From East Kimberley to Elizabeth Bay
Posted: 25 Jun 2010 | By: Jeremy Eccles
Those Gija lawmen of the East Kimberley have surely proved themselves the most resolute of Australia's northern tribesmen. For, faced with a twentieth century in which white pastoralists assumed the right to steal their land, ruthlessly kill any who showed the slightest spark of opposition, then throw off their lands those stockmen who expected equal pay after the 1967 Referendum, the Gija quietly withstood all the blows and then rebuilt their culture around a painting movement.
And in this act of sharing with the old enemy - now art buyers - they also resisted the influence of many other Aborigines pressing north from the deserts into the kinder Kimberley. While Aboriginal art just a little further south in Balgo, and then from Fitzroy across to Broome, shows strong Desert influences in its colour, perspective and dotting, the Gija drew a line in the sand and developed their own unique style.
The one chink in their line of resistance, ironically, was the man who most initiated that style - the Canning Stock Route man, Rover Thomas. But Rover's Kurirr Kurirr Dream-that-became-a-Ceremony both gave him an honorary role in Gija culture and 'revealed' him as the Picasso of the East Kimberley, destined to invent a way of seeing country and its meanings quite distinct from any other Indigenous view.
Like a Braque to his Picasso, there was Paddy Jaminji in Warmun to whom Rover turned in 1975 when the Kurirr Kurirr ceremony needed boards painted to illustrate the song and dance. But that was mainly figurative work - though the paradigm of using only ochre colours did become established. It took Rover until 1984, using canvas rather than boards, to really move on to tell complex stories of the land - picturing only the land. His Lake Argyle that year speaks not only of the man-made lake that drowned much ceremonial country but also of stories associated with a star falling to earth there in the Dreamtime.
From Rover's pioneering - and his success both in exhibitions at Canberra's National Gallery and Venice Biennale and in the marketplace - grew the exclusively Gija organisation, Jirrawun Arts; but only after their 'Number One's' death. Jirrawun, lead by such elders as Timmy Timms, Paddy Bedford and Peggy Patrick, was determined as its first priority to clear the decks on the century past. Significant shows targetting the massacres that still black-marked their land were held in Melbourne (Blood on the Spinifex) and Sydney (True Stories), and a public ceremonial Junba (Fire, Fire Burning Bright) went to Perth and Melbourne Festivals.
Now many of the Old People are gone: Rover and Queenie McKenzie (though eternally linked in Paul Kelly's song), Jaminji, Timms and Bedford, Jack Britten, George Mung Mung, Hector Jandanay - and others. But Jirrawun continues in its elegant tented structure near Wyndham, where the artists can remove themselves from the hassles of the world, and two of its leading artists, Freddy Timms and Rusty Peters, will now appear more regularly in Sydney at the Michael Reid Gallery.
There, Reid and Wally Caruana, the former Senior Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the National Gallery, have had a two-year partnership focusing on individual indigenous artists. The 2009 Telstra prizewinner, Danie Mellor, Peppiminarti's Regina Wilson and Mornington Island's Sally Gabori spring to mind. "Jirrawun then approached us about representing Freddy Timms and Rusty Peters in Sydney - an attractive proposition," explained Caruana.
Indeed, Jirrawun has been something of a moveable feast for its admirers. Apart from Melbourne's William Mora Gallery and Raft Artspace (late of Darwin), Jirrawun's founding Director, Tony Oliver, seemed to prefer his master's art to be seen in public galleries like the Art Gallery of New South Wales and Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art than in any one commercial outlet. Keen buyers travelled north to obtain the latest artwork; many disappeared into reserved collections for the artists' pension funds or estates. Now, a regular income may be a higher priority for the artists.
As part of establishing their Sydney presence, Caruana and Reid wanted to contextualise the works of their two new artists with others from the East Kimberley School. There was a famous Rover Thomas work, for instance, Yilimbiddi Country, which was painted in what Caruana calls "Rover's most productive and creative phase" between 1987 and the early 1990s, when he was still using natural resins or animal blood to give his work a unique patina and when the challenges of the Venice Biennale and the NGA one-man exhibition Roads Cross kept him fresh. The work has been seen at the 1990 Adelaide Biennial and at the AGNSW, before selling at Sotheby's in 2003 for $380,000.
"It's a classic," says Caruana, "in defining each land shape by lines of dots. I believe this telling feature derived from local traditions blended with some purifying influences from the Desert and early work from Port Keats by Nym Banduk. It could be seen solely as a map of the local country. But land is a mnemonic for East Kimberley people, a source of individual and social identity. The art is full of kinship terms and structures taken from ceremonial body painting. So the body becomes the country - an unbreakable connection. And then they incorporate more recent history - the scars of the mistreatment and massacres still on the land."
Freddy Timms has certainly followed in Rover's footsteps - painting beside him in life, bravely adding bright reds and yellows to the accepted East Kimberley ochres, bringing Jirrawun into being, after a particularly egregious rip-off, and contributing six of the eighteen recent works in the Sydney show. Long tall Rusty Peters often assisted Rover and worked at the Waringarri Art Centre until discovering his own painting muse around the turn of the century. Arguably, he's the first conceptualist in Aboriginal art - most famously revealed in his seven-panel Waterbrain at the AGNSW portraying the Gija cycle from birth to death.
For Caruana & Reid, he tackled that subject again over five complex panels.
Images from top:
Rusty Peters, Sugarleaf Dreaming, 2008, ochres, pigment with acrylic binder on custom board, 80 x 100cm.
Freddie Timms, Barramundi Hole, 2008, ochres, pigment with acrylic binder on Belgian linen, 80 x 240cm.