Country & Western: landscape re-imagined

Gazing across the nation’s landscape, artists have referenced the past, the future and the ever present, to identify and give a sense of place to the space they occupy. The experience can be grounded in the physical reality of a site, along with its deep, often-elusive spiritual associations.

‘Country & Western: landscape re-imagined’ brings into focus the contrasting insights and cultural imperatives, both Indigenous (country) and non-indigenous (western), that have given shape and substance to our evolving attitudes and perceptions of the national landscape over the past 25 years. To grasp an appreciation of the enterprise a timeframe was established: the 65 works assembled for Country & Western are all post-bicentennial pieces.

With the focus back on the national landscape in all its complexity, now is the time to assess the relevance of western landscape traditions in response to the Indigenous vision, and search out common ground (if any). As well, the vexed issues of dispossession, identity, collaboration, mining and land degradation along with the elemental impact of fire and rain and the country’s natural splendour are all viewed from differing cultural perspectives.

What has become apparent in the work of the non-indigenous artists is the depth of the emotional response to various sites. That hard-won grasp of the character of a place with its history and inter-connected landscape systems underpinned the quality of the work. In recent times, respect and an evolving apprehension of Indigenous culture has enhanced the western landscape tradition in Australian art.

Suffice it to say, due to editorial constraints, the following piece on these pages is a summation of the Country & Western touring exhibition catalogue essay.

Before embarking across what continues to be highly contested terrain, it is imperative to acknowledge the Indigenous vision of Country. In the contentious 2013 exhibition, Australia, held at the Royal Academy in London, curators Wally Caruana and Franchesca Cubillo provided a succinct catalogue entry: “Aboriginal art is about the land made from materials gathered from the land, etched into its surfaces as rock engravings or ceremonial ground designs, and painted onto the bodies of the people who inhabit the country (figures in the landscape who carry the landscape on their bodies). The continent is the Aboriginal artist’s canvas, fertile in natural and spiritual resources that are imperceptible to those with foreign eyes … Paintings about the land are made with reference to the Ancestral Realm or, as it is commonly described today, as The Dreaming.”

As Country & Western came together, it was interesting to see this assessment collide with a creative impulse that is unrestricted, courageous and fertile. And so it was at Ngukurr, at the Roper River Art Community in east Arnhem Land with the work of Ginger Riley Munduwalawala (b.c.1937-2002) known as ‘the boss of colour’; Gertie Huddleston (b.c.1933-2014) with her tapestry-like depictions of Country acknowledging traditional and western influences, and her younger sister, the redoubtable Angelina George, (1937-2015). When I first encountered Angelina George’s painting, ‘Near Ruined City’, 2007, in storage at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, I was taken by the fusion of panoramic landscape elements glowing in an opalescent light. It was part of a series of paintings that brought the artist to national attention. As Nicolas Rothwell pointed out: “She is deeply embedded in a cultural tradition – from which she draws her strength and from which she departs with utmost force.” ‘Near Ruined City’ is a beautifully expressive work sustained by a rhythm of loose brush strokes and translucent hues that point to a creative, meditative state – somewhere between spirit and place.

The art of Ginger Riley Munduwalawala is largely the product of a soaring imagination grounded in the physical reality of a site with its deep ancestral associations as in ‘Garimala, The Rainbow Serpent’, 1990. His compelling, adventurous style reinvigorated the concept of painting Country and had a deep, lasting resonance throughout the art world. Indigenous painting has been a source of inspiration and reflection for the artist Idris Murphy. The power of the spirit in Ginger Riley’s works has been a significant influence epitomised in his ‘Homage to Ginger Riley’, 2009. From a western secular perspective, Murphy’s landscape works have successfully negotiated a balance of highly modified forms and saturated pigments infused with his distinct poetic atmosphere.

Food was the underlying theme of the collaboration between Melbourne-based artist John Wolseley (b.1938) and Yolngu elder Mulkun Wirrapanda (b.1947). As the eldest and most knowledgeable member of the Dhudi-Djapu clan from Dhuruputjpi, Mulkun felt the younger ones were losing their way when it came to matters of diet: fast food had usurped bush tucker as a means of sustenance. Diet-related illnesses prevailed. As a respected elder, Mulkun pointed to an alternative traditional food resource – rakay (water chestnuts) that grew in fields on the vast floodplains of Arnhem Land.

As friendship and mutual respect grew, the two artists hatched a plan to work together on extended field trips during the dry season delving into the vast habitat of the rakay. The result is a suite of woodcut prints titled The Natha Series. The works on display are Wolseley’s ‘Yirrinanin, Mawuka and Buwakul’, 2013 – and ‘Mulkun’s Rakay #2’, 2013, accompanied by the artist’s bark, ‘Rakay’, 2013. The woodblocks are rare huon pine slabs found by Wolseley while in Tasmania. This discrete series of prints by these two great artists displays a generosity of spirit that re-affirms the value of cross-cultural collaboration.

Extreme weather events continue to shape and characterise the landscape. Fire is one of the country’s most intensely felt experiences and remains an instrument of land management for Indigenous people. In recent times, Mandy Martin (b.1952) has worked in the Paruku Indigenous Protected Area around Lake Gregory in the southern Kimberley. ‘Burnt Patch at Handover Creek’, 2013, is an example of the artist’s immersion in an adjusted landscape system that takes time to be appreciated. As William L Fox, Director of the Center of Art + Environment, Nevada Museum of Art noted: “Mandy Martin’s contemporary works serve as a testament to an environmental stewardship that reaches back to the Pleistocene.”

Dry spells now tend to linger longer. Global warming acts like a vice on the world’s driest land mass. ‘Dry Dam, Bedervale’, 2004, by the Braidwood-based artist John R Walker (b.1957) was painted at the height of the great drought of 2004. The exposed fragments of barbed wire and farm detritus at the bottom of the dam create the eerie atmosphere of an abandoned battlefield: a grim symbol of rejection and defeat. In time, a certain caste of pioneering folk will no longer occupy these lands.

What remains will be a mute testament to a tragic, ill-conceived endeavour. As a viable entity, much of the country’s marginal farmlands, particularly in the Murray Darling Basin, have been in a spiralling decline since the 1960s. An orderly retreat would be preferable to the bloody-minded notion of ‘staying on’ in a pitiless and life-sapping environment.

Melancholia has a significant niche in the re-imagined post-bicentennial landscape of our times. The country’s forced acquisition and transformation was marked by brutal displacement and dispossession. Without going into every known incident and location, there are potent images that give pause to reflect on a dark aspect of the nation’s psyche. The photographic series, ‘Portrait of a Distant Land’, by Ricky Maynard (b.1953) transports the viewer to sites of past injustices, where the Palawa of Tasmania were forcibly taken from their land and sent into exile.

In ‘The Healing Garden, Wybalenna, Flinders Island, Tasmania’, 2005, Maynard has composed a poignant image steeped in an aura of bereavement. The picket fence surrounding a copse of trees stands as a memorial to a massacre that took place there after a forced evacuation from the mainland. These works from the series are more than a mere documentation of a site. As Maynard asserted, they are the example of co-authorship where places and stories have been pointed out and recalled by people close to the event. The collaborative nature of the photographer’s process acts as a catalyst to re-invigorate landscapes scarred by past injustices.

The great Australian landscape affects gifted artists in various ways. One of the most idiosyncratic practitioners was John Peart (1946-2014). A trip to the Kimberley with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy was the inspiration for one of the last major works to leave his studio before his untimely death. The artist always felt that a work of art had to transcend its surroundings and not attempt to match the splendour of the natural environment. In ‘Red Hills’, 1983-2013, the rhythm of red ochre forms rising from the cool tones of the ground create an intriguing spatial dynamic, where colour, structure and shape align, shifting the viewer through illusionary space into a metaphysical zone.

Surveying the quality and scope of the works assembled for Country & Western, what became apparent was the often elusive, spiritual connections associated with certain sites. A genuine sense of place goes beyond the contours of physical appearance. This understanding is imbedded in the life and culture of Indigenous artists. While grappling with this concept, their western counterparts have grasped the profundity of country in re-imagining the national landscape. While we move closer to the Indigenous apprehension of country, it will remain forever the unequivocal spiritual and cultural domain of its original custodians.

Country & Western: landscape reimagined
29 October – 5 December 2015
S.H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney

Country & Western: landscape re-imagined is a Perc Tucker Regional Gallery travelling exhibition, curated by Gavin Wilson, and supported by the Australia Council for the Arts, Gordon Darling Foundation, Townsville City Council and Glencore.

Tour venues include: S.H. Ervin, Sydney; Blue Mountains City Art Gallery; Wagga Wagga Regional Art Gallery; Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery; Orange Regional Gallery; Cairns Regional Gallery; with the final venue, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory opening in November 2016.


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