ART: The search for Namatjira in outback Australia

Artists at work in the APY Lands. Photo by Katie Spain
Artists at work in the APY Lands. Photo by Katie Spain

I was invited to Indulkana in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands to meet emerging artists, among them Vincent Namatjira.

“He’s not here.”

They are not the words I want to hear.

We’ve driven 1000km through the heart of South Australia, spun past Port Augusta, clocked up driver’s fatigue along the Stuart Highway, had an overnight Coober Pedy pit stop, peed on dusty roadsides, dodged packs of wild dogs and bounced along graded red tracks to get to our destination.

It doesn’t get more remote than Indulkana in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands. More than 460 artists work in seven Aboriginal-owned and governed art centres on the APY Lands and we’re in search of Vincent Namatjira – the flavour of the indigenous art scene at the moment – who is turning out to be as hard to track down as a wild desert brumby.

“He’s in here painting every day,” says Iwantja Art Centre Director Helen Johnson apologetically as we arrive at the building where Vincent is (usually) found. “The day you want him is the day he’s not here!”

We haven’t turned up unannounced. It is a great privilege to be invited into the remote communities and the journey has taken a month’s worth of planning, permits and clicks on the odometer to get here – all with the knowledge there was a chance the 30-year-old wouldn’t be here to greet us.

It turns out Vincent is attending “sorry business” in Mimili Maku – a small community one hour’s drive away. “Sorry business” takes place when a member of an Aboriginal community passes away and the gathering of mourners can send a town into lockdown for months.

“I’m worried you won’t be allowed in the sorry camp,” Helen says. “But come in and at least see Vincent’s work and meet the other artists.”

Paints at Iwantja Art in the Indulkana community in the APY Lands. Photo by Katie Spain
Paints at Iwantja Art in the Indulkana community in the APY Lands. Photo by Katie Spain

She leads us in to a building which, from the outside, looks like a large ramshackle shed surrounded by caging.
Dogs of all shapes and sizes scoot underfoot as a heavy door groans and a multi-coloured abyss unfolds. I gasp.
Bright creations crowd the walls in the part gallery, part open-plan studio. Traditional dot paintings, modern portraits, tightly woven baskets, vibrant animal figures and brightly painted seed necklaces hang, sit and teeter on every surface.
In the workspace a build-up of paint creates a bright meteor-like surface on table tops; mesmerising to the eye and jagged to the touch. Paint pots rise above bowed artist heads – a colourful tower of promise and a constant source of mess and inspiration. At any one time more than a dozen artists fill the space, men to the left and women to the right (elderly artist Alec Baker says he prefers the quiet of the men’s side – the women chatter too much). The artists work intensely, applying paint to canvas in a meditative-like trance. A burst of laughter breaks out amongst a group of brightly dressed elderly women and I blush – they’ve spotted my dumbfounded expression as I drink in the view. The women chat amongst themselves, their smiles shy but wide and welcoming. I can’t understand Pitjantjatjara but their giggles indicate amusement.

Iwantja Art Centre has a lot to be excited about.

Three of their artists have been accepted in to this year’s esteemed National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. It is a big deal. Iwantja (formerly Indulkana Arts Association) began in the’70s and was initially used for secondary students’ art lessons. Traditional wood carvings (known as puny), batik, patchwork, dyeing and painting preceded lino block printing in the ’80s and in January 1995 moved in to the family centre where Iwantja Arts and Crafts remains today. Helen, originally from the UK, has been with the not-for-profit Aboriginal Corporation for eight years. She is joined by studio manager Beth Conway, a 28-year-old from Melbourne with a Masters in Art. Beth has been with Iwantja since March and admits it is a world away from life in the big smoke. “It’s so removed,” she says.

“It’s like a totally different country and for most people it’s not at the forefront of their mind.”
It takes commitment and guts to live this remotely and it is apparent that the role is multi-dimensional. The colourful little hideaway is more than just an art centre – it is a haven – particularly the women who beyond these walls face social and financial hardship.

“It’s amazing … so much goes on here,” says Beth.

“There’s a paper being written for all the art centres across the APY Lands trying to present a case to the government about the different roles that the art centres play. There’s a lot of aged people here and medicine, mental disability and working with people from all different backgrounds. It provides a real community and is one of the only social venues. It’s the only income-generating place in the whole community.”

The output is impressive, as is the quality. No artist, however, is more talked about right now than Mr Namatjira. Vincent, grandson of famous landscape water-colourist, the late Albert Namatjira, is an amateur compared to his peers and has been wielding a paint brush for just two years. Like his grandfather, Vincent forges new ground with his bright, unique works. What started with traditional dot paintings of his Ngura dreaming now comprises modern, western, naive-style portraits and landscapes.

New friends in the APY Lands. Photo by Katie Spain
New friends in the APY Lands. Photo by Katie Spain

“We’ve just heard that he’s up for the John Fries Memorial prize,” says Helen with a smile. He was one of two South Australian artists who joined 22 nationwide finalists. The $10,000 prize will be announced on August 27. Vincent was also a nominee in the SALA Emerging Artist Awards and the Broken Hill Outback Prize (of which he won the Encouragement Award for this painting Albert Namatjira Camping). His nomination for the Telstra Art Awards is icing on the cake. “It’s unreal,” admits Helen.

She gestures to a corner of the art centre filled with Vincent’s work including a portrait of his grandfather Albert. It is part of a series depicting iconic figures such as Vincent van Gogh, Julia Gillard and Barack Obama.
“They’re quite political, Vincent’s paintings,” she says. “His first language is English and he watches TV and the news so the politics of it all is always there too.”

Beth flicks through a portfolio of images. “At the moment he is working through a timeline of his grandfather’s life … the first is when Albert was in hospital recovering and after that there’s one where he’d go walkabout to get some exercise.”

The photographs we’re looking at are of paintings sent across the country for the various awards and related exhibitions. “I really think he’s going to become really famous if he keeps on track,” says Helen. “He’s just started out and his style … it’s up to him really.”

Not bad for an artist who was relatively unknown (and unapproached by inquisitive journalists) until now.
If we can find him, that is. “I’m sure Vincent is going to show up any minute now. We spoke to him on the phone yesterday and he was really excited,” says Helen. “You’re going to Mimili anyway? It’s about an hour’s drive from here … it’s a really pretty community.” She pauses, thoughtful. “If anyone drives past on the way, stop them and check if he’s in the car!”

Luckily I’m accompanied by the type of people who know the area and are accustomed to the simple but subtle courtesies required when arriving on the doorstep of a remote indigenous art centre. I am travelling with Heather and Allen Klose, a pair of retirees who for the past 15 years spent a majority of their spare time (and not so-spare time, if you ask Allen) gathering dust and windscreen cracks as they drive across Australia visiting indigenous communities in the name of education. We hit the road, passing lone stray camels, herds of wild horses atop boulders, red dirt, dainty wildflowers and the rusty skeletons of abandoned cars.

The Kloses are the reason I’m here. It started with an email invitation to Seymour College’s biannual SALA exhibition. Heather is the curator of A Love of Country: the Indigenous Perspective and nominated Vincent and fellow APY Lands artist Kathy Maringka from Kaltjiti for a 2013 SALA Emerging Artist Award.

As Allen guides us deeper toward the scarlet horizon Heather talks. “I used to be quite racist,” she admits.
“When I was a student we had very little education about indigenous culture and what we had was very basic … filling out sheets and learning about a naked figure holding a spear.” Heather, 66, was born in Broken Hill and lived on a sheep station until she was five and her family moved to the countryside near Crystal Brook. She studied at Seymour College (where she later worked) and city life soon took over. Both Heather and now husband Allen, 69, pursued teaching careers and raised three children. “About 15 years ago I read a book called Jessica about an indigenous girl who lived in the same area of NSW where I was brought up on a sheep station,” Heather explains. “I was able to re-live some of the childhood memories which I had very carefully locked away and realised that as a city dweller I’d become quite racist… I’d listened to the media and people with a very coloured version of indigenous people.”

APY LAnds, South Australia
APY LAnds, South Australia

It was something of an awakening and in a bid to change her way of thinking Heather and Allen took long service leave and set off on long trips to visit indigenous communities in South Australia, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. For the most part they camped.

“That first journey was an eye opener,” admits Heather. “It was confronting, exciting, adventurous and we were away for nearly 12 weeks.”

Heather returned enthused and with friend Mary Clark, a librarian, set about changing the way indigenous studies were presented, writing curriculum units for AESA and giving workshops for teachers at other schools. They developed an indigenous garden at Seymour College, attended trips to the Flinders Ranges and southern Kimberley Ranges through the former Dare to Lead organisation and created an art exhibition and cultural tours for students from Years 5, 6 and 7.

“We wanted to give back and involve the people of the communities with the school community at Seymour,” says Heather. “Since then we’ve been leading a cultural tour involving between 13-18 students and I hope through that tour the girls understand that all cultures think equally well – they just think differently.”

Along the way, Heather built up connections with art centre directors and artists. In addition to official driving duties Allen stretches canvases ahead of the SALA exhibitions. This year’s total is 260 works of art.
Grey nomads they ain’t. Adventurous they are. Allen says their children think mum and dad are crazy.
They have tales of encounters with wild horses, lost backpackers and burnt-out campsites … it has not been a journey for the faint hearted.

Nor, it turns out, has Vincent Namatjira’s.

Born in Alice Springs, Vincent grew up with his family in Hermannsburg within Ntaria country. When he was just six his mother tragically passed away. With no available family to care for them, Vincent and his older sister were taken in to foster care in Perth where they lived with various families, including the Durkeys in Midland who Vincent now considers extended family.

APY LAnds, South Australia. Photo by Katie Spain
APY LAnds, South Australia. Photo by Katie Spain

Vincent’s adolescence was a time of confusion and loneliness and at 18 he and his sister travelled back to Hermannsburg in search of family – accompanied by a lawyer and local police. They were reunited with cousins from their mother’s side and Vincent threw himself in to rediscovering his culture and language, eventually studying a Community Development and Employment Program, and Land Management before meeting his wife, nomadic artist Natasha Pompey (daughter of painter Jimmy Pompey). Natasha encouraged her husband to explore painting and the rest, as they say, is history.

The pair visited Vincent’s family in his hometown where he observed his aunty Eileen Namatjira as she created pottery and paintings. The pair currently lives in Indulkana – except, of course, during “sorry business”.
With this in mind we slowly drive past faded blue tents on the outskirts of Mimili Maku. The art centre sits against a rocky outcrop, rubbish lines the streets, dogs run amok and children on school holidays whiz by on rickety bicycles, necks straining with curiosity as they pass. From the outside the art centre looks more dishevelled than the one we’ve come from. A curly haired figure in a grey tracksuit emerges from the shadows, hands in his pockets. He avoids eye contact.

“Vincent?” He smiles a shy, toothy grin and extends his hand in welcome. “Hello.”

Our elusive artist leads us inside, past concrete rooms furnished with a few tables and meagre amenities. “This is the art space,” Vincent says softly. An elderly lady sits on a paint-stained cushion, making magic with a deft hand. Meanwhile a disabled artist in a wheelchair casts bold white lines across a black canvas, calling out for help when she needs it rotated.

Mimili Maku Art Centre also has reason to celebrate.

Artist Vincent Namatjira with his painting The First Exploration and Settlers to Australia. Photo by Katie Spain
Artist Vincent Namatjira with his painting The First Exploration and Settlers to Australia. Photo by Katie Spain

Resident artist Sheena Dunn is a Telstra Award finalist for her straw bird creations. Vincent and I take a seat on wobbly chairs in a caged veranda. A dog curls up at our feet, lapping up the sun bouncing off the boulders to our left. Vincent is nervous but exudes pride. Lots of pride.

“When I was at preschool and primary school I used to have a sketch book,” he says. “I used to do sketches then I just kept on going like that … . sketching, sketching, sketching, sketching. Soon as I got mature everything just went to the art centre. I was sketching the same stuff that I do now … history – stuff like that.”

He smiles. “Helen told me that my work is unique,” he continues. “The way I feel about it, when I’m painting …
it inspires me – I’m doing something other than what other people are doing.”

Vincent’s all-time favourite work is a painting of Burke and Wills, one of the paintings chosen for display and sale at the SALA event. “I did that one about two months ago,” he says. Vincent laughs when I ask whether a self-portrait is on the cards – then looks thoughtful. “Painting keeps me occupied. Keeps me out of everything really. I have two daughters and they’re too much hassle sometimes! They say ‘dad, I want to go here, I want to go there’.” As if on cue Vincent’s 11-year-old daughter Amelia approaches with a troupe of pals. She is perplexed by the sudden attention directed toward her dad. “What’s goin’ on?” she asks, eyeing me up and down.

“Why are you talking to him?” I explain that her dad’s art is very popular. “Ha!” she laughs and wanders off.
Vincent never met his grandfather but took inspiration from his history and unique, contemporary approach.

Artist Vincent Namatjira being snapped by The Advertiser photographer Calum Robertson. Photo by Katie Spain
Artist Vincent Namatjira being snapped by The Advertiser photographer Calum Robertson. Photo by Katie Spain

“I’m using his name – the same family name – but I’m pushing things forward. Instead of just painting scenery and stuff like that you can mix up your mind and paint other stuff too. Capturing now and the history too.”

He looks down. “I’m sitting down here with no anything. Broke, poor and everything, you know … with two daughters and my partner. I want to give them a good future. My paintings need to be paid more than what they are today.”
He looks at me. “I see it getting better. See things going forward – I’m seeing real things and hearing more comments. I’ll keep painting and keep going and going.”

Buoyed by his recent nominations, Vincent’s hopes for the future are simple. “I want to be known like my grandfather is known. That’s all.”

As seen in SAWeekend Magazine, August 9, 2013

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