Contemporary Art from the East Kimberley: an overview by Georges Petitjean

SYDNEY- 8 March 2015

Indigenous Australian art is more than mere expression of connectedness to country and beauty; it gives a voice to the politico-social concerns of those who create it. Nowhere does this voice resound more powerfully than in the contemporary art of the East Kimberley. In an address to the Gija people at Mistake Creek at a 2001 reconciliation ceremony, the then Governor-General of Australia, Sir William Deane, expressed his deepest regrets for the great wrongs and injustices inflicted on the Gija people. These were epitomised by the Mistake Creek massacre perpetrated more than eighty years before. Contemporary paintings from that region have attempted to tell the ‘true stories’ of the owners of the land and the tragic events that mark the history of encounters between the Gija and the European colonisers for several decades. 

The story of the contemporary painting movement of the East Kimberley began in 1974. Strangely, the origins of the movement can be found in a car accident, believed to have been caused by the Rainbow Serpent. An elderly woman who was injured in the accident died in the plane that was flying her to hospital in Perth. Her spirit travelled back to its Ngarranggarni, or Dreaming, place through the Kimberley, and eventually visited Rover Thomas (c1926 – 1998), a Kukatja-Wangkajunga man. Later that year, on Christmas Eve, a cyclone destroyed the city of Darwin. Indigenous people from across the area interpreted this event as an exhortation not to forsake their ritual duties towards the land and to keep the law strong. These events prompted Thomas to compose a new public dance performance, called the Gurirr Gurirr. Large painted boards, mainly painted by Paddy Jaminji, were carried on the shoulders and behind the heads of the dancers. It soon became clear that the imagery on these boards – depicting the journey of the woman’s spirit – had set the outlines of what would become a new school of art in Australia. 

The original dancing boards inspired Rover Thomas to start painting in his own right from 1981/2 onwards. Initially copying the Gurirr Gurirr boards in response to commercial demand, Thomas later shifted his interest to exploring innovative stylisation by which to render the landscape. Informed by his career as a travelling stockman, he expanded the geographical country that he painted far beyond the boundaries of his own country. Moreover, he began to include references to historical events in his paintings. Applying the typical Kimberley palette – mainly consisting of red, brown and yellow ochre tones – in uncompromising compositions, Thomas’s strong personal vision redefined the visual conventions of the region. Thomas, who represented Australia at the 1990 Venice Biennale, catalysed with his work the first wave of contemporary Kimberley artists that included Jack Britten, Hector Jandany and George Mung Mung, among others. The development of recognisable, highly personal styles would become a characteristic of contemporary East Kimberley painting in general.

A principal artist of this individualistic movement is Jack Britten (c1925 – 2002), who uses a distinctive horizontal view in his depictions of the spectacular features of the sandstone canyons of Purnululu (the Bungle Bungle ranges) near Warmun (Turkey Creek). He maps out the country as a series of rows of striated hills and valleys. Circles representing specific sites seen in bird’s-eye perspective that co-occur with a rendition of landscape features in profile are, however, reminiscent of Western Desert iconography.

While the authoritative paintings of Hector Jandany (c1925 – 2006) also often depict his maternal grandmother’s country Ngarrgoorroon, east of Warmun, in a horizontal perspective, his pictures are typified by sparseness of forms and an outspoken balance between figurative elements, such as hills, and space. Using a stone as an unconventional tool to smooth the surface of the painted canvas results in a washed-out, hazy finish that is peculiar to this artist. As a strong lawman concerned with upholding cultural knowledge, he taught the children of the Warmun community through his paintings. More than pure landscape painting, Jandany’s pictures, through their evocation of emotion and feeling, challenge all viewers to interaction. Aware of the culture-transcending position he assumed as an artist, Jandany made this clear statement: ‘I am a painter, bush painter, Gardiya painter.’1

During the second half of the 1980s, the women of the East Kimberley took up brushes, with Queenie McKenzie (c1925 – 1998) assuming a key position. Asserting that she could paint as the men did, she paved the way for a group of women painters that included Madigan Thomas, Shirley Purdie and Mabel Juli. In her pictures, in which she uses a distinctive profile view, McKenzie paints multiple sites that are significant to the story she paints.

This is achieved through compressing and rearranging features of the landscape, the rugged hills in and around Texas Downs Station. The daughter of an Aboriginal mother who had to hide her as a child from the authorities, Queenie was a traveller between two worlds. Her subject matter ranges from Ngarranggarni stories to autobiographical events; both her Gija heritage and her working life as a goatherd and cook on Texas Downs Station inform her art. Another key painter is Mabel Juli, whose paintings evolved from a similar representative depiction of Kimberley country to painting particular aspects of the sacred landscape in an almost minimalist style, which characterises much of the recent painting directions at Warmun.

By the mid-1980s, the need for an artists’ co-operative in the East Kimberley had become pressing. In 1985 the founding of Waringarri Aboriginal Arts in Kununurra consolidated the art movement. The establishment of an art centre in Mirrawoong language country spurred an even greater variety of styles, such as displayed in the pictures of Alan Griffiths, Peggy Griffiths and Paddy Carlton. While Alan Griffiths’s compositions, typically, are crowded with little figures, Carlton visually narrates the places and stories of his country in a rather ascetic manner.

The art of the East Kimberley demonstrates an affinity with local rock art traditions – such as Wandjina figures, which speak of the art of the entire Kimberley region – but it also has strong ties to the iconographic traditions of the Western Desert region. This last influence manifests itself in the paintings of Billy Thomas (Wangkajunga, c1920 – 2012). Billy Thomas saw his first white man – a stockman who offered him an apple – as a young boy. Later, himself working as a stockman, he drove cattle along the Canning Stock Route, where he worked on and off with Rover Thomas. In 1995 he walked into Waringarri Arts and asked if he could have some cardboard to paint on. Although his work, using the Kimberley medium of textured pigments rather than acrylic, depicts ‘country’ and connected ancestral stories of his home country around Billiluna and along the Canning Stock Route, it incorporates Western Desert iconography. Not surprisingly, Billy Thomas also produced work with unmixed acrylic paints for Warlayirti Artists at Balgo Hills, thus forming an inspired connection between Western Desert Art and Kimberley painting.

The story of the painting movement unfolded with a second wave of East Kimberley painters. Although not necessarily younger than Rover Thomas, these artists brought further development in the Warmun school of painting and the painting style first devised by Jaminji and Thomas. This second wave of artists correlated to the founding of a number of new art organisations in the region. The Warmun Art Centre, with its key artists Patrick Mung Mung, Betty Carrington and Lena Nyadbi, started operating in 1998. In September that same year the Jirrawun Aboriginal Art Corporation (later Jirrawun Arts) was officially founded at the impetus of chairman Freddie Timms and Hector Jandany, with the help of Tony Oliver, a former high-profile Melbourne gallery owner. Its members also included Gija elders Timmy Timms, Paddy Bedford, Rusty Peters, Rammey Ramsey, Goody Barrett, Phyllis Thomas and Peggy Patrick. The formation of this artists’ collective started at Rugun (Crocodile Hole) but subsequently moved to Frog Hollow, Bow River, Kununurra and finally Wyndham. A new, exciting visual vocabulary emerged out of Jirrawun, a vocabulary that does not compromise Gija law and tradition and which resists comparisons with modern western art canons.

Rusty Peters (born c1935) took up brushes at Waringarri Aboriginal Arts, where he worked as an assistant, but did not seriously paint until he joined the Jirrawun group in 1998. Peters is the most esoteric, most evanescent of the group. In his themes, Peters is a philosopher who invents modes to translate his metaphysical considerations onto canvas. Using an amorphous formal language and complex compositions, his pictures are more than simple representations. The sacral landscape, histories/stories and the painter’s interest in humankind converge in one single picture that encompasses all. Like Hector Jandany, Peters as a lawman is concerned with transmitting Gija law and local knowledge to younger generations.

Freddie Timms’s singular painting style is characterised by a reserved palette and frugality in terms of spatial composition, although he produced some works in colours that transcend the Kimberley palette (for example, Texas, 1997). Timms’s working method is that of the composer. He paints his pictures rather intuitively. Until 1985, Freddie Timms (born c1946) worked as a stockman on Bow River Station and Lissadell Station, a period which he remembers as one of ‘hard times, but good times’.2 Timms asked to paint on canvas in the late 1980s while living at Frog Hollow, south of Warmun, after observing Jack Britten, Rover Thomas, Hector Jandany and his father-in-law George Mung Mung. Deliberately choosing to build up an identity as an artist, Timms aims to gain the same recognition as his western colleagues. What interests Timms in his perfectly balanced compositions, with their subtle and coherent visual language, is telling stories. These are not necessarily inspired by the ever-present Ngarranggarni; often they stem from Timms’s own life experiences. His paintings frequently draw attention to the history of the country and to the changes in the landscape since colonisation. As a socially committed artist, Freddie Timms is also very concerned about the fate of Aboriginal artists at the hands of western art dealers, who are all too often out to exploit them. 

Undoubtedly, the most renowned artist connected to Jirrawun Arts is Paddy Bedford (c1922 – 2007). His paintings are, like other Jirrawun artists’ work, informed by gruesome events – such as the Bedford Downs massacre – that occurred some years before the artist’s birth. These stories intersect with the ubiquitous Ngarranggarni, the parallel time dimension in which plants, animals and landscape were created and in which the laws governing much human behaviour were instituted. His first paintings, made on a number of discarded scraps of plywood and other materials intended for disposal in the local dump, were painted in 1998. Artistic director to the Jirrawun artists Tony Oliver saw the old Gija lawman’s potential as a painter and encouraged him to produce work on canvas for exhibition. His first works on paper date from that same year. The first fifteen gouaches are now part of the Jirrawun Suite, acquired by the Art Gallery of New South Wales for its Yiribana Collection. In these works on paper, Bedford finds the space to experiment more than in his large-sized powerful, physical paintings on canvas. The combination of drawing and painting, and the mixture of gouache, crayon, pencil and pastel applied on black or white Crescent board, allow him to play freely with form, composition and colour. His refreshing compositions, in which elements constantly open and close new dimensions, avoid easy anticipation. In his later work on canvas or board the action of painting and the subsequent brushstrokes – perhaps as a result of his gouaches – become transparent, almost luminous.

Bedford’s death in 2007 coincided with the final stages of the construction of the new Jirrawun Arts studio/gallery in Wyndham. This open architectural space set in the overwhelming Kimberley landscape aims to ensure and reassert the Jirrawun artists’ commitment to the production and marketing of their art on an economically independent basis and according to international standards of practice. Peggy Patrick’s frenetic canvases, which appear as the creative remnants of some passionate ritual performance, and Phyllis Thomas’s compulsive interpretations of body designs are testimonies to the ever-present renewal of cultural responsibilities. Rammey Ramsey, who only started painting in 2000, depicts changes in landscape, dust storms or drowned earth in his iconic canvases. With these recent paintings the boundaries of Kimberley painting have been further expanded. Continuing rejuvenation of the art of the East Kimberley is palpable in work by younger, still developing generations of artists, such as in the confronting graffiti paintings by the group of young Kununurra women known as ‘the Jirrawun Chicks’.

¹ Hector Jandany at the True Stories symposium, 11/01/2003, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.
‘Gardiya’ is the Gija word for whitefellow.
² Freddie Timms, conversation with author, Kununurra, 22/08/2002.