Women Artists of Waringarri Aboriginal

JGM Gallery
Nov 9, 2018 2:47PM

JGM Gallery presents six senior, celebrated artists from the East Kimberley in Western Australia. Masters of colour, they create a myriad of pastels with natural earth pigments to paint the histories of the sacred places of their region.

Peggy Griffiths painting

Warm apricot, dusty pink and macha green are not typical of colours associated with aboriginal art, even when considering today’s flamboyant use of acrylic in the wave of contemporary Indigenous art from Australia. More puzzling is that these colours are derived from ochre; natural pigment such as ferruginous clay, ancient coral sea bed deposits and compounded oxide stained earths. For the Indigenous East Kimberley people in Western Australia, these ochres found buried in Country(1), have been deliberately left behind by ancestors of the Ngarranggarning(2) or Dreaming for the purpose of ceremonial body paint and cave painting.

The artists from Waringarri Aboriginal Arts in Kununurra, north-eastern Western Australia, are celebrated today for their unique ability in mixing these ochres together to create a myriad of pastels, olive greens and brooding shades of blue in contemporary arts practice. Through burning, mixing and the careful juxtaposition of ochres and charcoal, the leading artists from the East Kimberley, have developed formulas to produce beautiful hues and stunning blends of colour to express their culture on canvas as evidenced in this exhibition.

JGM Gallery, London.

Connected by a philosophy that paints Country, women artists represented in this exhibition express their independent interpretations and cultural connections through the resonance of unique ochre colours. The late Mrs. Ningarmara, renowned for her soft pastels juxtaposed against bright reds, olive greens and dense blacks compliments the bold colours and forms of Minnie Lumai. Kittey Malarvie’s luminous whites and steel greys against yolk yellow are balanced alongside Peggy Griffiths’ work which is instantly recognizable with her subtle brush strokes of soft pink and mauve on gold. Dora Griffiths, the youngest of the artists, cloaks her entire canvases in powdery amethyst or whipped mandarin allowing the warm subtle qualities of ochre to truly resonate.

While other Indigenous art centres have adopted the convenience of acrylic paint or adhere to only painting in primary ochre colours, it is the history of Waringarri Arts that has enabled these colour filled ochre palettes to develop. In particular, it has been the women who drive this practice. Yet Waringarri artists have not always painted with such colours. One of the oldest art centres in Australia, the centre was established in the late 1970s to provide economic independence for Kimberley artists from diverse language groups living within Kununurra and its surrounds. Initially, boab engraving(3) and artifact making were the main artworks produced before slate carving then ochre painting on bark and canvases became popular.

Image by Sarah Duguid. The native boab tree.

Rover Thomas, arguably the most important male Indigenous artist from Australia regularly painted at Waringarri Arts, which was key in developing his stellar success representing Australia at the 1990 Venice Biennale and achieving record sales in the following years. Queenie McKenzie, another famous Gija artist and close friend to Thomas also painted at the Waringarri centre and was the first Kimberley artist to experiment with mixing ochres, producing iconic paintings of her precipitous Country in soft pinks and greens.

McKenzie passed away in 1998 and by then was mainly painting in the nearby community of Turkey Creek. However, she had inspired a younger generation of artists from Waringarri such as Mignonette Jamin, Daisy Bitting and Judy Mengil. Jamin in particular, an intuitive colourist, juxtaposed bright reds on leaf greens, baby pinks on sienna in bold circular forms that represented her Country and her female Whipsnake Dreaming stories. Younger artists regularly observed these artists painting, absorbing the stories and their techniques. As Dora Griffiths states “I used to sit with Mignonette and watch her paint every day when I was young.” By the time Jamin passed away in late 2010, mixing ochres and painting in numerous colour tones was standard practice.

Mignonette Jamin
Untitled, 2016
JGM Gallery

Along with their unique connection with colour, Waringarri artworks are distinguished in other ways. Flattened depiction of Country, aerial views denoting rivers systems, major land marks and bold shapes symbolizing dreaming sites are all typical features within their works. The style originally based on the rock art of the area where elements are blocked in with solid colour, contrasted usually with white dots referencing body painting presents a bold abstracted and symbolic viewpoint. Billabongs, river systems, gorges, creeks and springs are common subject matter. These artists are a freshwater people, living on Country that is dry half the year and where knowledge of water sources is vital for survival. The wet season is celebrated in the overflowing of rivers and creeks, bringing an abundance of foods such as fish, turtles and bush fruits.

View of Country

Minnie Lumai

Each artist in This Place Holds The Key possesses their own unique mark marking and individual iconography in works layered with meaning. Minnie Lumai’s paintings are bold, powerful and masterful in her use of colour and symbolism, steeped in mythical culture. Her rounded forms, outlined with traditional white dotting in Yab-yabbe-geni-nim represent the hills created by two species of kangaroo during the creation time or Ngarranggarning. While arguing over wild honey and the ownership of Country, the kangaroos scattered bee’s wax across the land, which is seen today as rock formations. One feels honoured to access this important dreamtime story and understand the symbolism and layers of knowledge in this artist’s seemingly abstract works. Lumai’s work is in major collections throughout Australia and her work was selected for the prestigious Bankwest Award in 2015.

Minnie Lumai painting

Phyllis Ningarmara

Another senior artist, the late Phyllis Ningarmara, a traditional owner of Miriwoong Country in Kununurra is subtler in her painterly style. Her works meander through numerous colours and tones as she depicts her Country during the wet season when creeks and river systems overflow transforming her Country with fresh beauty and vitality. Other pieces by the artist such as Sugarleaf shimmer and vibrate with life, and pay homage to a sweet bush food while also representing a key sacred site of her Country. Her work is represented in many public and private collections. The inclusion of her work in this exhibition after her death has been sanctioned by her family in recognition and respect of the importance of her art practice. We thank their generosity.

Phyllis Ningarmara painting

Phyllis Ningarmara
Woorre-Worrem (wet season), 2018
JGM Gallery

Kittey Malarvie

Kittey Malarvie, a Jaru woman, whose Country is over 500 km south of Kununurra, in an area known as the Great Sandy Desert, has resided in the town since a young woman. Now at 80, Malarvie is a highly sought after artist for her expressive Milkwater series and bold Luga works and has been exhibiting internationally for several years. More closely associated with desert artists of her region, Kittey’s rich use of ochre colours, multiple layers and loose brushwork stand her apart.

Kittey Malarvie
Milkwater
JGM Gallery

As with the majority of senior artists in the Kimberley, Malarvie was a subject of the pastoral industry and worked for rations. Following the ashamedly late introduction of equal wages for Indigenous Australians in 1967 which most station owners refused to pay, large numbers of Aboriginal people from various language groups were removed from the stations and their Country, and were forced to drift to towns such as Kununurra to find work. As a hard working woman, Kittey carved boab nuts and artifacts to sell in the town to feed her family before joining Waringarri Arts and learning to paint on canvas.

Dora Griffiths at JGM Gallery, London

Dora Griffiths

Dora Griffiths, the youngest of the artists continues to paint in the traditional East Kimberley style, a testament to the values and philosophy this emerging artist possesses. The oldest daughter of renowned artists Peggy Griffiths and the late Mr. Griffiths, Dora has gained important knowledge from these senior cultural leaders. Having learnt from her father, Dora takes forward the responsibilities of maintaining culture through arts practice. She has adopted her father’s painting style, painting river systems and important areas from Mr. Griffith’s Country with a pared back, almost feminine version of her father’s Country in soft pastels, muted pinks, tangerine, lilac and mauve: “I try to make my colours different [from my Dad]. I try to paint it different, but it’s the same story. I want to follow in my Dad’s footsteps because he left this for me to carry on.”

In addition to painting Mr. Griffiths’ Country as he taught her, Dora paints the significant event of her father being taken as a young boy by the Station Manager in accordance with the brutal Native Welfare policies of the day. It was a life-changing event for her father who while tied to a tree was rescued in the middle of the night by his grandfather an important cultural leader and ‘clever’ man, disappearing into the bush for years. During these formative years Dora’s father gained his cultural knowledge. In the same painting style handed down to her by her father, she captures this event, highlighting key features such as the tree he was tied to, the river and hills they crossed over and escaped to. This work is a powerful comment on a shameful Australian government policy. “Stealing my Dad” brought Dora a highly commendable award at the Kimberley Art Prize in 2016. Mr. Griffiths, the traditional owner of Timber Creek in the Northern Territory, east of Kununurra, was a senior law boss, artist and performer; the keeper of traditional law, a custodian of song lines dating back tens of thousands of years and a recognized West Australian state treasure.

Dora Griffiths
Stealing My Dad, 2018
JGM Gallery

Peggy Griffiths

His promised wife Peggy Griffiths wed Mr. Griffiths at 16 and together they had 5 children. Always by his side, Peggy has carried and taught the responsibilities of traditional song, dance and art to family and community. As a Miriwoong woman, her Country is situated close to Kununurra, now within the boundaries of the Keep River National Park. It is here that she and Mr. Griffiths have lived for several years and where she daily awakens to the shifting light; the hills, spinifex and bush tucker such as Jilynbeng – bush cucumber, which have become the key iconography of her practice. She sympathetically captures the beauty surrounding her through her arts practice of ochre painting and now ceramics. Peggy recently received a Fellowship by the Western Australian Department of Culture and the Arts and represents Western Australia in the Great Australian Landscape Project at the Biennale of Australian Art, 2018.

Peggy Griffiths
Jinamoon, 2011
JGM Gallery

The artists in this exhibition have all experienced harder times. Raised on cattle stations, working for rations and dominated by brutal police injustices towards Aboriginal people was an everyday occurrence. Despite these hardships, many Aboriginal peoples continued their cultural practice and the handing down of traditional knowledge to their children and grandchildren by initiating opportunities for community to keep culture strong. The establishment of Waringarri Arts by senior cultural leaders was one such initiative which continues to support the strength of arts and cultural practice clearly visible in these artists’ work.

These positive stories are grounded in traditional values and knowledge, highlighted in glowing colours. The vast majority of the artists are women. Dora says “I paint because it’s another way to support my family and keep the tradition of my family alive.” She confirms that painting also provides another income for women who are predominantly the main child carers in the community, often single mothers or grandmothers looking after a big ‘mob’ of children. They have more time to paint, to talk about issues and histories while children play in the safe, grounds of the art centre -their artist grandmothers always a watchful eye nearby.

Male artists are making a ‘comeback’ particularly with carving; however it is still mainly the women of the community that produce these exquisite paintings. Whether male or female, it is promising to see the next generation of artists from Waringarri Arts continuing to explore cultural practice through art. Dora believes the art centre is the cultural backbone of the community. “My kids will probably paint when they’re older.” They too watch as Dora maps out Country and grapples with the nuances of ochre mixing. “The stories are all here at the art centre. This place holds the key.” Like the colours of ochre mixed each day and applied to canvases the women at Waringarri Arts resonate with a gentle and profound hopefulness for their futures.

By Leanne Collier and Cathy Cummins

View of Country

1 Country is used with a capital C and as a noun to denote place/s of cultural significance.

2 Ngarranggarning - Miriwoong word denoting the ever present Dreaming or creation time.

3 Traditional practice of engraving the nut of the iconic Kimberley boab tree with scenes and designs referencing dreaming totems.

JGM Gallery