Ruby Williamson: Desert Ruby - Art Collector

Issue 45, July - September 2008

For a while now Ruby Williamson has been among this country's most sought after contemporary artists but its been a very long wait for her first solo show, reports Maurice O'Riordan.

Reviewing a 2004 group show of Aboriginal artists Adelaide writer Stephanie Radok singled out a painting of feral cats by Ruby Tjangawa Williamson, relating it to an exhibition of bush foods on at the same time somewhere else. Noting that Williamson’s feral cats were also a bush food, Radok remarked that Williamson initially pretended the cats were rabbits, ‘thinking we would be offended’.

Adapting a story to suit its audience is not peculiar to Aboriginal artists though Radok’s anecdote does touch on the cross-cultural interplay about Aboriginal art, and the journeys – physical and conceptual – that Williamson’s success as an artist has instigated. Feral cats remain a key part of her visual lexicon. After generations in the bush, they can be a much bigger, much less approachable breed than the domestic variety; Aboriginal people sometimes regard them as ‘native’ cats despite their destructive impact on native wildlife. It’s easy to see how Williamson’s long-eared cats could pass as rabbits. In some more elongated depictions they also resemble the fat-bellied honey ant, or tjala, after which Williamson’s community art centre at Amata is named.

About 500 km south west of Alice Springs, Amata is a small Aboriginal community (around 300 people) at the foot of the Musgrave Ranges in the APY (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunyjatjara) Lands in South Australia’s far north west. Tjala, the community art centre, was originally set up as Minymaku in 1999. Minymaku, an Anangu word for ‘women’s’ or ‘belonging to women’, reflected the centre’s roots as a women’s initiative, yet the name was eventually dropped to also reflect and encourage the involvement of the community’s men.

When Australian Art Collector profiled the centre in 2005, Amata’s artists were just beginning to stake their place in the fine art world. Ruby Williamson was one of several senior women who painted regularly at the centre. She soon became one of Amata’s most sought-after artists, a reputation which continues today and which, finally, reaches fruition this month with her first solo exhibition, at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi.

The appeal of Williamson’s paintings no doubt stems from their sheer beauty and virtuosity. Though her motifs and iconography are consistent – dotting, wira walka (parallel arc design), the radial branch of the honey grevillea, feral cats and the art centre’s trusty Toyota, for example – she is a constant, beguiling innovator of colour and composition.

ERRATA: In Issue 45 on page 158 we incorrectly reported that Ruby Williamson's first solo show would be held at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi in Melbourne. In fact, Art Mob in Hobart had previously held two solo shows of Ms Williamson's work in 2003 and 2005.

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