Main image caption: Yibiyung Roma Winar, Noongar Language, Mountain Devil, c.1998. Perth, Western Australia. Emu Egg, 9.5 x 15 x 8.5 cm. Berndt Museum of Anthropology Collection [1998/0058]
Presented by the Berndt Museum of Anthropology at the Lawrence Wilson Gallery, Perth, Western Australia. Exhibition continues until 5 June 2021. Review by Margaret Cassidy
Any visit to Perth should include a trip to the Lawrence Wilson Gallery, a contemporary purpose built sandstone building on the edge of the grounds of the University of Western Australia. It provides the stage for a range of exhibitions from the University’s three collections including the Berndt Museum of Anthropology’s object collection. This collection has expanded beyond the original objects of the research museum based on UWA anthropologists’ Professor Ronald and Dr Catherine Berndt’s fieldwork and now includes items from Papua New Guinea and Asia. The museum organises biannual exhibitions using a thematic approach to display some of the vast collection.
Animals are a very accessible theme for this current exhibition Creatures: Ochred, Pokered, Carved & Twined. It provides a diverse look at objects based on animal forms from artists from Aboriginal language groups from across Australia. The Creatures in the title reflects that every object is a representation of an animal, fish or bird well known by their Indigenous artist creators, with the full title capturing a range of production techniques employed by Indigenous artists over the last century on display in this exhibition.
What is different about this exhibition is that highly skilled and executed examples of tourist art are presented alongside more traditional and modern representations of the animal form in the one space. The items range from traditional ochres painted on bark and carved Kimberley boab nuts, to modern carved and painted objects and thoroughly modern twined sculptures made from plant fibre, wood and tree nuts.
Indigenous art was being collected from the first arrivals of colonial explorers, followed by missionaries and then anthropologists. The earliest indigenous tourist art evolved particularly in remote Australia where local Aboriginal communities saw the development of figurative and non-traditional carving in the 20th century as a way of making income. As tourist art, it was art produced by one culture for consumption by a different culture. However, while the techniques and materials changed to suit the consuming culture, the producers were able to infuse elements of their culture and develop unique works of art.
Another delight is the menagerie of poker worked animals carved in Milyirrtjarra (Warburton), centre for the Ngaanyatjarra people of the Western Desert in remote Western Australia, around 1977 of wild cats and a marsupial mouse; unfortunately, all items with no recorded creator. The practise of carving animals with burnt, poker designs was originally encouraged by missionaries in the 1950s in response to a rise in tourism in Central Australia and became a well-established practise for several desert communities. An animal form is roughly shaped with an axe from the branch or root of a tree before finer carving to refine the shape. Fencing wire or pipe is then heated on the fire and used to incise details onto the wooden animal form – to replicate the feathers of a bird, the fur on a marsupial or the scales of a goanna. These examples capture the essence of each creature with strong markings on streamlined forms.
More recent carvings for the tourist market are represented with the vibrant School of Barramundi crafted by Gerry Blitner of Groote Eylandt, Northern Territory from wood and natural pigments in 1989. These, with objects from East Arnhem Land, are excellent examples of the style also seen in the Gululu dhuwala djalkiri Welcome to the Yolŋu foundations exhibition currently on show in the Chau Chak Wing Museum.
Nyoongar artist “Yibiyung” Roma Winmar provides a highly skilled interpretation of a traditional medium with her fine carving Mountain Devil on an emu egg from 1998. This delicate carving reveals the tonal layers of the egg shell allowing the three dimensional swirl of the Devil’s frills to frame and highlight the menace of the creature.
Another lively work is Nyoongar artist Janine McAullay Bott’s Kangaroo and Joey from 2004. Bott’s work is an example of what Laura Fisher describes as “the art that falls in the cracks between the so-called urban and remote” (2016). Although she learnt her craft skills while living away from Australia in the United States, she has followed Australian Indigenous practice of maintaining a close relationship to the land through the use of natural grasses and other fibres that come from the bush and claims that “when looking into the weave you can see the spirits of the animals and the Noongars they represent” (2020). This almost living object woven from natural fibres contrasts strongly with the soft woollen representation, Bird crafted by Yarrenyty Arltere artist Dulcie Raggett in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) in 2011. This is a clear example of the extensive textile soft sculpture practice that has evolved in Central Australia involving sewing, embroidery and crochet of felt and woollen thread materials.
Regardless of the mix of materials used and the techniques applied, this exhibition illuminates a diverse menagerie of animal representations from across Indigenous Australia and reflects the importance of these creatures in Aboriginal culture.
Fisher, Laura (2016) Aboriginal Art and Australian Society: Hope and Disenchantment (London & New York: Anthem Press).
McAulay Bott, Janine (2020) Artist Interview Sculpture at Bathers website https://sculptureatbathers.com.au/artist/janine-mcaullay-bott/