Yesterday I did a trip to Utopia. I left about half past 7- 8 o’clock in the morning. It was a very hot day – about 40 degrees most of the day. I travelled out there, and I usually call in to Camel Camp and say hello to Motorbike Paddy and Elizabeth Mpetyane, and Elizabeth had a nice painting all finished. She wasn’t finished last time I was out a month ago. But it was an exceptional painting, I thought, and it’s 6 x 5 foot or 180 x 150cm.
And old Polly Ngale – she’s active and was in
town the day before and came around with some paintings to the warehouse, and
for an old lady she’s super active but she wasn’t at the camp at the
time. Elizabeth said she’d headed off to the store, so I didn’t catch up
with her during the day or her family. But well, for an old lady she’s
always on the go!
And on the side of the road… Violet
Payne had rung up a couple of days before and she said she’d meet me under a
tree out on the side of the road and sure enough she was there with some nice
little paintings. She was with her husband and another older lady.
We had a bit of a chat and then we moved on.
I went out to Atnwengerrpe, that’s Barbara Weir’s outstation. Barbara was particularly keen for me to get out there and get those ladies painting and look, wow! I was busy! I picked up some lovely paintings. They’re really nice people, bush people… I got some paintings from Jessie Hunter, Selina Teece, Susan Hunter, Katie Morgan, Lizzie Morgan – sometimes they use the name ‘Moss’ – and old Geyla and Emily and old Molly. Some great paintings!
And Lily and Michelle Lion, they’re always consistent. They’ve painted with us for 30 years. They live there too. And little Kathy Price did some nice ones… Janie Morgan did some beauties. I was really happy. Annie had done a bunch of small ones, and Colleen Morton had a nice one larger one and so look, it kept me busy for about three hours and it was really hot! It was a hot day and very hot for them too. I think that I drank 3 bottles of water just while I was working with them….
I had a good chat with Susan Hunter, and I asked,
“When do you do most of your paintings?” and she said, “During the morning or
in the evening because it’s just too hot during the day”.
We called in to Soapy Bore on the way home
and saw Dorothy Jones. Now Dorothy’s painted some nice little consistent
dot paintings, ‘Women’s Ceremony’ type style, for us for many years and she’s a
quiet lady. From there we headed home, and I say ‘we’ because I took a
friend out there – Mike Steller – and he gave me a hand. We were home by
about a quarter to seven and now it’s just after 6 o’clock in the morning, and
I’ve got to start cataloguing them all – and there’s lots more work to be done!
So, it was a good trip, a hot trip, a tough
trip and tough for them out there as well. At least I had
air-conditioning! Oh, and the flies were horrendous!!!
Back in early May with a thermos of homemade soup and a few cold slices of homemade pizza on board for lunch, I headed out through the hills north of Alice Springs enroute to the Utopia Region. It was 7.35am, the car was loaded with canvas and paint, the sun was up and it was 16 degrees Celsius. Weather wise, it looked like it was going to be a perfect day – and it was!
There were quite a few people that I wanted to catch up with, both from an art point of view and also just to have a yarn with. The trip out was fairly uneventful, although at the 200km mark, near to the turnoff to Mulga Bore, I could see lots of thick dust and a big truck was heading my way. The wind was non-existent so the dust just sat there with nothing to blow it away. This can be very dangerous if there is some impatient driver behind the truck who takes a punt by blindly passing through the dust. So, I always pull over to the side of the road just in case!!
At 9.30am I arrived at Camel Camp and saw old Motorbike Paddy. He’s a wonderful old gentleman and we always have a few laughs. I asked him how his wife, Kathleen Ngale, was. He replied “she’s good” and didn’t elaborate any further…. I know that the last time I was out there she was sitting out the front and appeared in good spirits but she was inside on this occasion. He said that his daughter Elizabeth was over at the Store (30kms away) and had a painting that was finished. His son, Matthew, came across too and was his normal, talkative self – a really nice fellow but very hard to understand because his English is very, very limited.
I didn’t stay there too long before heading to nearby Tomahawk Outstation where the Dixon family often reside. There was no one there though so I headed to Alparre Store and found Lena Pwerle in her humpy up the back of the community along with Rosie Pwerle and Nora Petyarre. I dropped off a box of groceries and a drum of flour to Lena. (Our long-time art manager, Tomoko Kuroda, dotes on Lena and insisted that I take them out for her!!! 😊 😊) I sat down on an old flour drum and had a good chat to them all, along with Lena’s oldest son George. George’s wife, Shirley, and sister, Thelma Dixon, were also close by and asked me for some canvas and paints, which I gave out to them both.
A bunch of young and middle-aged men also wanted to have a talk to me about artefacts and I was happy to have a yarn. I’m always encouraging them to make boomerangs, woomera’s, spears, carvings and other artefacts, but usually the chit chat enthusiasm doesn’t evolve into actually doing much of it – although sometimes they surprise me.
I was just about to leave the area when Polly Ngale and Elizabeth Mbitjana also visited. Both told me that they had finished the canvases that I gave them last trip, but they were at Camel Camp! So I told them that I would revisit Camel Camp after I had called into all the other places I was planning to head to.
Next stop was an Outstation I refer to as Old Quartpot’s Camp. On arrival, I went directly around to Lily and Michelle Lion’s campsite, which is directly opposite to the Hunter ladies humpies. Teresa Purla also walked across from her home as well and gave me a good hand. All of these ladies are family to Teresa and she encourages them all to have a go. Geyla Pwerle wandered across carrying a box with 10 – 30cm x 30cm completed linens. They were very good for an old lady and she is really happy doing them. Molly didn’t come across but had also had 10 – 30 x 30’s finished – nice little circle ones. I later photographed her with them in her humpy. (I checked our old records when back in Alice Springs and her date of birth is guessed at 1928 – so she’s roughly 90 years of age now.) I must say, she appears in good health, both physically and mentally for someone that age.
Michelle and Lily also had some great little camp scene paintings too. These are fantastic paintings and I know the ladies enjoy painting them but having said that, I do like to encourage them have a go at other ideas and concepts. I asked them to think of some other design to play around with. They wanted some direction, so I suggested maybe mixing up some larger dots with smaller dots and use lots of bright colours, something that they can enjoy and be creative with. Teresa emphasised the same.. So I am looking forward to my next trip because one never knows what these ladies might be achieve.
Michelle Lion holding up 2 of her Camp Scene paintings.
Teresa also made the point that Geyla and Molly love painting the canvases that I leave with them. It gives them something constructive to do and it was clear to me that the looks on their faces reflected just that. I’m not sure how the paintings will sell but I feel sure that there will be people out there in this big world of ours that will come along and appreciate them.
I have saved four of each for Mbantua’s permanent collection.
Queenie Kemarre (Lily and Michelle’s mother) actually walked across to the car to say hello too! On most of my visits Queenie is sitting or lying down in her bush shelter. This was the first time for a very long time that she had walked across to the car and I was really quite stoked. I insisted that we take a photograph of mum and her two daughters and they were really happy to have it taken!
Queenie with her daughters, Michelle and Lily Lion.
Jessie and Susan Hunter also had some really nice completed pieces. Teresa is a terrific artist in her own right too, but didn’t have hers finished.
I took lots of photographs and Teresa also used my camera and took some of me with the ladies. I enjoyed my time there, except for the millions of flies which were horrendous!!
Rocket Range was my next stop. Most people were away and I only collected paintings from Angelina Ngale.
Soapy Bore was next and also very quiet – just a few paintings from Dorothy Jones. So I headed back to Camel Camp, some 40kms away, and collected 3 nice paintings by Polly and a really lovely 150cm x 90cm painting from Elizabeth.
I departed Camel Camp for home at 3.07pm – I had a social game of lawn bowls to play that night!! 😊 😊
Last year Sarah Price from The Saturday Paper contacted me and asked if she could do a story on us and the artists of Utopia. After a bit of soul searching and talking to a few artists, who were happy for this to happen and to also allow her to do a trip to Utopia with me, I relented. (I get asked a lot by different parties if they can join me on a bush trip to Utopia and I usually reject the request because, quite frankly, it is a work trip and the car is full of canvas and paints etc. Also, permission is required to enter where I travel so permission must be sought to allow any ‘guests’ of mine. Plus, I’m always very busy!)
So, we set a date and below is what Sarah published sometime later in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 9, 2017 as Scene of the Desert. I hope you enjoy the read!
Tim Jennings and Aboriginal art
At Utopia, deep in the desert of the Northern Territory, the red edge of the land meets the sky in an unending line. The plains are rusted and sparse. Mulga trees and ghost gums that line the bush tracks spread thinly into the desert, greens and greys muted against the burnished earth.
The area is bisected by the Sandover Highway – one red road that is straight and unsealed, soft in places. If you stay on it you’ll get to the Queensland border, to Lake Nash or Mount Isa. To the east is the Kennedy Highway; to the north-west is Tennant Creek. The road is empty, except for road trains, and the occasional car, often abandoned. Spreading across the road and into the desert is brilliant sand, the colour of Tabasco sauce. Today, by the side of the road, there is a plastic tiara, its green jewels still intact.
From Alice Springs, Tim Jennings has been making the 12-hour round trip to Utopia for 30 years. Representing Aboriginal artists from eight of the 15 outstations, he sells their work in Australia and around the world. Most of the artists rarely travel into Alice Springs, he says. Instead, people will more often move around the Utopia region, where they have had continuous connection to traditional lands.
“At Utopia it is mainly women who paint,” Tim explains. “The women watch each other, encourage each other and learn from each other. They create their own designs or patterns, under their own steam. The quality of the paintings tells you of the pride the women of Utopia take in their art.”
Visiting the Morton mob at Rocket Range, where the community has grown a green garden oasis in the middle of the desert, Tim drops the tailgate of his car. The inside is filled with art supplies. Women emerge slowly from their homes, feet bare against the soft sand. Painted canvases are unrolled, shaken out and held up, laid out over the ground. There are depictions of cockatoos, goannas and kangaroos. Brilliant colours and fluid lines, precise dot work. Katie Kemarre rolls out an unfinished canvas, telling the story of Awely, a women’s ceremony. Carmen Jones offers her paintings, bright representations of bush flowers. Lastly, smiling and softly spoken, Sarah Morton steps forward, holding up a large canvas painted in bright red and orange, and varying shades of blue.
MB052109 150 x 90cm Katie Kemarre
For most people at Utopia, English is a second or third language, after the traditional language groups of Arrernte and Anmatyerre. To the artists’ explanations, Tim listens intently, sometimes responding by drawing with a stick in the sand. “What’s the story?” he asks. “Bush plums? Animals? I understand.” There are jokes, laughter. Standing around the back of the car, the artists request blank canvases in certain sizes, select colours from a range of Matisse paints, collect bottles, nibs and brushes.
Since he first started travelling to Utopia, Tim has been collecting paintings by various artists. His gallery, Mbantua, now has a permanent collection: 30 years’ worth of art from Utopia. “I thought it could be very important to see how the artists change over time, evolve over the years. We’ve got about 1000 paintings. In this collection you can see part of the evolvement of the artists.”
Throughout the ’90s he provided a field and research department to the area, recording details of the artists, their families and some of the stories behind the paintings. “They took their time with the artists and jotted down what they could. Over the years we’ve recorded a lot of the history.” He is currently working on a book to profile the artists of Utopia, and has loose plans to put Mbantua’s entire Utopia collection on the market. Until then though, “the collection will continue to live and grow”.
At Camel Camp, Motorbike Paddy Ngale holds a painted shield that he made from the hardwood of a mulga tree. Running his fingers along the painting’s lines, he slowly, in a deep murmur, sings the Dreaming story of his conkerberry totem. Aged in his 80s, Motorbike Paddy has only recently begun to paint.
“I love his work. It’s messy to the eye and there’s no attempt at neatness, but that’s what he does,” Tim says. “I really enjoy the nurturing part of this job. Kylie Kemarre has been painting for us for over 20 years and her work is consistently brilliant. Her output is extremely slow; her paintings usually made of very fine dot work.
Top Left: Kylie Kemarre at work Top Right: Kylie Kemarre holding her latest painting Bottom: MB052599 90 x 45cm
Kylie isn’t known in the auction or public gallery world, because when her work does become available, it’s purchased by people who hang on to it. Lena Pwerle and Lily Lion Kngwarreye both produce fabulous fine linear work. Elizabeth Mpetyane was encouraged to take up painting by her mother, Kathleen Ngale. Her works of country are naive and imperfect, but they come alive beautifully, especially the larger ones, when they’re stretched and on display.”
Arriving in her work uniform at Tomahawk Outstation, Nikita Inkamala quietly unrolls her paintings. At the age of 17, making art is new to her, fitted in around working full-time at the local health clinic. Influenced by the artwork of the Dixon mob, Nikita is experimenting with images of animals and landscapes. On weekends, she says, her time is spent in the desert, hunting kangaroos and lizards with her husband.
At Utopia, there is story. Angelina Ngale kneels beside Tim at the Arlparra Outstation, and with her finger she traces the story of her paintings in the sand. Her fine dot work represents the anwekety, or bush plum, a traditional food source. Angelina’s other paintings tell the story of Antham-arenys, little spirits who live in caves or cracks in the ground, coming out to steal and hide babies in the community.
Stories and totems are inherited, then become a responsibility, Tim explains. “A person might inherit the story of the bush plum, or a kangaroo or a different type of bird. They then have the responsibility for that story. People have quite a lot of ownership over their totems.
“If somebody owns a bush plum story, they have grown up learning about the bush plum through word of mouth, dance and song. As they grow up they learn different levels of that mythology, until it becomes their responsibility to teach the next generation. Although people might paint the same story, it will be represented differently in the art.”
The artists don’t reveal too much because there are laws and secrecy around stories, he says. People tell only what they are allowed to. “There is mystery in Aboriginal art for white people. They are not our stories to fully understand.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 9, 2017 as “Scene of the desert”.
Had a great sleep and was up at 7am and on heading out of Alice Springs after a bite to eat, a quick visit to the office and refueling. I usually refuel the night before but had a busy day working in the gallery on the Sunday.
It was pouring with rain in Alice Springs as I headed up the north Stuart Highway and I was wondering if I would be actually able to get out to Utopia, because I know how slippery and dangerous it can get. Anyway, I decided to drive to the end of the bitumen some 100 kilometers away and decide what to do then.
When I got there, the sky across to the west was clearing in patches but to the east it was thunderously black! I headed up the dirt road finding it was really slippery in some spots where I was down to 30kph and half reasonable in other patches. My worst fear was slipping off the road down into the soggy culverts and getting hopelessly bogged. If I had another person with me, I definitely would have turned back. But I didn’t, so I decided to keep going.
The main reason why I really wanted to keep going was so that I could collect any completed paintings and distribute new canvas so that they could have a chance to finish them before Christmas. The artists, like anyone else, like to have some Christmas money in their pocket. Also it was only 19 degrees Celsius, when normally it is 40 degrees plus at this time of the year! So temperature wise to work in was great plus there was no dust nor any other traffic (thus far anyway).
When I got up near the truck stop it was really, really slippery and I met my first other road user heading back into town. I waved her down – a lady in a Barkly regional Council vehicle. She said it was still bad for another 20kms to the Mulga Bore turnoff, but then improved immensely. That was good news but then a strange light on my dashboard started flashing – and I didn’t want little known lights scaring me!! But it didn’t last long thank goodness!!
At 11.19am I finally arrived at the bitumen at Alparra Store, and the road had been good from the Mulga Bore turnoff as the lady had said. The skies had also cleared a lot and the temperature was up to 26 degrees! I was pleased that I had persevered.
I then headed straight out to Anongabah Outstation where Barbara Weir lives (I still actually call it “Quartpots Outstation” after a really wonderful old gentleman. I suppose it would be 25 years since he passed away now. (And what stories he would have taken unrecorded to the grave… but that’s for another time – maybe…)
I called into see Barbara but she had gone into Alice the previous day. But I did have a really good chat to her son James, whom I hadn’t seen for quite a long time. Then I went down to see Teresa Purla – Barbara’s oldest daughter. And yes we had a good talk too! She showed me a couple of paintings that she had completed for a Sydney gallery and was keen to do one for me too! So I commissioned a 150cm x 120cm (5’ x 4’).
Then Teresa and I headed over to some nearby bush camps and caught up with some artists that I haven’t dealt with a lot in the past mainly because they lived in Irrwelje and some other places that are a bit off the route that I generally take or area I cover in my trips. But Barbara, about a month before, had brought some of them to see me in Alice Springs because she wanted them “in our stable of artists”. So I gave them out some small canvas and white paint to begin with… (Barbara suggested white paint only at that time..)
So I collected quite a few small paintings from Susie Hunter, Jessie Hunter and Janie Morgan…. Some were really good and some were a bit rushed, so along with Teresa we talked about effort and reward from effort. And reward for effort not just meaning financial reward but feeling good about what you have created or accomplished. And Annie Hunter also contributed here. I think it was good bonding.
Even though I had some profile pictures of them, some being quite old, I took some new ones. I also gave out more small canvas for them to work on, plus lots of mixed coloured paints. Old Molly Pwerle (Pula) was also there under a humpy and they wanted me to give her some canvas too, so I gave her 5 small linens, and she was really happy.
Susie had at this time moved around to another area and started working on some carved wooden birds. Just using an old chisel she was carving them into shape before later painting them.
Michelle and Lily Lion were also living in a bush shelter nearby, along with their mother Queenie. Queenie was looking the best that I had seen her for a long time, so I even asked Lily if she would like to have a few small canvasses to paint while she whiles the hours away, but she didn’t think that she was up to it. So, most probably the Queenie paintings that I have in stock (and I have still got quite a few) will be the last produced. Lily and Michelle had some paintings completed so I bought them and gave them out some new ones. I suggested that they experiment with some new design, perhaps to include lizards, birds or other animals…. But I emphasized to have some fun! We’ll see next month!!
From there, I headed across to Rocket Range Outstation and caught up with lots of the ladies of old there. Katie Kemarre continues to produce good solid dependable work. She had two really good 90 x 90cm paintings finished. Angeline Ngale was there too, and was her normal chatty self…. I picked up quite a bit of art including a 180 x 90cm superb piece from Sarah Morton pictured below.
I left Rocket Range at 3.50pm. It was very humid and the temperature was 27 degrees. Arrived at Soapy Bore some 20 minutes later. Dorothy Jones had a very nice small dot 120 x 90cm painting completed. And Loretta, who usually produced really good quality work, tried to sneak a “fast one” through to me, but I returned it for “more effort”. She laughed and knew!
I then headed to Kurrajong Outstation, but all our artists were elsewhere, then past the store (felt a bit guilty for not dropping into see Lena and Rosie Pwerle but my eye was on the clock, and mind on the slippery road yet to navigate on the south end of the Sandover….
However, I did head out to Tomahawk Outstation but no one was there either. Then kept going to Camel Camp. Old Motorbike Paddy was there with 2 large paintings completed. They were just lines and dots and were quite smudgy but exactly what I expected because he’s just about putting his story down on the canvas…. I loved them for what they were – genuinely authentic with no pretense. Pictured here are the 2 paintings. One is going into the Mbantua Permanent Collection… and as I type, I can’t recall which one I selected!
I also gave Motorbike Paddy a new 180cm x 90cm linen with a special request, the same as the ladies at Anoongabah……have some fun. Denisa Hatches, who speaks very good English, translated this request to him in his language – and he smiled. Who knows what the painting will look like???
Elizabeth Mbitjane, the daughter of Motorbike Paddy and Kathleen Ngale, was away in hospital in Alice Springs but was expected home in good health in the next day or two! She’s really keen to paint, and I personally love her work, so I left a very large linen for her to paint when she gets home and is up to it!
I then left and headed home expecting to get there around 8.30pm, but the road had dried out significantly and managed a much better speed than on the way out. Home at 7.35pm.
Earth’s Creation by Emily Kame Kngwarreye no longer belongs to Mbantua Gallery. On November 16th, 2017 we sold it at auction for $2 million.
On the face of it you would think that I’d be happy wouldn’t you? But I wasn’t! In fact, I was very disappointed – for many reasons.. If I was so disappointed, then why did I say “the painting is on the market” when the bidding reached $2 million? I’ll attempt to explain my reasoning in as simple a manner as I can..
Firstly, I had approached the auction with two independent valuations – one for $4 million and one for $3 million. Of course, valuations are not guarantees, but Earth’s Creation had been exhibited in the Venice Art Biennale after those valuations had been made so I thought it reasonable that the painting had the potential of reaching $3 million, if not $4 million!
I had been thinking of the sale of Earth’s Creation for a year or two before it went to auction. During this time, I had many thoughts about what I wanted to do with the proceeds of the sale. Eventually I decided on 3 sizeable donations to charities, after business debt was paid off.
The first donation was to the Mbantua Foundation. The Mbantua Foundation is a tax deductible foundation I put together a number of years ago that is designed to put together sustainable projects for destitute and under privileged aboriginal people here in Central Australia. Unfortunately, it has been fairly idle over the past few years. In part, because of the flow on effects of the global financial crisis and also that I have never really attempted to source outside funds (apart from two friends who donated $25,000 each a few years ago). However, recently I have been in the process of ramping this up.
I have for many years wanted to employ a full-time sports officer in Utopia. In the last few months of the CLP Government in the NT, I had negotiated with the then Chief Minister, Adam Giles, that should I sell Earth’s Creation for $3.75 million the government would match $1 for $1 what Mbantua Gallery would donate over a 5 year period (this was obtained in writing). Mbantua Gallery’s intention was $50,000 each year, throw in the matching $50,000 from the NT Government, and we have $100,000 per annum for 5 years. (There has since been a change of government, but I would be surprised if the new Labor government wouldn’t honour that agreement).
We are also currently in the process of building a website for the Mbantua Foundation. We have never had one before as we have generally relied on donations from Mbantua Gallery. These have so far totalled approximately $251,000 over the years (recent figures from our accountant). We are also setting a new direction for the Foundation (albeit with some old and established ideas) for a number of projects that need to be set up and gotten underway in some capacity. I intend to set them up as independent projects but all under the Mbantua Foundation umbrella.
The second donation was to be to Ars Musica. Ars Musica is the dream and creation of a very good friend of mine, Reverend Arthur Bridge AM of Sydney. On many occasions over the years he and one of his Board members, (an ex Chair of the Sydney Opera House), travelled with me on various art trips to Utopia. It is a foundation set up to award scholarships to kids who have musical/theatrical talents but lack financial capacity to pursue those talents. Father Arthur was, of course, privy to my intentions of donating to his Foundation. Unfortunately, he was in hospital over the auction period but we had many text messages throughout which have been quite humorous (if he agrees, I will consider putting them on Facebook as humour has to be an important part of our lives…)
The third donation was to be to a yet undecided Children’s Cancer charity. My heart (no doubt like all you) always goes out to kids who have cancer.
Mbantua Gallery had a business debt of just under $3 million. This is almost entirely on the acquisition of artworks.
I had instructed our accountant that should we sell Earths Creation for $3.75million we would donate $250,000 to the Mbantua Foundation, $250,000 to Ars Musica and $250,000 to a Children’s Cancer hospital/charity. If the amount should be less than $3.75million the donations would decrease pro rata to $3 million. Should it sell for $3,000,000 or under, unfortunately the charities were to miss out. I deemed it necessary for us to address the tax bill and our business debt first, leaving our business in a manageable position going forward.
So my disappointment in the $2 million sale figure is that now none of these donations are able to happen.
From the perspective of the actual painting – I was personally very disappointed that it didn’t remain in Australia. I was certainly supportive of Adrian Newstead obtaining an export permit, and my reasoning for this was purely that I hoped it would increase bidding, which hopefully would then have enabled me to accomplish my goals as outlined earlier.
Earth’s Creation is a magnificent work in itself – and when the cultural background and life of Emily is factored in, it really should be sitting in the National Gallery of Australia or at the very least, a State Gallery.
Putting aside my personal wants and desires, I am disappointed that those who have the financial capacity and love of Australian art and heritage, didn’t bid and secure it for Australia. Or that a government didn’t have some involvement to secure it, because this particular painting is so iconic to Australia. I say this emphasising the word disappointment rather than critical, because maybe it is just a few of us who treasure the importance of the painting.
So why did I allow it to be “on the market” at $2 million?
I was certainly hoping that some good bidding would get underway! If I had have known that $2 million was going to be the last bid, I probably would not have done so!
I have responsibility to my 20 or so staff members and a very large team of artists. That responsibility is to ensure that Mbantua Gallery continues to support, encourage and promote the art of the Utopia region. In this unstable economic climate, reducing debt in the business was the smart thing to do to enable us to keep our responsibilities. If I had kept the painting, I would have then had to continue to pay out our $20,000 insurance premium per annum, and service the bank interest for a number of years to come.
Mbantua Gallery has downsized its space over the last few years which has left me no room to display it. It shouldn’t be locked up in storage but needs to be made available for public viewing.
Lastly, it was time to be in someone else’s hands. Someone who hopefully will ensure that it is appreciated to the utmost. So congratulations to Tim Olsen, the new owner.
From the financial view of Mbantua Gallery – after all of our insurances, bank interests and commissions are deducted, we’ll pretty well break even or be a touch in front.
I’ve really enjoyed the experience and the ride of owning Earth’s Creation. 100% of the comments that have been made to me personally over the 10 years that we have owned it have been extremely positive. So thank you to everyone who appreciated us for “having a go”.
Once again, I thank everyone who has supported myself and my gallery over the years. It is my intention to continue to work with and to encourage the artists of Utopia for many years to come – God willing.
Lastly, if there are any philanthropists reading this who would be interested in knowing more about our Mbantua Foundation, or getting involved financially or otherwise, please get in contact with me. And don’t forget Ars Musica Foundation – Father Arthur would also love to hear from you and he can be contacted on 0411 289 954.
On Tuesday the 22.8.17 I did an art trip to Utopia and visited the majority of our artists in the district. It was a beautiful day and I chatted more than I usually do, plus went to to a couple of extra Outstations that I don’t usually visit. Lily and Michelle Lion had moved, and I was also given a message that Freddy Jones had a couple of boomerangs that he wanted me to buy.
So I did all of this, and then received a further message that Kylie Kemarre was at Soapy Bore Outstation and had a large completed canvas for me to collect. She had had this canvas for over 18 months!! And yes, it was unbelievable good! Her work is extremely slow but the finished product is oh so special! Next week we will email out images and close ups of this painting!
Sarah Morton and Janice Clarke enjoying lerp, a sweet substance found on the leaves of the trees.
From Soapy Bore I dropped in to see Lena Pwerle and a few others to say hello.. And then ventured on to Camel Camp because I wanted to see how Kathleen Ngale and her husband Motorbike Paddy were doing. Kathleen didn’t look well, but she is a very old lady. Last time I saw her she was lying down sleeping, but on this occasion she was sitting up and drinking. I had a good chat with Motorbike Paddy (who has been doing a few very naïve paintings for us and wanted to do some more). Paddy, in his limited English, said that Kathleen was doing alright (the inference I took was – in her medical circumstances she was doing OK). She appeared quite frail and Paddy said that he had to lift her into the wheelchair because she couldn’t stand up on her own any more. And as we spoke Kathleen started saying “Tim you gotta give me canvas..” I couldn’t help but smile because she hadn’t in anyway whatsoever gave any indication that she recognised me until this point… I told Paddy that I’m happy to give her some small canvas and paints as it might give her something to do. He agreed, so I gave him a small roll of 30 x 30cm canvases plus some paints – with absolutely no expectations. I hope that it can in some small way help her to occupy herself in this tough time of her life.
Motorbike Paddy, an old man himself, was so gentle toward Kathleen that I sincerely found it very touching. Paddy gave me permission to take some photographs, and I think that this particular image conveys Paddy’s tenderness and dedication to his lifelong soul mate.
How did Mbantua Gallery come to be? A question asked by many!
Mbantua Gallery in fact is a derivative of Mbantua Store.
Mbantua Store was first set up in the 1950’s by Finke River Mission at 55 Gap Road, here in Alice Springs. The store was a general store that sold groceries, hardware, clothing and also had a small aboriginal art section. It was run by the Mission for many, many years and was affectionately known as “Mission Block”. Somewhere around 1982 the Mission decided to sell the business (not the real estate) and the then store manager bought it. Then in 1986, while chatting with the owner, I asked him if he would be interested in selling it. He said he had had enough after 13 years in total of running it so on July 13th 1986 I was officially the new owner – and what a roller coaster ride I have had ever since!
Mbantua Gallery first opened its doors at 303 Unley Road in Adelaide and then on the 1st of June 1990 we opened our doors in Gregory Terrace, Alice Springs.
Lots and lots has happened since and now our presence is at 64 Todd Mall Alice Springs, right next to a great coffee and ice cream shop, Uncle Edy’s!
We’re also situated at Shop 2/30 The Mall in Darwin and we have every intention to be around for a long time to come.
May 18th 2017 was my last art trip to the Utopia region. The plan was to take out our Art Manager, Tomoko Kuroda, and get away at a leisurely 8am because we were expecting it to be a relevantly quiet trip. At about 7:30am I received a phone call from Tomoko saying that she was ill and could I wait until 8:30am because she might be feeling better by then? Of course I said yes but she hadn’t improved!
Having packed the vehicle with paints and canvas the night before, I headed out on the 600km journey on my own. The weather and temperature were fantastic but as per normal the dirt roads were dreadful. The main road, the Sandover Highway (why it’s called a highway beats me!), can be quite dangerous because it’s easy to get a bit impatient and if you concede to this and sneak a bit of extra speed then you’re sure to hit a heap of bumps and bounce all over the place! So patience is a necessity!
I decided to visit Camel Camp first because I had a large canvas with me painted by Kathleen Ngale. I collected it on one of my last trips but she was away in hospital so I didn’t get a photograph of her with it. I had been informed on the grapevine that she was back home at Camel Camp so was hoping to catch up. Unfortunately, she was ill in bed when I arrived and couldn’t come out. I asked Motorbike Paddy if I could photograph him with the painting so I could at least have the painting verified that it came from Camel Camp. Motorbike Paddy was happy to do this so our Certificate of Authenticity for this particular painting will have him holding and identifying the painting as Kathleen’s work (this is something I think is pretty important to do in this industry, where possible). Hopefully Kathleen will make a full recovery and we can revisit a photograph with her!
Records approximate Motorbike Paddy’s birth year at 1932 (Kathleen at 1934) which makes him approximately 85 years old now. He has taken to painting a few small ones himself. When he asked me for canvas a few weeks ago I said ‘What are you going to paint Motorbike Paddy?’ He said ‘I’m gonna paint my story’. So I gave him a couple of small canvas and paints.
When I collected them from him I asked him what it was and he replied ‘Bush Plum Story’. Because he has very limited English “Bush Plum” could mean any of the bush berries, not necessarily what is actually known as the broad leaf bush plum. I hope in time to determine the correct “Bush Plum”! Two of Kathleen and Motorbike Paddy’s children, Matthew and Elizabeth Mbitjana, brought their paintings across to me as well. They also have very limited English. Matthew has only been painting for us for a couple of months now (although he has done the odd few over the years) and he paints the “Bush Plum story” and his “Country” using fine, irregular dots. They look quite impressive when stretched and on the wall.
Elizabeth on the other hand has been painting for us for quite some time and we have a number in stock. She also paints using quite fine, irregular dots but usually a bit neater than Matthew’s! I personally think very highly of Elizabeth’s work but unfortunately images don’t seem to do them justice. Definitely worth seeing first hand! On this visit to Camel Camp Elizabeth’s latest painting wasn’t completed so am looking forward to seeing it on my next visit!
Off to Rocket range next, some 50km’s or so further along the Sandover. Here I caught up with Carmen Jones, Katie Kemarre, Hazel Morton, Janice Clark, Lily Lion and Kylie Kemarre. All of our other Rocket Range artists were away in Alice Springs at Batchelor College. Carmen had some nice small pieces and had also played around with a new design which I really liked. So she is going to paint some of those for my next visit. Katie had some nice works too, I particularly liked the two 90x90cm paintings (1 pictured left).
She also had quite a few small 30x30cm paintings finished as well and we’ll have some of these up on our website soon! Hazel had a couple of lovely soft and subtle 90x60cm paintings and Janice a few small 30x30cm’s. Kylie, who is a magnificent artist but isn’t prolific, had a large 180x120cm linen on the go. She has completed about 60% so it shouldn’t be too far off! Right is an image of it so far..
From Rocket Range to Alparra Store next to visit Lena Pwerle and her family. Lena was away at a meeting but I caught up with Rosie Pwerle, Nora Petyarre and Connie Petyarre. We had a good yarn – especially about Connie’s recent eye operation. They were all pretty happy as her sight had improved for the better!
When leaving Lena’s, Angelina Pwerl waved me down on the side of the road. She told me that she was now living at Alparra (previously she lived at Camel Camp). She had some great finished Atham-areny paintings that I picked up. Dorothy Kunoth (born c1953) was also with her and asked for some more canvas for herself. I’ve known and purchased art from Dorothy for years but her heart doesn’t always seem to be in her work. So we had a little chat and she did seem really keen so I gave her out some smaller canvas and lots of bright colours. I’m really looking forward to catching up with her next trip to see what she does!
Lena Pwerle’s son George and his wife Shirley stopped by and said that they have paintings completed at their camp, Tomahawk Outstation. So 20 minutes later I was at their home and Shirley had completed some nice work. She also had some completed Thelma Dixon works too so I paid Shirley for these as well (Thelma was away visiting family). I gave out more canvas and paints for Shirley and Thelma. Shirley also asked if I could leave some for her mother, Elsie Dixon, who is currently living on a community outside of Utopia. I’ve known Elsie for years as well and had no hesitation. There was also a young lady, Nikita Inkamala, present. She told me that she was married to Thelma’s son and now living at Tomahawk Outstation. She was very well spoken and interested in what we were doing so I asked her if she’d like to learn to paint? She was a little bit nervous but said that she would so I gave her out some small canvas and paints as well. It also turned out that her Dad is Eric Inkamala who I knew about 25 years ago! He was only a young fella then – how time flies!
From Tomahawk Outstation I headed home – only a short 250km’s away! I bypassed Mulga Bore and Angkula Outstation’s because I was pretty sure our artists there were in Alice Springs.
I reached home about 5:30 that evening – another great bush trip done and dusted.
There’s been much written on Emily Kame Kngwarreye – a number of books in fact. Her works have been exhibited all over the world! Compared alongside Monet! A genius!
I knew Emily before she ever became famous, way back in 1986/87. We gave her two pieces of canvas, around the 90 x 90cm size, when we were in the early stages of collecting paintings ourselves. The paintings came back with some basic women U shapes and digging sticks. Nothing out of the ordinary. We sold one for a very modest price (probably around the $300 mark) and for some inexplicable reason I decided to keep the other – and I still have it! It is one of Emily’s very first paintings on canvas and is now in the Mbantua permanent collection. I have no recollection of ever seeing another Emily painting with symbols in them.
During this period in time my main focus was my business – Mbantua Store. Art was a side interest as the running of the business was 12 hours a day and I also had a very young, growing family.
Barbara Weir, who had become a good friend during that era, used to tell me all the time to get Emily to paint for us but I resisted for quite some time because of other work demands and I honestly had little appreciation for the paintings. I was very much old school – I liked neat and tidy dot work or landscapes – and I didn’t change overnight even though Barbara finally convinced me to buy paintings from Emily and I also had a wholesale market for them.
I can’t quite pin point the time I changed but it was a few years later, after Barbara had regularly told me that the paintings represented everything, that my daughter Dale Jennings and I got together and started staring into the paintings and questioned each other as to what we saw. That was the beginning of my comprehension! (Yes, I am a bit slow at times, I know!). And shortly after that I was with a fairly prominent art journalist looking at a couple of Emily paintings that were lack-lustre browns, blacks and creams (and this journalist said words to the effect of ‘Emily did paint some pretty ordinary works at times!’).
This was something that I would have agreed to prior to my enlightening – the paintings in reference were not cosmetically beautiful to the eye – but I had to come to their defence! Over the 30 plus years of traveling regularly to Emily’s lands of Utopia I have seen the countryside in drought many, many times. The colours of the land are reminiscent of these paintings; dead or no grass… various tones of browns and mustard yellows… blacks from fire ravaged mulga forests… dust… flies by the trillions… ‘Stare into the paintings’ I told the journalist, ‘Free your mind’. She didn’t. Or certainly didn’t acknowledge that she did! But that had been me not long before!
I certainly changed, so much so that I built a small but modest sized museum where we dedicated about 25% of its room to Emily paintings and to photographs that Dale and I visualised in her paintings. I also bought Earth’s Creation at auction in 2007 for over $1 million and put that on display in the museum.
Earth’s Creation has since been on exhibition in Japan, the Australian National Museum in Canberra, Parliament House in Darwin and, of recent, spent a few months in Venice, Italy, at the Venice Biennale. A couple of years ago it was independently valued at $4 million. So there are many more people out there in the world that have had my “enlightening”, and probably much quicker off the mark than myself!
And I am glad – not from the point of view of valuation – but that I was able to see what others could see and, ultra-importantly, what Emily could see and what she was able to accomplish coming from a completely different upbringing, culture and worldliness than I have.
The vast majority of people over the years, who have had negligible or no exposure to Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s paintings, generally have little or no idea as to why they are held in such high esteem and admired by those who understand her work.
Recently, an acquaintance of mine from the “vast majority” that I mention above, selected from our website this image of an Emily painting. She said to me, “Tim, it is an atrocious looking painting. How on earth could anyone think that it is anything but?”
We all have our own views, ideas and likes regarding art. My explanation to her was that Emily was a very old, authentic and traditional aboriginal lady when she painted this. Her upbringing was all to do with the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime – and she even had a hole in her nose from those very early days. This is an absolute rarity now!
She spoke next to no English and through interpreters and the few English words that she possessed, she said that her paintings were about everything. And “everything” was pretty much to do with creation and mythology. She was given paints and canvas and almost immediately showed the art world how a little old aboriginal lady could master modern abstract, representing what she saw through her eyes and thoughts. And thus allowing us, the viewers of her paintings, to see what we believed them to be. It was all about everything.
Personally I love this piece. I look into it (and probably because I knew Emily and have had over 30 years experience with her family and other Utopia people), I see it as quite a mystical painting. I think of her having lived under the stars in the Central Australia deserts all of her life and this is a representation of her perspective of the night skies. I see bright stars, more distant stars, stars behind clouds, reflected sunsets on the evening clouds, storm buildups – and I imagine thoughts and wonderings of all people when lying on the ground looking up into the night heavens.
Others might see something completely different and I’m sure that they do – and that in itself shows the genius of Emily Kngwarreye.