From the Gallery’s contemporary collection of Indigenous Australian paintings, weavings and sculpture comes a new exhibition, featuring works from north Queensland, Tasmania, the central and western deserts and Western Australia’s Kimberley coast that reflect vast distances, differences and commonalities. ‘Terrain: Indigenous Australian Objects and Representations’ is currently on view at GOMA. Visit us during National Reconciliation Week: 27 May-3 June
The land and its natural features can wield powerful aesthetic and cultural influences: knowledgeable and sympathetic relationships between Indigenous artists and their country are often the inspiration guiding the form and content of their works. Many artists feel their lives to be integrated with nature rather than separate from it. These relationships are explored in the exhibition ‘Terrain: Indigenous Australian Objects and Representations’. Influences are also brought to bear through ancient songlines, sites of significance and ancestral narratives that flow through streams and currents of fresh and saltwater, connecting disparate groups and defining identities. Available plants and animals, natural pigments and found materials also affect colour, structure and design.
At the heart of ‘Terrain’ lies sculpture, providing a context in which utilitarian pieces that are also beautiful sit with purely aesthetic objects. The functional and conceptual are combined in reinterpretations of traditional forms, such as brilliantly coloured conical bags and fish traps displayed in multiples and unexpected juxtapositions, subverting their customary purpose. Upturned, they mirror the topographical undulations of the land.
Abe Muriata, from Cardwell in northern Queensland, is known for his elegant bicornual baskets (jawun), traditionally made for collecting and preparing food and carrying small children. In an exciting new shift, he has supplanted the traditional medium of finely woven and split lawyer cane with found materials such as irrigation hose and fittings, and green and purple plastic strapping tape. Muriata’s fellow Girringun artists are reconfiguring the age-old forms of bagu (firestick spirit figures) in fired clay, rather than the original carved and ochre-painted softwood. Enjoying the plasticity of clay to shape larger and more expressive bagu figures has energised their practice and led to further experiments with found materials, such as ghostnet strands and technological detritus.
The Gallery’s Indigenous fibre collection, one of its particular strengths, underpins ‘Terrain’. Tjanpi is the native desert grass used to make baskets and sculptures; in 2008–09 over 90 Tjanpi desert weavers gathered at large, colourful camp sites to make a series of life-sized fibre figures representing Tjukurrpa (ancestral dreamings) and scenes of daily bush and station life. Fifty artists were represented in the resulting travelling exhibition, ‘Kuru Alala – Eyes Open’, illustrating how contemporary life and stories interweave with history and ancestry. The two Tjiti Tjuta (Many children) installations were acquired by the Gallery and are shown for the first time in ‘Terrain’.
Other desert weavers, such as Naomi Kantjuri, play with conventional basketry, as in her 107cm-wide Basketosaurus, which she spent some weeks shaping and stitching. She incorporated into its grand, robust form, patterns of concentric circles in desert colours, reflective of rock holes and the symbolic imagery found in much Aboriginal desert art, but specifically in the cave paintings close to Amata where she lives. In Punu Tjukulpa (Tree full of stories) 2010, Betty Kutunga Munti (1942–2011) has used the buttonhole stitch generally associated with baskets to weave an ancient gnarled tree, causing us to ponder on the years of history and change throughout its life span.
A key feature of ‘Terrain’ are groupings of works by esteemed senior Indigenous fibre artists Yvonne Koolmatrie (SA), Lena Yarinkura (NT) and Shirley Macnamara (QLD), acknowledging the groundbreaking approaches they have taken, paving the way for a previously unappreciated genre. The Gallery holds the most comprehensive collections of works by these artists.
Building on her knowledge and research of Ngarrindjeri weaving, Koolmatrie uses traditional methods to shape the rushes she collects and prepares. Having perfected the double-sided sister basket early in her career, she made her first ‘hot-air balloon’ after seeing a balloon festival in Mildura in 2004. Beautifully proportioned, with its basket attached with plied grass string, Hot-air balloon 2006 appears to be filled with air and ready for flight.
Yarinkura has sustained her early promise as a virtuoso weaver and sculptor, shaping kundayarr (pandanus) and kundalk (grass) into beings such as the enigmatic female yawkyawk spirits that inhabit the freshwater pools in her mother’s country at Borlkdjam in Arnhem Land. She shares cultural insights through the painted body patterning and haloes of feathered ‘hair’ on the two yawkyawk in the Collection, and through the scales painted onto the surface of the Rainbow Serpent with its forked-stick tongue.
Spindly turpentine bushes, tossed by whirly winds, evoke powerful memories for Shirley Macnamara of the traditional shelters of her childhood, when she was cattle-drafting with her family. In a powerful reflection of country, Wingreeguu 2012 is made from a stripped and upended turpentine bush wound through with golden strands of spinifex. It sits on a bed of rich yellow ochre pigment, which Macnamara says comes from a special place that has meaning for her and carries within it the essence of where she belongs. Before Wingreeguu, her focus was on sculptural ‘vessels’ made from twined and shaped spinifex strands: Guutu (Vessel) 14 2001 is lined with soft emu feathers; the interiors of others are pasted with crushed ochres in red and yellow.
Paintings hold the colours of the land. The fine lines and clear citrus tones of Regina Wilson’s Syaw (fish-net) 2004, reminiscent of Macnamara’s Wingreeguu, describe the rhythmic motion of a fishing net beneath the water. The bush string Walipun (Fish net) 2008 woven by Kathleen Korda is embodied in another painting by Wilson, Warrgarri (Dilly bag stitch) 2003; its variegated painted lines substitute for the regular loops of finely spun cabbage-palm fibre used to make bags and nets in Peppimenarti, Northern Territory, where she lives.
The paintings displayed here also map territories. Mukurtu 2010, a collaborative work by Pilbara artist Nancy Chapman and her three sisters, contrasts the brilliant blue of a precious freshwater spring and its verdant green fringe with the blinding white saltpan Ngayarta Kujarra (Lake Dora). Mabel Juli’s minimalist forms in Marranyji and Dinal 2004 sit in a large field of the seductive shimmering pink and gold hand-milled ochre pigments mined from her country, capturing the essence of the Kimberley landscape.
From the beautiful feathered body adornments from Galiwin’ku far to the north, to the exquisite shell necklaces by Tasmania’s Palawa artists, ‘Terrain’ provides a rich, immersive experience of a broad sweep of country, filtered through the knowledge and creativity of Indigenous Australian artists. In addition, it showcases many generous gifts donated to the Gallery in recent years, in particular by Margaret Mittelheuser, AM, Cathryn Mittelheuser, AM, Professor John Hay, AC, and Mrs Barbara Hay, and we thank them for their invaluable support.