The dynamic terrain of the contemporary desert 

 Kaylene Whiskey works featured in the ‘Desert Mob 2017’ exhibition, Araluen Arts Centre: Cultural Precinct, Alice Springs, 2017; image courtesy Araluen Arts Centre, Alice Springs

Kaylene Whiskey works featured in the ‘Desert Mob 2017’ exhibition, Araluen Arts Centre: Cultural Precinct, Alice Springs, 2017; image courtesy Araluen Arts Centre, Alice Springs

The first generation of great desert artists created sublime visual testimonies to the indivisibility of country, family and Tjukurrpa, and produced an art movement that swept the world. With the passing of these artists there was an expectation that the Western Desert painting movement would lose its authority and authenticity. Instead, in the dynamic terrain of the contemporary desert, a handful of first contact painters continue to synthesise the numinous energy of country and culture into astonishing works of art, while a new generation experiments with form and medium, and takes out major prizes in some of the richest art awards in Australia. Vincent Namatjira, grandson of Albert, has twice had a self-portrait hung in the Archibald, with his highly commended 2018 Studio self-portraitrevealing an artist in supreme control of his medium and his artistic intention. The 2018 Wynne Prize was won by Yukultji Napangati with a shimmering traditional painting, and the Sulman by Kaylene Whiskey with one of her wry takes on popular culture, Indigenous style. Anangu artist Peter Mungkuri won the 2017 inaugural Hadley’s Art Prize. This year a third of the Hadley and Wynne finalists have been Indigenous. 

Remote art centres have become astute and proactive in managing the reception of the work they produce. This is especially apparent in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands, where the APY Art Centre Collective, a group of ten art centres and organisations that include the Tjanpi Desert Weavers and Iwantja Arts (home of Vincent Namatjira, Peter Mungkuri and Kaylene Whiskey), has this year opened a gallery in Sydney.

Predominantly driven by non-Indigenous women (and there’s a story yet to be written), art centres are crucial in the harnessing and nurturing of individual creativity, and in the strategic selection of works for major awards and exhibitions. Across the desert, a band of smart, energetic, tireless women do the work behind the scenes that keeps the desert art movement on its upward and outward trajectory.

While the vibrancy and diversity of the painting movement is apparent, and painting remains the dominant medium, ceramics, photography and sculpture are emerging as dynamic genres, and collaborations with non-Indigenous artists are producing groundbreaking work in animation, film and virtual reality. 

Tjanpi Desert Weavers continue to experiment and expand their repertoire, from the spooky hybrid tree women in the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia’s ‘string theory’ exhibition in 2013 to the collaboration with Fiona Hall for the 2015 Venice Biennale, and the creation of the seven flying sisters for the 2017 ‘Songlines’ exhibition at the National Museum of Australia. ‘string theory’ included the animated puppet film Little Dingi (2012), featuring the unique soft sculptures produced by the artists of Yarrenyty Arltere, the art centre on the outskirts of Alice Springs that began as a community education space. Last year the Yarrenyty Arltere artists collaborated with filmmaker Leonardo Ortega to produce a video commission for Sydney’s Wynyard Station in which animated soft-sculpture puppets and live-action film tell a captivating tale of malicious spirits and magical landscapes. Collisions (2016), the virtual reality collaboration between the Martu and filmmaker Lynette Wallworth, sets a benchmark for telling Indigenous stories.

The inventiveness of three-dimensional work is apparent in the sophisticated techniques of Ernabella ceramics, and the Hermannsburg pots that feature characters and events from missionary days to modern football. The Greenbush Art Group, established in the Alice Springs prison and facilitated by the Batchelor Institute and the local TAFE, has staged two successful exhibitions of sculpture, my favourite featuring the parrots made from leather work gloves. 

Central to the development of the desert art centres and their artists is September’s annual ‘Desert Mob’ exhibition with its accompanying symposium and marketplace, held at the Araluen Arts Centre: Cultural Precinct in Alice Springs. First staged in 1991, ‘Desert Mob’ was set up to promote the remote art centres in a professional environment. Much of the work being produced at that time was for the tourist market – carvings, screen-prints, small pottery – but the intervening years have seen a progressively greater focus on fine art, and ‘Desert Mob’ has become the forum to showcase major work and promote emerging artists and experimental work. Because it is not a prize or a curated show, the art centres can take risks, putting forward up to ten works that are guaranteed a place in the exhibition, regardless of genre or content. Highlights of the 2013 exhibition were the Warakurna light boxes, pierced plywood boxes lit from within that illuminated stories ranging from historic massacres to families watching outdoor television.

Emerging artists get the chance to travel, meet other artists and see their own work in the company of the established and great. While the occasion is an opportunity to meet, celebrate and share experiences, it is also the venue for a healthy competitiveness, a desire to shine in the company of peers. ‘We put our best work in, everyone shows their best work, we are all famous!’ says Yarrenyty Arltere artist Marlene Rubuntja.[i]

While the artists delight in seeing each other’s work, Araluen Curator Stephen Williamson says that he has not observed much cross-fertilisation: ‘Artists respect other people’s genres. They don’t imitate or appropriate from each other.’ 

They do, however, appropriate from western popular culture in a way that leaves white artists stranded on the cultural borders. Mumu Mike Williams paints his Aboriginal provocations on Australia Post mailbags, challenging the admonition that ‘theft or misuse of this bag is a criminal offence – penalties apply’. Vincent Namatjira paints white politicians and dignitaries with cavalier humour. ‘It’s like they’re selling the beads back to us,’ says Dallas Gold, Director of Raft Artspace in Alice Springs.

Along with the fine art focus, the symposium provides artists with a forum to talk about the projects and preoccupations that drive their practice. It is here that the artist-driven nature of ‘Desert Mob’ is apparent, with Indigenous panels of artists speaking to an audience of Indigenous peers, art centre personnel, art world high flyers and interested others. Combined with the marketplace, which continues to cater to the tourist trade and the low-income purchaser, the annual ‘Desert Mob’ event is a celebration of – and a window into – the continuing dynamism and inventiveness of the desert art movement.

Co-presented by Desart, ‘Desert Mob 2018’ is being exhibited at Araluen Arts Centre: Cultural Precinct, Alice Springs, from 6 September until 21 October 2018; the exhibition’s opening will be followed by a full-day symposium on 7 September and a Saturday marketplace on 8 September.

[i]All quotations in this article are drawn from interviews with the author in June 2018.

Article by Kim Mahood from Art Monthly's August 2018 issue 309