exhibition Ripples on the Water - Lines in the Sand
From 9th to 22nd March 2010
New Works by Joanne Currie Nalingu and Kathleen Petyarre
Ripples on the Water - Lines in the SandNew Works by Joanne Currie Nalingu and Kathleen PetyarreOpening Tuesday 9th of March 6pm9th of March - 22nd of March 2009Ripples on the Water - Lines in the SandNew Works by Joanne Currie Nalingu and Kathleen PetyarreChristine Nicholls
There is a kind of unfathomable magic to the artworks of both Joanne Currie Nalingu and Kathleen Petyarre. Serendipitously, their work is brought together for the first time in Ripples on the Water, Lines in the Sand.
Kathleen Petyarre’s artistic subject matter centres on her birthplace and homeland, Atnangker. Situated in the scorching, sandy desert of the Northern Territory’s north-east Central Desert, Atnangker is where Petyarre spent her earliest years with her extended family, setting eyes on a white person for only the first time when she was about eight or nine years old. Recalling those distant, halcyon days, the now-septuagenarian Petyarre says:
Those early days...seem like a dream. When I look back on those days my happiest time [was] when I ran around that spinifex country carrying my yam stick and my firestick. I really loved that old spinifex country.
Petyarre has long been recognized as one of Australia’s foremost living artists. With Eastern Anmatyerr as her mother tongue, knowledgeable in ceremony and universally acknowledged as chief custodian of a major Dreaming, Arnkerrth the Mountain or Thorny Devil (a small agamid lizard), Kathleen Petyarre is supremely confident in her identity. Petyarre’s general bearing is that of the Grande Dame: she commands – and receives – respect.
Queenslander Joanne Currie is more reserved, humble and diffident. Currie’s principal identity marker, in terms of place, is a watercourse, the Maranoa River, in south-west Queensland. Yumba Mission, on the banks of the Maranoa, is where Currie spent her early years.
Joanne Currie Nalingu’s childhood was not as secure and untroubled as Petyarre’s: her identity was forged in a fiery crucible of familial alcoholism, violence and dysfunction. Dealing with the challenges of such an upbringing has endowed Joanne Currie with steely determination. A non-drinker, she unequivocally condemns excessive alcohol consumption and its inevitably devastating consequences. Unsurprisingly in the circumstances, Currie took a firmly anti-grog stance in raising her own three (now adult) children.
Younger than Petyarre, Joanne Currie has actively sought her cultural roots, visiting the Queensland Museum to conduct research into her people’s culture. Particularly in her earlier work, Currie included the diamond shaped patternings that adorned the shields of her people, the Mandandanyi of the Maraonoa River region. Joanne Currie speaks English as her first language although she strongly identifies the Gunggari language as her ancestral tongue.
Despite differences in personality, upbringing and their extent of embeddedness in traditional Aboriginal culture, these two exceptionally gifted artists share some intriguing affinities and similarities. Although their artistic subject matter is disparate, for both women the wellspring of artistic inspiration is to be found in their earliest, deepest memories of ‘country’. In weblike, increasingly ethereal paintings Petyarre evokes, in aerial view, her Mountain Devil (Arnkerrth) Dreaming, located on Atnangker country, that vast parcel of land where she was, in her own words, “grown up” by her large, loving family. Joanne Currie’s recurring artistic thématique also relates to her own “first place”, the beloved Maranoa River of her childhood. Memory flows.
When we first look at Currie and Petyarre’s artworks, we may not be quite sure what we are seeing - river, desert or abstract representation - but there are certain visual resonances. What we know is that we are transfixed by both artists’ beguiling use of sinuous lines, predominantly muted colours, and beautifully balanced compositions.
For both women, family means everything. “Family is the most important thing”, Joanne Currie affirms, proudly adding that: “Most of them can paint too.” When she paints, Currie sits down in a specially constructed enclosure in her Caloundra backyard, surrounded by her four young grandchildren, who play happily and peacefully around her. Jaziah, Malaki, Anequa, and Lebron, all under the age of six, the children of Joanne’s daughter Christy, contribute in important ways to Joanne’s feeling of wellbeing and groundedness while she paints:
Actually, I sit at home in a big playpen when I’m painting, and when people come to see me, they expect to see me working in a studio and so they’re amazed to see me sitting in a playpen with all the grandkids playing all around me! It’s bizarre – everyone thinks that I paint in a big studio – that is, until they come here and see me at work. It’s like – NO – this can’t be where she works!
I feel great, really relaxed, while I’m painting. The playpen, it’s 8 metres by 4 metres, and almost every day my grandkids play in it while I work. They come to my place and I look after them and when I’m painting they have fun playing inside the playpen. They all know they’re not allowed to touch Nan’s painting stuff – they’re good kids!
Family is also the central focus of Kathleen’s life. “I can’t go too far from home, too far from family. I need to be close”, she says. Regrettably, and to Kathleen Petyarre’s great chagrin, some of her younger family members are afflicted by alcohol addiction problems and other forms of dysfunction that affect the entire family group. When younger family members drink to excess, or are violent, Kathleen is reassured by the returning spirits of deceased, older family members visiting her in dreams that seem vividly and uncannily real. These ‘old people’ give Kathleen the spiritual strength to keep on surviving in today’s complex world:
Yesterday, when I was lying in bed worrying for everything my mother came [to] me in a dream – her spirit comes to me all the time when I feel depress, sad, because of all the humbug today, because of all the drunks [in] the family nowday. So different from those old times. Healthy then. My mother comes to me as spirit and she says questions like “Mwerr? [Are you well, healthy, good?] “My daughter, you’re mwerr, you're all right? You right?” And I say, “Mother, Mum, I’m ok, mwerr”...She say “Kel mwerr”. [Kathleen’s mother answers, “OK, that’s good!”] And Dad too, Dad he come sometime and see me. Visit. So those old [days or times] haven’t disappeared. Long, long time ago [were those] early days, but still with me now, but still, still happening now. Right now. Those old people are still with me. All the time.
Visits by Kathleen’s mother’s visits are also harbingers of (sometimes torrential) rain. Indeed, empirical proof exists that Kathleen is able to predict wet weather with astonishing accuracy:
My mother was Rain Dreaming – that was her country. When it rain, him [she] follow the rain, him [her] spirit follow the rain, that’s when her spirit come to me, when it rain. My father and mother, I go back and see them when I want to...can do clever things, can move back to past time then back again to now. Move between. Can move between time of then and now, nowday and then. I sometimes see my two uncles too.
In her works, Petyarre creates an optical flow that evokes a sense of motion. This she achieves by simulating the criss-crossing patternings of small Mountain Devil Lizard tracks. There is an architectural sensibility in Petyarre’s works, conveyed by her representations of the quasi-geometric variations and intersections of the tracks and trails that these tiny reptiles leave in the desert sands.
Elucidating on her dynamic, reticulate imagery, Kathleen Petyarre says that “Mountain Devils, they walk around in family groups, between 3 and 10 of them, they all walk around the country together in [a] family group”. Interweaving and re-tracing each other’s tracks, the journeying of these little lizards become encoded, as ephemera, in the delicate sand designs and tracings that they leave in their collective wake. In turn, the lines and markings left by these diminutive lizards are transformed into the magnificent artworks that we see in this gallery.
In recent years, Joanne Currie Nalingu’s artworks too have generated high levels of critical attention and acclaim. For Ripples on the Water, Lines in the Sand, Currie has created works representing the Maranoa, which passes through Mitchell and flows southward towards St George, in a palette that ranges from bold to muted to monochromatic. The artist’s brilliant, synergistic use of line and colour, particularly contrasting colour, is what produces such powerful visual and emotional responses in viewers. Never one to sacrifice line to colour, nor colour to line, Currie keeps both in beautiful balance. Line and colour are used in equal measure to create the smoothly eddying ripples of Currie’s memory-river. In Currie’s most recent body of work no painting is uniformly densely dark or outrageously bright. Sometimes her palette is deep blue under-splashed with red; on other occasions, mustard yellow flecked with darker colours or a muffled white-grey. In her magisterial Emu (Blue), Currie achieves a splendid rippling-mirage effect by the juxtaposition of pale blue with darker greyish-blue and vaguely murky, frothy, riverine white.
Joanne Currie’s deeply engaging works are imbued with the ‘gentle wash of memory’. Currie says that: “These works just come to me”. Pulsating with life and soul, Currie’s lovely Maranoa River works are underpinned by a sense of loss and grief for an irretrievable past.
The mesmerising beauty of the works on display in Ripples on the Water, Lines in the Sand show us that neither Kathleen Petyarre nor Joanne Currie Nalingu have forgotten what their eyes have seen and their hearts have known. For each artist that ‘first place’, the place of the heart – be it Atnangker or the Maranoa River – is fully brought to life every time a new artwork is created.
The author would like to thank the following people:
* Joanne Currie Nalingu and Kathleen Petyarre, both of whom Christine Nicholls interviewed especially for this exhibition. (Interview material is copyright the artists and Christine Nicholls).
* Gavan Breen for his linguistic expertise with respect to south west Queensland Aboriginal languages, and for sharing his knowledge about Joanne Currie’s ancestral language, Gunggari.