‘On-country’ painting captured in photographs

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‘Kalaya Tjukurpa’ painted at Kanpi Rockhole, 2016, by Marita Baker, natural pigment on rock, Diasec C-type print behind acrylic glass.

FIVE senior artists from Tjungu Palya art centre in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands of SA have been painting not just “in” country but directly “on to” country.

The artists’ work, which is considered both timeless and transient, has been captured for posterity in a series of six, large-format photographs now on show at the National Museum of Australia in an exhibition titled “Painting on Country”, which also includes 26 photographs of the artists at work, shown in a limited-edition book.

The images, more than two metres in width, are on loan to the NMA from art collectors Christina and Trevor Kennedy. They have previously been shown at the 2017 Tarranathi Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, but this is the first time they have been exhibited outside SA.

‘Piltati,’ painted at Piltati Rockhole, 2016 by Keith Stevens, natural pigment on rock, Diasec C-type print behind acrylic glass.

One of the five artists, Keith Stevens has said: “A long time ago when we were young, our fathers and their fathers made drawings on rock to teach people, but this is the first time we have done those drawings.”

He said he and the other artists had wanted the photographs of their work to be large because “where we did the painting was on really large rocks inside big landscape”.

Some of the places chosen to paint on were Dreaming sites and each trip involved senior artists mentoring emerging artists, and grandchildren assisting their elders.

Artist Marika Baker painting. Photo: Leopold Fiala.

Mr Kennedy was in Canberra late last week (March 14) for the exhibition opening, also attended by senior Tjungu Palya artist Marika Baker and her daughter Sharon.

Museum director Mathew Trinca said it was a privilege to live in a country that was “so storied,” saying that this show, and its predecessor, the blockbuster, “Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters”, was a case of “bringing great stories together.“
Trinca introduced Mrs Kennedy, who told those present that that her interest had begun with an invitation from the Kimberley Foundation to view rock art while visiting the APY lands. She was astonished to see images on a computer of rock art which had been painted directly on to landscapes as “something temporary, to teach the children and to showcase the beautiful country”.

Christina Kennedy at the opening.

“I never saw them hanging together, but I knew they had to be put in a public space,” she said. Luckily her husband was happy to purchase the photographs as a 50th wedding anniversary present and the rest is history.

She hinted that she and Mr Kennedy were also engaging with the museum regarding the possible accessioning of works in their collection.

The exhibition’s curator and head of the Indigenous Knowledges Centre at the museum, Margo Neale, said the photographs as exhibited in the museum were “allowed to sing“.
People had “signed” the land, she explained, yet the paintings, especially those created in white ochre, would wash off in the first rains.

 “Painting on Country”, National Museum of Australia, until September 29.


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