Though the trailblazers of the modern Aboriginal art movement have often been senior in years, their early life steeped in tradition, this has never hampered their capacity for innovation. The divergent approaches to art in the Kimberley area stems from the complex network of Dreamtime narratives that thread through its vast tracts of once shared land. The ceremonial exchanges that occurred seasonally, between specific tribal and language groups, fostered culturally commensurate perspectives rather than exclusivity and conflict. To this day, a malleable framework of cultural affiliations and historical readings means that new interpretations are always possible. This has played out creatively in the career of Rammey Ramsey.
Rammey Ramsey started painting for Jirrawun Arts in the central Kimberley in 2000. He was in his mid sixties by then but his involvement in traditional ceremony had already made art-making a central part of his life. He is a senior Gija man, of Jungurra skin and his country is Warwaloon, west of Bedford Downs. This country provides the subject matter of most of his works. Like many of his people, he began working on pastoral stations during his youth. These stations were adjacent to ancestral lands where traditional ceremonial activities could still be maintained. When equal pay legislation prompted pastoralists to send Aboriginal people off the land, they settled in small communities throughout the Kimberley and slowly the art movement began to take shape. Art became an essential way to stay connected with their ancient cultural heritage.
Almost immediately after he began painting, Ramsey’s work was being shown alongside his renowned fellow artists at Jirrawun Paddy Bedford, Freddie Timms and Hector Jandalay, at the William Mora Galleries in Melbourne. This exhibition was called Gaagembi, meaning 'poor things' - a term of sympathy, sorrow and endearment. It refers to the feeling of the Gija people for their country and the traditional way of life now lost to them. Alongside ancestral topographies, historical themes and events are often touched upon in Ramsey’s work. The Gija people suffered cruelly at the hands of the early white settlers. Enslavement and massacre were part of that sorry tale. Ramsey trained young dancers, created body painting and dance poles and danced himself for the Joonba performances that commemorate these events
Jirrawun Arts was a model art centre, owned and run by the artists under the guidance of Tony Oliver. Oliver’s large collection of modern art books exposed Ramsey to influences such as Paul Klee and Sonia Delaunay. The group also regularly discussed their own work, exchanging ideas and memories and techniques. Ramsey was influenced by Rover Thomas’s majestic ochres in his early work but went on to explore a more gestural style, inspired in part by his close friend Paddy Bedford. Building a wet on wet field of colour gradations, Ramsey embeds simple jewel-like shapes of vivid gouache colour. These are the distilled features of his country such as hills, meeting places, water holes, or may refer to an event, plant or animal home. Sharp contrasting or dotted lines often weave around and between, representing rivers, roads or other connecting landmarks. This is Warwaloon, an area that makes up part of Gija country and the place where Ramsey was born. It is also his traditional name.
The artists of Jirrawun would visit the city in distinctive looking suits and dark glasses. They were photographed with politicians and dignitaries as they gained the art world’s approval and financial independence. A new purpose-built art centre was built at Wyndham, near the coast. Over time however, as the older artists died, Jirrawun Arts folded, and in 2010, Ramsey moved to the Warmun Art Centre. Besides being a painter, he is a loving husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather, with many other community members who also appreciate his unassuming humanity that has seen both the best and worst of life. Above all he seeks to convey knowledge and compassion in his work. Recently he has explored printmaking at the Charles Darwin University Studio. His work is held in major collections throughout Australia including Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, and the Ian Potter Gallery, Melbourne.
Profile author: Sophie Pierce