Alice Keath and Margo Neale with music by Slava and Leonard Grigoryan, produced by ABC Classic, 2021
ALICE KEATH: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander listeners are advised that the following program contains depictions of people who have died.
Objects and stories from Australian life.
MULTIPLE VOICES: This is us.
LEONARD GRIGORYAN: A large painting.
MARGO NEALE: It’s a Book of Genesis, it’s the Iliad and Odyssey, right. Every civilisation has sagas that tell the story of the creation of the country, of the people and transmit cultural values on how to behave and respect things and care for country.
ALICE KEATH: That’s Margo Neale, Head of the Centre for Indigenous Knowledges at the National Museum of Australia, and she’s describing a large beautiful painting.
MARGO NEALE: An epic journey or an epic saga of the travel of a group of women who are spirit beings or ancestral beings. These women in their journey across country have had a number of events and incidents. Including just creating a waterhole with their digging sticks — plunging their sticks into the ground to again allow life to emerge. To have an encounter perhaps with some malevolent figure and therefore this rock fisher appears.
ALICE KEATH: The painting is by Anatjari Tjakamarra.
MARGO NEALE: This is interesting because this is a man who is painting a story of women’s camp and the origin of damper.
It’s a view from above, yellow rust ochre. Down the centre of this painting is a series of concentric squares. There’s about 5 or 6 down the middle and in the middle of each of those there’s circles. So it’s very patterned, almost embroidered looking. Very regular, schematised, which is very typical of Western Desert men’s art. Women tend to be much more gestural.
The squares represent the path the women travelled and the circles of the dampers and the wild seeds. Them circles are joined by the connecting grid, so it links, everything’s about connectivity. Connectivity to the past, to the present, of the present to the future. The circles and the lines and the grids in this thing links the ancestral activities of creation of these women and this event to a whole other network of Pintupi sites and people through time and place.
Anatjari Tjakamarra was one of those last peoples to come out of the desert, so he never knew a world any other than his own until 1966.
ALICE KEATH: And he was amongst the first in Papunya to start painting on portable surfaces with introduced materials. So acrylic paint on a large stretched canvas, which Papunya is famous for today.
MARGO NEALE: The Papunya painting movement is the movement that started Aboriginal art for an outside audience — for selling, for marketing. Robert Hughes described it as the last great art movement of the 20th century.
This painting, historically speaking, marks this transitional period in Papunya between these very small, irregular-sized wooden boards that were discarded remnants of boards around the place. Tops of tea chests or they were broken cupboards, bits of wood and boards that were found around the settlement. Then later became acrylic on stretched canvas is quite large within 10 years.
ALICE KEATH: One particularly famous and large painting from Papunya is this huge mural — colourful mural — painted on the wall of the local school in Papunya. How did that come to be painted? What drove that?
MARGO NEALE: These fellas were no longer living their traditional life, they were now being school yards men or cleaners. So they were not in a position to transmit their stories. They figured how are we going to teach these kids that are in school all day and we’re out there mowing lawns. So we’ll paint the story of Papunya on the school wall and then we can tell them about them about it.
These boards are part of that whole thing. No-one would by them much then, you’d get 2 bob for them every now and then. Then this Geoff Bardon, the art teacher at the time, took them into Alice, there’s the odd nibble. Eventually it got bigger and better and the rest’s history.
ALICE KEATH: The Girgoryan Brother’s piece inspired by this object — this incredible painting — aims to capture a sense of awe about the story of these women on an epic journey.
[‘Journey Women’ played by Leonard and Slava Grigoryan]
ALICE KEATH: ‘Journey Women’ written and performed by the Grigoryan Brothers. I’m Alice Keath and This is us: A musical reflection of Australia was commissioned by the National Museum of Australia to mark their 20th anniversary. Head to the ABC Classic website to view the objects, find out more and buy the Grigoryan Brothers album featuring all of the music in the project.
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Date published: 09 March 2021