Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency, Western Australia - Art Collector

Issue 73, July - September 2015

Una Rey takes a look at the Indigenous artists working out of Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency in Western Australia. She discovers a group whose innovative practices are revolutionising traditional means of conveying personal and collective histories.

John Prince Siddon, Untitled, 2015. Paint on plywood. Courtesy: the artist and Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency, WA

Two outstanding collaborative canvases from 1996 to 1997, Ngurrara I and Ngurrara II, are held in the National Museum of Australia and the Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency respectively. They must be counted among the country’s most resplendent cultural treasures. Originally presented as evidence in the landmark Native Title Claim by Great Sandy Desert people, (a hearing that took a decade to favour the claimants), the paintings are much more than map-like renditions of law and land: they also present composite tapestries of the personal styles of Mangkaja artists, collectively connoisseurs of country.

Fluent within the idiom of painting and its ability to set out real-world politics, Mangkaja artists constantly negotiate the terms of cultural integrity and innovation within the art centre. In that vein, new work by senior artist Tommy May, (one of the original Ngurrara artists) and John Prince Siddon features in New Frontiers at Linden New Art in Melbourne, curated by Emma McCowan, who acknowledges Aboriginal artists’ desires to experiment in their practices: “Lots of painting showing in commercial galleries has been represented as being about country, but there’s a deeper personal story too, a depth of individuality in the artist’s work that I wanted to bring to urban audiences.”
May’s drawings on board form exceptional scripts, the paint-pen introduced by interdisciplinary artist Reko Rennie during a Mangkaja residency in 2013. Siddon has also broken new ground, reflecting on the Kimberley tradition of boab-nut carving and ngurti (coolamon) forms. Painting dynamic narrative imagery on discarded fuel drums and satellite dishes, he invents a remote arte povera, both tondo and sculptural works becoming a poignant reminder of recent governmental threats to Western Australian communities.

Emerging out of the Karrayili Adult Education Centre established in 1981 to teach English to Fitzroy Crossing’s diverse language speakers, Mangkaja forged a key position in the robust marketplace of the 1990s and 2000s. The artistic legacies of first generation Mangkaja artists can be witnessed in the current studio, where the translucent landscapes of Daisy Andrews, Butcher Cherel’s erudite patterns and Cory Surprise’s rhythmic gestures to country leave a conceptual mark. As studio coordinator Wes Maselli points out, works on paper have been a hallmark of Mangkaja, in spite of their unique qualities sometimes being overlooked by collectors. Painters such as Lisa Uhl, Sonia Kurrara and Daisy Japulija (winner of the 2014 Hedland Art Prize) are among those constantly reworking the explosive palette and hybrid imagery for which Mangkaja is renowned.

Represented in several public and countless private collections, senior painter Jukuja Dolly Snell (preselected for Darwin’s annual National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award) held a solo exhibition at Suzanne O’Connell Gallery in June, Kurtal Pictures, with paintings ranging in price from $800 to $5,000. Along with her husband, the noted ceremonial leader Nyilpirr Ngalyaku Spider Snell and Wangkajungka custodian Tom Lawford, Jukuja’s story of life in the Great Sandy Desert will be celebrated with the launch of the 20-year film project Putuparri at the Melbourne International Film Festival this winter. A very different film genre, Mervyn Street’s animated memories of pastoral life in the Kimberley have recently been projected onto the escarpments of Gooniyandi Country: a unique cinema for the local community, the most important audience of all.

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