Mining the desert for art, not history

Untitled by Nyakul Dawson

Some artists and their families had travelled nine hours to get to the exhibition opening, along the seemeingly endless red dust tracks that connect the distant communities of the central Australian desert. From outback towns with names like Blackstone, Borroloola, Wingellina and Fregon, they came to Alice Springs – to take their place next to their art.

Desert Mob, the annual exhibition of works from Aboriginal art centres across Central Australia, opened in a blaze of colour in Alice Springs on Sunday. The show in its fourteenth year, continues to extract treasures from the rich seam of artistic practice that runs through the isolated desert communities of the Red Centre.

Co-ordinated rather than curated, Desert Mob accepts a maximum of 15 pieces from each centre, leaving the editing process in the hands of its producers. The work shown this year comprises nearly 400 pieces, and continues to reflect a diversity of practice and styles ˜ some of it raw and untempered. much of it full of vigour accomplished and arresting.

The visual interpretation of the Tjukurrpa/Dreamtime stories  – the kaleidoscopic diagrams that reinforce and celebrate the artists’ identities and their communities’ timeless spiritual journey creates the rich thread of the Desert Mob show.

Nowhere is it stronger than in the paintings of Irrunytju Arts from Wingellina: organic pattern and singing complex colour radiate from Nyakul Dawson and Patju Presley’s remarkable untitled works, and Tommy Watson’s Wu|pa painting.

The vertical acrylics of the Warlukur-langu artists of Yuendum  are luminescent beacons of the Warlpiri and Anmatyerre culture from which they stem. Shorty Jangala Robertson’s Ngapa Jukurrpa/Water Dreaming and Betsy Napangardi Lewis’s Jintaparnta Jukurrpa/Edible Mushroom Dreaming are bold, enigmatic statements, always inviting the viewer to delve deeper.

The number of male elders who have begun to paint during the past year has increased in several centres. At Minymaku Arte, from the Amata community in South Australia: Paddy Kunmanara’s Paddy’s Story of His Country is a fine example of the bold new work flowing from male artists.

Araluen Gallery’s curator Tim Rollason organises Desert Mob and is keen commentators to “focus more on the art and less on the historical development of the centres, as has been the case in the past”, he says. “It’s important that we raise the critical analysis of the work we’re showing and I feel Desert Mob can be a part of developing new approaches to analysing indigenous art. It’s important for the art and the artists.”

Desert Mob is a distillation of  art produced by Indigenous Australians as vivid, arresting and timeless as the landscapes that conceived it. Those who head to the Red Centre for this show are rewarded with a feast for the eye and soul.

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