‘The Queensland Art Gallery show will be an eye-opener,’ insists Sydney art dealer, Martin Browne. ‘No other Australian painter has had a full third of their output bought by public institutions.’
Browne is talking about the Wik and Kugu cultural leader and Putch clan elder, Mavis Ngallametta, who died a year ago at the age of 74. This star of the western Cape York was 64 before she picked up a paintbrush, but her enforced mission childhood in Aurukun had introduced her to both traditional and Western weaving techniques – which she continued to practice inventively until 2008. And, as curator Bruce McLean explains in his catalogue essay, ‘her weaving experience was central to her durational compositions. Just as a weaver envisions the final form of their work and, with every action, works towards it, Ngallametta pictured the final form of her canvases, working towards it carefully, one gesture at a time.’
That durational factor began with the collection of appropriate ochres – which Mrs Ngallametta used in preference to acrylics – and the slow development of finely detailed landscapes up to three metres long. Unsurprisingly, ‘she produced only 47 works in her 11-year painting life,’ according to Browne.
She herself described the process: ‘I can make many colours from the yellow, red, black and white [ochres]… I mix the yellow ochre with the black from the charcoal and I get greens. I mix the red and yellow and I get oranges. If I mix the white clay with the red ochre, I get pink. I cook the yellow ochre to get the red. Depending on the length of time you cook it, and the colour of the yellow that I have collected, it makes different shades of red.’
Men in the Wik and Kugu world had dominated art production in Aurukun. Ironwood carvings of upside-down trees and bonefish, painted in ochre stripes were produced there for sale from the 1970s. But missionary collections date back to the 1940s, providing models for today’s carvers. Early carvers had claimed that the sculptures made themselves and were maayn, the ‘real’ totemic beings themselves.
In 2008, Wik and Kugu Arts and Craft Centre coordinator, Guy Allain introduced his wife Gina as a tutor for women weavers to move on to painting on canvas – and she immediately attracted a strong following. However Martin Browne, a keen collector of Wik sculpture, felt that the new work lacked originality, and, indeed, an early acrylic work of Mrs Ngallametta’s – Shells and twigs washed with the tide along the beach (2008) – can only be described as ‘very Emily’.
Browne, however, saw some potential in small ochre works by the artist at the 2011 Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, but made the excuse that he couldn’t buy because ‘our walls are so big’. ‘Bigger?’ she responded. ‘How much bigger?’. ‘Three metres,’ he told her. ‘No problems!’
Weeks later an anonymous tube arrived at his Sydney gallery – rolled inside was a 2.95-metre canvas ‘and it was a masterpiece; Mavis strides between the custom world and the European world with such aplomb,’ Browne analysed, ‘and, after I’d sold her first two substantial works (in a gallery that otherwise represents non-Indigenous artists such as Tamara Dean, Tim Maguire, Guan Wei and Fiona Lowry), she decided to give me exclusive representation.’
This is unusual. When an Aboriginal artist leaves their community art centre – as Mrs Ngallametta did – our cultural institutions invariably turn their backs. In this case, though her choice was respected, with the artist going on to win one of the Telstra NATSIAA Painting awards in 2013 and the prestigious Red Ochre Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2018.
What did Mrs Ngallametta paint? Clearly not mythic dogs, bonefish or red and black flying-foxes, all the subject of legends in Ursula McConnel’s pioneering ‘Myths of the Mungkan’, still being recreated in sculpture today. But maybe she knew the story of ‘The Large Blue Lagoon Waterlily’? For much of her landscape involves the rich waterworld just back from the coastline of the Gulf of Carpentaria.
‘Pamp’ or swamps that are rich in flowers, water-lilies, fish and waterbirds after the rains were a favourite subject of her canvases. Clear waters, painted with a red and white mix to give a pink glow to accentuate the shimmer of the swamp setting, sunlight bouncing off the water flowing from swollen creeks to flooded swamp. And then, down to the sea, there’s ‘Ikalath’ – red cliffs falling to the beach, with a line of white clay at the bottom – essential for painting. Mrs Ngallametta often added debris such as ghost nets on the beach.
When Mrs Ngallametta painted, Bruce McLean explains, she often used a unique perspective. ‘Neither a flat, feet-on-ground perspective traditionally used in landscape painting nor the bird’s-eye view that is often associated with Aboriginal painting, Ngallametta’s perspective is best described as a view at an angle of roughly 45 degrees, almost as if looking from a low-flying aircraft. This view, when combined with varying degrees of abstraction, enabled her to unify macro and micro worlds that she knew from her family’s Country.’
And, though she travelled widely in her career, Mavis Ngallametta was always happy to sing that song, ‘Show me the way to go home’.
Jeremy Eccles is a specialist arts commentator who has been writing, broadcasting and filmmaking in Australia since 1983, with a special interest in Indigenous culture.
Queensland Art Gallery
28 March to 23 August 2020