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.
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.