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Midawarr (Harvest) artist talk with John Wolseley

Artist John Wolseley, 13 February 2018

JOHN WOLSELEY: [In a jokingly spooky voice] Hello! Can you hear me? Isn’t that mysterious…? It’s ’cause I’ve got this thing in my ear, like Jim Bowie, what was he called? You remember the singer, he had one of these.

How exciting! What a distinguished-looking audience, isn’t it? Handsome. I’m going to start by being incredibly pompous. Will you allow me to be very pompous? I’m going to start by showing you my five most favourite paintings in the whole world, my favourite paintings and also perhaps five of the greatest paintings of the world. Now the reason for this is, they are all embodiments or revelations of great myths. So they’re mythic paintings. And they’re the great myths of the human condition. And I’m going to actually write this very strange – read just a little bit of this, then I promise not to be reading anymore. But when you are my age, it’s quite good to have something to refer to.

Sometimes, they are creations or origins myths, as are the great Yolgnu paintings that I am going to show you some of. And I’m showing you these paintings because I want to tell you that Mulkun’s works and my ones are about the same things. And I’m going to have a go at persuading you that they’re almost as good. [Audience laughs] I’m going backwards again. It is a bit of a thing, I was telling you I was going to be pompous. And so what I’m going to do is, I’m going to show you first of all this amazing painting. You’ll all know this painting, won’t you – Titian’s The Death of Actaeon. Actaeon surprised the goddess Diana, who is nature, bathing naked in the woods. She transformed him into a stag. He was then attacked and killed by his own hounds.

[Points to slide] So Diana is the goddess of nature – oh no, that’s the next one. Now she represents the natural world. And so what is the point – there’s so many different ideas, aren’t there? About what this painting is about, but one of the main things was is that one should approach nature with reverence, respect and caution. And it is dangerous to disturb, or damage, or hurt the natural forces, which we don’t understand. In fact, it’s the absolute opposite of how we are behaving now. We have dug up, ripped up the earth, cut down the forests, and are now so changing the earth’s climate that we are on a fast course to extinction. I like to do a bit of – I hate this thing of standing and talking to an audience, it is something awfully kind of school master-y – but it isn’t. So I want you to think that you’ve got a sort of idiot here.

And so Turner, God! Oh my God! Turner isn’t that – I imagine many of you have seen his amazing paintings. Now these are paintings of the great myth to do with light and the sun. Ra, the sun God, as the Egyptians. His dying words were supposed to be, ‘God is light’ – no, his dying words were, ‘The Sun is God’.

Now we’re going to get on to my absolute favourite painting. I will get onto the subject of this talk soon, in about an hour’s time. This is another, all about the same sort of thing. This is my fourth-favourite painting. And we got now to this wonderful painting by Caspar David Friedrich. And this one I put up as being the most astonishing painting. Well, in fact I tell you what, the light is rather high. Can we lower the lights a little bit? It’s really not showing its – You’ve got a sense then, didn’t you? As the sun’s coming out through those mystic clouds. This is, I think, one of the great ecological paintings. It’s talking about how the earth is one single, self-organising whole, and that the rain comes, the cloud comes, and then the mists rise in the mornings. And the trees put out their coprophile, and all the different things, which Lovelock talks about in his wonderful book called Gaia, or there’s Gaia in the title. So Gaia is our great myth now, ’cause those of you, you’ll understand probably what I’m talking about, and that is that the way we treat nature, and how we look at nature, is the great mythic problem of our time, because we are in process of demolishing it.

I can now start the talk. Oh, no, I’ve got – When I was a little boy, in Somerset, in England, my father was an artist. And in his bedroom he has a copy of this, Botticelli’s Primavera. And it was the first painting I ever saw. I actually think that it’s the reason why I actually started seeing the point about being an artist. And the weirdest thing happened – about three years ago – is, I realised that this great big painting, which you are going to see next door, I was unconsciously trying to do the same, something, recreated in some strange way. I told you I was going to be pompous. And the painting you will see through there is a frieze, a great frieze of plants. And then you pierce through, to the landscape beyond. And then in the front, there’s all manner of different figures who are, in my case, all the plants; and in this case they are one, Flora being a plant, or covered with all manner of plants. And then there’s the different mythic dances going on. And you see on the right, goddess Flora in the arms of Zephyrus, the West Wind there, do you see?

She is the goddess of flower and plants, especially of those that bear fruit. And her son, Karpos, is the god of fruit. One of the sources of the imagery in the painting, is a description by the Roman poet Ovid of Flora’s garden in which the Three Graces are weaving flowers to entwine the hair of the gods.

Now here is a picture of MulkunMulkun’s hands. And what she’s doing is, she’s got some bush, beach hibiscus, which is the central bit there. I wonder if I could use my little pointer? I love this, ’cause you can wake up people. I don’t know it is going to want to do it. Did you do it? Oh! I’m doing it the wrong way round. Yes. So there is the beach hibiscus, and round here is a darwirr, which is an amazing climbing plant, which we will go and talk about soon. And now is the time for me to explain how all this happened.

As Andy said, about six or seven years ago the Nomad Art Gallery, Angus and Rose Cameron, asked four artists, or four artists not from Arnhem Land, to come up. Three of us were balanda or white ones, and then one of them wasn’t. And then we joined with four of the Yolngu artists. And we arrived at Blue Mud Bay, and were greeted by Djambawa Marawili, who’s one of the great artists, and Will Stubbs hosted us at the Yirrkala Art Centre. Some of you who’ve been there, it’s the most wonderful art centre in the whole world. And for ten days, we walked around this great floodplain, Blue Mud Bay is on this amazing floodplain. And in fact this – wait, here we are, is on this floodplain, and I should explain that this floodplain is the most mythic, like a lot of huge floodplains, is the most mythic and fabled area you have ever come across. That is, mythic because the great artists who live all around it, and the great elders, their culture is incredibly strong. And they’re again, and again, and again they come into the centre with these huge poles, or these huge paintings, which are mythos-poetic paintings, all about the creation of that vast floodplain.

During that time, we all the way up to some of the headwaters, and what was so wonderful was, because Fiona Hall, one the artist, and she, as you know, is passionate about plants. And Jörg Schmeisser was so wonderful. And we’re told each day about all the great stories and looked for all the plants. And sometimes we moved further up into the more monsoon rain forest, and other times we were back in the centre, painting away. And looking at all this water makes me want to drink some. So here I am with Mulkun, and on the last day she said to me would I be her wawa or brother, which the most wonderful thing, because I’ve been following her around. And she’d already started doing these amazing paintings of plants. And so for the next five years, I’d trodden along these – we had one exhibition, which was called Two old people looking for food. Marrma dilakmala larruma gurra nathawu in language, and she is a great elder but also a great ceremonial leader. She’s one of the – I’ve been to some funerals and things with her, and she is telling all the young people what to do. And trying to make them remember all the songs and the dances. And she’d just go, [mimics Mulkun yelling], the most frightening woman you’ve ever been with but at the same time also, you see, very charming.

So over that five years, I painted versions of the paintings. And she did, every second day, some new and amazing plants. And one of the things we did, I got her a lot of Huon pine slabs from Queenstown, Tasmanian something woods, where you can get these vast slabs of Huon pine. And I shined them, sanded them down, and then I burned out the summer wood with a blow torch, so that it got lots of grain, and then I sent quite a few up to Mulkun. And because she is just such an incredible artist, and engraving is part of the traditional art making processes, Will Stubbs said that they had to keep the slabs away from her at one stage. And when they gave it her, she immediately did this one thing about rakay. Now rakay is the thing you have, I suppose quite a few of you, I can see quite a few of you pretty expert cooks. Now they are the water chestnuts you get in the tin. There, when you look at the book, you read Merrkiyawuy [Ganambarr-Stubbs]’s wonderful description of how they smell the air. When the floodplains have got all these vast fields of rakay, or water chestnuts, there is a particular smell, which reminds me – you do know don’t you, there is this wonderful book, which, a lot of the nonsense I’m telling you will be better in the book.

[Points to slide] And so here’s a typical example. Here’s me, doing my version of rakay. And here she is collecting bulwutja, we might come across bulwutja. That is another beautiful – we’re talking about such rich foods, but also such beautiful, fascinating tropical plants. And as I promised to be pompous, I have to point out to you, this piddly little plant there. [Points to slide] That is an Eriocaulon and its closest relative it’s just been named Eriocaulon wolseleyi. [Laughter and applause]

[Points to slide] Now there she is. Collecting things with her was always such a complete delight, the way she field down into the thing, then find all these things. And then here we are, Gangan, Dhuruputji, with a group where we’re finding – or here’s Yinimala who is another great artist who lives at Gangan. And he’s collecting lily for me, but now wait a minute, I’m going too fast. Yes, so there we are. Now this is where I have to tell you that Mulkun has said, she came and she said to several people, she said, ‘I’m going to paint lots of these plants, and one of the reasons I’m going to paint them, is it my people are dying because they’re eating all the wrong food,’ and she’s passionate about it. And she says, often she says, ‘Look how healthy I am,’ – she’s 71 – and then, ‘Look how the younger people aren’t’. As you know, quite a lot of Aboriginal communities are – junk food is all they eat. I mean, when I was up there one time, I realised that for five nights I’d had triple-warmed-up plastic chicken. And then I suddenly thought, ‘You’re an idiot’.

And I went down to Mulkun, and I said, ‘Look, look, I’ve got to have something tonight’. So off we went, and we collected a fantastic meal. Now, there he is. Now here we are. And an example of her version of the plant, and this would be ganguri or manmunga, which is the most delicious yam. And here’s my version of it. There is some that I collected, so – I had a marvellous time collecting all the different plants. And here I’m going to show you a particular plant, called buwakul – Andy is now an expert on all these names, aren’t you? When you started you didn’t know quite so many of them. But buwakul is the most wonderful plant, which has these beautiful tendrils, which start to climb up under the bark, and then round and round and round. And I’m showing you this as an example of what an astonishing artist Mulkun is, and that these are all the same plant, but different versions of them, from different perspectives, and different times of year.

And what’s so fascinating is, in fact I’ll show you mine, to show you what a whitefella does when he’s confronted with plants which are not his culture. See if can do my pointing thing. No, I won’t. So there we are, it’s got this wonderful kind of tuberous things in the ground. And there here we have, it gets under the bark, and it swells out into these delicious little tubers. And it goes up, and then it goes under some bark, then it goes up and then it starts to flower. This is my, one of my ways of looking at it, which in some way is a quite Western one isn’t it? It’s full frontal, I’m showing it as it goes up and up and up. And what does she do? She is trying to get the inner nature, the inner essence of the way that the plant moves, and has its being.

You know, William Blake said, ‘Energy is eternal delight’. That ties in with this whole idea of mythic things. All these plants, for her, figure in her sense of the universe, and she’s able to sing songs. She’d be drawing a plant, and then she’d be singing something. And if you get the book, you’ll see some of the things that she sang. And so this plant, one of the things it does, has a circular movement. So in a way, is almost essentially a kind of curling, circular kind of movement thing. I actually showed this to Leunig, the cartoonist. Because he was saying – you know the way he has Mr Curly – well we were saying that isn’t that extraordinary that she can do this abstract version of it. And then another time, she did, you see in there is an amazing woodcut too. And here, oh no, I’ve got to be careful about the time, though. My clock stopped for the first time in 20 years. What’s the time now? And when am I meant to shut up?



ANDY GREENSLADE: 25 minutes.

JOHN WOLSELEY: But I’ve already been talking a long time.

ANDY GREENSLADE: There’ll be time for questions, so that gives you 15 minutes. No more.

JOHN WOLSELEY: And so, this one, she explained to me, and I don’t understand some of many of her different, incredible visions. This has something to do with the plant, painting the plant as you dig down, and as you look up. And you’ll see that sort of concept, so there’s me doing that. [Points to slides] And here’s another version of me doing my version. And here we have another gorgeous plant, which is – I did a very big woodcut on, and then in the show, you’ll see quite a lot of those, my painting – is where, there’s woodcuts, which I’ve then done rubbings from, or printed from. And here’s dhanuniya, because you’re such a civilised audience, I won’t show you my painting of it, I will just tell you that its scientific name is Amorphophallus, Amorphophallus paeoniifolius. But I could give you a whole lecture about this amazing thing, which is that sort of size.

And so do you remember we were talking about darwirr. Now this is this thing, with its curly little – it climbs, there’s so many climbers. And it climbs up like a monkey. And here’s another way in which, in one painting she has got different systems of describing it. And so the funny thing is that that plant, you’ve just seen. This is me, my version of it. And here is a wonderful painting of a Capparis, a native orange. [Points to slide] And here we are at Gangan, and we found a rare, an extraordinary, delicious bush potato. And so, here is the old fellow, a bit later on from when we’ve been talking, joining out all my different bits and pieces. [Points to slide] That, ‘Save water, drink wine’, was given me by a chap called Bails [Baillieu] Myer, and I’m advertising his wine. I don’t know why I said that.

And so here is these great big slabs of woodcut, which I pasted on, using different kinds of Japanese paper. And in the book, there’s quite a bit of description, this is part of my painting halfway through. And so, what you see here, is me using lots of different systems like, which are collaged, which all are about Gaia as an overarching myth. And so I had tremendous fun doing my own – oh there’s Amorphophallus. I had tremendous fun using different systems of drawing from the Western perspective. I’m passionate about the herbals of Gerard, and Turner’s herbal. Those early herbals had the best pictures of plants, which had that kind of vigour that Mulkun has. And then in the Victorian times, plant things nearly always were, ‘Don’t even see the roots’. They were just this pretty thing cut off from its background.

[Points to slide, humming] And so here we have the painting, which you’re going to get going and see, or you’ve already seen, the great big long thing. And I think a good thing here is, as I’ve only got seven-and-three-quarter minutes, is to –

ANDY GREENSLADE: Five minutes.

JOHN WOLSELEY: See this what curators are like. She’s absolutely, you know we artists, we’re just… [inaudible]. Whips, and just a few carrots, but mostly whips. [Reading] ‘In June 2009 I was standing with a group of artists on the edge of the great floodplain of Garanarri. We were looking through a jungly frieze of rainforest trees hung with trailing vines and all manner of climbing plants. In the hazy distance we could see where the monsoon rains had left pools and flood debris. Further away were the dim ovals of middens and the dark voluminous shapes of the sacred banyan trees. Further upstream were the lands of the Madarrpa clan where the ancestor Barama had emerged and distributed the law.’ And in the book I go on a bit more, and say how the great artist’s like, Mulkun Wirrpanda and Nongirrna Marawili. If you haven’t seen any of her paintings, you haven’t lived. That’s sort of an advertisement, certainly. And Gunybi Ganambarr. Oh my God! And you’re right.

‘It was Djambawa who had brought us here to the edge of the floodplain, and who now recounted some of these stories. He told us how in the dawn of creation a number of ancestor women had come from the coast and were moving up the floodplain. Where they dug for edible roots there had burst forth springs of fresh water which are still running. As Djambawa was singing this story he told how, as the first sun rose up over the dark earth, these ancestor figures turned into cranes, and flew slowly and majestically towards the sea. In this painting I have sought to describe that moment in time. I have drawn onto the long scroll of paper the brolgas as they flew down the floodplain behind the screen of trees and vines, trailing down from the branches and the foliage of various trees.’ And I go on about the Flagellaria and bushman honour and up into this living screen, where various species of plants with edible fruits, and tubers. This rich and luxurious frieze of vegetation, invited me to employ one of the great modes or system, used by Chinese painters down the years. What is called a shifting perspective, in which – and like in so much Western art – the artist is not restricted to one focal point. The eye is drawn to mobile points of focus, some close by, some in the distance. The paintings replicate the way one sees things, as one goes for a walk in the garden, or along the river. So I’ll finish this by saying I’ve tried to find a way in which the painter from another culture could make a work about a site, this great river plain, of great power and sacred importance. And do so with reticence and reverence. I painted the land at one remove, as seen through a veil. I hope that the viewer of the work can share this experience, as he or she looks through this screen of jungle trees, to that ominous world beyond. A world of sacred Banyan trees, ancient middens, fresh springs and brolga cranes, forever flying towards the sea.

And so that is my moment to say, ‘Would you like to come along and see it in the flesh?’

ANDY GREENSLADE: We have a few minutes of questions and answers.


ANDY GREENSLADE: John, that was wonderful, thank you very much. And we have a few minutes for questions, if anybody would like to ask John anything, before we go to enter the exhibition? Okay. At the left there, thank you.

QUESTION: Any crocodiles?

JOHN WOLSELEY: Yes. I persuaded a crocodile to walk over one of my drawings, and in fact, it’s just as well I’ve got this up. ’Cause a lot of the time when I’ve been up there, I live in my camper truck, my candy camper. And so once I was up in my bedroom up there, and I was sort of peering out. And there was a crocodile, sort of went across, and then the next night I left a big sheet of paper, and went to sleep, didn’t hear anything, got out and then of my God! There was a big [makes a sploshing sound] across the paper. And I’m planning to sell it in one of my next shows.

ANDY GREENSLADE: And if you’re very clever, and you spot well, you’ll see some pencil work with crocodiles in the big skull.

JOHN WOLSELEY: Oh yes, spot the crocodile.

ANDY GREENSLADE: Yes, spot the crocodiles. And I’ll also just tell you a very brief story about those cranes. When we approached the finish time for this work, it was a little bit of hesitation in John’s voice when we were talking on the phone. And well, we might give you another couple of weeks or so, and eventually the date moved along. But then, I received that lovely photo with the apron. This is the finished work, and I had a pretty good look at it, but the work that arrived, actually had a few little extra bits that popped in there. So, lady in the pink.

QUESTION: I’ve just wondered how interested younger people are in firstly the plants, and the use of them? And secondly in the art?

JOHN WOLSELEY: Yeah, that’s a very crucial question. Up there, at Yirrkala, when Mulkun started doing this, quite a few of the younger artists started going out, and then some of the other Yolgnu community did start going out and collecting. In fact, there was quite a kind of rush, on the supermarket. How did this all go on? I don’t know. We are going to distribute, and have that book up there, in various communities. And I think that the fascinating this is that it may be like in other communities, there were sort of five or six [inaudible] met, sort of younger ones, who really now are going out and doing it. But how far that relates to all the other communities? One just doesn’t know partly because there aren’t books to tell them what to get except, and this is a great point here, is there is a wonderful one, that’s called Glen Whiteman, who has done about ten books of the plants in the different areas. And that’s paid for by your taxes, and I think that that’s going to help a tremendous amount. But over so much of Australia, the knowledge has been lost. And in fact, one of the most exciting things about the book, was that this is passing on the knowledge, for not just this generation, but this, this and this. Yes.

ANDY GREENSLADE: You’ll see I’m modelling a book here. Part of the deal with our partners, was that it would not be a catalogue as such, but a standalone book, because the botanical information in here, is relevant for the generations. So the large supply of these will be in the community, for community youths, and youths in the schools around Arnhem Land. So there was a question in the back row there.

QUESTION: I hope this doesn’t add to pomposity too much, but with a background in botany and interested in the arts for a long many decades, and likely visiting that country for 30 or 40 years, I really think – I’d like to congratulate you because I think you and Mulkun had done something quite extraordinary. In my view, this is the most important exhibition this Museum has ever put on. And I guess I have a two-part question. And I hope either you, or a person from the Museum can answer. A) Is there any possibility of extending it? And b) is there any possibility of the Museum acquiring it permanently and perhaps exhibiting it? If not extension now, but some other time?

JOHN WOLSELEY: Oh the jolly good answer to that is that is has acquired it all. Yes. So they bought my painting, and some absolutely wonderful – what were they called? Bought 120 barks and presented them to the Museum.

ANDY GREENSLADE: Yes, I mentioned that at the beginning that the collection of Mulkun’s works, the barks, the ceremonial poles, those were a donation to the Museum, under the Cultural Gifts scheme. And we’ve added to that by purchasing some of the wood blocks, and some of the prints that you see on display are actually owned by John, but he has promised those to us. So that everything in the exhibition that you see, including the little hairbrush and the bits of ochre. Everything will be part of the Museum’s collections, so the second part of your question was, can the time be extended? And unfortunately not, because our programs are booked years ahead. So there’s another exhibition coming into that space but we do intend to tour the exhibition. And when we were working together, we haven’t used all the things that Mulkun produced. But everything that’s on display is touring size. So that exhibition will start in August this year, in the Darwin Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory. We do have a booking at Melbourne Museum, and there will be many more, so we are expecting this to tour quite extensively.

JOHN WOLSELEY: Yeah, in fact, the director, our senior director, I bumped into him just now, and he’s just come from China. And said that it’s quite possible they could be interested.

ANDY GREENSLADE: That’s right.

JOHN WOLSELEY: That was the most exciting piece of news. I just want to mention the name of the wonderful benefactors who did donate all these works. It’s Wayne and Vicki McGeoch, and that was just such a farseeing and wonderful gesture on their part.

ANDY GREENSLADE: Indeed, they are very important donors to the Museum. I think we probably should make a move to the gallery. Oh no, we’ve got time for one more question. Any more questions? Sorry I missed you. Oh, I didn’t miss you. At the front. Thank you!

QUESTION: I would like to ask you: on your mural, there is a space sort of towards the middle, towards the top that’s just the drawings with the pencils. And no paint. And it’s great to have it, ’cause it points out more what the drawing was underneath. But did you do that on purpose, just to leave without any paint?

JOHN WOLSELEY: Yes, yes. And this is a tip to all of you, as there’s some famous watercolourists in the audience. I think it’s absolutely amazing, how if you have an area of graphite, pencil drawing – ’cause pencil drawing, down the years, has been just sort of a superb way of drawing things isn’t it? And then you have – but in some ways, it’s more kind of head stuff, left-hand side or whatever it is, the more rational side, it can be more anally retentive. You know, a lot of our pencil friends – Next door of that very often, I thought, ‘Enough of the magisterial gaze of the artist being, thinking that they’re so important’; I actually allowed the plants, enabled the plants to do a lot of the drawing. And so that I get huge, you see it in the book huge swags of plant, which I pull of the frieze of trees and then I’ve got seven secret ways of inking the plants up. And then, putting them on the paper and there’s a very special ingredient, which I won’t tell I about. And then overnight I put my solar screens from my camper truck on top of that, and in the morning, you see, lot of these things are painted by buwakul, or yeah. I don’t know whether that answered your question quite.

ANDY GREENSLADE: I think you’ll be able to see more about John’s techniques, if you go to our website, to the exhibition page, there’s a link to the film that we have in the exhibition. There’s a little bit of that in there, but also if you google ‘Creative Cowboy John Wolseley’, Creative Cowboy’s not John Wolseley, it’s the film company. And they have made a very lovely film about John and his work, so you’ll be able to explore through that, some of his techniques. But I think we should make a move, but before we do go, a couple of housekeeping things.

The exhibition space has a limit, and our audience today exceeds that limit. So we’re encouraging you to go to the bookshop half of you, and purchase a book while the other half comes in and talks with John in the space. And then in about 20 minutes swap. So play it by ear, will you please? And again, thank you very much John for a very entertaining talk. Thank you! Lead on.

Date published: 16 May 2018