Tandanya's inaugural exhibition in 1989 was Picture Story, 88 silk batiks wafting in the cavernous space of the main gallery. Rodney Gooch was the worker in the Utopia community, east of Alice Springs in central Australia who conceived and brought to fruition this major cultural statement. These intricately patterned 2 metre lengths of silk designed and executed by many women at Utopia and the surrounding homelands asserted the community in 1988 as a major force in the increasing recognition of Aboriginal art. Today the community is also famous as the source of inspiration for Emily Kame Kngwarreye's paintings.
On display recently at Tandanya were nearly 90 of the 200 works donated to the Riddoch Gallery at Mount Gambier in 1998 by the late Rodney Gooch and gathered during his twenty years involvement with the community. It was the first major show of the works outside the Riddoch Gallery, and according to current Riddoch Director Justine van Mourik, Gooch saw it essentially as an educational rather than a fine art collection.
Perhaps the show was premature. Apart from the Nicholas Adler photographs of the Utopia artists and the expert hanging of the exhibition by the Tandanya team, there was no sense of the dynamics of the art-producing community over the period of Gooch's involvement.
A brief interview conducted in 1998 between Rodney Gooch and Louise Haigh, then Riddoch Gallery Director (all quotes below ibid), introduces the collection and its origins, but for an educational collection there are not enough signposts within the exhibition to provide any direction to the works. A collection of works gathered together by an insightful and passionate worker in the field over a significant period of time provides a wonderful opportunity to examine and document the phenomenon of art production in remote Aboriginal communities, to show how some artists become better known in the art-buying world, why some works are no longer produced and why some works head off to the tourist souvenir market. The interplay of the market, the role of the community art adviser, the amount of funding available to buy materials are all fertile ground for discussion.
For example, the origins of the works from Utopia lie in batik. The first art advisers in the Utopia community in the mid 1970s were women and batik was chosen as the medium for training. A decade later the community was becoming well known for the unique style of the batiks produced by its women artists. On display were four large and complex textiles made in the mid 1980s including the silk batik by Kathleen Petyarre depicting Awelye – women's ceremony. This is a highly patterned work with ceremonial figures dancing within the flora and fauna of the country, contained within a patterned border. But there was no story panel to lead us through the detail of this challenging work.
How do these cloths relate to the paintings?
Returning from the USA in 1986 where the batiks were designated as craft rather than art (with the consequential financial implications), Gooch stated 'my immediate move when I first got back to Utopia was to load everybody up with canvas' (ibid). And so we have paintings from the community.
Mavis Mpetyane's painting of Country (1994), Lindsay Bird Mpetyane's triptych of Snake Ancestor Country (1998) and Janie Mpetyane's Water Dreaming (1991) are all worthy of note for the strength of line and colour and their difference to each other. Unfortunately, there are no story panels.
Emily Kame Kngwarreye is represented by an untitled painting of 1993. The image in luscious paint sweeping across the picture surface illustrates her innate understanding of structure and the joys of colour. Next to this painting was a metal watering can and a compete car door both painted by Emily and decorated in a similar manner to the canvas. Does this illustrate a need to paint on any surface or was it a lack of canvas available at the time? Rather it was a deliberate decision. Gooch organized the removal of car doors from the many wrecks which litter the roads to the remote communities and encouraged painting on these panels. In fact there was an exhibition of this 'spare part art' in Melbourne in the early 1990s.
Of great interest is a series of paintings from the mid to late 1990s. Hazel Kngwarreye has two works that detail life at Utopia, Kurdaitcha Wives Story 1996 and Utopia Massacre Scene 1998. Both have a shifting perspective that creates a sense of multiple incidents and both appear to be located around a central water hole. The Kurdaitcha painting depicts only Aboriginal people with campsites, domestic tasks and ceremonial people 'painted up' and dancing. The high horizon line has a blue sky with white clouds and a perfect centralized rainbow arching across the business below. In the massacre painting, Aboriginal men using traditional weapons, face white men on horses with guns. Above the high horizon line, the sky teems with flying black birds. What are the connections between the paintings? Do these paintings refer to a specific event? Is there a valid comparison that can be drawn from an idyllic earlier time against contact with white invaders? Australian history has only now begun to include events from perspectives other than that of the dominating white culture. Gooch in 1998 stated 'There's about 100 paintings (massacre) in waiting.' (ibid) Where are they? What could these paintings tell us if they were all hung together?
And there is also sculpture. Quirky animals, human figures, heads and dishes carved mostly in wood and painted with synthetic polymer paint – but also papier-mâché dancers with wild woolen hair. Again the positive response to these 3D items by Gooch and others precipitated a flurry of activity within the community. 'There are some incredible things to unleash out of the box and carry on.' (ibid) Has there been further work in these media at Utopia?
While the chronic under-funding of regional galleries is acknowledged, it is essential to document the collection and ensure that the wishes of the donor are fulfilled. There would be several doctoral theses in the collection!