Indigenous desert art breaks new ground

1950s-style circle skirts painted in the Albert Namatjira watercolour tradition will feature in a new national exhibition of contemporary desert art at UNSW Galleries.

Wonder LAND

West MacDonnell Ranges, NT. Artist: Gloria Pannka. Dress-maker – Bernice Bristow, Produced and directed by The Arts Department, Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education and Ngurratjuta Iltja Ntjarra - Many Hands Arts Centre. Modelled by Rita-Mae Ross. Digital print on cotton linen blend, silk lining. Alice Springs 2015. © Gloria Pannka.

We are in Wonder LAND, the latest exhibition at UNSW Galleries, explores how contemporary Aboriginal desert art is breaking new aesthetic and political ground through the use of new mediums – and old mediums in new ways.

The exhibition brings together works by over 30 artists from 18 remote desert community art, media and educational organisations, and 11 different language groups.

A curatorial partnership between the National Institute for Experimental Art (NIEA) researchers Drs Jennifer Biddle and Lisa Stefanoff, and Desart Inc, the peak body for 40 desert art centres, the exhibition includes soft sculpture, fibre sculpture installation, digital animation, documentary film, ‘documentary painting’, digital photography, printmaking, watercolours and fabric innovation.

The researchers say they are honoured to have the opportunity to work in close partnership with Desart to realise such a unique collaborative project that includes the exhibition and an artists' symposium.

“We anticipate that audiences will be thrilled by the stunning artworks assembled in the show. They reveal, in myriad ways, how Desert artists are ensuring that their languages, cultural and historical knowledge, as well as their incisive insights into their complex contemporary lives, can be kept strong for now and into the future through bold experiments in storytelling, art styles and new media,” the curators say.

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Tjarwana Porter at Kuruyurltu. Still image from "Kuruyurltu" shot by Matthew Woodham © Tjarlirli Art 2014

For the first time, landscapes painted by artists based at the Alice Springs art centre, Ngurratjuta Iltja Ntjarra – Many Hands, who work in the watercolour tradition of famous Hermmansburg Western Arrarnta artist Albert Namatjira, have been transformed into stunning 1950s-style circle skirts.

The watercolour landscapes, originally created as round works on paper, were scanned at UNSW’s Laboratory for Innovation in Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (iGLAM)  LUXLAB with a new ultra-high resolution scanner before being printed onto fabric in the USA and tailored in Alice Springs.

The skirts will be revealed to Sydney audiences with more than 70 artworks as part of We are in Wonder LAND – new experimental art from Central Australia to be launched by NSW Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Education and for Aboriginal Affairs, Linda Burney, at UNSW Galleries on Thursday, 14 May.

Art works created at the We are in Wonder LAND artist–in-residency printing workshop held at UNSW Art & Design’s Cicada Press in February, will also be on display.

The premier custom printing workshop teaches and promotes printmaking through collaboration and was established in 2004 by master printmaker, Cicada Press director Michael Kempson. Supported by the Australia Council for the Arts, the residency provided six central Australian Aboriginal artists with the chance to experiment with serial art forms, and develop skills and artworks, under the guidance of Kempson, UNSW Art & Design Director Indigenous Programs, Tess Allas, and printmaker Ben Rak. Over a ten-day intensive, in a practice-based workshop, the artists produced new works using matrix based intaglio techniques including relief etching, photo-etching and serigraphy.

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No Trouble Here? (Intervention Stories) © Sally Mulda, Tangentyere Artists, Alice Springs

Artists Robert Fielding (Mimili Maku Arts), Rhonda Unrupa Dick (Tjala Arts), Christine Multa (Ikuntji Artists), David Frank (Iwantja Arts & Crafts), Vincent Namatjira (Iwantja Arts & Crafts) and Louise Daniels (Tangentyere Artists) all particpated in the We are in Wonder LAND artist-in-residency program.

Co-curator and Desart Chief Executive Officer, Philip Watkins, said the works in the exhibition illustrate the importance of desert communities for keeping ‘traditional futures’ alive and strong today.

The We are in Wonder LAND symposium featuring desert artist keynote speakers and other presentations will be held at UNSW Art & Design on 15 May, 2015. The symposium is open to the public with limited places.

We are in Wonder LAND is a partnership between Desart Inc and NIEA, supported by the Australia Council for the Arts, the Australian Research Council and Cicada Press, UNSW Art & Design. The exhibition runs until 15 August.