Scene of the Desert (The Saturday Paper)

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.

MB052707MB052707
150x90cm
Angeline Ngale
Atham-areny Story

 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”.

Adventure To Utopia 23.05.16

I had a wonderful day yesterday.

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.

Lena and Joel
Artist Lena Pwerle and my Grandson, Joel

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!

Rosie and her sculptures
Rosie Pwerle with her beautiful carvings

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.

SP5482
Harold Payne’s painting that depicts a pigeon walking over ripening fruit on the Bush Plum Tree

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.

-Tim


stay tuned for more exciting insights on tim’s blog

A Random Beginning

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.

-Tim

Featured photograph: Tim pictured with artists Doreen and Harold Payne and their family in the Utopia region, NT Australia.