- The Stranger Artist, by Quentin Sprague. Hardie Grant. $32.99.
The Stranger Artist is an accomplished biography telling the story of Jirrawun Arts, the Kimberley art studio that made legends of artists like Paddy Bedford as well as its impresario Tony Oliver.
It documents an important time in Australian art - part of 'the making of an Aboriginal fine art', as anthropologist Fred Myers has it. He wrote these words of the old Pintupi artists he worked with at Papunya, but it applies also to the wave of Indigenous art that followed spreading out across the Central and Western desert as far as the Kimberleys.
Papunya opened up Aboriginal dreaming designs to serious consideration as art, and in the process attracted recognition for Indigenous cultural law. It spawned political change for Indigenous people, including raising a profile for the value of preserving Indigenous culture. This was all the more remarkable, because it came out of concentration-style camp living where the Indigenous people, pushed from their ancestral lands, were herded together with little hope of a future. With schoolteacher Geoff Bardon's assistance, the elders of the Pintupi group began to paint their secret dreaming law in a desperate bid to transmit it to the next generation.
The art centre movement across Aboriginal Australia grew out of Papunya's success, and the prospect that for these communities their culture could become an industry. Its success unfortunately also spawned more exploitation of the artists. It was that reality, of artists being paid to paint rather than paid for works, that began Jirrawun Arts. It was Freddie Timm's membership of the old Gija artists and Oliver's know-how as a fine art gallerist that created the vision of a painting studio that would profit the black artists, not the white middle men.
Jirrawun took the fine art idea further to create artists like Paddy Bedford as celebrities on the New York model. Think Warhol, think Pollock. In many ways what Tony Oliver added to the art was high-end marketing, and the results were astonishing - a turnover of $3 million a year at its peak. There were sell-out exhibitions and commissions like that of the design elements built into the new Renzo Piano building for the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris.
The artists were lionised. At the Paddy Bedford retrospective, the artist arrived at the opening in a Cadillac. The old men stayed at the Park Hyatt on Sydney Harbour and were introduced to the governor, Marie Bashir. In one memorable staging, they met with justices of the Federal Court as one group of lawmen to another. After the justices delivered speeches on reconciliation and native title law, Paddy Bedford declared simply: 'My name's Paddy Bedford. I am the law.'
Yet Jirrawun flared and burnt out, while the social deprivation of Indigenous life in the Kimberley, as elsewhere, endured. One thing that Jirrawun showed was that you could give Aboriginal culture the dignity and even the acclaim it was due, and still not cure racism and disadvantage for Aboriginal communities.
What ended Jirrawun, more than Tony Oliver's exhaustion after a decade of frenetic advocacy for the Gija artists, was the death of Paddy Bedford. Timmy Timms had already died. Freddie was seriously ill with diabetes. What guaranteed that this Indigenous art movement, 'the last great art movement of the Twentieth Century', would end was the sheer mortality of its artists. They were the last of their people to grow up 'on country' trained in the law. They became elders, and artists whose visions of country translated on canvas created the movement. Clifford Possum Tjapaljarri, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Eubena Nampijin, Rover Thomas, Paddy Bedford, many more ...
Across Indigenous communities, as the old people die, the great wealth of traditional knowledge that powers the art - the hard experience of surviving on country - threatens to be lost with them. It's a race against time to save the culture from this passing, along with the predations of the times; the mining, the agribusiness and the disaffection among young Aboriginal people.
Quentin Sprague ran Jirrawun Arts in 2009-2010 after Tony Oliver finished up, and spent time earlier in the Kimberley at other arts organisations. His account is lucid, moving and bears the marks of first-hand experience. This book is destined to become an invaluable recounting of a ground-breaking art group that was also an audacious political gesture.
Indigenous art became big business while it changed the international view of Australian art irrevocably. And although Jirrawun was wound up, the ambition lives on in the wall-sized canvasses now paying testament to Australian Indigenous culture in museums around the world.
- Robyn Ferrell is adjunct professor at the Centre for Law, Art and Humanities at the ANU and the author of Sacred Exchanges: Images in global context.