Off the Beaten Track: The Artists of Ali Curung

Levi McLean is Art Centre Manager for Arlpwe Artists, an art centre in Ali Curung, 400km north of Alice Springs in Australia’s Northern Territory. In this interview, Levi talks about all the changes that have taken place over the last year at the art centre and the fresh art that is emerging. Please note that this interview was conducted in December 2021, before Covid reached the local community.

I believe the artists are quite excited about the 2022 exhibition at Japingka?

Yes. This is the first time in a very long time where there's been an exhibition outside of the regular calendar year of preparing for Desert Mob and the Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. The artists were all eager to produce a body of work that shows off some of the things that they've developed in the last year. At Arlpwe there has been a whole change to the studio process; the types of materials, quality of materials, how it’s organised, how it’s facilitated. I came onboard on the tail-end of a significant period of change which has been a very successful process of renewal at the art centre. The exhibition will be a group showcase of works made over the last few months made by senior, established and emerging artists painting in Ali Curung, Warrick Miller Japangardi, Sarah Holmes Napangardi, Judy Long Nampinjimpa, Sonya Murphy Nabaljari and Marcus Camphoo, aka Double-O, other artists might also be included.

Can you paint us a picture of the Arts Centre? So where is it, what does it look like?

If you're going up the Stuart Highway towards Darwin, from Alice Springs, it's about 400 kilometres north of Alice. There's a turnoff to a sealed road, which converges from two into a single lane. It's about a 15 minute drive into Ali Curung. The name of the community translates to "Dog Dreaming" in Kaytetye, it’s a Kaytetye word because Ali Curung is on Kaytetye Country. The community was historically known as Warrabri, which was a mission established in the late '60s. The word Warrabri is a blending of Warlpiri and Warumungu. In the '70s, it became Ali Curung. Four tribes lived at that mission; Kaytetye, Warlpiri, Alyawarr, and Warumungu. They still live there today. So at the art centre we get a real confluence of different cultures.

Arlpwe Art Recent works by Double 0, Warrick Miller Japangardi, Sarah Holmes Nabangardi
Arlpwe Art Recent works by Double 0, Warrick Miller Japangardi, Sarah Holmes Nabangardi

The Gallery

Once you get into the community, the first thing you see is a colourful red ochre donga - a prefabricated building that looks like an old tin shed. It has the words ‘Art Gallery’ painted on it in big bubble writing. That's the gallery and administration space. There are a lot of historical works on display, especially wood carvings which used to be a dominant art form here done by the older men when the art centre first opened up. There are painted shields, punishment spears, hunting spears, number 7’s, boomerangs, woomeras and shields.

Arlpwe Artists Studio

If you take a left at the gallery and turn down a dirt track for about 300 metres, there is another venue, the studio where all the artists are. The studio has a few different spaces. It's got the workshop and tool shed, this is Peter, Graham and Dwayne’s domain. There is a large room which the women use to paint in. The area is organised by Sonya Murphy, one of our permanent arts workers. She is also a prolific artist. And more recently, a space for men to work in was added. There is also an open courtyard where artists and arts workers work and hang out with the various camp dogs that frequent the studio.

What's the country look like around there?

It's a notoriously flat country that inundates quickly when it rains. There aren't very many tall trees, and the ones that are there are very precious. The community is keen to preserve them. Within local belief systems these trees are of spiritual importance. When people come to town to do council work involving the trees it can cause a bit of a stir.

Arlpwe Art Bush trip with Doreen and Judy, photograh by Anna Dakin
Arlpwe Art Bush trip with Doreen and Judy, photograh by Anna Dakin

On the flat land, you’ll see a lot of mulga and low growing shrubs. Arlpwe [pronounced Arl-bow-a] means “soakage and spinifex country”. This means there's no actual water above the ground. There is an enormous water table underneath the community, which runs off in all directions. That water table is the reason why people moved there in the first place when they left Phillip Creek, which is just north of Tennant Creek, in the late '50s when the resources ran out there. The elders knew that there was soakage underneath Ali Curung, this soakage is an important sacred site in the Dog Dreaming. Recently there has been a lot of controversy over water licenses given by the NT government to corporations who want to tap this water, well beyond what is reasonable. Our staff and artists have been very vocal about their concerns. In fact, a lot of the paintings from this year were made as a response to this situation.

And how many people live in the community itself?

According to the census it's 380, but it's hard to say. People come and go quite frequently. On any given day there's normally between 10 and 15 artists. It got down to 1 or 2 a few years back but then a new arts centre manager Diane Din Ebongue came in. She’s a very driven, vibrant and charismatic person, and she worked hard to increase the number of artists in the community engaging with the art centre. We now have 15 artists and four permanent-part time arts workers, and sometimes up to eight arts works on the books at any given time, as well as myself.

What impact has the Covid had on the community?

A lot of galleries shut for a brief period of time but they’ve opened up again to the public, at least for now. A lot of events got cancelled. From that perspective, it was a much quieter year. Online sales still worked well because people are spending more time at home. The DAAF and AIATIS online marketplaces have been very important events that sustain income for our artists and the art centre.

If the Covid situation escalates in the NT that will mean an even greater disruption to the flow of programming, not to mention the considerable danger to the health of community members. Based on conversations I’ve had with people in Ali Curung, they can find it really deflating, but they still understand and respect the need for these measures.

Can you tell me what's exciting you about the artists there, and the work that's being produced at the moment?

There are four key language groups that work at the art centre, sometimes more. Kaytetye, Alyawarra, Warumungu, Warlpiri. For that reason, you get quite a diverse range of works being produced. There's not really a signature style. Each artist has a very idiosyncratic way of painting.

For instance, Warrick Miller Japangardi, a Warlpiri man. He has based his most recent works on historical paintings done by his great, great grandfather, A. Jumbyinmba Tjangala. Warrick references the designs and stories that his great great grandfather painted. They are stories relating to Ngapa (Rain) Dreaming – Tjangala was a very senior rainmaker and elder, and Warrick is now a custodian for these dreamings. Recently, he's been in touch with the family in Lajamanu and they're really excited to have Warrick bring those stories back to life, and for the public to engage with them once more. It is important to Warrick that he gained approval to paint these designs.

Arlpwe Art and Culture Centre studio shot, Warrick Miller Japangardi
Arlpwe Art and Culture Centre studio shot, Warrick Miller Japangardi

Warrick’s paintings are really striking. While they share similarities with the works he is referencing, he gives them his own touch in terms of the materials and methods that he uses. For example, he mixes the yellow and red ochres with acrylic to produce a unique colour palette, which varies from muted to extremely bright.

After he outlines and fills the design, he uses a wide brush to wash a thin coat of heavily watered white paint over the background. He uses a mix of acrylic and locally sourced red and yellow ochres to give a deep texture to his paintings. The thinner coat of white allows the black gesso to come through, giving the surface of the painting a greater translucency. A shimmering that mirrors the surface of water. The absence of white dots in these works is a conceptual choice made by Warrick who sees the white as a great deluge of water invoked by the dreaming stories referenced in these designs.

And it's just exciting to work with someone like Warrick. Warrick is a strong cultural voice in the community. He's not an elder yet as he's only in his mid thirties, but he's someone that many of the old people place their trust in. Warrick is very charismatic and knowledgeable, and loves to have a yarn. I learn a lot listening to him. Warwick is at the studio working on his paintings most days. The name of the exhibition “Off Beaten Track” came from a remark that Warrick made when he was describing the dot work in one of his paintings as being “off the tracks”.

Ngapa Dreaming, 2021, detail by Warrick Miller Japangardi - Arlpwe Art
Ngapa Dreaming, 2021, detail by Warrick Miller Japangardi - Arlpwe Art

The Women

Most of the artists at the centre are elder women from the community. Most days there would be 10 to 15 people painting in the women’s area. They are a stellar group. It’s hard to find words that do justice to how generous and welcoming they've been. They are quick to laugh, and are all very supportive of each other. Many of them are world class in their approach to the canvas and what they’ve been coming out with shows it. They have led the revival over the last year. Their attitude means that management and staff participation has been strong.

Arlpwe Art and Culture Centre studio shot, Judy Long Nampijinpa
Arlpwe Art and Culture Centre studio shot, Judy Long Nampijinpa

The Renaissance

I think there’s a bit of an Ali Curung renaissance taking place. It's not a place that's well known for painting, although there has been a history of exceptional carvers in the past. I don’t think the painting has really been on the radar until now. I think that is about to change. The work is beautiful, fresh, and profound, and it's wonderful that Japingka can share that with a global audience and get the art centre's profile up. It's a really exciting time.

Arlpwe Art Bush Trip with Sarah photograph by Anna Dakin
Arlpwe Art Bush Trip with Sarah photograph by Anna Dakin