My auntie has country too …

By Roslyn Premont, Posted 01 December 2019

“Women have country - my aunties have the right to paint”…

Women hold powerful positions in Aboriginal community as nurturers. They also have the freedom to express themselves as they get older as they are considered, wiser, stronger and are more respected and more powerful. 

While traditionally the domain of men when the contemporary art movement began in the early seventies in Papunya, by the mid eighties the excitement of the art movement gained momentum and was spreading throughout the desert into Yuendumu, Lajamanu, and over to Balgo Hills in Western Australia.

By now women had started to paint not just the infill on their husband’s work but to paint their own canvases. However, many so called specialists thought that women had no country of their own and that women’s work had less meaning.

“Women have country - my aunties have the right to paint”

One day when I was working in the government gallery in Alice Springs in 1987, an Italian professor, who was a so-called specialist about Australian indigenous culture, was asking me why we had paintings by women on the wall as it was really only men that had the right to paint.

Whilst we were looking at these paintings and had our backs turned to the door we didn’t see or hear the artist Michael Nelson Jakamarra come in.  Michael had been listening to this Italian professor and interrupted saying “Women have country - my aunties have the right to paint”.

Incredibly the professor continued to tell Michael that this was incorrect and that women didn’t have this right. Exasperated, Michael raised his eyebrows and left returning only later to laugh about this man from another place that was telling him about his culture.

It took years after that incident before I truly comprehended the depth of what Michael meant by his saying that his aunties have the right to paint. 

They are of course the sisters of his father and this is how traditional ceremonial knowledge is passed on – from auntie to niece. Not from the mother (who is responsible for upbringing in general) but from the father’s sisters.

That he mentioned his auntie was the correct relationship – acknowledging his father’s sisters – equal but different rights.

Part of the reason early male anthropologists believed women didn’t have their own law, their own stories is either because they didn’t ask or because they couldn’t be given information about women. In one account an anthropologist is describing a ceremony where the men are painted up and dancing. He describes the magnificence of the men but goes on to say that it was disturbing however that there was this old woman dancing upfront suggesting that she was a mad woman. Little did he realise of course that she was one of the most important parts of the ritual. An old woman often leads law men in certain ceremonies.

Largely initially due to the interest in the beauty and power of Aboriginal art, we have become interested in the people who have created this great work: where they are from, how do they live, what are their beliefs, how are and were those beliefs sustained. We have grown to learn more about the culture and they have interacted with us more and learnt more about us.

We have crossed boundaries. Not too soon of course. In 2017, it is now 50 years since the Referendum in 1967 and we still have a long way to go. In general though there is a willingness on both sides for this to happen.

I remember a period in the early nineties, when I had opened Gallery Gondwana, some people were saying that as the old men were dying (the first men to paint) that the movement was finished and that we were seeing the last of the really good work. They had no idea what was in store for them…. Of course now the rest is history - an old women of eighty had just began painting and she was to change the way the world looked at this art movement. She took it from being viewed as ethnographic to contemporary art. Emily Kame Kngwarreye of course is her name and she changed the landscape.

Women artists have come a long way.  Another strong and individual personality to emerge at this time was Linda Syddick Napaltjarri, whose work is hugely admired particularly in academic circles. She crossed boundaries and challenged our perceptions consistently. The stepdaughter of Shorty Lungkarta, one of the first men to paint when the movement started and a close family member of the last tribe, her work is a mixture of religious fusion and her fascination for ET, the Spielberg movie she has seen over 20 times.

There are artists that work in close proximity and are therefore influenced by each other whereas there are other artists that work more in isolation, exploring the boundaries of their practice in a more contemplative way. 

Dorothy Napangardi was one such example with a highly individual style that depicted unique patterns, primarily in a monochromatic palette, of landscape and with the optical play of lines and dots that shimmer and sparkle, of that which exists beyond the world that we know purely on this physical level.

The MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) in Sydney did a survey show in 2002 of the previous 11 years of her work and selected paintings from varying periods of her career to create an exhibition which explored the changing nature of contemporary indigenous art on an individual basis (there is a wonderful catalogue still in print from this exhibition).1 

At the opening of the Survey exhibition the Director of the MCA, Elizabeth Ann McGregor acknowledged Dorothy as one of Australia’s leading artists, indigenous or non-indigenous.

“I sung it”

I have so many memories of artists comments over the past 30 years of working in Alice Springs. One such artist was Rosie Nangala Fleming, one of the first women to paint in Yuendumu and who was responsible for the Women’s Museum to be built in Yuendumu to house women’s ceremonial objects.

In the late eighties, whilst still managing the government gallery, I made a comment to her – ‘hey Rosie, another one of your paintings has just sold – people really love your work’. She said ‘of course’. At first, I was a little taken aback by what appeared to be an over-confident attitude as in western society we are taught to appear more unassuming.

Then as the conversation progressed I understood she was referring to the energy and power that the paintings possessed, the rich content that informs their work and that comes from a deep spiritual base. Within the artists’ very fibre of being there is a sureness and certainly about their work. She said “I sung it”. She had sung this painting in the same way that the world was sung into existence by the ancestors when the world was young and that she had repeatedly continued to do during ceremonies.

She was referring to the fact that we not only see these paintings, we feel these paintings. You don’t have to understand the content to appreciate and to feel them.

She also made the comment that we are drawn to the paintings we are meant to live with.

Sometimes paintings also need to changed around. There are times when some paintings need to take a rest and our senses stimulated by something new. 

In the same way that the ancestors awakened the spirits under the earth when they sang the world into existence, artists of today awaken our spirits with these works of extraordinary visual power. We have much to be grateful for. A particular thank you here to all the aunties!

My auntie has country too...

My auntie has country too… Image © Gallery Gondwana


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