Robert Fielding Graveyards in Between, 2017, C-type print. Courtesy the artist and Mimili Maku Arts

Tjukurpa – handle it. These are the words stencilled above the door into the Wati (Men’s) Studio at Mimili Maku Arts Centre in the remote community of Mimili on the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands. One of Robert Fielding’s early geopolitical interventions, these aerosol words mark a threshold into the space where Fielding makes art. Placed high on the lintel, the letters herald the power of the studio and acknowledge past grandmasters, as Fielding calls them, and those to come of the Mimili art movement.

Among these masters is the spirit of Kunmanara (Mumu Mike) Williams, with whom Fielding shares a love of language and material invention. Fielding recalls sitting in the Wati Studio, observing Williams’ ministry, strength and power. Just as Williams took to postal bags to send his political messages to government via the art world, Fielding now repurposes historic imagery, archival text and industrial discards—even whole cars—to expand his field of practice. Working across painting, sculpture, photography and more recently glass, it is printmaking that connects his diverse processes.

Fielding credits the grandmasters and Elders in his becoming an artist, but he also acknowledges the critical role of Angus Webb, Special Projects Manager at Mimili Maku Arts, in supporting his ambitious projects. Webb moved to Mimili in 2017 as the studio manager at Mimili art centre. Whilst both describe the first years of their working relationship as tumultuous, Fielding was well placed to guide Webb on cultural protocol within the art centre context, having experienced his own ‘transition’ as he calls it when he arrived in Mimili 26 years earlier.[1]

Robert Fielding preparing paper for UV exposures on Country. Courtesy the artist and Mimili Maku Arts

Robert Fielding__The grandmasters I had were the teachers of the artists that are sitting in this art centre today. Their parents were part of my transitioning, of my becoming. You always have to remember what those Elders have taught you. Remembering and respecting those Elders, I know who I owe this knowledge to. And really, if I just said that one name, I’d be missing out on the importance of all the others. That’s how it is; we learn and grow as one—tjungu, together. It’s about holding on to the stories of Mimili, holding on to the stories of Antara, holding on to the stories of Everard Park. These are important places, important stories, kept alive by important people. It’s about holding on to the stories of community. All the stories, including the main one of recent, the story of Everard Park [cattle station] and what it once was. But it’s also about holding on to Mimili stories of kuwari (now), of ngula (the future), of what my teachers taught me and what I now teach. How important Maku Tjukurpa is for Mimili and how important these puli (rocks), these puṉu (trees), these apu (ranges), and kapi (waters) are. These are secrets of this community. It’s only a snippet of Tjukurpa that I’m sharing, and whether it’s a matriarch, a patriarch—a minyma, a wati—it’s all about holding on to the importance of Mimili Tjukurpa.

Lisa Slade__Miil-miilpa? Translates as kind of secret?

RF__Miil-miilpa is secret sacred. What is that tree used for? What is that earth used for? We cannot tell, but they are part of our cultural practice. Iriti, kwari, ngula.

LS__And how do you see Angus’ role in all of that as a worker at Mimili Maku Arts Centre?

RF__I see Angus as a person who finally understands my creativity, my way of telling story. My story and other people’s story. The things that I see and visualise. He couldn’t really understand me at first. He’d say, ‘I don’t understand you. You’re coming in with those ideas and then you’re coming in with this other idea, you’re coming in with too many ideas. I can’t keep up.’

But, you know what? It’s all connected. Angus has become more than a colleague. I’m very patient and grateful for him; I’m very respectful towards him and his advice. I didn’t know what it was to hold on to works, to interrupt the consistent flow of making, to stop and consider the importance of works over time. And it’s paid off: I finally understand who I am as an individual, and, you know, I’ve gained an inner patience with the world and the way forward.

Angus has given me that opportunity to pull all my ideas together: photography, sculpture, paper, canvas, painting, salvaging, holding onto, celebrating, the power of language, the power of culture. It’s about words. It’s about language. It’s about my personal story and how it relates to the story of this land and culture. And it’s about questioning, about translating, asking for assistance, asking to do better, to learn: you, me, my community and everyone, tjungu (together). It’s about this relationship of understanding, understanding the canvas, the paper, the wall, the materials that I use, and that when I do touch it, it comes alive. It comes alive with Tjukurpa, with story, with the voice of my Elders, of our Elders.

Robert Fielding Kapi (water), 2023, synthetic polymer on linen. Courtesy of the artist and Mimili Maku Arts

Angus Webb__When I started, I was really quite an uneducated young kid, across both Western and Yankunytjatjara culture. I was only 23. And so, there was a lot of frustration, because there had to be some kind of ground rules established. It took three years, I reckon, really back and forth-ing. Between Robert and everyone here, they really taught me how to navigate this space but also how to meaningfully interact with Aṉangu culture and everything out here. I think something I realised early on was that Robert has a really special voice, really valuable to the national and international discourse, and really unique and articulate. But also, that he didn’t have anyone to spar with, because he was kind of on a different…

RF__…wavelength!

AW__Yeah, there was no doubt in my mind that Robert had equals and people that were culturally on the same wavelength. But creatively, in the art centre, Robert was exploring other things and was, I think, frustrated. I was frustrated that people didn’t understand his ambitions. I mean, I didn’t understand them! But Robert was really generous and patient in explaining, sharing.

 I was already familiar with his work when I came here. And his practice is the reason I stayed in the early days when it was extremely challenging but also really exciting. I think Robert’s practice, asks—demands—a lot from the audience. Because he’s doing this; he’s doing that; moving around over here, over there. I can’t remember the ‘aha’ moment, but at some point I was like, ‘Oh, they’re all connected!’ And the whole of Australia was kind of missing that point.

I guess what brought me out here was to do what I could to support important voices. There’s a lot of important voices here. But Robert and I have been able to take the important things that he’s exploring and share them, present them, curate them, find the connections.

LS__So, it’s the role of yours—which is that critical kind of voice—along with Robert’s, of looking at the work, thinking about it, sort of zooming out a bit. I wouldn’t say that art centre staff on the whole think in such kind of curatorial terms, right?

AW__I think Robert explores so many processes, that it’s necessary. I use all that I’ve got—an entire hard drive of all the ideas, logistical challenges, all the things he’s made. I guess it’s for those moments when Robert is making something, and then we’re able to pull something, either an image or an artwork out from three years ago.

RF__…and salvage it.

AW__Yeah. And, all of a sudden, all these connections emerge; things get illuminated. But I probably wouldn’t elevate my role beyond Robert’s bookkeeper! Like a journal keeper: he makes all the stuff, I gotta pick up the scraps, make sure that they’re all in order for when he needs them. There’s a conversation, but I think mine’s a functional role.

LS__…to be keeping the archives that can be re-enacted…

AW__…and to remember the things that Robert forgets. Or, to earmark the things that Robert punctuates and then moves on from. Sure, there’s a whole lot of other things. But I think that’s an essential element to it.

Robert Fielding, artist in residence at Negative Press, Naarm/Melbourne, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Mimili Maku Arts

LS__I was thinking about printmaking after our discussion, and print as the thread. The thing about printmaking—to bring home the idea—is that it is agency in action. As a metaphor, you kept saying Robert was focused on print, this idea of the transfer of knowledge and meaning. I feel like it’s kind of in the relationship in a way, in which your agency, Robert, your sense of action, is always ‘bubbling up’.

AW__I think about how prolific you are Robert, how much work you make…

RF__I sleep and dream art. I create art 24/7.

AW__There’re always logistical questions that need exploring because of the limited resources and things like that, and Robert wants to do these things that no one else has done out here because they have challenges. Together we find a way to do it, right? Because things that haven’t been done are not impossible.

RF__Everything that we’ve created in photography over time, you know, we’ve had no professional apparatus. We had no lighting; we had no anything. We had to improvise with what we had, it was tea-light candles, it was petrol, it was fire, it was the phone torch that gave us Graveyards in Between (2017), this night-time image you know? This was photography, it was about capturing the vehicles on a full moon.

I was one of the first capturing photos out here. Me and Rhonda Dick from Amata. But photography has a long story out here. I have a photo from glass plate slides, from the Spencer and Gillen collection. They captured a photo of my great‑grandma, Bibi, sometime in the 1890s. I was thinking about this when I said, ‘Angus, okay, I can’t keep working at night. I love the moon, but I need to work under the sun again. I would love to get more hands-on, like glass plate photography.’

AW__That’s how we came to UV sensitive dye and developing large contact negatives out on country. It is super low-tech, but it allows Robert to work with the old chemical and glass plate ways without the infrastructure. It took plenty of failed attempts, but the end result is a pretty simple, but really effective process.

RF__I’ve got someone that really listens now. When I bring in stupid things, Angus just looks at me like, ‘What’s he come up with now?’ But it works. Everything works. I trust it. You’ve already visualised it, and you’ve already seen it, but it’s about trying to get Angus to help me make it happen.

When we first started with my recent stencil paintings, I used to cut them out. I’d spend hours with a scalpel. You know, I’d go to the clinic, ‘Can I borrow a scalpel?’ ‘Robert what do you want a scalpel for, are you going to cut somebody with it?’ ‘No! I want to go and cut out letters and hills.’ But then I just said, ‘Angus, we have to find another way. This is too time consuming.’ Now I use a projector, and images from my journal. I have Angus keeping the files ready.

Ngapartji-ngapartji is our motto, it means reciprocity, cooperation, working together. It’s about looking after each other, voicing your opinion, being open to constructive criticism, addressing your feelings and emotions. And how to make that artwork a masterpiece. I’m asking for help because this is not about me. It’s about what I learned from those Elders and how to share that with the world. And miil-miilpa is very sacred; Manta (Earth) is very sacred; Tjukurpa or Wapar is very sacred. And you look at each and every one of them other artists around you, and they inspire you to do better.

The art centre has given me the opportunity to express the short period of time that I have on this earth; and what I was taught by the Elders. I love Mimili unconditionally. I’ve learned to be respectful, learned to be patient, learned to be forgiving and learned to be respecting. Kulintjaku, listening and learning.

Angus Webb (standing) and Robert Fielding in the studio at Mimili Maku Arts. Courtesy the artist and Mimili Maku Arts

AW__I think what you were saying Robert about it not just being about you, but about your teachers and everyone—but also talking about the Earth being sacred, the rocks and trees, Everard Park—it’s about everything. And you out of everybody are so generous in sharing your platform. You’ve welcomed me into your practice and kind of taught me to be a tool that you can use. But you’re also using your platform to invite other artists and community members on board. So, you’re orchestrating a pretty big coming together of cultural knowledge, like it’s not just you and your practice, you’re bringing together some powerful voices and presenting them to the world. I think the world probably doesn’t deserve to hear the voices, but it needs to! I haven’t met many artists who do that, because most of them are talking about their own stuff!

RF__You know, this is the heartbeat of community. Art Centre is a place of time away from time, time away from family, where people can just come and relax. Because we’ve learned now not to let anyone in, only if you are willing to paint! But if you’re here to sit and watch and be inspired, Angus you always tell them, ‘here is a canvas.’

We’re born from the earth, and to the earth we return, but while we are here, the Mimili Maku Arts Centre is a blessing. A voice for individual artists. And that I can take time to empower these voices within my practice. I used our language [Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara] to tell our story. We have very strong and secret words in our culture. But I’ve never been challenged by my Elders, because they taught me to walk that line. I sit in that top circle with these Elders, and all these other old men that passed away. I was well educated and taught by my Elders. They gave me that voice. But you have to be careful on the words you use. One day, a word was written, ‘Oh, wait, you have to get rid of that straightaway!’ It’s only a few letters but you have to be very careful on using those within the art centre context. So, we are very selective about the words that we use in my practice. We make sure the art centre aligns with all cultural protocol.

AW__You can’t understate the role you play in that, Robert, in helping staff navigate that cultural space. Guiding people through cultural knowledge. But also, you are constantly watching the space and supporting younger generations to come through and, I think you’ve taken on this whole idea of, I guess, feedback and talking about work and sharing work and discussing work, and then brought it back into the art centre.

It’s so important that kind of ngapartji-ngapartji and you’ve really blurred that line between artist and facilitator for yourself, and you do it all, exploring new ideas that give other people options. I think about all the young fellas out west painting car bonnets. You gave them that, and they reached out and wanted to talk to you, they identified your practice as the reason they’re doing that today. Also in the space, you’re changing and challenging the way that the art centre operates, and that staffing structure operates. You’ve got these relationships with curators, and you’ve done all these amazing residencies, you bring all that home, back to Mimili so people can be like, ‘Ah, I could do that’. And that’s so important, especially out here where, unfortunately, there’s only a few pathways that people see and too many end up in jail. I think maybe when you say it’s hard to talk about yourself or your practice, it’s because there’s actually no such thing as just Robert’s practice. Like, you embody everything, you’re channelling all this stuff, sharing it all and making all this work.

RF__I told those watis, ‘This is your space, and it’s a good environment.’ I tell them, ‘Create, do not be bored with what’s going on in your life. Address it, speak it, you don’t have to be a painter, as long as you’re doing something creative with your mind, and respect yourself, love yourself.’ And you know, we have that opportunity every Wednesday: Wati Wednesday. And Fridays, we have men’s night where Angus and me sit amongst all the hierarchy. It’s about looking after those men that come in, and you notice, observe, and then we sit down, and we just say [whispers], ‘This person’s got a story, something valuable. This person has something that we need in this art centre.’

AW__Yeah, I like the mentorship role that you’re playing in that men’s shed Robert. Some days, it’s me, Robert and one other person. We’ll light the fire. Other days is 20, 30 guys, but it’s about being there, lighting that fire, having that space. There’s no conditions attached. At the same time, Robert’s practice has expanded to the point where he can start employing community members to produce parts of his work, to operate the sandblasting machine, to salvage car doors, or whatever is needed at the time. Robert’s practice is becoming an institution in a way, and that is going to open a lot of doors for a lot of young men. And that’s really exciting.

So many projects happen in Aboriginal communities where someone like me comes in, first year on the job, and right, now we’re gonna do a men’s program. Everyone’s going to carve shields or do this or do that. And you do it for two years, and then run out of energy and leave, and then it collapses. I think the fact this has been such a slow burn means that when it finally does fully blossom, that’s going to challenge what art centres look like because you’re gonna have the Tjukurpa – Handle It studio that’s attached to the art centre, where guys are on angle grinders and sandblasters, working and getting paid. Like Tony Albert’s studio or whatever. It’s a financially stable space for them to explore what they want to make. But being led by someone like Robert who has pushed into so many different corners of what’s possible within the contemporary art world, they get to kind of reap the benefits of his hard work, have the fun.

RF__With that men’s program, we tried to get them in through the art centre, we paid them for their work, and a lot of them are creating beautiful pieces down there now with 44-gallon drums. You’ll see what they’ve been making!

AW__There’s a whole bunch of community engagement happening beyond that men’s group. We’ve got the school kids coming to the art centre every week to look at work, to learn inma (song and dance), and we will take that project out bush as well. There’re three things that the art centre does: it’s a platform for advocacy, so important for community and individuals to navigate a pretty misguided system from Canberra; there’s community outreach and cultural support, and a commercial income base. I think Mimili has a perfect balance between the three because we’ve got good leaders. And the directors and the artists have such passionate ownership over this place. There’s this idea of art centres constantly being under the pump and having too many deadlines and being like, ‘we haven’t got time to do a school program.’ But actually…

RF__…you have to! Because that’s the rising, that’s the next emerging! The women in this art centre, the song lines with the school, and how important it is for these children to come here and to learn. I growl at them, ‘Listen! One day you will understand the importance of Maku Tjukurpa. You know, you must listen and not play up, when you come to the art centre to look at all the artworks that are being created.’ And I tell them, ‘You’re gonna be here one day. So, remember the stories of Mimili. Our Tjukurpa.’

Robert Fielding at Negative Press, Naarm/Melbourne, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Mimili Maku Arts

Footnotes

  1. ^ Fielding’s father was removed from his ancestral country as part of the Stolen Generation. In 1998, Fielding resolved to move back to his father’s country and reclaim the language and culture stolen from him.