Ernabella Arts, Northern Territory - Art Collector

Issue 56, April - June 2011

Maurice O’Riordan takes a look at the oldest Aboriginal art centre in Australia and finds, in line with broader shifts in the APY Lands, a resurgence in acrylic on canvas painting and a move away from crafts like batik which had until recently characterised the work produced at the centre.

“It’s a really exciting time,” enthuses Ruth McMillan, a coordinator at Ernabella Arts, along with her partner Julian Green, since September 2009. Their involvement at the centre parallels a seminal shift in art production at Ernabella, in chorus with a formidable upsurge in acrylic on canvas painting across the broader region, and characterised by a move away from the more craft-based, decorative forms for which the community was otherwise generally known.

“Don’t ask for stories” was the well-known catchcry for Ernabella art, and the title of Ute Eickelkamp’s 1999 book on the subject. Ernabella, or Pukatja, is 440 km south-west of Alice Springs and is the oldest permanent settlement in the Anangu Pitjantjtjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) region of north-western South Australia, having been established as a Presbyterian mission in 1933. Ernabella Arts emerged out of a women’s craft group of the late 1940s, and justifiably lays claim to being the oldest continuously operating Aboriginal art centre in the country.

With a history spanning the production of wool as well as knick-knacks like cushion covers, basketry and bookmarks, Ernabella became synonymous with the walka, a purely decorative motif which was the basis of the “don’t ask for stories” rationale, and which translates well to a variety of craft-based media. Its most prolific application has been in the production of batik which was first introduced in the community in 1971, around the same time that the mission at Ernabella was succeeded by an independent Aboriginal-controlled community council.

The pioneering success of Ernabella batiks has been celebrated through the National Gallery of Victoria’s nationally touring exhibition Raiki wara: long cloth from Aboriginal Australia and the Torres Strait (1998) and its more recent Across the Desert: Aboriginal Batik from Central Australia (2008). Batik was also a prominent feature of Adelaide’s Jam Factory’s retrospective last year of Nyukana Daisy Baker, one of Ernabella’s most famous art ambassadors. Baker was hailed in this exhibition as probably the first Indigenous woman to spend her entire working life making a living as a professional artist, through a career stretching over five decades and which mirrors the art centre’s diverse exploration of media.

For all its aesthetic and critical high points, the hot and labour-intensive production of batik has never captured the market in the same way as acrylic painting. Though Ernabella artists have dabbled in painting since the 1980s, spurred in part by its prevalence in other Central and Western Desert communities, it’s only in the last five years that they have really taken to the medium in earnest. With its embrace has come a newfound emphasis on artworks which do relate to tjukurrpa (dreaming) and which do tell significant stories.

Foremost among this vanguard of Ernabella painters is Niningka Lewis whose luminescent canvases often combine desert iconography with rich figurative detail to recollect ara irititja, the old days of the Ernabella mission. McMillan compares her work to that of the late Ian Abdulla, and sees in its nostalgia important lessons for a way of life in which Anangu people enjoyed much better health than today. Highly commended for her painting in last year’s National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, Lewis’s work has recently been collected by Artbank and the Art Gallery of South Australia, and she will stage her first solo exhibition in May, at Melbourne’s Alcaston Gallery.

Other artists attracting high acclaim include Nura Rupert, a finalist in last year’s Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards. Rupert’s expressive, character-filled figurative forms recall the crayon drawings collected from the area by the anthropologist Norman Tindale in 1933. The work of fellow women Tjunkaya Tapaya, often depicting kungkarangkalpa (seven sisters dreaming) and Tjariya Stanley reveals the rich dotting of desert art, and has also found its way into Artbank’s collection. Ernabella’s artists continue to use a range of media including, also relatively recently, ceramics.

The women are nowadays also joined by several male artists. Current chair of Ernabella Arts Pepai Jangala Carroll is ranked among the centre’s most exciting artists for his optically charged, monochromatic fields on black. Jarrod Jangala Robertson, the son of Yuendumu’s Shorty Jangala Robertson, is one of the centre’s younger emerging talents. And then there’s the larger-than-life Dickie Minyintiri, reputedly in his nineties, who gets about Ernabella in a golf buggy attended by a clamour of dogs, and whose work is revered for its depth of ceremonial knowledge.

Artists from Ernabella Arts will be exhibiting with Short Street Gallery in Broome from 21 April 2011 and with Tunbridge Gallery in Margaret River from 3 June 2011. Niningka Lewis will hold a solo exhibition with Alcaston Gallery in Melbourne from 10 May 2011.

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