In this article, we take you to the painting studio of a group of Anangu artists as the women prepare for their next exhibition at Japingka Gallery. The studio co-ordinator discusses how the artists work together and the sense of community that’s present when they come together.
Feature Image Top Right: Janice Woods | Minyma Kutjara | Jap 018225
What's happening in the studio at the moment?
I see a lot of these Anangu artists are wanting to collaborate. There's a desire for them to work together. They're all very established and confident about their careers so far. I guess like anyone else, you get so far in your career and you want to challenge yourself again. One of the beautiful works in this exhibition is a collaborative between Teresa Baker, Madeline Curley and Carolanne Kent. They paint two different stories on one canvas.
One story is Marililu and the other is the Seven Sisters. They all sit down together and speak in language and point at the canvas. They etch little things into the canvas with their sticks. Then they just start. If I’m watching I might think, I have no idea where this is going but somehow it all comes together, like a beautiful song, it's harmonic. I think the artists really enjoy this process of working together. They want to collaborate together because it pushes them individually, but it also gives them that sense of community and unification in what they're doing. It's a strong way to paint
What's the atmosphere like in the studio?
There is a great sense of community. There's a lot of chatter. There's a lot of laughter. The artists enjoy coming together. You’ll see the women love to sit around and talk. This provides both great career support for them while they're doing what they love as well as the important passing on of the stories. Sometimes you’ll see the younger generation coming in here and the stories are passed down to them. It's important for them to see this. Here are a group of women, each in their own careers and they're all painting at the top of their game. You can feel that when you walk into the studio, it's kind of electric when they're all in there painting and chatting away. They are really confident in what they're doing. What comes out at the end of the day is just spectacular. It's quite magic to see.
How do you feel being around the women as they retell traditional stories?
I feel very privileged, to be honest. There is trust that evolves over time. I think as the artists feel comfortable with you they share more parts of the story. As the trust builds, so does the confidence to share more. That's the point where we're at. We have a very transparent and open relationship with these artists who come back and continually paint for us. We've watched them grow and they've built that trust in us as well.
Is there anything that you'd particularly like to say to people about seeing this exhibition?
You are looking at excellent works by major painting figures in Australian art right now. These are confident women, they're experienced and they're accomplished. I think that shows hands down in their artwork. These are women who know colour. They know design but most of all they know their stories, and they are brave. They paint with the strength of knowledge and with beautiful visual lyricism. I'm standing here now just looking at the canvases in front of me. There is such expression, such movement and such joy, and just this beautiful energy. The myriad lines and dots weave all over the canvas. I think that you can see that these are major artists who enjoy painting. What they love more than anything is to sit down and paint and that is what emanates from the canvas.
Now we'd like to introduce you to several of the accomplished artists whose work will be included in the new Anangu Women Artists exhibition at Japingka Gallery.
The Anangu Artists
Clarise comes from one of the most prominent painting families in the APY Lands, the Baker family. She is the daughter of Teresa Baker, granddaughter of Kay Baker, great-grandaughter of Jimmy Baker. That lineage is important because Jimmy Baker was an elder within the community whose artwork is included in many of the collections of major art institutions around Australia.
In many ways, you can see how Jimmy’s style was a forerunner in the current APY Lands style; which is always an expression of bold colours, looser dotting style, and a big story. Clarise incorporates these elements into her work. It has flowed all the way through those generations to Clarise. She’s now in her late twenties and you can tell she has that fire in her belly. She paints in a similar way to her family in that she uses bolder colours, beautiful rich reds, ochre colours, earthy oxides and sometimes hints of blue or magenta. She's always painting that big story that was handed to her about Marlilu, a Pitjantjatjara ancestral figure. Clarise recalls visiting Marlilu's cave with her mother when she was young and the impression that left on her. As an artist, she is self-critical and reflective about her work. Even though she only paints that one story, every single time it's a different visual articulation of that story.
Meredith also comes from a renown painting family. Her mother is Imitjala Curley, who is a well-established artist in her own right, both as a painter and a weaver. Meredith is an early career artist and she's coached very closely by her oldest sister, Madeline Curley, who is also an accomplished artist. Meredith is coming through the ranks with vigour. Every day she turns up to the studio bright and early. I feel like her art is getting stronger every time she paints. The artists around her recognise that and are very encouraging. She's an emerging artist who paints the Wati Ngintaka Tjukurpa which is a story about a perentie lizard man who steals and hides a grinding stone.
The part of the story that Meredith paints is actually quite cheeky, as the women say. That’s because Ngintaka the lizard man had an echidna wife. Meredith paints the part of the story when they were on their honeymoon. So whenever the ladies say that they have a little bit of a giggle in the studio because it's to do with the Ngintaka man and echidna wife being on their own, living in a cave and eating little chrysalises that grow on gum leaves, a sweet treat we call larb.
Teresa Baker is a strong and knowledgeable woman. She is a very accomplished artist. Her work is shown all over the world and she is highly recognised in Australia as an artist at the top of her game. Her work was recently acquired by Art Bank. Teresa believes that the spirit of Marlilu is within her and each time she paints the story of Marililu, she feels she is the vessel for that story. It is the spirit of Marililu speaking. I think when you look at Teresa's works, you see that there are identifiable landmarks in the story. You can see parts of the story there, but really you see the spirit of Marililu like there is an essence emanating from the canvas. Teresa will tell you that's Marililu speaking through her and that's the power of Teresa’s canvases.
She technically does this kind of tonal work where she uses shading or gradation of colour. She will layer different colours of pink or different colours of blue on top of each other to get the highlights and that shading of colour. She then uses the other end of the stick to scratch it all back, which makes it look similar to the shading you do with pencils. Teresa’s spirit, technical skill and sense of design give her work a special power.
Carolanne is a quiet achiever. She's very driven, but she puts her head down and she gets on with things. She also paints the story of Marililu, and she does it in a very visceral, very painterly way. She loves pushing paint around on a canvas with the brush. It’s a lot like some of those great abstract expressionists. You can just see their love of paint in what they do.
You see these beautiful areas that she's done with the brushwork of these spirals, and then those beautiful long kind of ribbons coming out from it. That's indicative of Marililu digging the cave that she lived in; etching into the earth with her digging stick. You see it just as Marililu would have carved those marks into the earth with gusto. Carolanne also has an innate sense of colour and isn’t afraid to experiment. She loves what she does and she's focused, quiet and a beautiful person - I think that comes through in her artwork.
Madeline paints the Seven Sisters story, which is a big story that traverses a very large section of the desert country and even further north. When she paints, Madeleine looks to achieve a sense of movement and depth. You get the idea of the sisters traversing the country before they turned themselves into the stars in the sky. What you can see in Madeline's work is the idea of the sisters on the earth walking, trying to get away from the bad man, Niryu. Simultaneously, her artworks have a sense of the Milky Way. They have a sense of the cosmos and this is when the sisters have turned themselves into stars. Madeline aims for depth, a sense of movement and ethereal-ness. Madeleine is very driven in her approach to work. She's very headstrong and shows a lot of autonomy. Before she sits down, she knows exactly what she wants to do. She just sits down, gets painting and then she's unstoppable!
Alison Munti Riley
Alison is a very creative artist. She is constantly pushing her style. She paints about four stories and she's constantly looking for new ways to express them. She's also very conscious of what other artists are doing, and not just artists from the APY Lands. She’s also interested in artists from Utopia or other communities. She's looking at techniques, colour and ideas. She is constantly fascinated by other people's art and by the process of art-making. The other day, she told me she studied to be a translator in Adelaide. She was almost at the end of her course when she said her arm just pulled her back to painting. I really liked that expression. The art was so important to her heart, her body and her spirit that she knew what she had to do.
Even though she's a very accomplished painter and an award-winning artist, she is always seeking to push herself further through her aesthetic and through her techniques. As a person, she's a laugh a minute. She's a big character. I think that comes across in her painting and her use of bold colour and big story. If you sit with Alison as she paints, she loves telling stories and she'll talk about things in her past. She's always looking out for situational comedy. She loves to see the funny side of life. She's an absolute spark, both in her artwork and in her personality.
Woods Family - Venita, Elaine, Julie, and Janice
This is a big painting family. They often sit together and paint and talk. They really enjoy working together and they are a very close, strong family unit. I think Julie and Venita have an extraordinary sense of colour. I think it’s within them, it's just innate. Janice sometimes uses unexpected colour combinations and I notice myself wondering, how is this going to work out in the end? Then Janice just pulls it all together through some magic. It's something in her composition that makes all the colours work together. They are a fascinating and talented group that keep each other close so they can bounce off each other creatively.
Imitjala is the mother of Meredith and Madeline. She is a woman who knows her own mind. When she paints, she's almost like the action painter, Jackson Pollock. Imagine an old lady standing up beside her canvas. Then she leans across the canvas with a brush and her whole body is making those sweeping circular motions; back and forth, back and forth. Once she’s sorted out that big framework she’ll sit down to layer the detail of the work. She has a love of colour and a love of paint. Her paintings are very haptic.
You almost have to pull the canvas away from her because she would never stop putting the paint down, layer after layer. It's just a beautiful meditative process to watch. She's very focused in a gentle way. It's a very tranquil process. She's a very proud woman. She also likes to have a giggle while she's painting. She's often talking to herself in language while she's working and laughing out loud. She's just a joy to watch because she’s so lyrical as she applies layers of sweeping colour.