The ‘big guns’ of Culture Warriors
Through their art and culture, the artists in Culture Warriors: National Indigenous Art Triennial tell the stories of their communities in an incredible diversity of ‘voices’ – humble, venerated, spiritual, customary, poignant, satirical, political, innovative and overt. Among the thirty-one artists featured in the Triennial, a core group of dedicated and significant artists deserve singular focus. Jean Baptiste Apuatimi, Philip Gudthaykudthay, John Mawurndjul, Wamud Namok and Arthur Koo’ekka Pambegan Jr are fêted through major installations of their work in the exhibition, and through essay contributions in the accompanying exhibition publication. Colloquially referred to as ‘the big guns’, their respective careers span the four decades since the 1967 Referendum (Aboriginals). Culture Warriors ensures that their work is seen and celebrated during their lifetime.
Jean Baptiste Apuatimi, the only female artist in ‘the big guns’, is a Tiwi elder whose traditional name is Pulukatu (female buffalo) and dance Jarrangini (buffalo). Apuatimi began working as an artist alongside her husband, acclaimed Tiwi elder and artist, Declan Apuatimi (1930–1985). Earlier this year, Jean talked with Angela Hill, Art Centre Co-ordinator at Tiwi Designs, about her art and culture:
My name is Jean Baptiste Apuatimi. I am a painter. My husband Declan Karrilikiya Apuatimi taught me how to paint. I love my painting, I love doing it ... Now I am doing that. Painting makes me alive.1
Apuatimi learnt by assisting her husband with his art-making and had her first solo exhibition in 1991. She has created a striking series of large canvases especially for Culture Warriors, which include figurative representations of tutini and pukumani objects, and body painting. A tiny figure, she nonetheless has a powerful presence, accompanied by a wicked sense of humour, declaring herself ‘a famous artist now’, through her inclusion in Culture Warriors.
Philip Gudthaykudthay, one of the last conversant Liyagalawumirri speakers, was born c. 1925 and is a senior custodian of the Wagilag creation narrative. Gudthaykudthay’s totem is Burruwara, the native cat, which has seen him endowed with the nickname of ‘Pussycat’. In 1983 Gudthaykudthay was the first Central Arnhem Land artist to have a solo show at a contemporary gallery, Garry Anderson Gallery in Sydney, making him possibly the first Aboriginal artist in Australia to hold a solo exhibition in a contemporary artspace.
Although consistent in his artistic output, since being awarded an artist fellowship from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Board in 2006, his creative well-spring has been replenished, and he has produced a magnificent series of badurru (hollow logs) for Culture Warriors in his characteristically elegant and spare miny’tji (clan body design) and rarrk (cross-hatching), quite distinct from the larrakitj and lorrkon from Yirrkala and Maningrida, respectively.
I’m botj [boss] here. Ramingining … Me, number one painter … Right up from painting, Milingimbi, Ngangalala, Ramingining, Maningrida, now come here, Ramingining. Stop here. Number one painter here. Bark, finish ‘im up here; canvas, finish ‘im up here. Hollow log. All painting here. Me, number one.
John Mawurndjul is a member of the Kurulk clan of Kuninjku-speaking people of Western Arnhem Land. He is without doubt the most renowned Kuninjku artist working today, with an international reputation and lauded as a ‘maestro’ by former French president Jacques Chirac at the opening of the Australian Indigenous Art Commission for the newest Parisian museum, Musée du quai Branly, in June 2006.
My work and my rarrk (cross-hatching) have changed a lot since I started painting a long time ago [late 1970s]. That was with my brother [Jimmy Njiminjuma] and together, we have changed the rarrk and started to paint in a new style. We are new people … Now, I concentrate on painting important places, my land, my djang [sacred places]. I paint the power of that land … I keep thinking, I keep finding new ways, new styles for my paintings. I just can’t stop thinking about my paintings.
Mawurndjul’s representations of Mardayin and sites associated with his traditional country of Milmilngkan – on bark and hollow logs – have become increasingly refined in his expert use of rarrk. Mentored and inspired by great classical Kuninjku artists such as Peter Marralwanga (Mawurndjul’s wife, Kay, is Marralwanga’s daughter and an artist in her own right) along with Yirawala and his elder brother Jimmy Njiminjuma, Mawurndjul’s artistic and cultural mastery was acknowledged when he was awarded the Clemenger Contemporary Art Award in 2003, and honoured in the solo exhibition Rärrk: John Mawurndjul journey through time in Northern Australia at the Museum Tinguely, Basel, in 2005.
Wamud Namok is rightly acknowledged as one of the most learned elders of the Arnhem Land escarpment known as ‘Stone Country’, and is the last of the painters of the magnificent rock art galleries of the region; his final work, a simple, dynamic kangaroo and hunter in white ochre, was created in 2005. From the Kundedjnjenghm people, Mok clan, Wamud Namok was born c. 1926 at Kukkulumurr, Western Arnhem Land, and, as his name suggests, his elevated, graceful physique was often seen traversing the length and breadth of Arnhem Land in his early adult years.
Now residing at his outstation at Kabulwarnamyo, Bardayal paints sparingly, passing on his traditions to his grandsons, who sit quietly watching him as he paints. Although his hand is now somewhat unsteady, his great skill as an ‘old-style’ rock art painter is evident in the stunning barks and works on paper which have been secured for Culture Warriors. Bardayal may scrape back some of the ochre pigments on the bark canvases or paper sheets when dissatisfied with a particular line, but the stature of his figures – creation beings and totemic animals – remains unchallenged. Whereas Mawurndjul continually works on refining his sublime rarrk, filling the entire surface of his canvas, Bardayal’s painting reflects a fidelity to his cultural traditions, with the figurative elements reigning supreme.
Arthur Koo’ekka Pambegan Jnr is one of the most respected Winchanam ceremonial elders in Aurukun, a community based on the western side of Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland. Pambegan Jnr comes from a family of great standing in the community, learning his cultural traditions through his father, Arthur Koo’ekka Pambegan Snr (also an artist and cultural activist of great renown) who was among the first of the Wik-speaking people to live at Aurukun, a mission established by the Moravians at Archer River in 1904.
I’d just say … I WON’T STOP DOING IT. This belong to all of us. We share it together … we share our culture and you sharing your culture. The culture, what you see in the carvings, in the body painting, what you see in the canvas, they more important, because this is the way we are, not going to lose it.
Pambegan Jnr is known for his wonderful sculptural installations of ancestral stories, Bonefish Story Place and Flying Fox Story Place. The distinctive art of Aurukun – trademark body-paint design worn by performers in a set of horizontal stripes, alternating red, white and black2 – has also enjoyed a gradual move into the art market in the past twenty-five years, with younger artists encouraged by elders such as Pambegan Jnr. He is equally renowned for his skill and acumen as a ceremonial dancer and leader. Culture Warriors presents the first works on canvas by Pambegan Jnr alongside his installations.
It has been a great honour to work with such inspirational artists and cultural activists, whose work and lives inspired the title of the inaugural National Indigenous Art Triennial.
Brenda L Croft
Senior Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art
Curator, Culture Warriors: National Indigenous Art Triennial
1 From an essay with Angela Hill, ‘Jean Baptiste recorded this introduction in Tiwi at Nguiu, Bathurst Island, on 3 February 2007 which was transcribed and translated by Margaret Renee Kerinauia’.
2 Peter Sutton, essay for the exhibition catalogue accompanying Culture Warriors.
Vernon Ah Kee
Born in North Queensland, Ah Kee is of the Kuku Yalandji, Waanji, Yidindji and Gugu Yimithirr peoples. He has been living in Brisbane for over twelve years. His art is primarily a critique of Australian popular culture, specifically the Black/White dichotomy. Over five years he has tailored text as the visual. Humour, biting and black, aerates the slogans which otherwise might miss their target in the Australian audience and rebound on the artist in an angry and depressing squalor. As it is, the signs are profoundly beautiful, pithy and poetic, while hitting hard.
Vernon completed a Bachelor of Visual Arts (Hons) at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, Brisbane, majoring in drawing and screenprinting. He is an Associate Lecturer and is currently completing his Doctorate of Visual Arts at the Queensland College of Art.
Jean Baptiste Apuatimi
Jean Baptist Apuatimi was born on Bathurst Island, one of the Tiwi islands, c. 1940. Her mother and father’s country is Marlawu and her skin group/moiety is Japajapunga (March fly). Her Dreaming (dance) is Jarrangini (buffalo). Apuatimi works primarily in ochres (natural earth pigments) on canvas, paper and bark. She also carves wood sculpture.
The Apuatimi family are renowned Tiwi painters, printmakers, ceremonial singers, dancers and sculptors. Declan Arakike Apuatimi, who lived at Nguiu, Bathurst Island, was one of the most acclaimed exponents of Tiwi visual arts and a revered singer and dancer. The development of his distinctive, smaller and more realistic carvings for a non-Aboriginal audience occurred in the 1950s. A highly regarded carver, his work included figurative sculpture, fine ceremonial ornaments, spears and clubs. Declan’s widow, Jean Baptist works on bark, and has become a significant artist of her generation.
Destiny Deacon was born in 1957 of K'ua K'ua and Erub/Mer peoples in Maryborough, Queensland. She completed a Bachelor of Arts (Politics) at The University of Melbourne in 1979 and a Diploma of Education at La Trobe University, Melbourne in 1981, after which she commenced working as a history teacher. She began taking photographs in 1990 and first exhibited her work that same year. Deacon held her first solo exhibition, Caste Offs, at the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney in 1993.
Deacon has since exhibited extensively in both Australia and overseas, including participation in the exhibition Mistaken Identitites as part of Africus, the inaugural Johannesburg Biennale in 1995. Deacon also works with video, and is a writer, broadcaster and performer. She was raised in Melbourne, and lives in Brunswick, where she works from her living room/studio.
Virginia Fraser is an artist and writer. Originally trained as a newspaper journalist, she went on to obtain a BA in Fine Art (Media Arts) from Phillip Institute of Technology, Coburg and Bundoora, Australia, and an MA in Fine Art from the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne. Her involvement with experimental and art film as a viewer, writer, curator, and then as a maker, began in the late 1970s. Works produced in the 1980s include: ‘An Ordinary Day’, and ‘What is Success?’ (with Dianne Duncombe), and ‘How to Make a 35mm Film’. Since 2000, she has been working with light and objects to alter empty, partly empty, and furnished spaces in public and semi-public places.
A more than decade-long working relationship between Destiny Deacon and Fraser has produced, among other things, several collaborative videos, including: ‘Jump (1999); ‘Forced into images’ (2001); and ‘Matinee’ (2003).
Julie Dowling was born in Subiaco, in Perth, Western Australia in 1969. She has risen to increasing artistic prominence since her graduation from Perth Metropolitan TAFE with an Associate Diploma in Visual Arts Management in 1995, and a Bachelor of Fine Art from Curtin University in 1992.
Dowling’s first showing in the eastern states was at Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative in the group exhibition On a mission in 1995. Her work draws on the traditions of oral history and she has taken on the role of collating and documenting family and community history in portraiture. Dowling's artwork is somewhat unusual in contemporary Indigenous visual art in that it consists of portraits of family and community members, painted from life and imagined via the conduit of stories handed down through the generations.
Treahna Hamm was born in Melbourne and grew up on the Murray River in Yarrawonga 150 km from where her Koori family lived. Sensitivity to the land is intrinsic to her identity and people, the Yorta Yorta. Her work appears in collections around the world and she has lectured and practised throughout the US, Europe and Australia.
Treahna is currently completing a PhD at RMIT University entitled “Reconnecting with Family” Exploring Individual and Community Stories
Through Narrative and Artwork”.
The bold paintings and mixed media installations of indigenous artist Gordon Hookey are overtly political and provocative, utilising iconic Australian imagery juxtaposed with quick wit and scathing humour to comment on the meeting of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australian cultures. Presented in an explosion of raw emotion and frustration, Hookey brings to the foreground a number of historical and contemporary political issues, from deep seeded matters on Indigenous injustices, to the war in Iraq, the relationship between Australia and other Western Countries, immigration, and federal politics.
Hookey’s brightly coloured canvases are inspiring in their spirit. Rich in visual puns and wild political cartoons, they explore those issues and questions that are current in contemporary society, ‘screaming loud what people are whispering.’
Born in 1961 Cloncurry, Queensland, Hookey is of the Waanyi people.
Kuninjku bark painter and sculptor, John Mawurndjul, was born in 1952 at Mumeka, an important camping site for members of the Kurulk clan on the Mann River. He grew up at Mumeka and surrounding seasonal camps with only sporadic contacts with non-aboriginal people. In the late 1970’s he was tutored in painting by his elder brother Jimmy Njiminjuma and uncle Peter Marralwanga, from whom he learned to use rarrk, the cross-hatched infill, in new and innovative ways. During the late 1980’s he started to produce large and more elaborate paintings with complex arrangements of figures, rapidly capturing the attention of critics and winning the Rothmans Foundation Award for best painting in traditional media at NAAA and the first prize at the Barunga Festival Art exhibition in 1988.
More recently, in 2000 his work was featured at the Sydney Biennale and in 1999 and 2002 he won the bark painting prize at the Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award. He was awarded the prestigious Clemenger Contemporary Art Prize in 2003. More recently, he worked on a major commission for the new Musee du Quai Branly that opened in June 2006, his work featuring as an integral part of the architecture. He is today influencing other Kuninjku artists to paint in his style and creating a whole ‘school’ of artists, leading an exciting and contemporary Australian art movement.
Danie Mellor was born at Mackay in 1971. He currently lives in Canberra and teaches in print-media and drawing at the Canberra School of Art, Australian National University, where he is completing a doctorate. His art centres on the rainforest area around Cairns. This region is home to his mother’s family and holds a spiritual and cultural significance for him.
In his printmaking Danie Mellor has mostly used the technique of mezzotint. This process allows subtle gradations of tone and detail and was discovered around the mid eighteenth century. This coincided with colonial settlement in Australia when many of the local plants and animals were illustrated by botanists such as Joseph Banks. In his colonial-style prints Danie Mellor subtly reclaims the landscape by juxtaposing images of native and introduced flora and fauna — for example, a kangaroo with a bull — to symbolise two different peoples and cultures.
More recently Danie Mellor has explored sculptural media, making metal shields and a series of ceramic dogs. The shields are constructed of reclaimed steel and are decorated with contour land maps which resemble the totemic designs of traditional wooden shields and body painting.
Born on Badu Island in 1973 Dennis Nona was taught the traditional craft of woodcarving as a child. As an adult, the artist has developed this skill to create incredibly intricate and beautiful linocuts, etchings and sculptures.
The artist holds a Diploma of Art from Cairns TAFE, a Diploma of Visual Arts in Printmaking from the Institution of Arts, Australian National University, Canberra and is currently completing an MA in Visual Arts at Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, Brisbane.
Nona has documented with his linocuts the ancient myths and legends of his island and the wider Torres Strait that had previously been transmitted by oral story telling and dance. Today they are central to a cultural revival and elders now refer to them to help them to relate ancient stories to others. These were fast fading from common knowledge and being lost to new generations of Islanders.
ARTHUR KOO’EKKA PAMBEGAN JNR
Arthur Koo’ekka Pambegan Jr was born in 1936 in Aurukun on the Western side of Cape York in Far north Queensland. His language is Wik-Mungkan and his ceremonial group is Winchanam. Some of his totems include: Walkalan-aw (Bonefish Story Place), Chicharrak (Willy Wagtail), Tiin-tiin (Peewee), That (Green frog).
Arthur Pambegan Jr continues to live at Aurukun on Cape York Peninsula and is a senior member of the Wik-Mungkan language group and an Elder of the Winchanam ceremonial group. He was taught to carve by his father Arthur Pambegan Snr.
Christopher Pease was born in 1969. He is descended from the Minang people of the Denmark area on the south coast of Western Australia. The Minang are part of the Nyoongar nation. He is the first child in his family in five generations to be raised by his biological parents. His mother, Sandra Hill and brother, Ben Pushman, are also noted artists.
Pease studied graphic design at Perth Technical College in the late 1980s and began work as a designer on The Independent Aboriginal Newspaper. In recent years Pease has been teaching art in the Contemporary Aboriginal Art course at Curtin University of Technology and local TAFE courses in Perth.
Pease’s work is concerned with Indigenous heritage and identity, particularly in relation to Nyoongar culture. He has spent considerable time researching the visual language and iconography of his people. Pease also focuses on contemporary Nyoongar and broader Indigenous identity and the ongoing impact of non-Indigenous culture on Nyoongar culture from the earliest days of contact in the early 1800s until the present day. A significant reference in his work is the Waugyal (large serpent), an Ancestral being of high regard in Nyoongar cultural beliefs.
Elaine Russell, from the Kamileroi language group was born in Tingha, northern New South Wales, in 1941. She spent her childhood in La Perouse, Sydney and later, on the Aboriginal mission at Murrin Bridge with her family. In 1993, Russell enrolled in a visual arts course and was able to realise her lifelong ambition to be a painter. Her work has been exhibited in museums and galleries around the world.
At about age 12, Russell entered the local art competition and won first prize of a trip to the Philippines. Her mother refused to allow Russell to go, fearing that it was part of the government assimilation policy to have her daughter removed from the family. Russell can remember children ‘disappearing’ from the Murrin Bridge Mission, never to be seen again.
Russell’s colourful animations of life at the Mission in the 1950s dominate her work and illuminate her childhood experiences showing everyday activities like playing, camping, gathering bush foods and mission management that her family experienced. The Lachlan River features strongly in her works and show how important the river was to the people at the Mission and how it was used. Her works show a happier side to Mission life that are often held in the memories of those who lived there and not often exposed to the greater public.
Born in 1978, Gawler, South Australia, Christian Thompson is one of Australia’s leading conceptual installation artists. He is a Bidjara man of the Kunja Nation from southwest Queensland and is also of German Jewish heritage. His mother’s family is from Gundagai in New South Wales. Christian spurns historical classification: “my work like myself is in a constant state of flux”.
Christian’s work relies heavily on the relationship between objects, space and history. His work has been shown both nationally and internationally and is held in the National Gallery of Australia Collection, the National Gallery of Victoria Collection and the Aboriginal Art Museum Collection in the Netherlands. His work has been exhibited extensively internationally in Thailand, Netherlands, Finland, Singapore, Canada, France, Italy and New Caledonia.
Christian also works as a freelance curator and writer and has curated various exhbitions including ’What’s Love Got To Do With It?, RMIT Gallery, ‘High Tide – Contemporary Indigenous Photography’, Linden Centre for Contempoary Art, ‘If You Only Knew’, City Gallery Melbourne and ‘White Hot – New Art from Different Places’, Hush Hush Gallery and City Lights.
Judy Watson was born in Mundubbera, Queensland, in 1959. She is a descendant of the Waanyi language group of north-west Queensland. Judy studied at Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education and received a Diploma of Creative Arts in 1979, followed by a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Tasmania and a Graduate Diploma of Fine Arts from the Gippsland Institute of Advanced Education. She has travelled and lived in many countries and in many parts of Australia.
Judy joined Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative in the early 1990s and has participated on numerous advisory committees, funding Boards and Councils. In 1995 she received the Moët & Chandon Fellowship and in 1997 along with Emily Kam Kngwarray and Yvonne Koolmatrie, Judy represented Australia in fluent: Australia’s representation at the 47th Venice Biennale.
Until recently she was a lecturer at the School of Fine Arts, University of Northern Territory, Darwin, and has recently relocated to Brisbane. Judy is represented by key commercial galleries in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne and her work is held in many major public and private collections within Australia and overseas.
GULUMBU YUNUPINGUBorn c. 1945 in northeast Arnhem Land, as a child Gulumbu Yunupingu lived at Yirrkala and went to school in the old Mission until she married. She is a member of a renowned family from Yirrkala, the Yunupingu family of the Gumatj, Rrakpala clan, her homeland is Biranybirany and her moiety is Yirritja moiety. Gulumbu’s father was the renowned cultural activist, artist and senior man Munggurruwuy (c. 1907–1978), who was married to Makurrnu, from a Galpu clan. The oldest sister of well-known activists Gularrwuy and Mandawuy Yunupingu, her recently deceased sister was also a highly regarded print-maker. Gulumbu is an artist of extraordinary skill who is as confident in weaving mats and stringing shells as she is in painting barks and hollow logs. She has also studied as a Health worker through Miwatj Health where she has applied her extensive knowledge of bush medicine. Her knowledge of bush plants and medicine, together with her health worker studies, has been incorporated into her extremely full life as a respected elder of her community, mother and grandmother.