Tjarlirli Art, Western Desert - Art Collector

Issue 69, July - September 2014

Una Rey takes a look at Tjarlirli Art, one of the smaller Western Desert art centres which is defiantly punching above its weight.

Bob Gibson, Patjanja. Acrylic on canvas, 101 x 121cm.

The critic Nicolas Rothwell once described Tjukurla in Western Australia as the “the Ngaanyatjarra equivalent of Chartres or Siena … a marker of faith that lies hard by the Western Desert’s most crucial sacred sites.” One such meridian point is Kuruyurltu. Kuruyurltu translates as hollow-eye. It is a deep-sided waterhole gouged into the low-lying escarpment, a place locals refer to as cowboy country for its resemblance to spaghetti western film locations. Laced with intersecting tingari tracks, Kuruyurltu forms the central motif and title of Tjarlirli Artists’ first filmmaking venture to be launched in The Archaeology of Descent, an intercultural exhibition at Marshall Arts in Adelaide this September.

Directed by Ngaanyatjarra linguist and teacher Lizzie Ellis, daughter of painter Esther Giles, the project was initiated with the aim of teaching younger members of the Tjukurla and Docker River communities to work with new technologies to complement the existing painting studio.

As Ellis explains: “I really noticed after the older ladies had been painting together in country … [that] when they returned to the art centre they weren’t painting what they normally paint. It [going bush] engages their perception, their view of the world and … how to express it on canvas. It just goes to show how country reenergises, reinvigorates, reattaches … It gives extra sight.”

Kuruyurltju was in post-production at the time of writing, but stills and short clips reveal the densely layered painting-in-country genre reminiscent of the collaborative Still Walking Country by Martumili artists, film-maker Lynette Wallworth and New York based singer Antony recently celebrated in the 2014 Adelaide Biennial. Narrated by Lyall Giles and painter Tjawina Porter with film work by Matt Woodham, the digital video fulfils a dual purpose in offering alternative media and building on the Ngaanyatjarra cultural archive. While the sacred/secret nature of the tingari doesn’t lend itself to singing for public display or permanent recording, Ellis is enthusiastic about future film projects that may see young people performing dance, literally “rapping up country,” in a fresh generational inflection of singing up country while potentially creating a new collectable art form.

Since 2006 Tjarlirli has established itself as a small but remarkable supplier of contemporary desert canvas with its artists exhibiting in leading commercial galleries as well as Desert Mob in Alice Springs and the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award in Darwin – although this year it’s the Salon des Refusés at Outstation Gallery in Parap, which may say more about the NATSIAA pre-selection process than the quality of Tjarlirli Artists’ work. A group show by Tjarlirli painters is also at Outstation in July, presenting an opportunity to see work by emerging artists such as Jimmy Nukati and Wanatjura Bell.

While the Aboriginal art market has ebbed in the past five years, Tjarlirli manager Nyssa Miller is prosaic about the industry’s ongoing challenges. “Coming here in early 2012, I didn’t see any dramatic decline in sales. The art centre supports the community in so many ways … There are lots of social issues, disabilities, age-related illnesses, alcohol … Still, there are a large number of artists coming and going, with around 30 key painters working consistently. And importantly, there are some really interesting new artists from nearby Docker River [120 km to the east] which we now service.”

Patricia Orgula and Valmayi Nampitjinpa for example are making an impact with striking works that explore the local painterly vernacular of bleeding dots and linear compositions, while Bob Gibson’s hard-edged geometric iconography stands apart from the looping arabesques of tjukurpa interpretation that typify painting from the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands. This expressionistic style of desert narrative painting, rich in colour and bold in its mark-making tradition is well illustrated in the work of senior artists Esther Giles and Nyarapayi Giles. Both women remain invaluable in supporting the art centre and its extended community while committing their worldview to canvas with integrity, energy and humour.

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