‘Now I am doing these big paintings. Always the same place, Lake Baker. That’s because it’s my place. My father’s place.’ – Timo Hogan.
Lake Baker (2021) by Timo Hogan, at nine metres wide in three two-metre-tall panels, is indeed a big painting. Commissioned for the recently opened ‘Tarnanthi: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art’ in Adelaide, curator Nici Cumpston justified her selection to me, ‘It’s a big painting for a big story. His work is phenomenal.’
How on earth can an artist find sufficient variation in painting one remote salt lake – which he calls Pantutjara?
If you recall Monet’s many Water Lilies, perhaps that’s a hint about the possibilities of a beautiful subject endlessly varied by light. But for Spinifex Man Timo Hogan, there’s so much more to his pond than Monet could possibly imagine.
For his people were driven off their lands in the hostile Great Victoria Desert to allow the British to carry out atomic bomb tests at the site. Although the clean-up took longer than the testing, the memories of the Elders remained strong, and when they painted their Country from afar, it was sufficient for the Spinifex People to be the first Aboriginal group to win Native Title in Western Australia. Then, returning to Country at Tjuntjuntjara, almost 650 kilometres from anywhere, was its own battle. Led by the Hogan family – Timo as a stepson, in Western terms – and guided by senior artist Simon’s memory of waterholes and sacred sites, 300 kilometres of dirt was to be flattened, using his son Bruce’s skills with a grader.
Amazingly, Lake Baker is about a thousand kilometres from Tjuntjuntjara; but it’s Country Hogan inherited responsibility for from his natural father, artist Neville McArthur. They went there together when the now 48-year-old artist was a boy. Recently, he set out to return with Spinifex Art Centre coordinator, Brian Hallett, hoping to pick up his father from a nursing home on the way. Sadly, McArthur was beyond the rigours of such a journey; however, Hogan was able to lead the way ‘home’ – recalling not only the geography but the stories of the place and the protocols that allowed them to be there.
‘This is a dangerous place,’ Hogan tells us in his Tarnanthi 2021 catalogue essay. ‘A watiku place – men only. Women can’t go there. And when you come there and you’re getting close that cold wind starts coming around. You can feel him, that Wanampi, that watersnake man, he knows you’re there. And that wind starts getting really cold so you’re shivering. And I start yelling out. ‘Hey it’s me. I’m family. I come to visit’. And I take some sand from the lake and rub some on my body and let that Wanampi smell me, so he knows I’m family. That wind stops then because he knows, OK, he is OK.’
Another battle won – just as the giant white and ochre watersnake had to thrash his way through the sand dunes to create Lake Baker, and then to fight off the Wati Kutjara, the legendary pair of ancestral men whose Songline passes through the lake.
All this provides quite enough material for Hogan to paint this single physical place time and time again – winning the ‘Big Telstra’ prize at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards this year as well as gaining Tarnanthi selection. For, as Hallett puts it, ‘Timo Hogan does not paint the picture. He paints the story. And this is a narrative of prophetic proportions, involving characters who created the moral framework for Spinifex People to live by for thousands of years.’
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.
Tarnanthi: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art
Art Gallery of South Australia
Until 30 January 2022
Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
Until 6 February 2022