Yannima Pikarli Tommy Watson, Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 2016.
Showcasing Western Desert art
A gift of 120 Indigenous artworks features huge, stunning canvases, as Jane Faure-Brac reports.
You can’t fail to be drawn in if you catch a glimpse of a Naata Nungurrayi painting.
It was exhilarating going out there and into the communities.
You’re not quite sure what you’re seeing, but the impact is immediate – her canvas is crowded with features composed of dots connecting into larger pulsating patterns. It could be a dense landscape seen from far above or a microscopic internal view, mitochondria and corpuscles swirling in plasma.
This creates a sense of ambiguity. A microcosm and macrocosm universe in her paintings captures the essence of the spiritual, cultural and sacred nature of this Indigenous artist’s work.
As an elder and through her lineage, Nungurrayi is one of the few women to have permission to paint certain features of The Dreamings. She depicts sacred women's sites and women's ceremonies in the Kintore and Kiwirrkura region of Western Australia.
Now these significant works will become suffused in the Canberra community as the ANU Drill Hall Gallery has received 34 of her stunning canvases as part of a much larger gift of Indigenous art from Canberra lawyer and ANU Alumnus, Craig Edwards, BA ’80, LLB ’84.
By his own admission an obsessive collector of Western Desert art, he has generously donated a staggering 120 important Indigenous artworks valued at around $9 million from his personal collection amassed over 30 years.
It’s the single most valuable donation of Indigenous art to an Australian university and comprises multiple works of some of the most iconic and influential Indigenous artists from the Western Desert over the last 25 years.
Greats like George Tjungurrayi, Queenie McKenzie, Tjawina Porter Nampitjinpa, Nyurapayia Nampitjinpa (also known as Mrs Bennett) and Yannima Pikarli Tommy Watson are represented in the gift.
Edwards’ interest in Indigenous art was sparked as a child when he saw X-ray art depicted on the former Australian one dollar note.
Later, after being influenced by his mother’s involvement with the Broken Hill art scene, he developed a love for the naive artists of the bush. But it was visiting a childhood friend in Alice Springs that exposed him to the Western Desert artists.
“It was exhilarating going out there and into the communities – it was all part of the adventure,” Edwards says. “I was captivated by some of the monumental works of the desert artists. I always thought they did their best work on a large scale and it’s fair to say my love affair with the art became something of an obsession.“It’s just that exceptional expression of the connection to country. The Tommy Watsons stand out because of the vibrancy of the colours, but my favourite artist is Nyurapayia Nampitjinpa.”
Do you possess the collection or does the collection possess you?
Director of the ANU Drill Hall Gallery Terence Maloon was blown away by the quality, scale and sheer number of works donated, which in some instances represent in-depth important series and phases of the artists' production.
“To have such quality concentrations of works is very unusual for an Australian gallery and it’s a real gift to students of art of this period,” he says. “We owe a great debt to Craig and are deeply grateful to him for his amazing generosity. These works will enhance the quality of life on campus for generations to come.”
As Edwards’ collection grew, he placed some of it on show in Central Australia, hung and rotated works in the offices of his law firm and loaned to regional galleries from time to time, but eventually the volume and lack of resources to show it began to overwhelm him.
“After a while you start to wonder: do you possess the collection or does the collection possess you?” he says.
“I also realised that these paintings should be enjoyed by a wider audience.
“I’ve had a strong and long connection to the Drill Hall Gallery and ANU and it was an obvious choice to donate here, especially with the high degree of public access it will give.
“Having the Drill Hall Gallery open to the general public was a really important factor for me but, also I want it to be a resource for the students here who may be doing research into related topics.
“ANU has been good to me. I had a wonderful time doing my degrees in law and arts and the education I received opened up a lot of opportunities in my life.
“By giving this gift to ANU and the Drill Hall Gallery, I’m really giving it to Canberra.”
Maloon had the unenviable task of curating an exhibition to showcase the donation. From over 100 works, he’s selected a limited sampling of paintings that he hopes will be representative of the artists and their work.
“I can’t show a quarter or even a fifth of the Edwards’ gift due to space restrictions,” he says. “Down the track we’ll be able to put on an entire show dedicated to just one artist like Naata Nungurrayi or Tommy Watson.”
He encourages visitors to engage with Indigenous works even if they feel they don’t understand them. “In his collecting, Craig Edwards was fearless in choosing large-scale works and works of predominantly Indigenous female artists,” he says.
“One might bring one’s own quotient of experience into rapport when viewing these works. When I first saw Naata Nungurrayi’s canvases, they reminded me of the work of French modernist Jean Dubuffet, with a similarly busy canvas pulsating with the same shapes as Nungurrayi.
“One shouldn’t be afraid of being open to an encounter with Indigenous works. These random associations are how our brains work and it’s an entirely legitimate way to approach art. There’s not any one ‘correct way’ to look at paintings.”