Viewing Mary McLean's Hunting Grounds hanging at Fremantle Arts Centre recently it was immediately obvious that this was a major departure from the familiar 'dot' paintings produced by other Central Desert artists. These paintings showed vivid images of life on the western edge of the Great Victoria Desert (Ngaatjatjara country) where McLean was raised. They were animated, colourful recollections of a time before European contact.
McLean is a sixty year old Wongatha woman who has been painting and carving for some years. Recently she created her first figurative images to tell a story from her childhood. Nalda Searles, a textile artist working with McLean at Ninga Mia village (near Kalgoorlie), encouraged her to continue painting in this manner. The result was this collection of childhood memories.
The practice of women telling stories in this manner is called milpatjunanji. Usually the stories were sung to children, patting down an area of sand and drawing figures or prints on the ground using a hand or stick. In the accompanying video Mary intoned the narrative of her paintings in the same manner. Signs of the swept soil were evident in the broad arcs of the brush strokes underlying some figures.
During the forties, C.P. Mountford, an anthropologist from Adelaide University, worked in the area with a neighbouring group, the Pitjantjatjara, collecting similar drawings from Aboriginal women. They were given brown paper and crayons with which to illustrate their stories. Rather than using the symbolic forms of roundels and dots associated with the sacred ground paintings they drew small expressive figures involved in daily activities. This is the stuff of women's lives; gathering and preparing food and bush medicines, looking after children, keeping the family happy.
In these paintings, Mary has embellished her stories showing the depth of the relationship between the Wongatha people and the land, omitting the hardships of desert life. They give us some insight into the traditional life of the Aboriginal people of this area before the massive dislocation caused by European contact.
The desert is peopled with Aboriginal family groups (the Anangu) hunting and gathering a bountiful harvest of bush foods. This sacred landscape is seen as a resource to be opportunistically utilized by the Anangu.
McLean's figures were very animated; waving and gesturing to each other, using the body language familiar to McLean from ceremonial and hunting practice. Some of the figures were crude representations, loosely drawn, some only a head . Others were more detailed; old men drawn with grey beards, red headbands and bunches of hair at the nape of the neck. All were integral to the story, but for an outsider like myself, some of the meaning was lost without the presence of the narrator.
The paintings had no single focal point or horizon, rather the figures were woven together as in a tapestry. Different elements in time and space were portrayed simultaneously. Aboriginal people who live a traditional lifestyle often speak the same way slipping easily between events in the past (the dreaming) and activities in the present. There is no distinctive delineation between past, future and present as all coexist as parts of the whole of existence
Mary has a wonderfully uninhibited quality to her work. Figures twist around the picture to accommodate the paper, some painted upside down or from different sides for ease of access.
The representation of time and space was clearly illustrated in painting No. 10. Hunters in red head bands were shown from the ground looking up (a child's viewpoint) alongside footsteps and animal prints seen from above in the way a hunter would see them.
Similar elements were present in the other two paintings discussed here. No. 21 and 22. were prepared in co-operation with Nalda Searles who did the luminous, mottled background using puff balls, ochres, and charcoal. During the preparation of the huge piece of paper it was fortuitously torn by an errant motor vehicle giving us two distinctively different paintings.
No. 22 dominated the hall way of the Fremantle Arts Centre, immediately capturing attention with its black cartoon-like figures and bold colours. The stippled ground was overlaid by scenes of men chasing game (including a huge carpet snake), old grey beards doing ritual and women and children collecting bush tucker. This tableaux of desert life at the height of summer was painted in rich earth colours seen in the traditional ground paintings.
No.21, purchased by the Art Gallery of N.S.W.'s depicted the desert in bloom after rain. It resembled an exotic garden of Eden with Rousseau inspired figures living a life of gentle leisure. The Anangu were shown gathering an abundance of different foodstuffs, making ceremonies alongside brimful water-holes, tracking game and socialising together. The painting was alive with bright spring colours complementing the earth tones of the pre-prepared ground.
These paintings were an impressive record of a past time. They showed that Aboriginal art is not static but subject to the individual sensibilities of the artist as in Western practice. Yet still there is an underlying code of beliefs and associated visual expression that takes time for an uninitiated audience to appreciate. Meanwhile we can enjoy Mary McLean's work for the vital and celebratory expression of her childhood memories.
S.Lavinia Hartley. Studied painting at Curtin University. She has lived and worked in the north, teaching literacy and art in Aboriginal communities in the Kimberleys.