I’m very excited about a new Paris exhibition Poetry of the Yam. It’s featuring the colourful works of Lorna Fencer and the yam is the main story behind many of Lorna’s paintings. In this exhibition Lorna’s role as a custodian for a yam dreaming story within her Walrpiri culture is being set alongside some yam masks from New Guinea. While it might sound an unusual combination, the drawing together of these two art forms is quite stunning.
Lorna’s work in this exhibition is putting together a significant story from Australia, as the yam was so important for survival of Lorna’s people. What she's painting is the dreaming stories of how the ancestors created the yam, how they drew it out of the earth, how there was, later, custodial battles between different groups of ancestors over different types of yam dreaming stories. It's a great legendary, or mythological, history that belongs to Lorna Fencer's people.
Similarly, the masks from New Guinea are spirit people related to the yam and the equivalent idea of a dreaming. In these works the actual yams have a kind of human or spirit face that is expressed in the mask.
Ian and I spent 8 years working very closely with Lorna Fencer. We visited her in her community. She came and visited us here in Fremantle and painted many paintings while we were doing workshops with her. She came with family members. We traveled all across Australia visiting exhibitions that we put on in conjunction with Lorna and galleries in Sydney and Melbourne and Darwin.
It was a great experience to be alongside Lorna when she saw all her paintings finally up on a gallery wall. They were very big impact paintings. Lorna would often sing or tell the story of those yam dreaming stories, addressing the paintings rather than addressing anyone else. Seeing Lorna have this conversation with her paintings gave me a little lead into the cultural world where her paintings came from.
Lorna passed away in 2006, and her paintings, we think, are amongst the most significant works coming from Walpiri artists in that huge area of the Tanami Desert in central Australia.
We have some wonderful works of Lorna’s here at Japingka, but it's just great to have Lorna’s work celebrated on the international art stage. I’m so pleased that people in Paris will see her work during a major art festival which focuses on the work of indigenous people. For Lorna to be front and central as part of that event, I think, is really fitting and really exciting for us.
The curator of the Poetry of the Yam is Didier Zanette and you can read his interview about this exhibition and his passion for Pacific indigenous art. More of Lorna's work can be seen here.