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.
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.
I first met Ada Bird Petyarre back around 1985 at a Utopia Outstation called Angkula, some 190kms north east of Alice Springs. This Outstation is about 10 or 15kms away from Mulga Bore Outstation, which at that time hadn’t been built but is now quite a large community. Also living there at that time was her husband Tommy Bird (who passed away not long after), Lindsay Bird and Gloria Petyarre. Ada at the time was heavily involved in the Utopia Batik movement. Acrylics on canvas were quite uncommon! It was about 1987 or 1988 that Ada started to paint with acrylics and she was just a natural! Probably because of her history with batik but I also think that what she painted on canvas was what she had painted on human bodies for much of her adult life. Ceremonial body paint was simply a big part of her life! The local word is Awelye, pronounced “A-wool-ya”.
For the 30 plus years of knowing the Bird family very well, I was always under the impression that Ada and Tommy only had the 6 children – being Paddy, June, Hilda, Colin, Steven and Ronnie. Just recently I sat down and had a yarn with Colin Bird and his wife, Colleen Wallace, and they told me there were 3 other siblings too. There was Linda, who was first born and died when she was 30. Colin said that he was maybe 10 years old years old at the time. And the other 2 siblings were Graham and Jamie, who were born between Colin and Steven and both died relatively young, probably back in the late 1960’s. But life went on out there in the outback and Ada raised and guided them all through the teen years, resulting in a tight-knit and loving family. And then there was all the grandkids – 11 alone to Paddy and his wife Eileen! And Ada was ever present with all of them..
Ada was always very vocal! Always with good humour and passion.. Made me laugh so often!!
Ada’s paintings, as mentioned above, were nearly always Awelye – Body Paint and Ceremony. The majority were about the Mountain Devil Lizard which was one of her totems passed to her from her father. (And passed also to all her Petyarre sisters: Kathleen, Gloria, Nancy, Myrtle, Violet and Jean).
Above, Kriss has selected a black and white painting of Ada’s that actually shows the Awelye lines and also the breasts to give you some idea of what was in Ada’s mind when painting. Many of her paintings depict the lines that are painted onto bodies for ceremonies. We have selected 20 of these paintings to show you and are offering 40% discount on them all until the 30th of April 2017.
Year by year we lose more of our oldies and with them their own personal history… Ada passed away in June 2009 but her family survives and flourishes.
After over 30 years I really have no idea about the amount of the trips I have done to the Utopia region of the Northern Territory, but yesterday was really special for me. I took my 15 year old grandson Joel with me. Yes, he actually wanted to go with his Pop!
We got away about 9am – a bit later than usual because I had a couple of other early commitments to attend to. On the way out we talked about Aussie Rules football because we’re both diehard Collingwood supporters – yeah I brainwashed him early in his life! And he is right into the Dream Team footy competition and knows just about every stat on every footballer in the competition – if not all the vast majority! I loved it because I learnt lots and it might help me in the tipping competition that we have (Joel makes the mistake of always picking Collingwood to win no matter who they play – you don’t win tipping competitions for that loyalty and I learnt that the hard way many years ago!).
As we motored along on this 600km+ “day out” the subject changed to what we were going to do during the day, where we would be going, who we would be seeing and a little knowledge about certain individuals and outstations. It was important, I thought, to keep it light and interesting. I also wanted to introduce him to a little about some of the vegetation and how it is important to the aboriginal people. Again keeping it basic – to Joel the vegetation was just the bush and pretty boring, so I thought I’d leave the education to just the Mulga trees and Bush Plum shrubs. And I’ll take you readers through the information as well because you may find it interesting.
As we drove along I pointed to a forest of Mulga trees and asked Joel if he knew what the species were. “Trees, Pop” was the answer! So as we drove along looking at ‘thousands’ of these Mulga trees I chatted about some of the importance these trees have for the aboriginal people who live on these lands. (Joel pointed to an Ironwood tree and tested me by saying “What’s that one Pop?”. Fortunately I knew it and sounded wise!!!!) They are a hardwood tree and their wood was used to make boomerangs, spears, shields, coolamons (wooden bowls), clap sticks, nulla nullas (clubs), woomeras (spear throwers), dancing/ceremonial sticks, adzes, churingas (sacred boards) and no doubt other bits and pieces.
They [ironwood trees] are a hardwood tree and their wood was used to make boomerangs, spears, shields, coolamons (wooden bowls), clap sticks, nulla nullas (clubs), woomeras (spear throwers), dancing/ceremonial sticks, adzes, churingas (sacred boards) and no doubt other bits and pieces.
Honey ants live under many of them and local aboriginals wander amongst them looking for worker ants. When they find them they know that the prized honey ants, with swollen abdomens of honey, are not far away and can be dug out of the ground (it really has a yummy flavour!). The worker ants collect a white sugary substance off the Mulga tree branches called lerp scale that infests lots of these mulga trees, and they take it to the nests where it is stored in the swollen abdomens of other designated ants. The seeds of the Mulga tree were also collected, roasted and ground into flour in the past.
A mistletoe parasite grows on nearly all the Mulga trees and produces small sticky berries that are also eaten. (It was Lindsay Bird some 20 years ago that brought me some of these branches with berries to show me that it was his Mulga Seed Dreaming).
Mulga tree apples are also found on Mulga trees. Usually those trees that grow close to a good water source because they come about by wasps who bore into the branches and lay their eggs. A gall then forms with the grubs inside it. Both gall and grubs are then eaten. Some galls are dreadfully bitter and can’t be eaten but aboriginal people could recognise this, and of course like some other native foods you rely on the bitter test – that is spit it out if you are unsure.
Some galls are dreadfully bitter and can’t be eaten but aboriginal people could recognise this, and of course like some other native foods you rely on the bitter test – that is spit it out if you are unsure.
I decided our first stop should be to visit Lena Pwerle at her bush camp behind the Alparra (Utopia) Store. This is some 250kms North East of Alice Springs. Lena had got a message to our art manager, Tomo, that she needed a warm blanket, and I gave in because we also had some other requests for warm jumpers as winter is fast approaching, this is something I don’t do a lot of now because I simply don’t have the room in the car. But Lena is such a persuasive old soul it’s hard to say no to her and she can twist Tomo around her little finger.
We got to her camp (a bush humpy is her preference) and unloaded the flour and blanket and I introduced Joel and took a photo of the two together.
Something that I wanted to do and Joel responded really well. I also picked up a painting here from Connie Petyarre but it wasn’t up to her normal standard of very fine work. Everyone there said that her eyes were going on her (Connie is really shy). I made a mental note to bring out a selection of glasses for her on the next trip.
Rosie Pwerle who is about the same age as Lena I would guess, also lives here but was away at the time. Apart from paintings, Rosie keeps herself busy by making small native wooden carvings and bead necklaces. She brought some into town a week or so ago and I just loved them!
We then drove on to Rocket Range camp and were quite busy for about an hour or more. I introduced Joel and asked if he could take a few photos and they all said yes but he was a bit shy here as it was all new to him. We collected some nice paintings from Carmen Jones, Katie Kemarre, Hazel Morton, Kylie Kemarre, and Michelle and Lily Lion, and gave out new canvasses and paints.
Soapy Bore, some 20km away was our next stop, where we also collected a nice array of paintings from Loretta Jones, Dorothy and Jilly Jones and also May Lewis . I was really happy with a painting by Loretta Jones and also some extremely fine dot work from Dorothy Jones. Lots of other non-artists and kids came around the car as well and love to interact while we’re there. We then said goodbye to Soapy Bore and drove to the turnoff to Kurrajong Outstation because we had received word that Violet Payne would be there. However she wasn’t, so we drove slowly past Alparra Store which was not far away. Still no sign of Violet so we headed off to Camel Camp via Tomahawk Outstation.
There was no one at Tomahawk so we arrived at Camel Camp some 10 minutes later. There we were met by Angelina Ngale, Glady Kemarre, Matthew Mbitjane, Kathleen Ngale, Polly Ngale and a few other people. I introduced Joel to them and said he was Terri’s oldest child (They know Terri who often comes with me). They all started talking in their language and broken English about him with big smiles on their faces. I know it was very welcoming.
They all started talking in their language and broken English about him with big smiles on their faces. I know it was very welcoming.
Glady had a couple of small carvings that I really loved – very unique and I have never seen them done in this way before. Matthew had a 90x90cm painting in a very similar style to his sister, Elizabeth. Very naïve and didn’t adhere to being painted evenly to the borders of the canvas. I think it will look really good when stretched (as do Elizabeth’s) and will appeal to that person who isn’t looking for conformity.
Matthew was extremely talkative and happy (as he usually is) but hard to understand as his English is very limited. Joel asked me “How do you understand them Pop?”. I replied that I have developed an ear for it over the years, but even then I miss a lot! Polly Ngale had a few small to medium paintings and she talks at 100 miles per hour. I must admit I don’t comprehend a lot of that. (But there is usually someone who can interpret for me.) We were quite busy there spending a fair bit of time just engaging. They all have a good sense of humour – Glady has a really dry sense of humour and a wicked laugh!
After leaving them it was time to head home and my arithmetic was saying probably about 6:30/45 before getting Joel back home to his mother and father. However, just after leaving Camel Camp, Violet Payne and about 6 of her family found us and waved us down. They had lots of paintings which we processed and one 180x60cm by Laura Payne – Violet’s youngest sister. We had a big laugh because Laura has had the canvas for about 2 years and I always tease her how she’s going with it and we get a laugh out if it because we both know it’s still in the ‘too hard basket’.
We had a big laugh because Laura has had the canvas for about 2 years and I always tease her how she’s going with it. We get a laugh out if it because we both know it’s still in the ‘too hard basket’.
Anyway, here in the middle of nowhere next to the dry Sandover River out it comes – all finished! And she laughed and laughed (and so did I!). And it was good!! She had done a larger one of this style once before and I thought it was something really special with her own ‘ownership’ stamped on it.
They also had some of their mum and dad’s, Harold Payne and Doreen Payne’s, paintings which I also paid them for. I had also forgotten why Harold sometimes had white (or cream) and black bird symbols on his paintings and asked to be refreshed on it. I was told that in mythological times the little bird (a native pigeon) landed on the Bush Plum Tree with the fruit was still unripe. It then walked onto the clusters of berries which then turned black and were ready to eat.
After giving out more canvas and paints they got in their cars and turned for home, as did we. They were all waving from their windows and it gave Joel and me a really nice feeling. And it also related to Harold Payne’s story that I mentioned earlier.
This put us another 40 minutes behind our ‘home schedule’, but that was fine. Off we went and Joel fell asleep (I might have too if I wasn’t driving!). After about 100km I stopped on the side of the road and showed Joel a Bush Plum Tree and explained a little about that.
Joel turns 16 this year and can get his driver’s licence then, so I threw him the keys to do a little driving on some dirt tracks – and yes he was a model student! Having driven hundreds of thousands of kilometres on Territory dirt roads I instilled a few rules and subtle advice. We both survived and Joel had one of his first bush road lessons.
Joel turns 16 this year and can get his driver’s licence then, so I threw him the keys to do a little driving on some dirt tracks – and yes he was a model student!
It was after 7pm when we arrived home, but when we were some about 50kms from home I asked Joel to give me 3 negatives about the day. He said the distance we had to travel from home to the first Outstation (about 270km), and he also incorporated the time actually driving over the bumpy roads – he couldn’t think of a third negative which was good! I then asked him to give me 3 positives and he stated “the trees”. I had to ask him what he meant by this and he elaborated that he meant learning about the Mulga trees and Bush Plums. He also liked the “driving” and I replied that he just gave this as a negative! He clarified that he meant HIM driving! His third positive of the day was that he liked how we “got the art”. I added 3 more to his list of positives – meeting lots of aboriginal people in their home environment, seeing an enthusiastic side of their personality expressed in their native language, and of course, spending time with Pop.
That’s all from me on this latest of bush trips. Good night everyone.
stay tuned for more exciting insights on tim’s blog
I’ve been meaning to do these blogs for years but always put them off, probably because my weekly 60 or 70 hours of normal work was more than enough, and the energy to write normal blogs just wasn’t there!
However I have over the past 12 months restructured our business and this has freed up lots more time for me to do something like this. Plus I have been encouraged to do them…
I’m 62 going on 63 years now and this July marks 30 years working with aboriginal people from the Utopia Region of the Northern Territory here in Australia (North East of Alice Springs). And what a journey it has been! And still is!! It all started strictly as a business but not for long. Passion crept in! But to make it all work business acumen and energy was extremely important way back then as it still is today!
It all started strictly as a business but not for long. Passion crept in!
I’ve questioned myself as to what I should write in my blogs! Do I start from the beginning and try and tell a chronological story, or do I just write various stories, happenings, events, ideas, adventures and all of those things as I roll along??? Give myself a license to meander here and there and perhaps from time to time lose anyone that may be silly (or game) enough to follow along with me?? How much do I write? How often do I write? Do I give my political opinions (I do with a couple of wines in me at a BBQ )? Do I express my honest, experienced based thoughts about complex ideological equations?
Well I think, certainly at this time, I will write journey stories and make reference outside of Utopia Region experiences, including other business experiences and my 11 ½ years in the Northern Territory police force. The blog and stories will be random and not in any order, and will cover my 41 years in the N.T. (and who knows, maybe a few references before that if I can remember that far back.)
I’ve been married to my lovely wife Jan for almost 38 years, and we have 4 terrific grown up daughters and a son. We also have 9 grand children ranging in ages from 15 down to 1 year old. All the kids and grandies were born in the Territory, and we get together regularly and they have all been great support to me over the years and still to this day.
A very summarized working background over these past 41 years is the following:
In 1975 I joined the NT Police Force before leaving in 1986.
In 1986 I started my own business. I bought a truck and delivered stores to many outlying aboriginal outstations in Central Australia, mainly in the Utopia Region.
1987 I bought Mbantua General Store in Alice Springs, and combined it with the truck run. This store also had an aboriginal art section in it.
Mbantua Gallery was created in the late 1980’s – this first one was at 303 Unley Road in Adelaide.
So I think this very broad start will be a good place to finish my first blog, stay tuned for more.
Featured photograph: Tim pictured with artists Doreen and Harold Payne and their family in the Utopia region, NT Australia.