We are delighted to announce a curatorial partnership with Sascha Gianella, Aboriginal Australian art specialist with over twenty years’ experience.

Sascha is well respected in her field for her knowledge, ethics and close relationships with an array of the brightest lights from the wide Aboriginal Art community of Australia.

Our first collaboration in late 2013 will focus on Desert art from the Central desert region of Australia. Within this vast area, we will present a select grouping of renowned female Aboriginal artists, and within this grouping works with important community provenance.

Sascha Gianella Art Contemporain: http://www.sgac.co

Gloria Petyarre “Bush Medicine Leaves Series” Acrylic on Linen 2010 200 x 159 cm

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The art of the desert is one of the most significant movements in modern Australian art history, for it was here in 1971, Aboriginal artists were first introduced to synthetic art materials in order to transfer their ancestrally inherited sacred designs for the appreciation of the wider public. Traditionally, desert art takes many forms, from decorated weapons and implements, to personal adornments, to sacred and secret incised boards and stones, rock engravings and paintings, body painting, sand drawings, ceremonial constructions and ground paintings. Whilst classical traditions continue, introduced media such as acrylic paint and canvas are usually employed for the purposes of public art, and the paintings tell the story of the artists’ connection to their country, the features of the landscape, the plants and animals found there and the creation myth that is linked to the Dreaming. The Dreaming explains the creation process. Ancestor beings rose and roamed the initially barren land, and created the land’s features as we see them today. After creating the ‘sacred world’ the spiritual beings turned into rocks or trees or a part of the landscape. These became sacred places, to be seen only by initiated men. The spirits of the ancestor beings are passed on to their descendants, for example, shark, kangaroo, honey ant, snake, and so on, and hundreds of others which have become totems within the diverse Indigenous groups across the Australian continents. These stories are still very relevant to the artists today.

Initially painting was a male occupation, with women either filling in the backgrounds of their male counterparts’ paintings or painting artefacts including turruru (music sticks), parraja (traditional food carriers), dancing boards, boomerangs and seed necklaces. Male and female ancestral figures play a major role in the Dreaming and are used to guide men and women in their daily roles. Women are responsible for looking after their young children and gathering food such as seeds, fruit, vegetables, small insects and larvae. Women’s paintings are thus often associated with food gathering. Men hunt and share with women the role of lawmaker, performer, painter and custodians of traditional ways. They also share the role of traditional healers. For example Warlpiri women from Yuendumu perfom yawulya ceremonies to improve the health of sick people, singing songs and painting designs on the sick person and using their knowledge of plants as medicines. Gloria Tamerre Petyarre’s knowledge of traditional medicine is represented in her Bush Medicine Leaves works. Petyarre is considered as one of the most famous and significant artists in contemporary Australian Indigenous art history.  She is a prolific painter who came into prominence after being awarded the 1999 Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, for her work Leaves – a work whose intricately woven gold and green leaf shaped brushstrokes succeeded in a capturing the movement reminiscent of the wind blowing the leaves of the native Kurrajong tree. Gloria continues to paint this style, yet she also paints massive ‘big leaf’ paintings, rendered with giant brushstrokes to fascinating effect, with, it is rumoured, a broom!

Artists have their own particular styles or palettes and constantly experiment and vary their paintings. Jeannie Petyarre (Pitjara) hails from a fine pedigree, her family include artists Anna Price Petyarre, Gloria Petyarre, Kathleen Petyarre and Ada Bird Petyarre and her Aunt is Emily Kame Kngwarreye (whose work Earth’s Creation broke records in 2007 when fetching over 1 million AUD at auction). Petyarre is known for her Yam Dreaming paintings depicting swirling leaf brushstrokes (not unlike her cousin Gloria) in vibrant colour compositions representing the leaf of the Yam plant that replenishes itself year after year.

Ceremonies play a vital role in Aboriginal society and both men and women have segregated ceremonies and those that are combined. Women’s ceremonies are often concered with awalye (women’s business) and are generally centred on the subject of fertility. Awalye or yawulyu in Warlpiri refers to women’s religious designs which represent ancestral beings, their power and marks which indicate their presence. The designs of many Utopian women artists are based on awalye, including the paintings of Betty Mbitjana, daughter of renown artist Minne Pwerle and the sister of Barbara Weir – two of Australian’s most collectable artists.  Betty paints the awelye relating to the bush plum, bush berry or bush melon ‘jukurrpa’ (Dreaming).  Her paintings depict the designs that women paint on their bodies and the tracks that are made whilst performing the women’s awelye ceremony.  The paintings are aerial views of ceremonies depicting sacred waterholes (concentric circles) and movement is represented by the pairs of striped breasts moving forward as the woman dances.  The painting in this show also depicts patterns of the seeds of the bush fruit that the women eat during the ceremony. The artists in and around Utopia in the eastern central part of central Australia have artistic traditions similar to those of their western desert neighbours, despite differences in language and social structure.

Women’s ceremonies are the subject of Judy Napangardi Watson’s works within this selection. Watson is among Warlukurlangu Artists’ (Yuendumu, NT) most well known and successful artists. This elder’s (b. C1925) work is like no other – renown for her abstract rendering and dynamic use of vivid colour Watson is considered to be at the forefront of a move towards abstraction whilst her work retains strong connections to her country – Mina Mina. Mina Mina is a place west of Yuendumu signficant to Watson and other Napangardi and Napanangka women, who are the custodians of the Dreaming that created the area. The Dreaming describes the journey of a group of women who travelled east gathering bush food, collecting Ngalyipi (snake vine) and performing ceremonies as they travelled to sacred sites along the way. Ngalyipi is a sacred vine and is a main component of these works. It is used as a ceremonial wrap, to carry parrajas laden with bush tucker and as a tourniquet for headaches. Texture and colour are integral components of desert art and Watson’s signature ‘dot and drag’ brushwork using undiluted acrylic creates a visual texture which evokes the physical and spiritual fertility of the land and the radiance of being that is sought in ceremony.

What distinguises Australian desert artist from other regions is the lack of naturalistic representations. Narrative is expressed through conventional symbols using a prescribed repetoire of imagery. Its distinction from other contemporary work is its basis in ancient tradition and the artists’ relationship to the land, yet what divides the painters from the outstanding artists that originate from the desert regions is their resourcefulness and imagination in creating new ways to represent ancient stories.

The artists in this exhibition are among the most important artists from the central desert region. Paintings from all of these artists are represented in major public and private collections both in Australia and internationally. The selected artworks aim to highlight the innovative use of colour and experimentation with design in desert art, whilst referencing important visual language and ensuring that personal and collective narratives are recorded and passed onto future generations. The canvases are rich in colour and cultural significance and are grouded in country and ceremony. Organic and curved iconography daringly intermeshed on fluorescent coloured backgrounds. Concentric circles hover next to ceremonial grass skirts over electric purple and hot pink landscapes. A viewer stands before a heavily multicoloured spectacle of built up surface, and is engulfed by a painting of blazing almost hallucinatory beauty. Where some see the desert at barren, the artist paints it green – testament to an environment seen as rich in spiritual meaning and physical sustenance.

– S.G.