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Spirits in the Scrub – The artists of Ngukurr

Maureen Morrangulu Thompson, one of Australia’s most gifted Aboriginal artists, knows how to excite viewers, telling uniquely detailed stories within her paintings. One of my personal favourites, Burial Ground Place, 2004 (featured above), comprises many elements, a beautifully assembled kaleidoscope of colours that fit together like a complex jigsaw puzzle. Within the folds can be seen spirit figures, unusual faces, ceremonial dance, flowers, mountains, treetops, foliage, rivers, birds and animals – all here, existing as one. In terms of people and spirits, those who might be buried underground or those on the surface, is not entirely clear; but what is clear is their togetherness. The story here goes well beyond any Western ideal of love and loss. Here I see continuation, a story of ongoing celebration, not only for those buried, but for everybody’s connection to Country, all connected as one.

Snakes or serpents surround some of the burial sites, and feel to me like protectors. My eye is drawn to a blackened triangular segment with a white, almost baby-like, figure reaching for a spear or food preparation tool. I wonder about this movement and activity, ‘Does it represent a passage to an after life?’ I would have so many questions for the artist, but Maureen too has now passed on. Regardless, I know there is a good chance that scenes depicted are not meant to be shared with or explained to outsiders. The visions and emotional weight that the painting carries are enough for me. I feel it and I admire an artists’ sentiment. Perhaps I know something in just viewing the art. To put it simply, it is truly beautiful.

Maureen’s painting is one of the key works within Roper River Rhapsodies – The Vibrance of Ngukurr, an exhibition of ultra-modernist art where the artists’ exploration of colour and storytelling is able to move people in a way that’s rare. Featuring highly respected artists including Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, Djambu Barra Barra, Willie Gudapi, Amy Jirwulurr Johnson, Gertie Huddleston, Faith Thompson Nelson, Joyce Huddlestone, Maureen and many more, the exhibition is a celebration of South East Arnhem Land painters from a small town called Ngukurr, situated on the banks of the Roper River in the Northern Territory.

Ngukurr [Nook-koor], ‘a place of many stones’, is today an Aboriginal community of about 800 people from nine different language groups, many of whom were displaced from their ancestral Country. Originally an early 1900s Anglican mission, Ngukurr provided a haven for the Roper River peoples fleeing the violence of pastoralists moving up from the south. People of many different clans and language groups congregated there, including the Alawa, Mara, Ngalakan, Ngandi, Nunggubuyu, Rittarrngu and Wandarang clans. And while history is today reflected in the subject matters and diversity of styles of the Ngukurr artists’ paintings; the artists are mostly famous for exploring new painting styles and techniques and recontextualising them to become something wholly unique.

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Joyce Huddlestone
Flowering Tree Tops, 2005
122 x 97cm, Acrylic on canvas

The first canvases from Ngukurr date back to March 1987 from painters such as Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, Djambu Barra Barra, Amy Jirwulurr Johnson and Willie Gudapi, when Sydney artist John Nelson was employed by the Northern Territory Education Department, at the community’s request, to set up a painting course. Nelson introduced large canvases and acrylic paints giving artists an unlimited opportunity to experiment with a new colour palette. Artists took to the new mediums well, painting with energy and power. The first of these paintings were shown in the Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin. They were brilliantly coloured, large and innovative in feel. They achieved instant acceptance from collectors and a range of prominent Melbourne galleries soon exhibited the artists’ works, both in group and individual shows. Maureen was one of the founding painters, and her gouache on paper works collected by Melbourne’s NGV showcase her impossibly pure and delicate figurative style.

Gertie Huddleston, Flowers in the Bush, 2006 120 x 40cm, Acrylic on canvas

Gertie Huddleston, Flowers in the Bush, 2006
120 x 40cm, Acrylic on canvas

Gertie Huddleston also was gifted in the use of colour and chose to complement her mostly nature-based tropical forest and foliage paintings with figurative storytelling elements, making the paintings very pleasing to Western eyes. While galleries across the nation were hanging more traditional landscape and dot paintings from Western and Central Desert areas, Gertie’s delivery was exceedingly modernist by comparison. Her layering of plants is similar in feel, colour and texture to the early Australian landscape paintings of European artist Henri Bastin, who moved to Australia in the 1920s and later exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art of Australia (now Heidi, Melbourne) in 1958 and 1959. I also see a visual connection between Gertie’s paintings and the early 1970s and ’80s works by Canberra artist Wendy Stavrianos – recognised at the time for her free-flowing tree and bush scenes intertwined with figurative storytelling. Like many of the Ngukurr painters, Wendy also tells a story of environmental awareness and mass migration, coupled with an aim to share in sadness and memories. While it’s unlikely that any of these artists were ever personally connected, it is likely that as they were for the most part untaught, they were able to observe and paint unrestricted fresh interpretations of the Australian bush. Translations of what they saw, applied as acrylic on canvas, managed to build in a wonderful way upon the mid- to late-20th century modernist Australian movement.

Gertie was one of five artist sisters, daughters of the first Aboriginal pastor at the mission. She won the general painting prize in the 1999 Telstra national Aboriginal art award, an achievement that her youngest sister, Angelina George, matched eight years later. Two more of Gertie’s sisters, Betty Roberts and Eva Rogers, are featured in Roper River Rhapsodies with paintings that share a vibrant and detailed vision of the Roper River region.

I can see that, early on, Melbourne art dealers and collectors in particular were incredibly astute in snapping up Ngukurr works, celebrating their beauty and form. The paintings of Ginger Riley, Maureen, Gertie and others complemented collected works by more famous artists such as Sidney Nolan, Charles Blackman, Bastin and more. The dealers put on exhibitions showcasing the Ngukurr artists and soon major art institutions like Melbourne’s NGV and the National Gallery of Australian began collecting the paintings. The works they hold today represent some of the finest and most uniquely Australian art that will ever grace their walls.

Alan Jushua Jnr. Healing Mimi, 2004 115 x 117cm, Acrylic on canvas Collection of Adam Williams,

Alan Jushua Jnr.
Healing Mimi, 2004
115 x 117cm, Acrylic on canvas
Collection of Adam Williams,

Roper River Rhapsodies – The Vibrance of Ngukurr also highlights the passage of time with respect to the development of Ngukurr artists, with paintings, sculptures and didgeridoos included in the exhibition and works dating from 1987 through to 2006. Alan Joshua Jnr could be considered a latecomer, beginning to paint at Ngukurr in 1996. His gift is his natural ability to produce works with a contemporary feel, using highly textural layering of vibrant colours, yet retaining a sense of tradition – a distinctive mix of the new and old. Healing Mimi, 2004, his modernist adaptation of a healing spirit story, is a ‘hero’ painting. The work features an arrangement of bones, spears, didgeridoos and tapping sticks, with a dilly bag as a central item, perhaps a gift of medicine from the spirit. Four figures painted in detailed crosshatched designs are focused on the gift. There is movement, joy and tradition within the painting. It’s an Aboriginal ceremonial gem.

Spirits and other mystical elements in nature form a theme that’s loosely carried throughout Roper River Rhapsodies. Maureen Thompson’s Spirits in Scrub, 2003, depicts the range of differing spirits with great variation detail. It presents the bush as a place of great spiritual importance.

Roper River Rhapsodies – The Vibrance of Ngukurr features canvases selected from Melbourne/Wangaratta art collector Hans Sip’s significant collection. The core of the Nugukrr collection (more than 50 paintings), was compiled by Ngukurr author and artist Simon Normand 14 years ago, made possible by Simon’s personal connection to the Ngukurr community. Since Hans acquired that collection, he has made significantly additions, enhancing it with 80 more paintings and sculptures over the past 10 years. Today the collection is divided between Hans and North East Victorian private collector Adam Williams. Adam has loaned major works – including massive canvases by Djambu Barra Barra and Amy Jirwulurr Johnson – for display in this exhibition. The paintings held by Hans are now being offered for sale.

Djambu (Sambo) Barra Barra Wirrulnga, 1987
135 x 122cm, Acrylic on canvas

Djambu Barra Barra’s early works were distinguished by his complex and daring use of X-ray and cross-hatched bark painting styles, cleverly adapted to the medium of bright acrylics on canvas. His technique extended the boundaries of traditional bark painting by depicting a wide array of introduced animals, traditional totems, weapons, spirits and mortuary figures. In 2009, Nicolas Rothwell, a writer for The Australian newspaper, described Barra Barra’s totemic creatures as a ‘strong look, too strong for easy comfort’. These works are almost complete opposites in visual style to the friendlier feel of Maureen Thompson, but are their equal in spiritual storytelling.

Unusually, Maureen’s daughter, Faith Thompson Nelson, has developed her own individual style, choosing not to focus on generational family storytelling. Her painting Snake Tracks, 2003, is a unique observation of her surroundings and uses a wild and vibrant layered mix of reds, pinks and turquoise tones.

It’s one example of her technique in building layers to illustrate the beautify of earth, rocks and other natural elements. In Four Sisters, 2003, she paints the famous Roper River rock formations, highlighting their sequence of stacked sedimentary layers. The painting features a great sweeping tree-lined bend of the river and valley floor in great detail. It’s a painting of scale, measuring 175cm across and appears utterly mesmerising to the viewer. Amy Jirwulurr Johnson, the deceased wife of Djambu Barra Barra, had a similar individuality in strength, painting astonishingly bright scenes of animals and birds within their landscape. Her perspective on life and all living things is joyous and infectious. Her painting Rocky Place, 2005, illustrates her unrelenting passion for celebrating Country, with birds, marsupials, fish and plants sharing the canvas as one great big happy family.

Faith Thompson Nelson Snake Tracks, 2003 123 x 56cm, Acrylic on canvas

Faith Thompson Nelson
Snake Tracks, 2003
123 x 56cm, Acrylic on canvas

There is extreme diversity within the group of Ngukurr painters, making the collection, Roper River Rhapsodies – The Vibrance of Ngukurr, a historic timestamp born of the differing nations brought together at Ngukurr by the missionaries. Four Sisters and Rocky Place, like so many other paintings featured, perfectly showcase the significant beauty and importance of the Roper River region.

Roper River Rhapsodies – The Vibrance of Ngukurr
Until June 15, 2018
Aboriginal Exhibitions Gallery at Rutherglen Estates
13-35 Drummond Street, Rutherglen, Victoria
Tel 02 6032 7999
aboriginalexhibitions.com.au | www.rutherglenestates.com.au