Dickie Minyintiri: A man with a huge history - Art Collector

Issue 58, October - December 2011

Although relatively new to painting, there’s no questioning Dickie Minyintiri’s dedication. He asks to be picked up early so that he’s the first one in at Ernabella Arts Centre in the morning. It’s no surprise then that his recent win in the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award is cause for local pride writes Maurice O’Riordan.

Dickie Minyintiri is a man with a huge history, but up until his win in the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award this year, he had gone largely unrecorded in the annals of Australian art history. To be fair, Minyintiri’s career as a painter dates only from late 2005 when he began painting for Ernabella Arts in the APY Lands of South Australia. He is also yet to have a solo exhibition, so there’s a dearth of any concerted, critical appreciation of his work. That’s far from the case in his immediate Anangu world where his history and status are well known and the source of great respect and pride.

His winning work, an acrylic on canvas painting titled Kanyalkutjina (Euro Tracks), has certainly ramped up the levels of reverence. “When Dickie paints tjukurpa he is painting law,” says the catalogue entry for the painting, which relates a key men’s ceremonial site known as Wati-ku Inma Tjukurpa near the artist’s own birthplace in Pilpirinyi, Western Australia. The painting proclaims law, country and identity with virtuosity and sumptuous detail. To paint law may be an inarguable right or end in itself but it doesn’t guarantee aesthetic interest. Minyintiri clearly also delivers in this regard. Kanyalkultjina (Euro Tracks) brims with visual and conceptual intent, a lively network of tracks (of kangaroo, dog and emu) and mythological mark-making. It is a painter’s painting, according to the award’s judges Danie Mellor, Judith Ryan and Nici Cumpston, a truth which can only be tested by seeing the work face to face – which I have, and can attest to (without being a painter).

Kanyalkultjina (Euro Tracks) has a lot more colour in the flesh. Flashes of blue, black and pink peep through the painting’s warm off-white tracery, like a loosely woven field, and the large yellow undercurrents give it such a sunny glow. Julian Green, who is co-manager of Ernabella Arts along with Ruth McMillan, describes the process of Minyintiri’s building up of layers, with each layer an accretion of memory, song, dance and story. He also describes the way that Minyintiri sings inma (traditional songs) as he paints.

Judge Judith Ryan, quoted in The Age’s coverage of the awards, drew comparisons between Minyintiri’s work and that of the late Emily Kngwarreye no less, specifically her early batik work. Kngwarreye and Minyintiri were contemporaries, having grown up in similar post-contact eras in the Central and Western Deserts. The appearance of the word “euro” in the translation of the title of Minyintiri’s winning work could in this light seem a little ironic, especially as the euro (common wallaroo or kanyal) is the most widespread of Australia’s four main kangaroo species.

Minyintiri’s work generally has a compelling energy to it. He can make a simple composition with one key waterhole and a bunch of emu tracks – such as his 2007 work Wati Wiiluku Inma Tjukurpa for example – look fresh and exciting. The South Australian Museum was one of the first public institutions to play a role in launching Minyintiri’s painting career by showing his work in its 2007 Desert Masterclass exhibition. Green adds that early recognition also came from Graeme Marshall of Marshall Arts Aboriginal Fine Art in Adelaide. Gabriella Roy’s Aboriginal and Pacific Art Gallery was also among the first commercial galleries to show Minyintiri’s work in Ernabella group exhibitions from 2007.

This nonagenarian painter is also a traditional healer (though not currently practising) and number one lawman for his Anangu community. Before turning to painting, he was a well-known punu (wood) carver, particularly noted for his spears. During his lifetime he has witnessed remarkable challenges and changes, including the shock of seeing the first sheep and goats at Ernabella, animals which would come to occupy him through work as a shearer and shepherd. Winning the NATSIAAs wasn’t such a shock for Minyintiri, according to Green. He may be old “but I would not call him frail,” he says. Fortunately, Minyintiri was able to travel to Darwin to attend the award ceremony in person, the TV footage of his win reportedly watched by many cheering viewers in Ernabella. Pride in his win remains high, but winning “has not changed him remotely,” says Green. While there are no immediate plans for a debut solo exhibition, the art world will no doubt continue to admire his raw, multi-layered paintings with due astonishment.

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