Exhibition News

Puulway, Wik & Kugu Totems by the artists of Aurukun @ Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, August 2007

story illustration
Published Sunday, August 19, 2007

Exhibitions from Aurukun are always worth visiting – and if you are in Melbourne during August ’07, then this is the time to visit Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi in the CBD.

Participating artists in this exhibition include:

  • Craig Koomeeta
  • David Bell
  • Duncan Korkatain
  • Garry Namponan
  • Horace Wikmunea
  • Jack Bell
  • Keith Wikmunea
  • Leigh Namponan
  • Maurice Keppel
  • Ron Yunkaporta
  • Steven Yunkaporta

Exhibitions from Aurukun are noteworthy for the energetic poses of the sculptures and the striking decorative motifs. The exhibition features sculptures of sea and land creatures we are aware of, but not readily familiar with – including camp dogs, rock wallabies, crocodiles, water fowl, birds and mythic figures.

Arukun was initially settled by Presbyterian missionaries in the early 20th century (1904) – a remote settlement on the western face of the Gulf of Carpentaria. It’s now peopled by the Wik, who are famous for the landmark case they brought against the Federal Government for land rights, known as the Wik Native Title case (1996). The High Court of Australia ruled in the Wik people’s favour and granted native title of the land even though it had been subject to pastoral leases.

All of the objects in this exhibition are derived from sculptures still used by the Wik artists in sacred ceremonial performances where dancers re-enact dramatic events that occurred when their sacred totemic sites were created. However, these commercial works are specifically made for galleries and should be judged on whether they retain the energy, vitality and quality of the sacred objects.

 Steven Yunkaporta - image  Garry Namponan - image

The sculptures in the exhibition are generally painted with a simple pallet of rusty red ochre, white and black. Their patterns are typically flat and decorative with coloured bands or broad dots; the works are bold, with an emphasis on creating an immediate presence.

While there is uncertainty about the historical path that led to wooden sculptural objects, there is some consensus that they derived from sacred objects employed in ceremonial dances, probably made from clay. Once metal axes became available artists were able to switch to working with the local soft milkwood.

There are a number of striking individual works in this exhibition and the emphasis is on the figure’s expression. The crocodiles and dogs manifest their dangerous natures by exposing sharp and jagged teeth, the wallaby looks like it is ready to box, and the birds are settled firmly on their plinths. The crocodile by Craig Koomeeta is a handsome sculpture, beautifully decorated and shaped. The crocodile totem comes from his mother and the barramundi and dingoes are inherited from his father. Koomeeta has included some barramundi in this exhibition. It is interesting to note that he paints the freshwater crocodile with a black back and the saltwater croc completely with ochre.

Djon Mundine notes that:

The sculptures and the performers who danced with them were painted with non-naturalistic designs: white dotting on red-brown backgrounds representing sun shining on clear still waters, and alternating stripes of red-brown and black and white representing salt water. (Storyplace: Indigenous art of Cape York and the rainforest, QAG, 2003, p.51, Djon Mundine).

The two camp dogs by Gary Namponan are so expressive, with the emphasis on the characteristic aggression of camp dogs, both alert and threatening to strangers but loyal and servile to their masters. Whilst Yellow Patched Camp Dog looks threatening with its ears pricked and body stiff, its poor table legs won’t let it roam anywhere. Tri Colour Camp Dog, with its smaller, blunted teeth, submissive demeanour and very expressive eyes waits to be noticed. The abstracted de stijl-like patterning enhances the form and shape of the dog.

 Jack Bell - image  Leigh Namponan - image

For animal lovers, it really is a visual feast (so to speak) and while these sculptures are not sacred objects, they are clearly derived from them; it is their mythic status that gives these animals so much kinetic energy in sculpted character.

Equally impressive and perhaps more visually complex are the human figures. Puch Boy by Duncan Korkatain is based on the Puch totem, decorated with the ceremonial body painting, headdress and grass skirt. The figure characterises the motion of a figure in dance.

Then there are the figures – in particular the finely carved and strikingly decorated Ghost Man and Ghost Woman by Jack Bell. The Ghost pair have particularly expressive faces. Whilst the animals convey strength, aggression, gracefulness or even playfulness through their form and expression, there is something more intriguing about the human forms.

Leigh Namponan’s Cripple Girl is another fine work – painted with stippled brushwork, it manages to draw the eye even with the distraction of the other works. The theme of the crippled child is related, as is all the imagery, to ritual stories.

The main ceremonial groups and associated symbolism of the Wik people are:

  • Winchanam (bonefish and the flying fox)
  • Apelech ( fresh and saltwater crocodiles and the dingo)
  • Pungk-Apelech ( freshwater shark).
Note, that for a detailed description of sacred images of the groups, see Sutton, Peter, Storyplace: Indigenous art of Cape York and the rainforest, QAG, Brisbane, 2003, p.58.

 Duncan Korkatain - image

It is worth noting that Jack Bell and Craig Koomeeta were two of nine Aurukun artists selected for the benchmark exhibition Kank inum-Nink inum (Old way, new way) held in 2002 in Queensland for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The other significant exhibition for Wik artists was Storyplace: Indigenous art of Cape York and the rainforest, which featured and commissioned the work of 10 practising Aurukun artists at the Queensland Art Gallery in 2003. Finally, it is also worth getting a copy of the catalogue for this exhibition, Puulway, Wick anhd Kugu Totems, available from the Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, Melbourne.

Martin Shub, August 2007.

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