Over the past three and a half years nearly every major public and private art collection in Australia has acquired large-scale paintings by a north Queensland artist from the Aboriginal community of Aurukun.
The National Gallery of Australia, Queensland Art Gallery, and major private collections such as the Pat Corrigan Collection and Holmes à Court Collection were first off the mark. It is possibly the quietest stampede in the Australian art market – but galleries and collectors are not hesitating to recognise a major body of work.
Mavis Ngallametta is internationally renowned in the field of weaving and the innovative Ghost Nets arts, and commenced painting on canvas in 2006. But her decision in 2011 to focus on large-scale canvases painted with ochre and charcoal has been momentous.
Ngallametta’s paintings are about her traditional homelands in the remote region of Aurukun, situated on the northwest coast of Cape York peninsula – 178 kilometres south of Weipa and 811 kilometres west of Cairns.
The many dimensions of Aurukun
The community of Aurukun might be geographically remote, but it has been central to numerous recent debates of national and international significance.
June 30 this year marked 25 years since the 10 Wik clans of the Aurukun region instigated legal action to challenge the extinguishment of native title by pastoral leases. The decision handed down in an appeal to the High Court of Australia in 1996, and now known commonly as the Wik Decision, is regarded as a groundbreaking legal precedent acknowledging the co-existence of crown law and Aboriginal customary law.
More recently, the Aurukun region has been at the centre of environmental and economic debates regarding mining leases and the environmental heritage listing of the region as one of Australia’s few “Wild Rivers” locations.
On June 17 2014 a Federal Court judge overturned the Queensland Government’s 2005 decision to declare the three river systems in Cape York, including Aurukun’s Archer River, as heritage-protected wild rivers regions.
The basis of the judgement was that the heritage limitations restricted the Indigenous communities’ capacity for economic advance in industries such as agriculture, mining and eco-tourism.
Against this, controversy also circulates around the Queensland Government’s decision in March this year to reject, or at least defer, a joint mining lease application by a partnership of the Aurukun Shire Council, the Ngan Aak-Kunch Aboriginal Corporation and Swiss corporation Glencore Xstrata.
Aurukun sits at the forefront of these significant matters of national and international debate because it is a site rich in cultural, ecological, geological and political diversity.
Ngallametta’s paintings absorb the intense energy of this very special place in the world. They re-present the landscape from the perspective of someone who understands it on an intimate, spiritual and metaphysical level.
The paintings are also a material register of the country itself in their use of local natural ochres that sparkle and radiate rich texture. Unlike the famed Papunya artists from Central Australia and those from Arnhem Land further north, Ngallametta’s style does not derive from any traditional iconography or symbolism.
Ngallametta’s work is more in the spirit of artists from Western Australia’s Balgo region, who are famed for “painting country” in styles unrelated to traditional symbolism and motifs. These non-iconographic innovations in visual expression make significant headway in disabling stereotypes about Aboriginal people as being creatively restricted by cultural ritual.
Instead, these examples of innovative genius signal a population who are intensely concerned with their future – broadening their culture and strengthening it through resourcefulness and flexibility.
Ngallametta’s paintings are an individual insight into how the artist sees the world, and reimagines it, just as they reaffirm kinship bonds with her community and homeland.
The broad scope of Ngallametta’s vision takes its driving force from a vivid, and indeed intense, experience of place that spirals across macro and micro perspectives of the spectacular coastal wetlands of the Aurukun region.
Any duration of looking at these paintings absorbs you into a dense thicket of life force and a highly imaginative conceptualisation of multiple perspectives of place seen at once. The play of paint, colour and line is a celebration of how the practice of painting makes visual form intelligible, but it also performs as an interactive map that expands and contracts as the eye explores its detail.
Rivers, swamps, dense flora and the scintillating deep red hue of the bauxite-rich soil bleed into the Gulf of Carpentaria waters, occasionally peppered with small figures of people, animals and objects washed ashore.
A proposed international touring exhibition of Ngallametta’s mature paintings, together with a book and conference on the theme of Visual Politics, are currently in the planning stages for 2016 at the University of Queensland Art Museum.