Travels in Australia: Paruku — Part 3 of 6

Standing in the open air studio of Devid Leece at our Lake Gregory camp, and contemplating his paintings. Photo by John Carty.

Standing in the open air studio of Devid Leece at our Lake Gregory camp, and contemplating his paintings. Photo by John Carty.

The Paruku Project out at Lake Gregory in Western Australia wasn’t just about Indigenous people painting, but also work by the artists Kim Mahood, Mandy Martin, and David Leece. David, who is known more for being one of Melbourne’s leading architects and photographers, worked on a series that captured two views of the same scene on a single canvas, one horizon stacked above the other, a cognitive record of how we never see the same scene twice in an identical manner. Mandy, who is the definitive Australian painter of the romantic sublime, used various ground earthen pigments and acrylic to built up complex 5-part field sketches. They’re complete works in and of themselves, but also notes toward the much larger oil paintings she’ll do back in the studio.
Kim, daughter of a Tanami rancher, grew up in the region and was raised in part by Aboriginal people; she has a distinctly different and deeper relationship with the community here, living and working in Mulan for three months out of the year. Since 2007 she’s been painting a set of very large canvases that are at first simple topographical maps of the land. But the ochre-colored canvases showing the location of the lake and creeks and dunes are just the start. The community women then sit with her, tell stories, and paint information into the work. One map might be a history of local events, another the extent of water from year to year, and a recent one documents burn scars where fire has swept through the spinifex and grasslands during the last five years. The maps are both works of art, but also documents that can help influence politics and policies.

When you look at the story paintings that the Mulan women are doing, the work by the visiting artists, and Kim’s maps, you begin to get an inkling of the layers involved both in landscape as a human construct, but also how deep here those physical layers extend.

Kim Mahood and the artists of Mulan, Fire Map, 2007-2011. Photo by John Carty

Kim Mahood and the artists of Mulan, Fire Map, 2007-2011. Photo by John Carty

Travels in Australia: Paruku — Part 2 to 6

Daisy Kungah’s painting “Old people looking for bush tucker.” Photo by John Carty.

Daisy Kungah’s painting “Old people looking for bush tucker.” Photo by John Carty.

One of the objectives of the Paruku Project is to energize the Warruyarnta Art Centre in Mulan, the newest and perhaps most modest art center of the approximately 44 such organizations in central Australia. Aboriginal communities have few opportunities to generate income, and art centers have become a primary venue for doing so. The predominant painting style in the region consists of acrylic dots thickly applied to build up iconic pictures of “country” (a term meaning both terrain and territory) and “bush tucker,” or sources of food found in the wild. While the project generated several beautiful examples of such paintings, such as the one above by Daisy Kangah, project artists Mandy Martin and Kim Mahood also worked with the local artists to develop a style somewhat unique to Mulan, one based on more personal stories and community events.
Australia is the flattest continent (as well as being the lowest, driest, and hottest). Runoff from rain in the interior doesn’t really run downhill in rivers, as we experience in North America, but rather flows across the desert in enormous and slow puddles. Lake Gregory is actually one of those moving puddles that was blocked by a buildup of sand dunes during an ice age within the last 200,000 years. As a result, it is a shallow body of water that fills during wet years and evaporates, sometimes entirely, during dry ones. It’s therefore a very delicate ecosystem easily affected by global warming, and the spangled perch that live in the lake have recently experienced the worst known infestation in the world of a parasitic red worm.

Shirley Yoomarie painted her story of community members working with scientists to net fish for sampling, a painting that is at once a picture of country, a document relevant to climate change, a communal narrative, and a personal story. It’s also evidence of aesthetic evolution in the community–the dots are still there at the top and bottom of the painting, but they frame a flat representational scene.

Shirley Yoomarie painting “Working with scientists”

Shirley Yoomarie painting “Working with scientists”

Travels in Australia: Paruku — Part 1 of 6

Aerial view of Lake Gregory, Western Australia

Aerial view of Lake Gregory, Western Australia

In August I flew from Reno to Los Angeles to make a 14-hour flight to Brisbane, Australia, caught a connecting flight for another three-and-a-half hours to Alice Springs in the center of the country, then hopped into a four-wheel-drive truck with artist Mandy Martin and drove another day-and-a-half to Lake Gregory–Australia’s equivalent to the Great Salt Lake. Mandy, along with Center for Art + Environment Research Fellow John Carty and prominent Australian biologist Steve Morton, has been working since April on the “Paruku Project,” a multi-disciplinary and cross-cultural look at how “global drivers are modifying Indigenous Traditional Owners connection to Country in the Tanami Desert.” I was along in two roles: as a writer for the project and as the curator of the project archive we’re collecting for the CA+E.

Our camp spot was in a stand of small white-bark gum trees surrounded by spinifex, the ubiquitous grass of the arid interior. People in Aboriginal communities burn the spinifiex on a regular basis at this time of year in order to forestall catastrophic brush fires caused by lightning, and the entire time we were there the horizon was a thick gray band that made for vivid sunsets and moon risings.

Men and women from Mulan, the town in the center of Paruku, the regional Indigenous Protected Area, took us down to Lake Gregory, walked us out into the water, and covered our arms and legs in mud, introducing us to the great serpent that lives in the lake and asking him not to harm us. And thus began two weeks of work rich with art, ancient stories, and archeology along the shores of a lake that was once ten times larger than it is now, and that is still the most important inland wetland of the continent.

I’ll be writing about those three aspects of the project in several subsequent blogs, but if you’re interested in more information, including the science and conservation aspects of it, you might check out the project’s own blog site:

http://parukuproject.wordpress.com/2011/05/14/paruku-sediments-blog-1/

Mandy Martin sketch of Lake Gregory shoreline and burned spinifex in late afternoon light. Photo by John Carty

Mandy Martin sketch of Lake Gregory shoreline and burned spinifex in late afternoon light. Photo by John Carty

For those of you attending the second Art + Environment Conference at the end of this month, Mandy Martin and John Carty will be presenting as part of a panel titled “Navigating the Waters of Art and Science in Australia.” Guy Fitzhardinge, a cattle rancher and conservationist who was working with the Paruku Rangers as part of the project will also be in attendance.