Artwork: Albert Namatjira, Mt Sonder, MacDonnell Ranges, c 1955, on Loan from Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth.
Exhibition: Carrolup Revisited, A Journey through the South West of Western Australia, presented by the Berndt Museum of Anthropology, LWAG, 2019
When I was at
Such a relatively small canvas, simple, only a few words, handwritten, but the colours are telling: ochre background, blood-red writing, Signed J.R. Seemingly stray letters to the right of the picture; the artwork itself approximately 400cm x 600cm.
one could imagine this
is a blank canvas
one spare left
for you to fill in
Artist, June Walkutjukurr Richards, says, ‘I was born in the bush at the Kaltjiti, the clay pan on the other side where the powerhouse is now in the community. I remember always when I’m walking around in the bush with blue flowers, purples flowers and I feel good, when it was like that in the mission time’ (Remote Avant-Garde: Aboriginal Art under Occupation, Jennifer Loureide Biddle, 2016, p. Lxi).
Flowers do not bloom in Richards’ painting but there is light in the darkness, the shadows of a long-ago time, of a time Richards remembers. Her life in only a few words seeps through the canvas; her words are full of meaning, the life at the mission broadened with ellipses. The dots are laden: her story, her language, her history. Richards’ language is English when needed but her indigenous language, Ngaanyatjarra, is her mother tongue. Ngaanyatjarra is the language she speaks of in her painting, the missing words, the gaps where darkness lives, where light penetrates the ochre landscape of her country. No flowers or trees adorn this artwork, but the flowers and their silhouettes are there, nonetheless, when the light, through trees, pierces the dark.
words bloom speak
Richards was born in the Warburton Ranges Mission, Mirlirrtarra, Western Australia in 1951. She died in 2010 leaving a legacy of words and art, art in words, colour and sound, and mood, particularly mood, and light.
Albert (Elea) Namatjira was born in 1902 in the Northern Territory. He painted ghost gums: the colours and light of these eucalypts in his works are extraordinary. Mount Sonder, MacDonnell Ranges, c 1955, was the artwork exhibited at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, 2019.
Mount Sonder, the highest point in the MacDonnell Ranges lies 130 km west of Alice Springs, in the West MacDonnell National Park at the end of the Larapinta Trail. In Namatjira’s artwork, the mountain is sleeved in colour, light and shadow, its shoulders smoothed by the elements and brush. There are so many colours here: blue, purple, charcoal, pink and mauve. Namatjira paints a masterpiece; his palette knife blends with the soft hues of evening sun and the expectation and surprise of sunrise. Namatjira is at one with his landscape, his country. He knows the movement of the sun, the seasons and their influence on texture, colour and light.
Albert Namatjira studied art at the Hermannsburg Mission. His language was the Western Arrernte language; his watercolours sold exceedingly well at his first solo exhibition in Adelaide, 1939. At that time he had been painting for three years.
I have travelled to the northwest of Western Australia and have seen ghost gums in the morning light. It is an extraordinary sight. There is life and there is light. Namatjira has captured the complexity and simplicity of these eucalypts: the trees blooming in the outback. Like Richards’ work, there are no flowers, yet the flowers are there: from the imagined strokes taken by Namatjira: the light brush strokes, silver on grey, white on light, sunlight on shadow. There is silver here but there is gold, the golden eye of Namatjira; his unique way of seeing; of bringing the desert to life.
I remember driving one September morning on the Great Northern Highway between Kununurra and Wyndham and the trees, the ghost gums, along the highway beside me were, essentially, a Namatjira painting. I held my breath. To view these trees in morning light is a sight not easily forgotten. Namatjira captures this light, pens it, so to speak, watercolour on paper: ghost gums and mountain ranges in all their timelessness. Mount Sonder in the MacDonnell ranges is a vista particularly overwhelming at daybreak or in the superb frame of evening. In this way, through simplicity and colour, dark and light, sheen so overwhelming, Namatjira brings the desert scene back to a coastal and international audience.
To view a painting as the chiaroscuro of life within the realm of the camera: seemingly fixed yet flexible, that is the greatness of Namatjira. The movement is there, gentle breaths in and out, for like all of Namatjira’s paintings, Mount Sonder is a gentle landscape, and the bloom is there, too, like the bloom of Richards’ ‘Mission’ artwork: only hers in words and yet the colours bloom with horizon and story, (his) story and (her) story, separate yet together, transmuted in order for nature and art to speak for itself.
bloom of ghost gums
follow the road beside me
Although Namatjira’s Mt. Sonder, MacDonnell Ranges, (c 1955) does not clearly denote ghost gums, they are there, an imprint of his vision, in his commitment to story, the story of country, coupled with the soft hue of mauve and distilled blue of the MacDonnell Ranges. In the foreground, the afternoon glow of the landscape, in the shadow of trees, dark now, silhouette memories of a recollected time.
Namatjira’s camera eye view encompasses the whole scene to frame the story: trees, rocks, hillside and plateau belong in his mind’s eye. He employs a photographer’s eye to capture the light, the landscape, the story, to frame and balance the picture within the containment of its canvas. Namatjira died in 1959.
June Walkutjukurr Richards’ and Albert (Elea) Namatjira’s mission lives helped shape them and enabled and highlighted their commitment to culture and to cultural understanding, their story, their passion, their country: the country of generations of their ancestors exposed, to keep knowledge for those who came after. For art has a layering effect: layer-upon-layer of texture, culture, beliefs. What these artists have done is drawn from both inside and outside the perceived lines of light; Richards with space, seemingly endless space, though at first an apparent nothingness, yet all her story is here: boxed, packaged and signed with her initials: J.R. In this way she highlights her country’s timelessness, so full of her past. What more is there to say, she may well ask? Time is her tool for understanding. Namatjira, however, with his innate knowledge of country, trees, mountain, colour, shadow and sheen, allows the landscape, the trees to speak for him as he speaks for them in his art. And although there are no flowers in his chosen space and light, he knows the flowers are there and will return to bloom in their own season.