Book Review: Crafting Country

One of the main benefits of private art collections is their subjectivity. The grouping of selected artworks into a ‘collection’ often, (although not always), tells its own particular story about certain qualities or themes in art. In the recent McCulloch & McCulloch publication, New Beginnings, Classic Paintings from the Corrigan Collection of 21st Century Aboriginal Art, we are treated to a comprehensive view of what Pat Corrigan, one of Australia’s leading art patrons, regards as the best in 21st century Aboriginal painting. In the book it becomes apparent that what pulls this collection together is a common drive amongst the artists to craft an Aboriginal concept of Country out of paint, and the best (or ‘Classic’) thrust of this art is its standard of craftsmanship.

Craftsmanship has always been a priority in an Aboriginal worldview, but it finds new standards of expression in the context of the art market. Corrigan’s collection underscores that there is an art movement here—and it is one defined by Aboriginal artists who are driven to visualise in paint what it means to belong to, or identify with, a particular place. This place is their state of mind; their state of being; their state of self. The standard of how well an artist conveys this to outsiders is something we can make a judgement upon—we can make a call on good and bad Aboriginal art. Corrigan’s collection also emphasises that the best of this movement is defined by a quality of craftsmanship—artists with a clear plan of what they want to paint and how to go about it. Even if we do not know the details of their country, we can see that this is a coherent execution of a very particular concept of place. When it is done well, it moves us, engages us, fascinates us.

Ross Gibson’s essay in the book gives a detailed explanation of this fascination for country. He explains what it means to the artists, but he also discusses what it might mean for all of us:

In holding open reliable spaces for speculation concerning the best ways to live in country, we can make a forum for convictions and emotions …the pictures take the form of encounter-zones within every viewer, at the most intimate psychological level, as well as within social and political contexts where an entire populace can investigate how every inhabitant is part of the country that hosts us all.

The Corrigan Collection also shows us that this art movement is not just a Desert Painting movement, although paintings from Australia’s Central and Western Deserts certainly define it. Country paintings in the Corrigan Collection also come from the Port Keats region west of Darwin; the Kimberleys; Queensland’s Cape York; Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria; and the Tiwi Islands. It is not just a Desert phenomenon but more of a common imperative among people who live on their traditional homelands and want people to know what it means to them.

It was the Papunya desert painters, however, who first paved the way in the early 1970s with dazzling acrylic paint, and the 21st century desert painters are still doing it. One of the key artworks in the Corrigan Collection is Naata Nungurrayi’s Untitled 2006. Naata is a Pintupi woman from the central Australian desert region of Kintore. This painting has the sophisticated orchestration of elements that typifies the best of this art movement. Fluctuating networks of dots signal inherent connections between all matter of life and mind in an Aboriginal philosophy. The colours give this network of life its energy and depth. Aboriginal non-figurative paintings such as these convey the pulsating rhythms of life in a unique use of the acrylic on canvas painting technique. Ross Gibson refers to this quality as ‘dazzle’. Yes, the play of colour does dazzle, but the craftsmanship in orchestrating the elements into a concrete concept is what takes us further into Naata’s world. When you get to know her world a little, the colours, dots and lines become an intricate multi-dimensional map of bush tucker, body painting, water-holes, traditional Tingari stories about people’s lives, ancestors, morals and social mores—an entire philosophy of life. No wonder it fascinates!

Artists in the collection approach the concept of country in different ways. Regina Wilson, from the Peppimenarti group of artists west of Darwin, crafts her concept of country from the weaving patterns of fibre baskets and objects made in the community. Regina and her cousin Patsy Margura (whose art is also in the collection), are traditional weavers who have translated the legacy of their weaving techniques into a painting aesthetic. Artworks like Paddy Bedford’s Bedford Downs Massacre (2001) acknowledge a tragic Kimberley history within their love of place. As always, the artworks from Utopia in the Northern Territory are the radical element in the collection—they have a reductive genius that makes simple lines and daubs of colour seem to ‘jump out of their skin’—they burst out of being lines and daubs into something quite majestic.

The publication quality of the book does justice to these powerful artworks. It is large format with excellent colour reproductions and a clean spacious design. Like most publications on Aboriginal art, there is a tendency to run some large images across the spine of the book. In artworks such as these, where the coherence of the whole is their primary point of reference, and their principal quality of beauty, it tends to inhibit their impact. A short one-page essay is devoted to each of the artists in the book, which makes it a useful reference as well as a feast for the eye. The book also includes an essay by Emily McCulloch Childs about the collector and his collection, which gives another dimension of background to this collection. Pat Corrigan’s forty year history of art collecting has paid off for all of us in this collection of Aboriginal painting. We get a snapshot of the best craftspeople in their business, and why they are the best. 

notes: 

1. Ross Gibson, ‘The Imagining’, New Beginnings, Classic Paintings from the Corrigan Collection of 21st Century Aboriginal Art, Emily McCulloch Childs, Ross Gibson, McCulloch & McCulloch Australian Art Books, Fitzroy, Victoria, 2008. p.15.

New Beginnings, Classic Paintings from the Corrigan Collection of 21st Century Aboriginal Art
Emily McCulloch Childs, Ross Gibson
McCulloch & McCulloch Australian Art Books, Fitzroy,
Victoria, 2008.
156 pp. $79.95
www.mccullochandmcculloch.com.au