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Australian Aboriginal Artists Profiled


Maria Garcia, Windspeaker Contributor, SYDNEY, Australia







Page 20

Ada Bird Petyarre

Ada Bird, who is in her late sixties, is a prominent Aboriginal artist and an Anmatyerre speaker. She is one of the artists who established the Utopia Women's Batik Group in 1978. The first of the major women's co-operatives, Utopia - still Ada Bird's home - remains an influential centre for female Aboriginal artists.

Ada Bird's dreamings include Awelye or women's Ddesigns, Angertla or mountain devil lizard (a strong and protective being), Bean, Emu (a flightless bird), Pencil Yam, Grass Seeds and Small Brown Grass.

Ada Bird's work is featured in several books on Aboriginal art, and her batiks, as well as her paintings, are held in major collections all over the world.

The Anmatyerre, who regained their ancestral lands (north of Alice Springs) in the late 1970s, prefer to live in small outstations close to their Dreamtime ancestors. Ada Bird is a senior artist known for her bold body-paint designs as well as her exquisite dot paintings. Sometimes, the lines and dots are incorporated into one painting as they are in her work "Body Paint Dreaming." In ritual art, dots are used for outlining, but artists working in acrylic began using them in creative ways to represent features of the landscape and for visual effect. Dots are applied to the canvas with a dowel or a flat stick, although some artists use brushes.

In the picture of a smiling Ada Bird, dots outline the broad, brush strokes of a body paint design she's holding, illustrating the traditional use of dots. Look at "Body Paint Dreaming" and you see what may be a view from above as well as from within the earth. The shimmering quality of the painting has a hypnotic effect, and it resonates with the mysterious power of the Dreamtime ancestor.

Maureen, who is Warlpiri and Anmatyerre, was born in Mount Allan, near Yuendumu in central Australia. She lives in a suburb of Adelaide, and returns to her community for special ceremonies and to visit family and friends.

"I believe strongly in my culture and traditions," said Maureen, whose Dreamings include women's ceremony and women's Dreamings from her mother's side and Emu and Fire from her father's side. She also paints Possum - an ancestor who created waterholes - Bush Onion, Honey Ant, Bush Potato, Lightening, Water and Flying Ant, a significant Warlpiri Dreaming.

Flying ants (termites) provide food and nesting sites for goannas (lizards). Djon Mundine describes this dreaming as illustrating "the richness of the land." In Flying Ant Dreaming, Maureen depicts the running water in which the flying ant takes the form of larvae. Think of the painting as an illustration of the journey of the ancestor from this embryonic stage. The passage of time is indicated by the path. The footsteps may be the point at which the Dreamtime ancestor took the form of a woman.

Maureen, who at 39 is a distinguished Aboriginal artist, speaks English as well as two Aboriginal languages, Warlpiri and Arrente. When asked what she hopes to accomplish through her work, Maureen said, "I would like people to appreciate Aboriginal culture, and hopefully encourage non-Aboriginals to respect the differences between their culture and ours."

Explaining Women's Dreaming, Maureen tells this story:

"This is a traveling story of a woman who was in search of a new camp in which to live. This woman traveled a very long way and walked along the salt pans which border the dry river bed. In her travels she encountered many groups of women in search of bush tucker (food) and water."

We must bear in mind that this is a "public story," and represents only part of the woman's journey. It is about the women's business of food gathering, but also the extraordinary implications of that search. Maureen's story illustrates the knowledge women have of the land, and the effect of their journeys across it, in seeking new life and in renewing the earth.

Elizabeth Thorn Djandilga

Elizabeth, a Dhuwalamirri speaker, was born in Galiwinku or ElchoIsland in north-east Arnhem Land. Nearer to the equator than the southern regions of Australia, Galiwinku's heat discouraged white settlement, although Christian missions were established in the area. The traditional life of the Aboriginal groups remained intact despite the fact that many Aborigines received western education at the mission schools. Classes are bilingual and, like Elizabeth, most of the population speaks an Aboriginal language as well as English. Elizabeth holds a degree in education from the University of Canberra, and she's taught in primary schools. Married in 1973 to Jeremy Thorn, a local art advisor, Elizabeth, 45, is also the mother of three children.

Elizabeth did not begin painting until she was 35 when she had the right to hold knowledge and represent the stories of her group, the Gupapuyngu. Gupapuyngu means "people of the long neck." Her Dreamings include Goanna (lizard), Billabong (waterhole) and the long- necked tortoise or Minhala.

Mundine explained the story of the Minhala refers to the cycle of life, death and rebirth.

"The souls of unborn people live in the waterhole, and the tortoise goes from waterhole to waterhole until the water in the last waterhole is dried up. Then it buries itself in the mud in order to survive. Those born in the waterhole also return there after they die."

In re-enacting this Dreaming, Aborigines generally dance the tortoise last and then obliterate the design.

In Elizabeth's painting "Tortoise," notice the cross-hatching or what's called dhulang and miny'tji in the eastern part of Arnhem Land and rarrk in the western areas of this region. These designs are clan marks indigenous to Arnhem Land and they refer to stories about the ancestors. The designs also add that special shimmering quality which evokes the presence of the ancestor. In "Goannas and Billabong," Elizabeth employs a dotting technique for her beautifully colored Goannas; inherited from her mother's Dreamings, Goannas are ancestors associatedwith water and rain.

Jingalu is a young urban artist and art teacher, as well as the mother of a four-year-old girl. She traces her Aboriginal heritage to the Bunjulung and Yeagle tribes in New South Wales. As an urban artist, Jingalu does not have specific Dreamings.

"I paint stories from my life experiences, from the Dreamtime in my area, from my family's life experiences," she explains, "and from the overall history of Aboriginal Australia." Jingalu was recently the recipient of an Indigenous Arts Fellowship that she plans to use to write a children's books of Dreamtime stories. She says of her work:

"I feel very peaceful when working, and when a painting is finished, I feel a great strength coming over me."

At first glance, Jingalu's work appears to be a departure from traditional Aboriginal idioms but look more closely and you will see dot painting and the intricate patterns that distinguish more traditional paintings. The intense colors and the sense of movement in Jingalu's work provide that shimmering quality so admired by Aborigines and art critics alike. Asked about the emphasis upon the feminine and great mother figures in her work, Jingalu replied, "I believe each person will receive different meanings from the paintings, and that meaning is right for them."