Rammey Ramsey: Iconography of the land - Art Collector

Issue 56, April - June 2011

The canvases of East Kimberley painter Rammey Ramsey may look abstract, but he is instead painting careful portraits of his lands. Timothy Morrell profiles the life and career of this influential Gija painter.

Of all the artists who have practised the distinctive Eastern Kimberley style of painting since Rover Thomas began to make it prominent in Australian art in the 1980s, Rammey Ramsey has probably shown the greatest development and change in his work.

Ramsey was born around 1935 in the Warlawoon country of Western Australia and spent his earliest years travelling through the bush with his family, who led a traditional peripatetic way of life. Warlawoon, a word that is sometimes included in the titles of his works, is also his name in Gija, his language. As a young man he settled at Bedford Downs. Like Rover Thomas and many other Indigenous painters in the Eastern Kimberley, he worked as a stockman. He subsequently worked on Landsdowne Station and finally Bow River Station.

He maintained traditional culture during these years, although it had been severely threatened by the social changes brought about by the cattle industry. Ramsey did not become a professional painter until 2000, but he has in effect been an artist all his adult life because of participation in ceremony. Since his time at Bedford Downs, he has made dance poles and practised the body painting on which the Eastern Kimberley style is ultimately based. His earliest paintings on canvas are extremely accomplished and elegant examples of the restrained monochromatic compositions for which this style first became known.

Painting broad flat areas of natural ochre colour bordered by white dotting was common to the members of the Jirrawun Aboriginal Art Corporation, which was formed by a group of Kimberley artists in the mid 1990s, and which Ramsey joined at the end of the decade. In 2000 his paintings were included with the work of other Jirrawun artists in the exhibition Gaagembi – Poor Things at William Mora Galleries in Melbourne. The word “gaagembi” conveys both affection and sadness, and reflects the artists’ feelings about seeing their land taken over by the outside world. According to the linguist Frances Kofod, who in collaboration with former co-ordinator of Jirrawun Tony Oliver recorded Ramsey’s life story, he paints only country that he has rights to through birth and family. Most of his paintings are of the gorge country north-west of Halls Creek in an area surrounding Elgee Cliffs.

Almost from the beginning of the Kimberley painting movement, the artists have depicted the violent confrontations that have occurred between their communities and white settlers. Ramsey participated in the song and dance cycle produced for the 2000 National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award in Darwin based on the 1924 Bedford Downs massacre. He danced and helped with the training of younger dancers and the painting of dance poles.

Artists like Ramsey who followed earlier East Kimberley painters made a shift toward bright colour from the use of pure ochres seen in the work of their predecessors such as Rover Thomas, Queenie McKenzie and Jack Britton. Ramsey’s experiments with technique, however, have been more radical than simply exploring the available spectrum of acrylic colours (which he did with jewel-like results). Within five years of beginning to paint on canvas he was trying atmospheric effects and painting fields of loose gestural brushstrokes reminiscent of the startling late works of Emily Kngwarreye.

In 2007 he was working with blocks of creamy pastel colours set off against flat black. Subsequently his work was characterised by small, rather minimalist squares, triangles and circles on expansive backgrounds of intense colour, frequently blue. Ramsey is a highly versatile colourist whose work has ranged from subtle harmonies to strident combinations of primary hues. He has exceptional sensitivity to the way colours can be made to interact.

When Jirrawun closed in 2010, he transferred to the Warmun Art Centre, where the artists are, like Ramsey, Gija people. Some recent changes in his work can be associated with this move. It is the custom of Warmun artists to paint with ochre pigments collected on their land, and Ramsey, having previously developed a favourite formula for achieving bright colour with acrylic paint, is currently tempering the intensity of his colours by adding ochre. Working in collaboration with printmakers at Charles Darwin University’s Northern Editions studio he has been able to translate his distinctive scumbled layers of thin paint into richly modulated colour etchings. •

New work by Rammey Ramsey will be exhibited with Seva Frangos Art in Perth from 7 May to 4 June 2011. His work is also included in the exhibition Northern Impressions: a celebration of contemporary printmaking, which will tour regional galleries until 2013.

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