Mavis Ngallametta: A Shift in Perspective - Art Collector

Issue 68, April - June 2014

The past five years have been extraordinary for Mavis Ngallametta. Since the accomplished weaver turned her attention to painting, she has been producing expansive and detailed canvases that shift in perspective and offer up new ways to see our world. Quentin Spraque takes stock of the artist's metamorphosis.

Mavis Ngallametta, Bush Fire at Kutchendoopen, 2014, ochres and acrylic binder on canvas, 267 x 200cm. Courtesy: the artist and Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney.

It was in 2008 when the Wik and Kugu Art Centre in Aurukun held a painting workshop for local women that Mavis Ngallametta realised her first works on canvas. Prior to this she was well established as a weaver, known both locally and nationally for her finely crafted mats and baskets. Examples of these, along with her more recent paintings, are held in a number of public collections including the National Gallery of Australia and the Art Gallery of South Australia. Ngallametta learnt the skill of weaving as a child at the Aurukun Mission, initially under the tutelage of senior Kugu women who, anxious to transmit local tradition to the mission generation, taught informal classes at the school. A keen student at the time, Ngallametta has carried weaving practices with her ever since. As part of the innovative Ghosts Nets project, in recent years she has even spearheaded entirely new techniques and approaches that have, in turn, seen her become a valued teacher for younger generations.

Although recognised for weaving, it is unsurprising that Ngallametta eventually turned toward painting. A number of other senior Indigenous women, including Regina Wilson from Peppimenarti in the Northern Territory, have long proven that there are productive intersections between these art forms. Indeed, the repetitive and careful work of weaving often provides a similar platform from which to work. Yet, whereas Wilson’s paintings almost literally translate woven lines onto the two-dimensional support of a painting, Ngallametta has used this shift between mediums to create something new. Although her works, with their loosely intersecting line work, recall woven strings of naturally dyed pandanus, they also suggest other, more expansive references.

Initially Ngallametta experimented with acrylic paint but, after being unconvinced by the results, responded to the suggestion to use ochre instead. After preparing her first batch of locally sourced yellow ochre, she made two paintings on paper. The first, in her assessment, “was no good”. The second, however, held some promise and she decided to persevere. Large canvases soon followed and eventually formed the standout works in a group exhibition from Aurukun held in late 2011 at Martin Browne Contemporary in Sydney. A year later Ngallametta held her first solo exhibition with the gallery. Titled Ikalath, the show featured four large paintings.

In 2013 Ngallametta was awarded the General Painting Prize at the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award in Darwin. Fittingly the large canvas depicted the site near Aurukun from which she sources her ochre – unusual cliff formations next to the Arafura sea, coloured by bands of ochre and red bauxite earth. Although this is not her traditional country (she sought permission to paint this site from her son-in-law), it nonetheless holds personal significance. In her early years she used to go there with her late husband to collect ochre for body painting and carving.

According to Guy Allain, the art coordinator who worked at Wik and Kugu art centre during the period that Ngallametta took up painting, her new body of work similarly depicts “sites around Aurukun that have a connection for Mavis or her family”. These connections vary and include her strong bond to Kendall River, her traditional area of country that, as with many of her other paintings, she simultaneously depicts from multiple perspectives. Like so much Indigenous contemporary art, Ngallametta’s new body of work suggests new ways of visualising our surrounding world.

Quentin Spraque.

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