Archive for December 7th, 2018

Exhibition: Noŋgirrŋa Marawili – from my heart and mind

Lightning
2017
enamel paint on aluminium board
150 x 100 cm
https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/191.2017/


Yathikpa
2014
natural pigments on bark
diptych:
left: 150 x 56 cm
right: 150 x 60 cm


Wandawuy
2012
natural pigments on bark
153.5 x 82.2 cm
https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/107107/


Images are the only possible way to begin this post. Go back and look again, follow any links to the holding institution which may have a better photo. Note the dimensions – these aren’t small works, and the impact in person, plus the impact of having so many works together in the gallery space, is huge.

This exhibition is at the Art Gallery of NSW until 24 Feb 2019. I find it hard to move around AGNSW at the moment, since this exhibition keeps calling me in (although Tuckson: the abstract sublime has opened in the next gallery. Recently I was standing in the space between the two, vibrating as I tried to decide in which direction to walk).

At first the formal aspects caught me. Stripes, grids breaking out of rigid structure, dynamic diagonals? These are deeply embedded in my visual system, autonomic reflexes are triggered, and it is a visceral reaction as my heart races, my breathing quickens, as I stand, swaying – just barely not dancing – in front of the works.

After the first couple of visits I read the exhibition catalogue. Highly recommended, it starts with a very descriptive, almost lyrical, essay by Cara Pinchbeck, followed by two more essays that further ground the work in Noŋgirrŋa’s culture and experiences. For me the liberating thing is that while these works are deeply embedded in tradition, deeply thought and felt and lived, they do not contain the sacred. I find it gives me permission to connect, to think my own stories, in front of the works.

This year’s Art appreciation lecture series 2018 was themed The hidden language of art: symbol and allusion and Cara Pinchbeck gave one of the first lectures, but that was focused on Macassan connections and I don’t think Noŋgirrŋa was mentioned. However using the catalogue and internet sites one can build up a kind of dictionary.

Wandawuy

“The grid refers to the landscape of Wandawuy, a network of billabongs surrounded by ridges and high banks, its structure also reminiscent of woven fish traps” (from the NGV website link). Variations in colour evoke calm or still, silty or clear waters. There is movement, flickering sunlight, rippling waters.

Yathikpa
2014

In Yathikpa a web or trail of diamonds can refer to flames, tongues of fire. Jagged parallel lines spear lightening across the sky.

Lightning and sea spray
2014
natural pigments on bark
243 x 70 cm
Photo: AGNSW
https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/118.2015/

In Lightning and sea spray there are large rock formations top and bottom. The diamond net relates to the clan designs for the saltwater estate of Yathikpa, breaking down in the water to trails of sea spray as the ocean crashes onto them. Or that could be sea-grass. I think the dots on the rock are barnacles.

That explanation sounds so dry and clear-cut. Referring to a different painting Cara Pinchbeck writes “They may be barnacles on the rock, or a dilly bag full of the day’s harvest. The uncertainty is in the duality, and Noŋgirrŋa plays with this with intent.” So a level of ambiguity, a level of challenging convention at the same time as diligently and decorously observing protocol. Noŋgirrŋa has created a space from the sacred, while still relating to clan designs, to tradition, to her own personal experience. She has created space for herself, and I feel she has given me space. There is ambiguity – that means I can have my own interpretation. It is the expression of one woman, not a statement of what is sacred to a clan – so I feel able to experience a sense of connection to an individual, which would feel improper to a belief system not my own.

Lightning in the rock
2015
natural pigments on bark
310.6 x 110 cm
sideways?
https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/118975/

The great increase in scale of design, the use of space, less repetition, an absence of rigidity – all of these seem on a continuum with wider movements of contemporary art as well as on a continuum with more traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander works in the collection.

In one of the catalogue essays Henry F. Skerritt writes “[Noŋgirrŋa] takes the ‘data-sets’ of Yolŋu art and uses them to create new contexts, to literally shape a new present. This is not to suggest that Noŋgirrŋa’s work is some kind of ‘hybrid’ form, caught between the traditional and the modern. Rather, it pictures the presence of coexisting worlds that resist assimilation.”

One thing I find odd. There is an absolutely enormous bark painting – in my undoctored photo here it hangs… well, portrait orientation. In the photo on the NGV website it is in landscape orientation.

Is the idea of “right way up” not relevant? The orientation means it fits nicely on the piece of wall, but surely that shouldn’t be a consideration.

Yathikpa
2013
natural pigments on bark
199 x 86 cm
upside down?


There’s another example. Yathikpa (2013) took me ages to find the in the catalogue – the photo there is upside-down compared to the hanging in the gallery.

Maybe I’ve been too used to reading things in a particular way, making it a cultural habit that I’ve turned into an unconscious, unexamined rule. Curious.

Do we look at art to understand others or ourselves? Reflecting on this exhibition, for me it’s both. In large part, I want art to be personal. I look for me. I make for me. I write here for me. But for me the most powerful art brings connection, even if that connection is standing companionably, looking across the world and thinking our own thoughts. A friend remarked that I was “scathing” in a recent about an exhibition (18-Nov-2018), then some thought-provoking comments from Jane have sent me researching and writing page after page in my workbook, exploring the many types and purposes of “art”. It’s not my intention to consider those wider questions here, although it’s clearly related.

I recently read Kathleen O’Connor of Paris, by Amanda Curtin. From Perth, Australia, O’Connor went in 1906 to Europe, to make her life as a painter. She spent over forty years in Paris, with focus, determination, drive, obsession. Uncompromising? Close to it, it seems, but life is always more complicated. There are a couple of works by O’Connor in the AGNSW collection, but I don’t recall ever seeing one in person. (links: Still life, Paris, Nursemaids in the Luxembourg Gardens). O’Connor hasn’t been entirely forgotten – the biography of course, also the inspiration behind an exhibition by Jo Darvall in Busselton – but she’s not well known. Is that her time and her gender? An east-coast-centric art establishment in Australia? Whatever, the idea of strong, determined, not-exactly non-compromising but finding her own path with determination – there’s a link I see to Noŋgirrŋa and a link I’d like to see to myself. And in writing that I have a connection, something of an anchor. From my workbook “I seek connections, but I won’t compromise to connect. I don’t insist on my terms if yours are compatible.” Is that modern individualism, the death of community? Perhaps a different kind of community.

Now to finish as I started.

Lightning
2017
enamel paint on aluminium board
200 x 122 cm
https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/190.2017/

Baratjala
2014
natural pigments on board
240 x 122


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