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.