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Spirits of the Desert: A Behind the Scenes Picture Story

Written by Dale Jennings, Senior Curator

Spirits of the Desert came together after extensive collaboration with both artists Colleen Wallace and Angelina Ngale who were featured in the Nov-Jan exhibition.

While the artists spent several months working on the exhibition artworks, much of our preparation and research was spent over a number of years - given that travel to the artists' homes are some 200 km into the desert northeast of Alice Springs in Central Australia (the nearest township). 

Angelina Ngale speaks very little English, and in order to gain insight into her story called Atham-areny, we needed to spend a lot more time with her.

Angelina is one of few people to paint the Atham-areny Story and, as I am told, is the owner of it. The reason was never quite made clear to me, but I understand it has much to do with her father. I know from old records that her father was a man named Sonny Jack Mpetyane (deceased), but this is of little help to me in researching the story. 

Above: (from left) Elizabeth Mpetyane, Kathleen Ngale, Pauline Morgan and Angelina Ngale have all made themselves comfortable on the ground upon our arrival to their camp.  Above: Glady Kemarre

On many occasion, I would find Angelina with Kathleen Ngale, Polly Ngale, Elizabeth Mpetyane and Glady Kemarre, some of whom live with Angelina in a bush camp near one of Utopia's several communities.  

 
Above: Angelina Ngale (left) and Glady Kemarre (right)

Pictured left is Glady pointing out all the conkerberry trees and how to find them. Their berries are called anwekety in Ahalpere language and both Glady and Angelina paint its story also.

Glady Kemarre is also a painter and someone I love dearly. Although her English is a third or fourth language, she has always assisted me communicate with Angelina. 

 
Above: Angelina Ngale on the ground painting, with Glady Kemarre and Dale Jennings of Utopia Lane Above: Glady Kemarre (right) talks about Atham-areny while Angelina Ngale paints on the ground

On this particular warm spring day above, I wanted to take photos of Angelina in action painting the Atham-areny story as well as other artists painting their stories. She wasn't sure what we wanted at first but Glady helped explain and get her settled over at her 'studio' which consisted of a paint splattered sheet on the ground, a bucket of paint water with a dozen or so brushes, a plastic tray full of coloured paint pots and various size canvases. It lay beneath the shade of a large dogwood tree, several metres across from a row humpies serving as one long bedroom for the occupants of the small camp. 

While Angelina began painting the outlines of a figure on a small canvas we had given her, Glady was describing the witch doctors who, long ago, had long hair all the way down to the ground, which you can see in Angelina's paintings.

Left: On another occasion, Angelina sat herself straight down onto the red earth and started painting a small canvas surrounded by all the camp dogs.

This is a common scene for desert artists to paint in. I've seen a little puppy stand on a large painting that was fully complete - dried and ready to be photographed - but he didn't want to get off. Angelina pulled up one end of the painting and flung it out like she was airing out a mattress. It's a different kind of fine art. The paintings are durable, they're made of acrylics on Belgian linen or cotton duck canvas - a heavy, tightly woven fabric, they can handle it. But to me, someone who takes great care when it's in our hands, it makes ones eyes bulge to see that. This is how it is. These are bush paintings.

I've known an Emily Kame Kngwarreye painting to have a fly stuck beneath the paint and a Minnie Pwerle with a dog paw print in the paint. Once a Polly Ngale painting came in with dried onion skin attached to it, and many I have seen with a tobacco clump or two. Don't worry though, you don't generally get more than you asked for with your painting - most are bits that can gently be wiped off without affecting the painting. In the gallery we are always closely inspecting.

 
Above: Angelina Ngale (right) needs assistance holding her large complete Atham-areny painting for the obligatory final photo, beaming from all the admiration she is receiving. 

This large piece has been online since before the exhibition as we couldn't wait to share it when it was complete.

Bands of curvilineal structures fill every nook of space in this extraordinary piece, pulsing with a life of their own. It’s the beauty in the lighter colours that really make this piece stand out – sap green, blush pink, rose, peach, indigo and nude tones.

Repetition in Angelina's pieces reflect a rhythm of song and dance.

Above: Glady Kemarre paints Atham-areny while Dale Jennings of Utopia Lane watches on.

Glady shares the same country as Angelina and tells me she owns Atham-areny story too but doesn't paint it - that's Angelina's business. Then she spoke to Angelina in her native tongue (where I can only guess that she asked for permission to paint it for us) before promptly picking up one of Angelina's small canvases and painting the Atham-areny illustrations herself. I have known a couple others to paint it, but very rarely, and it's always been said to be 'Angelina's'. 

I have no doubt we will continue to learn more about this story and work with Angelina and the people of Utopia for another exhibition down the track, so stay tuned...

Thank you to Angelina, Glady and all the others who assisted us and provided their warm bush hospitality.

Listen to some of our research audio notes here:

 

 

 



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