The crate itself is something to behold, an unlikely object some 9 metres long but barely half a metre in width or height, like the elongated packing case for a missile. Empty, it idles next to a patchwork of tarpaulins and blankets extending across the entire loading bay of a south Sydney warehouse. Laid out on top of this protective patchwork, ready to be rolled back up and returned to the crate for its international journey, is what one art handler tells me is “probably the largest work we’ve ever dealt with”. At 80 square metres, Ngurrara Canvas II is a truly immense painting, its overwhelming scale commensurate with its importance in Aboriginal lore and Australian history.
The painting, with subject matter encompassing the Ngurrara country of the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia, was created by the Aboriginal people of that place as proof of an ongoing claim to their ancestral lands. It was painted in 1997, in preparation for a preliminary native title hearing held at the Pirnini outstation near the town of Fitzroy Crossing. At the time, the Ngurrara representatives were faced with a daunting task: delivering a coherent account of a territory larger than Tasmania and home to four different communities and language groups, the Walmajarri, Wangkajunga, Mangala and Juwaliny.
In a triumph of imagination and logistics over bureaucracy, they devised an ingenious form of collective testimony. More than 40 artists worked together over 12 days on a single huge sheet of canvas. Each of the artists contributed a separate segment of the painting in accordance with personal experience, familial ties and sacred sites. As one of the artists, Ngarralja Tommy May, recalls, the idea was “one umbrella, one work, no splitting up. If you split it up you have no power.” At once map and illustrated manuscript, the painting was conceived as a giant document that would literally be laid at the feet of the Native Title Tribunal.
In order to unify their efforts, the group adhered to a thematic emphasis on the waterholes, or jila, that provide points of orientation and sustenance within this vast landscape. The jila testify to a remarkable story of survival, of finding water in the desert sands, along with more recent histories of injustice and dispossession. The drovers of the Canning Stock Route forced many Aboriginal people off their land and commandeered the water for their thirsting cattle. Aboriginal men who remained to work as stockmen were later driven away by white station owners who rankled at new equal wage laws. Fitzroy Crossing became a place of refuge and exile for the people of the Great Sandy Desert.
Ngurrara Canvas II (an earlier iteration of the painting was deemed too small for its intended purpose) is a work constructed from memory, painted by a group of mostly elderly artists who were unsure that they would ever see their homelands again. Indeed, many of the original claimants had died by the time the court eventually determined in their favour.
The painting toured Australia during the decade-long native title deliberations in an effort to rally political support, and in 2000 it was exhibited at the Lyon Biennale, in France. But after returning home to the Mangkaja arts centre in Fitzroy Crossing, the painting has spent most of the past few years packed away in storage, simply too large to display. Finally, at the behest of Adrian Lahoud, curator of the Sharjah Architecture Triennial in the United Arab Emirates, Ngurrara Canvas II will return to view this November. Though wheelchair-bound, Ngarralja Tommy May is accompanying his work on its long journey to a distant, and very different, desert land.
Unfurled in the Sydney warehouse, Ngurrara Canvas II vibrates with energy, its surface alive with variegated pattern. It is a painting clearly designed to be displayed on the floor and circulated around. Like the rock garden of Kyoto’s Ryōanji temple, no single view can take it all in. It is not a flattened aerial view but a multi-perspectival composition that shifts and shimmers depending on your vantage. Here and there are recognisable motifs: long rows of sandhills, bodies of water, groves of trees, walking tracks, campsites and tribal figures, all rendered in pulsating colour.
Tommy’s explanation of the painting reveals additional temporal and mythological layers. Some of the waterholes are deep and full, others are depicted in a dry and shallow state, their waters secreted underground for those who know where to dig. Tommy’s maternal grandfather, he tells me, was a rainmaker, a mythical figure capable of creating waterholes all of his own. He is represented as a striking red figure with a vivid white ribcage, arms and legs spread emphatically wide. There is a song for the rainmaker’s story, and when Tommy sings it to me in a low tone it becomes suddenly apparent that every part of this epic canvas tells a story, and that every story can be conveyed in its own song.
Aboriginal art is often compared to the work of Western abstract expressionist painters like Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock. But Ngurrara Canvas II is neither an abstraction nor an artwork. It is a powerful form of testimonial that challenges our preconceptions of the desert’s appearance and ecology. “[Artist] Fred Williams flew over this land and saw huge regions of colour. [Mining magnate] Lang Hancock flew over and all he could see was iron ore. But this is woven with detail,” says Indigenous art curator Djon Mundine.
Announcing itself as “the first major platform for architecture and urbanism in the Middle East, North and East Africa and Asia”, the Sharjah triennial will likewise challenge preconceptions. The inaugural event is entitled “Rights of Future Generations” and promises to eschew a conventional architectural showcase in order to “radically rethink fundamental questions about architecture and its power to create and sustain alternative modes of existence”. Revealing the blindspots in Eurocentric ways of seeing, mapping and valuing territory, Ngurrara Canvas II is set to be its centrepiece.
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