Mimili Maku - Art Collector

Issue 61, July - September 2012

Kieran Finnane traces the rise of the Mimili Maku art centre in the APY Lands of South Australia.

In a now familiar story from remote Indigenous communities, artists who have been painting on canvas for only a few years are claiming the attention of curators and collectors. From Mimili Maku in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands, they include Milatjari Pumani, her daughter Ngupulya Pumani and Tuppy Ngintja Goodwin.

Milatjari Pumani, adept at pokerwork, was among a group of arts and crafts workers active in Mimili prior to the rise of painting there. She took up paint and brush four years ago, at the age of 80, with her daughter following in her footsteps. Their story is closely linked to the revitalisation of the art centre and the recent ascendancy of painting across the APY Lands.

In 2008 Mimili Maku exhibited in Desert Mob for the first time since 2000, showing nine modestly priced acrylic works. The following year its Desert Mob showing of 10 works included Milatjari’s and Ngupulya’s, priced well ahead of the others, with Milatjari’s reproduced in the catalogue. In the same year she had a solo show at Adelaide gallery AP Bond. In 2010 she was a finalist in the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Awards, and at Desert Mob her work again featured in the catalogue and was priced well beyond that of any other Mimili Maku artist.

This was also the case in 2011. Milatjari’s paintings are consistently titled Ngura Walytja, Antara, Antara being the name of her traditional country not far from Mimili, a place where women dig for witchetty grubs, the maku that gave the art centre its name. She renders it in earthy colours on a dark ground, in glowing hues as if under a fiery sinking sun, in dreamy pinks, mauves and white, with her loosely painted networks of motifs, no doubt speaking of the tjukurpa, advancing and receding in fields of dotting.

This is something of a signature style for Mimili Maku artists, including Ngupulya Pumani and Tuppy Ngintja Goodwin as well as Robert Fielding, but each artist brings to it their own distinction: Ngupulya Pumani, the creaminess of her dotted overlay; Goodwin, her jewel-like coloration and tighter motifs; Fielding, his fine dense dotting and elegant composition.

Quite apart and increasingly drawing attention is Linda Puna. A younger woman who bravely deals with physical disability, she loves to be in the supportive environment of the art centre. If there is dotting in her works it is loosely done and limited to a small area. Her motifs are large and loose, strongly outlined and set into large areas of warm, flat colour. They are sometimes clearly figurative – people in the landscape, manmade and natural, under a bright sun. In a show of 25 Mimili Maku works at Raft Artspace in Alice Springs in 2011, she had four, one chosen to illustrate the exhibition invitation.

A challenge for Mimili Maku has been the lack of staff accommodation. Its current manager, Hannah Grace, has lived like a backpacker for two and a half years. However, a manager’s house is at last being built and funding has been secured for a new art centre. At present its 60 members – 30 active and 20 painting daily – use an old brick house, prone to flooding and a haven for snakes and mice. It can take only 12 artists at a time so they paint in shifts, the old women in the morning, the younger ones in the afternoon and the men forever on the veranda, regardless of the heat or cold.

Despite the less than ideal conditions, artists have had a busy exhibition schedule this year, with shows at Aboriginal & Pacific Arts in Sydney and Outstation Gallery in Darwin. They are also looking forward to a screenprinting workshop with Basil Hall Editions in October. •

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