Tracey and Kathy Ramsay

In Nici Cumpston’s sixth Tarnanthi there is a new generation of Bow River Station painters: the sisters Kathy and Tracey Ramsay, with their vibrant and hopeful Juwulinji-inspired paintings. Ahead of the exhibition, Julianne Pierce explored their work and it connection to local and family histories for Artist Profile 57.

Tarnanthi, the Art Gallery of South Australia’s celebration of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art returns for its sixth iteration in October 2021. Curated by Nici Cumpston, the exhibition is an extensive survey of contemporary Aboriginal art from across Australia.

The word “tarnanthi” comes from the language of the Kaurna people, the Traditional Owners of the Adelaide Plains. It means to spring forth or appear – like the sun and the first emergence of light. Held during the warm South Australian spring months, Tarnanthi very much appears as an energetic and immersive insight into First Nations culture, traditions and imagination.

As the curator of all six editions, Nici Cumpston has visited many parts of Australia and has seen a new generation of artists emerge. She has been working with artists from the East Kimberley region in Western Australia from the very start and acknowledges the significance of the Bow River Station painters. Artists such as the renowned Rover Thomas, Timmy Timms and Rammey Ramsey who worked as stockmen on the stations and as Cumpston says, “They worked hard on the land and found their livelihoods fishing in the incredible waterways in this region.”

Coming from backgrounds as stockmen and domestic servants, the Ramsey family have worked for settlers and also maintained traditional ancestral ways. They have lived on Country, hunting and fishing and gathering plants for medicinal purposes and nutrition. Gija elder Rammey Ramsey and artist Mona Ramsay have passed these traditions and painting skills to their daughters Kathy Ramsay and Tracey Ramsay. As Cumpston notes, “There is continual transferral of knowledge; watching the parents paint is how the sisters have learned about story and what they want to share with their kids. It’s carrying on tradition through a direct lineage and knowledge base from family.”

The Ramsay sisters have come to painting later in their lives, having raised children and focused on teaching their cultural traditions to their young families. They have enjoyed considerable success over the last few years, showing work in Sydney and London, and have both been finalists in the Hedland Art Awards. Exhibiting for the first time in Tarnanthi 2021, Cumpston is delighted to be including paintings by the two sisters: “These artists are the next generation. I’m really impressed with their work and really interested to hear what they are painting about. I’m excited to be able to provide a platform to share their stories nationally and internationally and to keep the tradition of Bow River Station painting in focus.”

In the accompanying catalogue essay by Dominic Kavanagh, the sisters comment about their journey to painting, with Tracey Ramsay saying, “For me, dad told me, he encouraged me, he said go paint. That’s when I started,” and her sister Kathy, “I been start painting, you know like your elders. You know you’ve got that hidden talent.”

Like their parents, the Ramsay sisters depict the traditions and landscape from Juwulinji Country and offer contemporary interpretations of Ngarranggarni (ancestral creation) stories. They paint individually and in their own unique styles, whilst remaining focussed on the creation stories they have grown up with. They describe their relationship to County and their painting practice as Two-way, sharing Gija ancestry and deep cultural stories with non-Gija people as a way of transfer of knowledge and information.

For Tarnanthi, they have created a suite of six paintings depicting places of significance. Their Country is vast with spinifex, hills, creeks, stoney ground and eucalypts which grow at angles out of the sides of rocky outcrops. It is bountiful, with water, fish and animal life amid the changing colours of the desert landscape. The rich sacred ochres of their paintings are sourced from the land around them, with the deep browns, yellows and reds echoing the shades and tones of their desert home.

The shape of these rocky, hilly outcrops can be seen in the painting Blowfly Ngarranggarni, 2021, by Tracey Ramsay. This dark rich mound hovers in the centre of the painting, the colour of the earth against a pale backdrop, appearing to be surrounded by a swarm of flying insects. It depicts a story told to Tracey by her mother where her parents were looking up the hill for porcupines, but couldn’t gather any because the blowflies were so thick. The blowflies are strong in the imagination of the region, with the blowfly Dreaming wending its way from ancestral stories to lived experiences to a new and contemporary interpretation. 

Also by Tracey, Black Hill, 2021, shows a similar undulating rocky hill, painted in a deep dark black against the richness of the red landscape. The sense of the earth and rock is strongly present in this hypnotic painting. On the top of the hill is a round shape, a circle painted in yellow with an inner circle of blue. It may be a small waterhole on the top of the hill, or a clump of bushes – but it could also be an otherworldly eye, looking out from the hill surveying the surrounding landscape. This richness of meaning and medium emerges from the rock and ochre itself, ground down and mixed with binding to create a colour palette which seems to live and breathe.

The two paintings Dick’s Yard and Jack’s Yard, both 2021, by Kathy Ramsay depict a more expansive landscape – patchworks of yellow sand, brown earth and red dirt intertwined with organic shapes and features. They invite the eye to look towards a pink-hued horizon, or to focus closely on small green shrubs surrounding a sandy outcrop. These are layered and textured narratives, speaking to a knowledge and intimacy with Country, its history, the past and present. In the catalogue essay, Kathy says of her work and inspiration, “They [paintings] of our Country, Bow River Country, that’s all part of Bow River Station. Two-way we own that place. Like Blackfella, you know our ancestors, old people, they been know that Country and they know where they belong . . . things like that Ngarranggarni [ancestral creation] story, waterholes and whatever there, sacred places. They used to walk left, right and centre, living off the land.”

Visitors to this year’s Tarnanthi will no doubt be drawn to the work of the Ramsay sisters. They are the next generation of East Kimberley artists, following in the footsteps of Rover Thomas and Queenie McKenzie. These are vibrant, imaginative paintings with humour, life, hope and optimism deeply embedded and as the sisters say in their catalogue essay, “We just hope that people like our painting, how we do it. Just to show people how beautiful our Country is. Hopefully our young ones pick up . . . and carry on.”  

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 57, 2021.
Images courtesy the artists, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, Warmun Art Centre, Western Australia, and Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery, London.

15 October 2021 – 30 January 2022
Art Gallery of South Australia and partner galleries

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