My old Darwin…and Kath-er-ine and the Tin Sheds at Sydney Uni from nigh on forty years ago…mate Chips Mackinolty (you can see some of his own work here) sent me a note a few weeks ago about an exhibition at one of Darwin’s newest and best-watched galleries, the CCAE Gallery just on the western edge of Darwin usually known as “near Uncle Sam’s” – a notorious 24 hour Darwin fast-food joint that has been a Darwin landmark since well before I first flopped into town on a McCafferty’s bus in the mid-eighties.
The invite was to ZING! – a show of paintings by Sarah Brown, who Chips said “Not all of you will know Sarah–she runs the Purple House and Western Desert Dialysis in Alice Springs (which is an AMSANT member). In between kids and kidneys, she is also a great painter.”
Id just got back into town after a couple of weeks well and truly out bush so after a few hours in the office I could think of nothing better than spending a Friday evening looking at a few wonderful pictures of central Australia, necking a few free glasses of wine and gallery-opening tucker and having a yarn with a few pals. Unlike some who try to write about art – black and whitefella both – in the NT I recognise my limitations and realise that I cannot do the art and the artist due credit with my efforts. One of the few who can – and speaks with brutal frankness and from an informed viewpoint – is Chips, who opened ZING! last Friday evening.
Here is what he told the hundred or more of us that crammed into Paul Johnstone’s CCAE Gallery.
My earliest memory of art came from my second year primary school teacher, a Miss Dunne. She was tall, skinny, red haired; red-lipped, white powder faced and, in the eyes of a six year old, incredibly ancient.
But she was pretty wonderful.
She was, if nothing else, an Australian nationalist when it came to art: Heysen, McCubbin, Streeton, Roberts and the like were the bread and butter of weekly art classes, and framed in the class room. There was none of that European rubbish, from the Renaissance to the Impressionists and beyond.
Australia, and above all the Australian landscape, ruled supreme.
As Ignatius Loyola proselytised Jesuits before the age of seven, I had Miss Dunne. If I am an Australian nationalist at all, it is about landscape and country, and it is solely due to her.
And one of the landscape artists she introduced me to—perhaps surprisingly because he had fallen from grace by then—was Albert Namatjira. There were three or four of his works on our classroom walls. She thought he was wonderful. As part of my early childhood, Miss Dunne introduced me to the desert via Namatjira—even though I wouldn’t get there for another 20 years or so.
Perhaps Miss Dunne had visited Alice Springs on the Ghan—I have no idea.
In any case it was a revelation for me when I first went to central Australia in 1982 to discover the desert—and find that Namatjira had it right. The texture and colours that I had doubted and found beyond imagination were there, and had been brought to life in a palette the Streetons and Heysons and others could barely imagine. I realised then that while Namatjira had influenced me via Miss Dunne, he only truly captured me after my first visit to the Centre.
So it has been much easier for me since then to discover other non-Aboriginal artists have also been seduced by central Australia—maybe not as Miss Dunne nationalists—but certainly as captives of extraordinary Australian landscapes.
One of those artist/captives is Sarah Brown.
As I said 14 months ago at the opening of a previous show from tonight’s artist:
… something fabulous has happened over the last decade and more—and if anything Sarah has been an unwitting beneficiary of an atmosphere … in central Australia where non-Aboriginal artists—the vast majority of whom have worked in various forms for and with Aboriginal organisations—have stopped giving a flying paranoid toss about being whitefella artists … and are producing what I believe is amongst the best visual art in the Northern Territory.
And, frankly, far outperforming Top End artists.
And most have been women. Unlike the whitefella males like Bruce Chatwin and Nicolas Rothwell who have merely written about central Australia, women have gone ahead and painted and potted and decorated and celebrated being here—and practising here.
Women such as Jenny Green, Pip McManus, Pam Loft, Marina Strocchi and Neridah Stockley—and now Sarah Brown.
And there have also been a few males such as Rod Moss and Dan Murphy who have taken the road of celebrating being an artist here in central Australia—instead of being paranoid and loopy.
And can I congratulate Rod this evening on today’s announcement of his winning the Prime Minister’s non-fiction literary award for Hard Light of Day. It shows visual artists can also be great writers—and that we don’t have to depend on others to tell our stories. How good is that?
There is a strong tendency to imagine that—outside Aboriginal art and artists—the centre of visual arts in the Northern Territory is Darwin
Frankly, that is bullshit.
Sarah Brown’s work is just one part of a landscape which suggests that very few visual artists in the Top End match that of central Australia.
But being here this evening, surrounded by her work, is not all of what Sarah is about. At her opening last year I described her in the best of possible ways as a “mongrel dog”. With that description, I was describing her as central Australia’s leading advocate and activist for Aboriginal people with end stage renal disease. I described her as that because, quite simply, she is completely unafraid in her dealings with bureaucrats and politicians in her battles with them.
I call her that as a token of real affection.
The real puzzle is that she is both mongrel dog activist, mother, carer of people within the Western Desert Renal Dialysis family—yet still finds the time to create objects of beauty and wonder. There are over 30 pieces here tonight. Knowing her, and her energy, these have been created in a short space of time, and in the midst of the craziness of her other work—both familial and political.
I feel jealous that she finds the time for it all—I wish I could do the same.
Thanks Sarah … I know you are a bit nervous about having a major show outside Alice Springs for the first time … forget it, you are with friends.
Your show doesn’t just Zing! … it sings!
And as I said last time around, to all the other people here this evening, bring out your cash, credit cards or cheque books, or hand over your BSB details to Paul and grab one of Sarah’s paintings while you can.
But even if you’re not buying, enjoy a really wonderful exhibition.
Chips Mackinolty, July 2011
As you can see from my photographs of Sarah above, she has one of those beautifully elastic faces that betrays her intense shyness and draws a camera to her like birds to the sweetest nectar. In her biography for the show she reveals her muse/s in the most charming way:
ZING! (noun) Enthusiasm, sparkle, spirit, pizzaz, drive.
My name is Sarah and I’m a paintaholic! So much so that I have a Saturday morning job in an art supply shop so that I can hang around with paint and canvas, stick my fingers in the pots to show customers the difference between a cobalt blue and a cobalt blue hue and fuel my addiction.
As a remote area nurse for 10 years, I had many opportunities to spend time on amazing country that few people get to see, but little time or headspace to pick up a brush. When finally we settled in Alice in 2003, I had no excuses left and I enrolled in a painting night class with Rod Moss at CDU. I was petrified! What if I couldn’t do it anymore? What if I could and it took over everything else? With challenging full time work and three kids, was there room?
I chose ZING! as a theme for a few reasons;
• Central Australia has had an unusual amount of rain in the past year or so and the country is alive with water and abundance
• I use a number of techniques in my work to attempt to catch the energy and sparkle of the country (I can’t tell you what they are, or I’d have to kill you!)
• To get out the paints after a long day (of often emotionally draining, but deeply satisfying work) takes some sort of drive, or dogged determination or stubborn pigheadedness, but that doesn’t make quite such a good title for an exhibition!
ZING! is a great show that runs through to the end of July – if you are in Darwin town for the Dry – and who wouldn’t want to be? – get along to the CCAE Gallery at 2/2 Harriet Place. Gallery hours are 10-5pm Tuesday to Friday and 10-2pm Saturday.