Indigenous Printmaking

“For many indigenous artists, printmaking is, at least initially, a completely alien idea.” Thus wrote ANU Professor Sasha Grishin in a Canberra Times review of a 2016 exhibition of mainly Aboriginal prints – 'Etched in the Sun II' – at the Nancy Sever Gallery in the capital.

In 2008, ‘Etched in the Sun I’ had been held at the ANU’s Drill Hall Gallery, so there are plenty of such ‘alien’ prints around today. What’s more, there’s a logical reason why Canberra should be an appropriate home for showing work that is made by artists from the distant deserts, Arnhem Land, The Kimberley and Far North Queensland.

The record books show that the first remote Aboriginal art prints were sponsored by the Catholic Bishop of Darwin, John O’Loughlin in 1969, inspired by seeing Inuit printmaking in Canada. He persuaded the artist Madeleine Clear to start a workshop on the Tiwi Islands (north of the Top End) with three pioneering students – Bede Tungutalum, Giovanni Tipungwuti and Eddie Puruntatameri – all of whom had works in the Museum of Contemporary Arts Being Tiwi show last year.

By the 1980s, international printmakers Theo Tremblay and Jörg Schmeisser were using the Canberra School of Art as a base from which to hold workshops for remote artists like Yirrkala’s Banduk Marika, which led to the establishment of the private Studio One in that city. From there, the prolific Basil Hall headed bush to encourage printmaking – 3000 editions and counting by him today – by reluctant Aboriginal artists.

Why reluctant? If you recall, even acrylic painting by the early painters of Papunya ran into cultural problems when it started in the 1970s. The neighbouring Pitjantjatjara particularly worried about the revelation of too much secret/sacred material, and over-dotting was invented. Having established that a canvas containing an important story appeared only as an abstract design to its non-Indigenous buyer, the status of the original story soon diminished beside the size of canvas and the income thus earned. But, taking on a process that involved white collaborators and a mechanisation that surely further reduced the seriousness of the all-important story was both a step down and probably a cultural infraction.

At the Buku Larrnggay Art Centre in East Arnhem Land, the Yolngu determined that their important clan designs involving what they call miny’tji, also termed rarrking, should never be the subject of mass reproduction. As Will Stubbs, the long-time art centre Director there put it, “Old man said at an artist committee in 96 ‘if you paint the land you use the land’, which means no miny’tji sacred designs produced by mechanical means. In 800 editions (produced from go to whoa in the print room at that remote art centre) we never created a photographic copy of miny’tji.” That includes the sought-after annual suite of prints for the Garma Festival, works based on the anthropologist Berndt’s commissioned drawings from the 1940s, and the Seven Sisters suite about the universal Dreaming story set in the stars by the seven Yunupingu sisters.

However, in such an inventive community, the rule didn’t extend to work done outside Yolngu Country such as the late, great Gawirrin Gumana’s etching, ‘Mundukul at Baraltja’ for Basil Hall’s Custodians folio of 10 works by the artistic leaders of 10 different communities, and the work of another elder, Djambawa Marawili’s intense ‘Garrangali’ (2010) in the cross-cultural Djalkiri/Blue Mud Bay Suite, celebrating his clan’s legal victory in a sea rights case.

“That’s the project I’m most proud of,” extolled Basil Hall of Djalkiri. “With John Wolseley, Fiona Hall, Judy Watson, the late Jörg Schmeisser and three other Yolngu artists all collaborating respectfully with each other, it was a stunning exhibition that should have toured for years. Taking barks to screenprints is such a logical process; the artist lays down the colours in the same order – the background, black images and then cross-hatching. It’s as fluent as a great painting. And socially, there’s the very Aboriginal common ground of people sitting down to collaborate.”

Collaboration was not always the name of the game in Indigenous printmaking. As Basil Hall recalls it, the names of the printers were invariably left out of the equation during a period when “No white hands involved” was the watchword of art centre coordinators. And that’s very much “a bee in my bonnet”, agrees Tremblay.

“For the sake of a work’s provenance, our names should be there. Etching – whether the artist is black or white – is so much on the shoulders of the printer; we make a lot of decisions on their behalf – including, with Aboriginal artists, selecting a medium that’s going to best suit each artist.”

The Tiwi, Yolngu and Torres Strait Islanders have such an expert background in woodcarving that lino or woodblock is an obvious extension of their skills.

“The inspirational Theo Tremblay,” as Hall acknowledges the older American, who had worked with such significant artists as Hockney and Procter to extend their ideas and themes and add accessibility to their work in England before coming to Canberra, has specialised in recent years in printing the ever-expanding linoprints of Torres Strait artists such as Dennis Nona and Alick Tipoti in Cairns.

Nona’s two-metre ‘Sesserae’ (2004), which was chosen as the only Indigenous work in the Fremantle Print Awards’ 30th anniversary exhibition, was soon superseded by six- and eight-metre works as the two artists competed with each other. But, going back in time, when Banduk Marika from north-east Arnhem Land first came to Canberra to make prints with Tremblay, her brother dismissed her efforts as “insignificant little prints; women’s work”.

“But we showed him,” says Tremblay today, “that refinement could lift the result to become a valid form of Yolngu expression using the proper colours in the bands that marked the clan group correctly, then adding cross-hatching. Printing was not a limitation, and after the 1983 Art and Craft Conference in Canberra, it really began to excite interest.”

It has to be said that some Aboriginal artists never made the leap to “extend their ideas and themes” through printmaking. Though most have come to terms with the “added accessibility” that comes from having saleable artworks when their eyesight has faded – a common problem in the desert – or they die.

The need for a superfund of prints was a problem identified in the 1998 film, Art from the Heart? and it became much easier for both Basil Hall and Northern Editions at the Charles Darwin University in Darwin, and for Theo Tremblay and Aboriginal Art Prints (now the Art Print Network) in Cairns to offer workshops that lead to printmaking.

Generally, desert artists often found it difficult to adapt. An artist like Eubena Nampitjin in Balgo simply took her multiple paintbrushes loaded with different colours and did what she was accustomed to do on an acetate sheet. Her printer then had the rather larger task of blocking out each colour in turn through a reduction method in order to achieve something like the same nuances in print.

Even a master of the minimalist East Kimberley art style – Rover Thomas – made two brilliant series of three works in 1996 with printer Stuart Ferguson (one black and white, one coloured) including the starkly simple ‘Mt Newman’, but couldn’t reproduce that understanding of the new artform when he contributed ‘Roads Cross’ the following year to the Crossroads Portfolio. By comparison, the works by bark painters Johnny Bulunbulun and Mick Kubarkku stand out.

The art of collaboration can accomplish great things. Theo Tremblay recalls one of his finest achievements involving Roy McIvor, an aged Guugu Yimithirr man from Cape York who had poured his heart into a painting called ‘Tears’ for his first solo exhibition at the Cairns Regional Gallery in 2008, and, in gratitude for the show’s success, had given it to the curator. It reflected the emotions surrounding his Hope Vale community’s devastation by drought and fire, and then the relief of rain falling into its ashes, forming floral shapes with each drop.

Tremblay takes up the story: “In 2010, it was decided to interpret ‘Tears’ using the original by placing acetate cells over the painting and replicating each paint stroke, one by one, to create a screenprint. Curator Susan Reid generously loaned the painting for this process. The original painting was not duplicated but interpreted as best could, sensitive to the original. It was also thought that, instead of a single piece, a series of vari-coloured works might expand upon the artist’s original intentions by showing the different stages of fire, the onset of the wet from parched earth, then the flowering of new life in three works ‘blood/earth’ (Bubu Gunbi), ‘sweat/heat’ (Yuku Ngaala) and ‘tears/rain’ (Buurraay Milbaal).”

“Roy loved the extension of his creative skills,” the master printer concluded. “It may not have had the magic of the original painting, but the world needed that story. For Roy, the story mattered more than the aesthetics; the process mattered more than the product.”

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