytju - at the behest of its artists.

We shall miss all of these women elders, as will their families. But their art will live on to educate them and delight us.


Aboriginal Art Thrives in the Top End

Visual Arts

Aboriginal art thrives at Top End of the market

Tommy Watson

Tommy Watson with one of his grand-scale works of art in his country near Alice Springs. `Everything is on a big scale out there in the desert,' says arts adviser Ken McGregor. Picture: Steve Strike Source: TheAustralian

MENTION Aboriginal art these days and you're likely to hear a lot of doom and gloom.

The global financial crisis, Labor's resale royalty scheme and its changes to superannuation really knocked the bottom out of the market, dealers say.

But not the top, it seems.

In galleries around the country, high value works, often large ones, are selling swiftly.

"There's a bevy of artists whose work is trading at prices above what we saw prior to the downturn -- I would say at record prices for these artists in private sales," Russell Roberts, director of Piermarq Art Advisory in Sydney, says.

Respected art valuer Brenda Colahan thinks sales have improved markedly in the past six months.

"The top end is finding a market, perhaps privately, not at auction," she says.

The most popular works tend to be by elderly desert artists, people who grew up in the bush before contact with Western civilisation.

"People recognise there's a direct association between these works and a culture that's 40,000 years old and potentially coming to an end," Roberts says.

Ken McGregor, an author and art adviser, argues many of the best paintings now being produced are monumental or very large. "Everything is on a big scale out there in the desert," he says.

"There's something expansive that really lends itself to huge work.

"Some of these paintings are really breathtaking." McGregor curated a show of works by the desert artist Tommy Watson at Metro Gallery in Melbourne, including one five-metre piece priced at more than $800,000.

One of the biggest proponents of monumental works is Chris Simon of Yanda Aboriginal Art, who represents Watson and looks after him while he paints.

"The downturn during the GFC was probably the best thing that could've happened to my business," he says.

"It got rid of all of the small dealers who encouraged artists to paint more than they were capable of doing to high quality."

He says he has since been able to coax the best artists to produce fewer, larger works that he hopes will provide a cultural record.

There has long been a tension between private dealers such as Simon and the government-run art centres that dot the outback and keep many artists employed.

Desert Mob, a highly regarded exhibition of work primarily from art centres, opened in Alice Springs this week. Art centre works tend to dominate competitions and public gallery shows.

McGregor says even though many art centre operators are his friends, he thinks they don't always focus enough on quality.

"The best work is really being produced outside art centres," he says.

Dealers say most of the top end works, selling for prices from $10,000 to $130,000 and up, are going into private collections in Australia and overseas.

McGregor thinks more should be going to institutions.

Spectatular paintings

If you want to see some of the most outstanding paintings ever done, then the works by Tommy Watson would have to be on your "must see" list. 



The incredible attention to detail is reflected in every painting created. The fusion of colour, texture and form allow you to experience his country as it's depicted on canvas.



Traditional Aboriginal Art

Aboriginal people traditionally painted on rock, on the body and in the sand  to tell the stories of their ancestors and their creation stories.

Aboriginal Rock Art

Aboriginal rock paintings appear on cave walls all over Australia.  The best-known are in the Kimberley area of West Australia.  This is probably the oldest art form.  The Wandjina, the ultimate creator,  hunting scenes and the Bradshaw figures or Mimi Spirits are found on many cave walls going back over 40,000 years.  This art form tells us about the activities, the spiritual beliefs and the social activity of the people of the time.


Aboriginal Bark Paintings

Painted on the bark harvested from trees.  The bark is first soaked in water and then smoked to create a flat shape for painting.  Bark was also used to make everything from  baskets to canoes.  Most bark works come from Arnhemland and northern West Australia.


Aboriginal Dot Paintings

These paintings come from the centre and western desert areas where dots, using acrylic paint are used to create and depict plants, animals, waterholes and land forms.  Originally done in ochre's the Aboriginal desert artists moved onto acrylic paints when they were introduced to them by the missionaries. 

Aboriginal Aerial paintings

 Many paintings of country are viewed from above, "bird's-eye view".  Painted by the artist sitting on the ground, they have been created with an intimate knowledge of land and tell the Dreamtime creation stories of the plants, animals, earth cycles and landscape.


Aboriginal Carvings and sculpture

Weapons such as spears for fishing, hunting and fighting were created out of stone and wood.  Coolamuns, baskets for food gathering and small animal and bird figures  were also carved out of the local wood.  Necklaces and other adornments worn for ceremony were made out of feathers and seeds.  Bush string to bind things together was made out of fibres from plants.  These fibres were also used to weave baskets.



The traditional wind instruments from North East Arnhemland were created out of a tree branch that was hollowed out by termites,  They were cut down and shaped to a long hollow instrument used in ceremony by the men.



Symbols were drawn in the sand as maps showing the young initiates where to find waterholes, food and teach about hunting and how to recognize animal tracks.

Some very elaborate sand paintings were used for ceremony, they took days and days to create and once the ceremony was over were destroyed.



What is Tingari?

The Tingari relates to the journey's of the ancestors, men and women who were there at the beginning of creation, travelling across the land creating the hills, the mountains, plants, animals and humans.

Tingari is a sacred "Men's Business" ceremony.

When the young boys reach about eleven or twelve they to have leave their mothers and go with the senior men into the country to learn about the land and the life that it protects.  Once the young boys have passed their tests they are then initiated and take on the knowledge and the responsibility that goes with it.

Tingari has been a part of Pintupi law since conception, and the paintings of Tingari have been created since the early days of the Aboriginal art movement and are a part of Aboriginal history.


Originally drawn on the body for ceremony, now on canvas to educate those willing to learn.

Elements such as linked concentric circles and squares have become the icons of the Tingari depicition.

Whilst a lot of the Tingari paintings are in the traditional earth colours, artists such as Ronnie Tjampitjinpa have created their Tingari paintings using big bold shapes with vivid colours such as oranges, blues, greens and purples.

The circles and squares have become quite irregular in many of the Tingari paintings of today as artists add other dotted and filled-in areas. 

Regular shapes have been distorted, pulled in various directions on the canvas as the artists work on their painting, creating a brilliant piece of artwork while still maintaining the integrity of the sacred Tingari ceremony and protecting parts of the story that are restricted to all but the initiated.


Tingari Cycle by Ronnie Tjampitjin

Ochres to acrylic paint

Traditionally Aboriginal people used natural earth pigments to paint on their bodies and in the caves.  Drawings were also done in the sand.  Things like feathers and pieces of fur, wood, leaves were stuck on the body with tree resins and plant glues.  Blood from animals such as kangaroos was used to paint, and in the Kimberley area is still used today.

At the beginning of the painting movement the artists at Papunya were supplied with water colours and acrylic paints, but other areas of the desert the Aboriginal artists still used the traditional earth pigments, at first they were reluctant to change and to reproduce sacred ancestral designs to be viewed by the public.

Because of the dramatic changes in Aboriginal lifestyle due to European occupation, there was concern amongst many of the seniors that a lot of important Aboriginal culture and spirituality would be lost if there wasn't a permanent record.

After much debate by these Aboriginal elders it was decided that some aspects of their sacred stories could be told on canvas as it would be a permanent statement of their culture. 

In 1985 the co operative, Warlukurlangu Artists Association was formed to implement this policy so that paintings could be viewed in the public domain.


Australian  glass artist dances with fire to create some of the finest glass pieces to hit the international art world.

Tina Cooper, one of Australia's finest glass artists with a reputation internationally, is a resident on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, where she works with liquid currents of molten glass drawn from a 1200 degree furnace to create her masterpieces.

 "I am a rough diamond that does not want to be polished because my rawness has taken a lifetime to create, just like a diamond"  Tina says.

United States President, Barack Obama, purchased a piece of Tina Cooper's indigenous series for the White House.


The outback pieces that Tina has created are simply amazing, crafted in glass drawing inspiration from her trips outback to the desert and beyond.

 Tina hopes that people sense and share the depth of love and feeling that she puts into all her work which is a true expression of her own emotions and thoughts of the moment.

Her strong connection with the Australian environment is reflected in many of the pieces that show illusions of the Sunshine Coast beaches and her love of the ocean.  All these are richly represented in her glass art, making her one of the most sought-after glass artists in the world.

Aboriginal Art from the Western Desert - Kintore and Kiwirrkura

These two Aboriginal settlements were originally established as outstations of Papunya. 

Many of the artists who had painted with the art teacher, Geoffrey Bardon, at Papunya then moved back to their own Pintupi homelands when these areas were established, creating another unique and wonderful area that is now known for it's own individual style of painting.

Aboriginal law men who had achieved the seniority to paint the Tingari Cycle now took their works to a whole new design level.  Complex patterns emerged that told the important and sacred story of the ancestral Tingari spirits

Walala and Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri were probably the last of the desert men to emerge after living their entire lives in traditional way in the desert.  Both these men are now artists painting their Dreamtime journeys and country with acrylic paints on canvas.

Senior Aboriginal lawmen such at Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, George Tjungurrayi, (known as Hairbrush as if you saw his hair you'd understand why) and Charlie Tjungurrayi paint with a huge knowledge of their country and with deep spiritual conviction.  Their works are sought by collectors worldwide and hang alongside many of the famous European and Amercian artists.  Known for their very contemporary "look" they are based on stories thousands of years old.  Works below LHS, Walala, RHS, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa


The Aboriginal women from Kintore and Kiwirrkura have also played an important role in the Aboriginal Art Movement, Nyruapayia Nampitjinpa, Naata Nungurrayi, Makinti Napangati and  Ningura Napurrula ,have left an indelible mark in the painting world.  LHS, Naata Nungurrayi and RHS Ningura Napurrula


Aboriginal Art from the Western Desert - Balgo

Many of the Aboriginal communities in the Western Desert now have a lot of famous painters in their midst

Balgo Hills is one of the most isolated Aboriginal settlements 300km from the nearest town of Halls Creek.  During the wet season this community can be cut off for many months and during the dry times its a hot arid region of the desert.

The colours of the landscape in this area reflect the impact that they've had on the desert artists;  the intense colour of the  hot orange-red sand contrasts with the  deep blue of the sky, the soft green of the spinifex covered sand-dunes harmonizes with the deep purple hues as the sun sets.  

Balgo was originally established as a Catholic mission in 1939 and became an "Aboriginal controlled" community in 1981.  Different from other Aboriginal communities such as Papunya, the children were not separated from their parents and their own language was not forbidden.  In 1981 an Adult Education Centre was established and 2 years later a bilingual Catholic school was created, because of these schools the painting community was able to start in ernest..

Many of the elders who came out of the desert to live at Balgo  became part of this emerging painting community.  Art from Balgo has it's own unique style.  Known for its strong vivid colours, extremely wild and flamboyant design, the Aboriginal artists of the Balgo region have had a profound effect on the centre and western desert art movement. 

Some of the artists to emerge from this region are Eubena Nampitjin whose works now are in the National Gallery of Victoria, Helicopter who got his name after a ride in a helicopter to hospital, Mick Gill, Sam Tjampitjin, Boxer Milner, Lucy Yukenbarri, John Mosquito, Sunfly, Bai Bai Napangarti