Paintings from Warum

ST PAUL St Gallery One

25 September – 23 October

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Mabel Juli, Garnkiny Ngarranggarni, natural ochre and pigments on canvas, 1200x1800mm, 2010, work courtesy Tim Melville Gallery, acquired by the Chartwell Collection August 2015.

These paintings all come from artists working in Warmun, a community of about 400 people located 200 kilometres south of Kununurra in the Kimberley region of far north Western Australia. The Warmun Art Centre there was founded by Queenie McKenzie, Madigan Thomas, Hector Jandany, Lena Nyadbi, Betty Carrington and Patrick Mung Mung, members of the contemporary painting movement that began in the mid-1970s. Warmun Art Centre is owned and governed by the Gija people, its income returned to the community. Today some 50 emerging and established Gija artists work there. 

The works are by Warmun artists Mabel Juli, David Cox, Lena Nyadbi, Churchill Cann, Gordon Barney, Phyllis Thomas and Shirley Purdie. In these paintings the material is the work; they are earth and mineral as well as images. While they are stylistically very different in approach, all share the ochre, charcoal and natural earth pigments that typify contemporary Aboriginal painting in the Kimberley region. Coloured by iron oxide, ochre ranges from subtle yellow to deep red-brown. Mawandu or white ochre (extensively used in Mabel Juli’s work, alongside black ochre) is distinctive to the Kimberley area. This is a naturally occurring white clay that forms deep in the ground along certain riverbeds. Mixing natural pigments with mawandu provides range of colours including lime greens, greys, and a rare pink, all of which are produced at Warmun and traded with art centres across the region. 

‘I don’t paint another country, I paint my own’, says Mabel Juli. Each of these works is a narrative vividly connected with the place it was made. As Anna Crane (community programmes coordinator at Warmun Art Centre), has written, while the social contexts and physical landscapes in which these narratives are founded and sustained are unsettled – historically and today, through colonial governance structures that have violently denied Aboriginal access to land, resources and cultural inheritance – oral traditions, and latterly, painting, have been significant in carrying stories from one generation to the next. 

In Crane’s text on Garnkiny, the Ngarranggarni ‘big story’ of the Moon Man (often painted by Mabel Juli, alongside his promised wife, the star), she refers to such stories as ‘intricate networks or constellations of related knowledge – of country, of human behaviour, of the natural and social world.’ [1] They hold important understanding about ways of being in the world, about social and ecological relationships, about forecasting weather and adaptation to climate shifts. In March 2011, when a major flood devastated Warmun, the event was widely attributed to the will of interfering humans who had destabilised the ecological balance.[2]

These social and cultural practices and knowledge also ground a strong political voice. Recent reforms in the Indigenous Affairs Department under the Tony Abbott led federal government, and the closure of remote Aboriginal communities proposed by Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett, have already impacted the funding, and threaten the wellbeing of the Warmun community and many others. The Indigenous Affairs portfolio suffered a $534m cut in the 2014 budget, replacing 150 indigenous programmes and services with five.[3]  While Warmun is considered ‘viable’ under the government’s new legislation artists and others from the community have been strongly outspoken in resistance to the shut down of other indigenous communities. Warmun has also been a centre for Gija language revival initiatives.

Works by these artists have travelled all over the world; in Lena Nyadbi's case her painting Dayiwul Lirlmim (2013) is recreated large-scale on the rooftop of the Musée e du quai Branly in Paris, following her 2006 exhibition there. Exhibited in Auckland, the paintings from Warmun shift again into a new place and cultural context, one not so far from home, but the limits of language, the knowledge of stories and even the formal vocabulary of painting make the distance a very real one. 

This exhibition is intended as a space to acknowledge these ‘constellations of related knowledge’, and their complex connections with the social and material world. Asked how she learned the story of the Moon Man – an important dreaming for her country – Mabel Juli says: ‘My mother and father. And he’s a, his Ngarranggarni [Dreaming rock] is right there in Springvale, in Yari. My mother and my dad used to take me everywhere, walkabout. Show me all the Ngarranggarni everywhere.’ [4]

This exhibition was made possible through working with Auckland art dealer Tim Melville to select and borrow the works exhibited from New Zealand collectors. Tim has been showing Warmun artists’ work in New Zealand since 2010. His interest in fostering a trans-Tasman indigenous dialogue means he travels frequently to Australia. In 2014 he visited Warmun for the first time and met most of the community’s senior artists, including Mabel Juli, Phyllis Thomas and Lena Nyadbi. Tim continues to maintain close connections with Warmun Art Centre and showed their artists’ work most recently at the 2015 Sydney Contemporary Art Fair.

[1] Anna Crane, introduction to Garnkiny: Constellations of Meaning (Warmun Art Centre, 2014), 3.

[2] Alana Hunt, Jadagen – Warnkan – Barnden: Changing Climate in Gija Country (Warmun Art Centre, 2015), 13.

[3] For a summary of these changes see http://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/nitvnews/article/2014/05/13/government-dramatically-reduce-indigenous-programs

[4] Mabel Juli, ‘Nginyjiny Berdij Laarne, The one who stands on top’, Garnkiny: Constellations of Meaning (Warmun ArtCentre, 2014), 47.











Vandy Rattana: MONOLOGUE 

ST PAUL St Gallery Two 

25 September – 23 October 2015


Vandy Rattana, MONOLOGUE, 2015. Single channel HD video, colour, sound. 18:55 minutes. Co-production Jeu de Paume, FNAGP and CAPC. Courtesy of the artist.

The practice and works of Vandy Rattana serve to contradict the images of Cambodia that have been most widely captured and circulated. From the ethnographic gaze of the French Protectorate (1867–1949), to recent decades of war reportage, genocide studies, and clichés of tourism, a disproportionate representation of Angkor Wat and the Khmer Rouge perpetuates a static imaginary of Cambodia as a place and people incapable of continuity.

Born into the tenuous recovery period after the official fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Vandy began photographing as a form of continuity, concerned with the lack of physical documentation of more personal stories and monuments unique to his history and culture. His early serial works straddled the line between photojournalism and conceptual practice, and were consistently focused on the everyday as experienced by Cambodian people. With subjects ranging from informal domestic scenarios with the artist’s family, to labour conditions on rubber plantations, and the building of the capital’s first skyscraper, Vattanac Capital Tower, Vandy’s early work chronicled the contemporary moment while creating a more comprehensive archive for future generations. His more recent work is critical of historiography, and increasingly turns towards fiction.

Vandy’s most widely known work, Bomb Ponds (2009), was made following a transformative encounter with the craters left over from the United States’ bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Dissatisfied with the level of documentation of the bombing and its repercussions, the artist turned toward intensive scrutiny of the historiography of his country. He traveled to the ten most severely bombed provinces, engaging villagers in locating and testifying to the existence of the craters, and how they are lived with today.

MONOLOGUE offers another portrait of the land, another physical and physiological scar, another silenced aftermath that is given voice. The only sound in the film—the artist’s monologue—is directed at the sister he never met, who rests somewhere beneath one of two mango trees on a small, measured plot of land, alongside his grandmother, and five thousand others who died during the Khmer Rouge regime in 1978.

Unlike at the tourist site known as the Killing Fields, one does not pay to enter this grave. There is no signage, no skulls on view, no annual reenactment of killing for spectators. Vandy’s sister’s grave resembles thousands of others around the country as they are today: unmarked, fertile, agricultural land. The film approaches the site by overlapping these past and present histories. The artist’s voice and the dream-like sequences in MONOLOGUE counter that of the journalist, that of the official Khmer Rouge trial testimonies. When violence can no longer be seen, Vandy complicates our perception of its aftermath with intimacy. What is reconciliation? Is continuity memorial enough? MONOLOGUE destabilises time, the distance of history, polarising ideas of justice, the possibility of logic, and of peace. It becomes difficult to continue gazing at this history as if it belongs to others.

Erin Gleeson




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