By: David Wroth, Japingka Gallery, 2015
Michelle Possum Nungurrayi is the younger daughter of Emily Nakamarra Possum and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. Clifford is celebrated as being one of the founding artists of the contemporary indigenous art movement. Michelle was born in Papunya Tula in 1970. Her family moved to Yuelamu, near Mount Allen shortly after. Michelle later married Heath Ramzan Tjangala, and had six children. These days she lives in Melbourne where she enjoys painting in her own studio and a variety of galleries and friends’ art spaces.
Greg Hindson has worked with the Possum family for twenty years. He is a manager and an art technician who helps prepare the materials and assists with the business side of things. In this interview he describes his friend, artist Michelle Possum.
How long have you known Michelle?
I’ve been working with Michelle since 1991 which was also the United Nations Year of Indigenous People. I saw an interview with the Treasurer of Australia, Paul Keating. He said, “We’ve got to engender the export mentality in every citizen of Australia. I thought to myself, “what can I export?” I considered Aboriginal art and realised that it was very clearly something unique. I had some connections so I started from there. I’ve been working with Gabrielle and Michelle for twenty years.
What have you learnt about Michelle in those twenty years?
Well for one thing she’s got a heart of gold. She’s very religious. Basically her brother, Lionel, encouraged her to explore Christianity and that is a big focus for her. Her level of involvement fluctuates but she maintains her faith as a Lutheran, Christian. She’s a dedicated artist. She’s well in demand. Her paintings speak for themselves.
How would you describe her art to somebody who hasn’t seen it?
I have run out of superlatives to describe her art. It’s a unique style yet also reminiscent of her famous father, Clifford. She has taken her lead from him. She’s just a great authentic artist in her own right with many unique ideas. She’s always coming up with new ideas. She’s got a huge array of dreamings. More than the other indigenous artists I’ve worked with.
Where does Michelle live most of the time?
Michelle has a place in the Dandenongs in Victoria. Having said that, she is very nomadic. She likes to move around a bit. She will move from house to house, depending on where the work is. She stays with family and friends and follows the work – staying close to a whichever gallery or studio she may be working with.
What is Michelle’s family’s home country?
That’s Anmatyerre country. A place called Mount Allan, which is not far from Papunya Tula. She was born in Papunya Tula and they soon moved to this place called Mount Allan, which is called Yuelamu. This is in between Papunya Tula and Yuendumu. It is about 250 km north west of Alice Springs.
Does Michelle talk much about the Papunya days?
No not so much. Maybe a little bit. Basically she doesn’t talk to white folks about it because generally they don’t really understand. She does love talking about her home country. They’ve got lots of land there. They’ve been granted land rights. The thing is that there’s nothing much there for them, so her people tend to move to the cities like Alice Springs, Adelaide, Darwin and Melbourne. There are more opportunities in the larger centres.
What does Michelle’s art mean to her? How does she talk about her art?
She doesn’t really talk about it that much. I find that indigenous artists can be extremely shy about themselves and their art. They don’t like to divulge too much about it. They have their secret, sacred stories. We sort of get the outside story. That is certainly how it is with Michelle.
How do you describe your role?
I’m an art technician. I prep up all the canvases. I prepare their colours. I give a little bit of direction on what I think a particular client might want in terms of sizing. I do a bit of negotiation on their behalf. They pretty much do their own thing. You’ve got to really have the whole thing going if you want to work with the Possums, that’s for sure.
They are very successful.
Very successful, here locally and internationally.
As you’ve been observing Michelle’s career over the last twenty years, what are the highlights for you?
Well you know, basically the highlight for me is that she keeps getting better, stronger, more vibrant. She comes up with new ideas. She’s always coming up with great new styles and you can see her style perpetually evolving. Her work is exciting for that reason.
How would you describe Michelle’s work routine?
She gets up pretty early in the morning and she works really hard until all hours of the night. She’s a very extremely hard worker.
Does Michelle work on her own or with a group?
Sometimes she works at home. Sometimes she works with a group in a space that a gallery or dealer might supply. She likes working in galleries, studios, people’s homes, her house. She likes to mix it up. She’d get very bored, very quickly with the same old environment.
Does she like to paint in quiet or does she talk or listen to music?
She likes it quiet usually. Having said that, you sometimes find that she likes talking and listening to music. For her, here’s no set way of doing things. She likes change.
What’s Michelle’s family’s language?
Luritja. Michelle is 100% fluent. She has a little trouble with English though, that’s for sure. English is a second language and she struggles speaking it very clearly. She speaks a pigeon English. She can understand English though, there is no problem there.
I understand her pigeon English more than most people. This is especially true if I understand the subject she’s talking about. You have to listen really hard and you really have to know the context of what is being spoken about.
What does Michelle say that she wants to do with her art?
She doesn’t really say much. She’s the quiet achiever. She just works away. She’s got no great ambitions. She just gets on with it. She doesn’t really talk about her career and all that because she doesn’t really have to. She’s already made a big name in the art world and she’s not big headed about it in any way. She’s very humble and she just gets on with it.
She knows her art. She’s received a lot of recognition. She’s got a lot of exhibitions under her belt, but she never talks about it. What she really loves talking about is food. Our conversations day to day are mostly about food. What we’re having for lunch. What we’re having for dinner. What else can we get, something better, something different? She’s a foodie at heart. She loves her food.
You once got into big trouble from Michelle’s Dad for flirting with her?
We do go way back a long, long time. One day when she was quite young we were at a barbecue and her Dad, Clifford Possum was there. I was talking with Michelle a little bit too long and a little bit too close for the old man. He came up and told me I was a very bad white man, in no uncertain terms. He didn’t want me to be talking to Michelle anymore. The old man growled, “very bad, very bad.” I got a serious reprimand from him, which was pretty endearing, even though I was on the wrong end of the stick there.
Most of the time I got on very well with Clifford. I drove him around and helped him out as well. I did a bit of work with him and he was a real character. Michelle and Gabrielle are huge characters, just like him. They’ve both got a great sense of humour. Michelle especially. She’s loves having a laugh.
Do Michelle and Gabrielle see each other a lot.
They are extremely close. They share everything with each other. Well having said that, when it comes to their colours, there can be some conflict. Gabrielle gets annoyed when Michelle uses her colours. This can happen if Michelle goes to a particular gallery or studio to work and Gabrielle has already spent the time mixing up her colours. Then things get a little tense, but that is a sister thing too.
What are the exhibitions like for Michelle?
Michelle loves going to openings of exhibitions and she does very well there. She tries to speak to as many people as she can. She’s very friendly and makes a real effort to socialise on opening nights. She really does come into her own when she’s talking to people who are interested in her art.
She likes interacting with these people and she enjoys getting positive feedback from them. I think this is especially true when her family are there. That’s one thing that she really does enjoy, having her family at the opening of her exhibitions.