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Aboriginal artists' call to action

Anwar Young, winner of this year's overall prize and last year's young artist prize.

Aboriginal artists' call to action

MOST millennials won't have a clue what you're talking about if you bring up Maralinga.

People's attitudes towards the nuclear tests conducted there by the UK between 1956 and 1963 are a telling insight into their relationship with indigenous history and colonisation.

Hearing Betty Muffler tell me her story of surviving the tests after her parents had perished to them made me shiver. I spoke to Betty through a group of interpreters, with me speaking English and she speaking in her native Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara tongues.

The five of us, seated beneath her award-winning artwork, listened to her story of being rescued by missionaries and taken to live with her cousins and aunty while her home remained a lethal, radioactive hell.

Betty has just won the Emerging Artist section of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards in Darwin. What makes her win especially smile-inducing is that she's in her seventies, and until this year people older than 25 hadn't been eligible to enter.

As we spoke, she never turned to the enormous grey and white painting behind her, while her expressions and inflections drove severely but sweetly through the language barrier. She's a nangkari, a traditional healer who still practises in hospitals and clinics across the country.

The piece, Ngangkari Ngura (Healing Country), is greyscale synthetic polymer paint on more than four square metres of linen. You are immediately lost in its complexity as connections, flows, radials and contrasts lead you around the piece.

 

 

 

Ngankari Ngura (Healing Country), synthetic polymer paint on linen. By Betty Muffler.
Ngankari Ngura (Healing Country), synthetic polymer paint on linen. By Betty Muffler.

The judges' comments on the work reflect the significance of her win.

"Ngangkari Ngura is comprised of complex interconnected forms that unfurl to reveal linear representations of country," they say.

"This painting reflects her intimate relationship to place, inspired by her many travels across the landscape as a ngangkari. For an emerging artist, there is a surprising maturity in the controlled rhythm and pictorial dynamism which has been achieved."

Given her position at the nexus of cultures and history, it's hardly surprising to see Betty's art being recognised.

 

Betty Muffler, winner of this year's NATSIAA emerging artist prize, standing in front of her work, Ngankari Ngura (Healing Country).
Betty Muffler, winner of this year's NATSIAA emerging artist prize, standing in front of her work, Ngankari Ngura (Healing Country).

Despite her quiet mode of speech, her gravitas as a healer, mentor and indigenous woman is manifest.

"I'm a strong kungka (woman)," Betty says.

"I survived the bombings at Maralinga.

"We need to heal this country. My paintings show many of the good places in my country."

In her teens, Betty decided to walk the distance from Ernabella Station where she was living with missionaries back to her home in Maralinga.

The missionaries knew the area was still too poisoned, and the distance too long - more than 500km - for her to make the trek, so instead they took her to be with family at Granite Downes Station.

"The smoke was still coming from the bomb, so I came to Granite Downes instead. Those missionaries knew it was dangerous, so we came riding all together on white donkeys to Granite Downes," Betty said.

Betty originally learned her skills as a ngangkari from her father, who was respected in the craft until his death from the Maralinga fallout. It wasn't until she reconnected with her aunties in her twenties at Granite Downes that she began learning those ways again.

This importance of family connection in teaching new generations about the multitudinous indigenous cultures came up again when speaking with the winners of the NATSIAA prize, Frank Young, his grandson Anwar Young, and his niece, Unrupa Rhonda Dick.

 

This year's Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards winners, from left, Anwar Young, Unrupa Rhonda Dick and Frank Young, with their work Kulata Tjuta Wati kulunypa (Many spears Young fella story).
This year's Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards winners, from left, Anwar Young, Unrupa Rhonda Dick and Frank Young, with their work Kulata Tjuta Wati kulunypa (Many spears Young fella story). Fiona Morrison

When Frank was a boy, his grandfather taught him how to make traditional spears. It would take him about a week to go out and find the wood and the kangaroo sinew required to make between 10 and 15 of the spears.

The sinews need to be chewed to soften them up before use, and he smiles at me as he explains that this part of the process has caused his teeth to fall out over the years.

"Young men are learning from the old men how to make spears in their own country," he says.

"A long time ago, young men would come together from nearby camps to learn how to make hunting and war spears. It is the old men who teach the young men with pride and respect.

"All the young men then go out with the tjilpis (old men) to try their new kulata (hunting spear) out. First they go hunting just to try out how well the spear is working. Once they get the kangaroo with the spear that's when they have to guard it with their life."

The combination of Frank and Anwar's spears, Anwar's image, and Unrupa's digital artistry makes for a striking and confronting multimedia installation.

The piece, Kulata Tjuta, is an almost life-sized picture of Anwar staring directly and intently at the viewer, overlayed with snippets of text in their language as the space in front of the image is turned into a cage by a wall of traditional spears.

 

Kulata Tjuta - Wati kulunypa tjukurpa (Many spears - Young fella story) by Unrupa Rhonda Dick, Frank Young, and Anwar Young.
Kulata Tjuta - Wati kulunypa tjukurpa (Many spears - Young fella story) by Unrupa Rhonda Dick, Frank Young, and Anwar Young. Kieran Salsone

Frank is clear when he describes the meaning, and he repeats it several times during our conversation. It is better to be behind your culture than to be behind bars.

While he expressed his desire to take their art to the world stage, he wants the message to go to the young among his own people. Learn your culture, stick to your culture, and you won't spend time in the prisons and detention centres like Magill and Don Dale.

I admit to making a critical error. In some of the literature made available to us, it says "the whitefella way of locking people up isn't working". When talking about their piece I asked Frank if he felt that laws needed to be changed to work better with the realities of indigenous Australia.

"No. We don't change their law," Frank says. "We change our law from white society to our ancestors' law."

"Our law is culture.

"When law is our culture, when you stay in our culture, you don't get into trouble."

The judges' remarks on Unrupa, Anwar, and Frank's piece go some way towards clarifying my misunderstanding.

"Kulata Tjuta is a measured and considered response to an inherently complex and contested subject," they say.

"The incarceration of young Aboriginal men affects families and entire communities. The kulata (spears) are suspended in a cell-like formation but they also function to protect a young man who looks not to us but to the future.

"The image is watermarked with cultural designs and the text in language has a sense of urgency and immediacy - words written, erased, edited. This work is a solemn and dignified call to action - to bring young Aboriginal men back to culture, language and country."

Darwin is an apt location for these awards. In no other capital city in Australia are you so close to the land that permeates and empowers the work each of the different category winners offered up.

From the captivating Shirley Macnamara and her deceptively complex woven basket to the spiritually rich Robert Fielding and his painting calling for unity among people, these awards have brought together a disparate but important group of artists.

Their messages are moving, present, and needed.

The writer travelled as a guest of the NATSIAA organisers.

 

2017 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, Wandjuk Marika Memorial Three-Dimensional Award winner Shirley Macnamara, with her work Nyurruga Muulawaddi.
2017 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, Wandjuk Marika Memorial Three-Dimensional Award winner Shirley Macnamara, with her work Nyurruga Muulawaddi. Fiona Morrison