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Launching | Cooee Art Leven with Country X Country



27 JULY – 26 AUGUST 2023



A new era if Cooee Art represents an exciting development for the gallery and for the wider art community in Australia. Although the gallery will remain focused on First Nations art, going forward as Art Leven, the gallery will exhibit non-Indigenous alongside First Nations artists, through specially curated individual projects. The new gallery vision will focus on transparent dialogue, offering an opportunity beyond the ordinary commercial relationship between artist and gallery, fostering an environment of openness and direct exchanges between artists. The collaborations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists offer a chance for new and innovative artistic expressions to emerge, and for meaningful conversations to take place. The program offers an opportunity to build not just a closed commercial relationship between artist and gallery, but an environment of openness and comfort in understanding the commercial gallery system through exchanges with other free-agent artists.

country x Country is the first iteration of the new annual program, launching as the inaugural exhibition in the new chapter of the gallery on July 27th 2023.

The specific focus of this project and the resulting exhibition was mark-making and painting craft, especially when it comes to landscape painting and ways of seeing country. The workshop was based not around specific imagery, but around approach, how the tangible landscape is portrayed through the artists’ unique brushstrokes.

The painting project leading up to this exhibition was graciously hosted by the Warlpiri owners of Warnayaka Arts in Lajamanu over five days of painting at the art centre studio. The ‘workshop’ was not led or guided, open to anyone in the community who wanted to partake.

As early as the first day of painting in the centre, the joyful trio of Kitty Napanangka Simon, Annie Napanangka Simon and Biddy Napanangka Timms bestowed Tomkins with his Warlpiri skin name. For the rest of the workshop, the ladies addressed Neil only as Tjapanangka. After first setting up on the ground outside in the all-but-unused men’s painting area, Neil soon found his spot in the studio – crouched, as he often does in his Sydney studio space, on a paint-splattered mat, close by Kitty’s favoured painting table.

Within the buzz of Kitty’s return to painting the were many peaceful moments, the soundscape consisting only of the ladies chatting and laughing in Warlpiri, often humming along to their songlines playing through speakers, and the ever active scratching of brush bristles on linen. Some, between sessions, Kitty would turn to watch Tomkins work. She would smile and point to a corner of his painting, recognising the depicted place in or around town. She’d call out his name, Tjapanangka!, and confirm with him, teach him the Warlpiri term, or tell an anecdote about the spot. Each time, his smile beamed with pride at Napanangka Simon’s recognition.

Alongside their distinctively bold and unapologetic use of colour, a major shared theme is the artists’ process of layering perception and memory, expressing their view of landscape as an act of recognition and blending. The Country that Kitty paints is a description of the current landscape, yet simultaneously defined by stories of its creation (in her case, stories associated with the important Mina Mina Dreaming). Further, what is really her Country was stolen and essentially destroyed by mining, so that Kitty and her Warlpiri people were forcefully displaced onto foreign Country now shared, with its traditional owners. The same Dreamtime stories, inherited by Napanangka Simon far from their origin, have since become adapted, laying Warlipiri songlines onto twice-foreign soil.

This fracture is reflected in Napanangka Simon’s work – sometimes in the paths of dot-work that trail off and eventually disconnect, as though forgetting how a story ends. Other times, you may recognise it in her a powerful instinctive use of negative space, a feature often on the forefront of Tomkins’ compositions as well. In the crafting of his work, Tomkins uses memory in a similar way, folding it into the fabric of his works and creating a truer image of the artist’s perceived reality. A majority of works in this exhibition spawn from photo composites, fractured and instinctively arranged before being sewn together by brushstroke.

From the finished paintings in this show, one can almost map the timeline of Neil Tomkins’ process. Only two works are entirely composed of a single view (Emu Rockhole and West Hooker Creek), both of which, aside from minor touches, were painted entirely en plain air at the scene. The final work (Bush Banana there) was completed largely after the return to Sydney. This richly colourful painting features three separate skylines, so spliced with memory that it reads almost as though seen through a kaleidoscope.

Kitty Napanangka Simon is a dedicated artist with a distinctive, singular aesthetic. Her paintings – at first denounced by senior men for straying too far from the traditional idiom – have excited discriminating curators and collectors since her first solo exhibition at Cooee Art in 2013, winning admirers both inside and outside her tight knit Warlpiri community. In 2020, Napanangka lost her sight due to cataracts and Leven, through Cooee Art, paid for her surgery. After regaining her sight, Napanangka Simon’s painting practice has dwindled and one goal of the Lajamanu project will be her first major foray back into painting with a renewed confidence in her exceptional talent.

Contemporary landscape painter Neil Ernest Tompkins has developed a painting style recognisable for its blending and fragmenting of imagery and perspectives. Tomkins’ process usually begins en plein air, loosely drafted with a focus on composition and framework. Often, the artist refines his imagery by cutting up photographs taken while travelling, arranging them into collages that form a reference for his ensuing paintings. He is regularly exhibited and represented by galleries across Australia.