Ngarra: the texta drawings
You don’t have to be an avid follower of Aboriginal art when it comes to the fascinating pull of Ngarra and his life, as told through his texta drawings. Hailing from up north in the Kimberley, this Indigenous artist created works that defied categorisation, creating a visual language that smoothly weaved past and present culture into his own individual work. While in the art world Ngarra primarily exhibited his paintings, this first monograph, Ngarra the texta drawings, focuses on a relatively unknown but equally prolific side to his practice – texta.
Born around 1920, at the base of a freshwater mangrove tree on a creek bank at Kalkada (Glenroy Station), in the central Kimberley region of Western Australia, Ngarra rose to prominence as an elder and leading artist, practising prolifically until he died in Derby in 2008. It is the collection of his key texta drawings in the monograph that illustrate telling insights into the divided world of the Kimberley – the pastoral frontier and the traditional Indigenous way of life – and the determined individual that emerged from this.
Ngarra was an outsider in life and art practice, and Ngarra the texta drawings celebrates his use of this simple “low brow” medium which was just as outside the mainstream as the artist was himself. His upbringing in the harsh frontier region began with him working with his relatives in stock camps, until a severe beating from his uncle led him to run away and be educated by his grandfather Muelbynge and Lalgarlbynge Mananambarra. Living traditionally, these senior people taught Ngarra their customs and the laws of the land, intent to never reconcile with the frontier pastoral industry. Thus the “outsider” art of Ngarra was a product of an artist and individual whose life was informed by two worlds – frontier life as a stockman and his traditional Indigenous upbringing.
Adding scope and context to the visual narrative of Ngarra drawings are the combined insights and visual analysis by art historian Henry F Skerritt and Ngarra’s close friend, anthropologist Kevin Shaw. In this friendship that lasted over 30 years, with Ngarra as grandfather and Shaw as grandson, the seemingly symbiotic relationship between the two is a rare and humbling occurrence.
In his essay Shaw reflects on the turning point in 1994, in which Ngarra asserted to Shaw that he was going to become “a big artist” – as a means for him to project the traditional knowledge of country and place that he had learnt and give rise to the status that he believed was due.
As a close friend of Ngarra, Shaw’s contribution is invaluable. Published after Ngarra’s death, Shaw’s monograph provides explanations and accounts revealing Ngarra’s cheeky yet determined character, as well as his adoption of texta as a way to better communicate his culture. While Ngarra initially used a broad palette of 23 tones of ochre collected from his country – which testified to his knowledge of the Kimberley – he wasn’t reluctant to try new mediums such as texta and paper that were easier to use in the extreme heat of the Kimberley.
The addition of texta pens to Ngarra’s practice led to him transitioning from cheap texta pens available from supermarkets to Japanese-made artist-quality pens. Shaw notes that it was the integrity of the Japanese culture that affirmed Ngarra’s continued use of the medium. For him the great history of ink art in Japanese culture satisfied their cultural integrity, “Good fella, got story like Ngarrangkarni.” Later it was this use of bright, bold texta that instigated an easy transition to acrylic paint when he became too old to collect and grind ochres – fulfilling his affirmation as a colourist.
Shaw’s conversations with Ngarra about art, which were recorded throughout their friendship, make up the majority of the second half of the monograph. Revealing the humour, as well as the focused planning behind Ngarra’s works, this dialogue reveals stories that offer refreshing angles on his work, free from inflated or crafted descriptions.
Tracking the emergence of Ngarra’s colourful designs, Skerritt provides cohesive analysis of his whole practice. Noting that while the drawings were originally informed by his grandfather’s original designs, the works transform the stories of his traditional culture and life into contemporary social and political statements. Allegory was key, with works layered with multiple perspectives and meanings. Bright and bold, they are intrinsic to his personality – inventive, humorous and joyful in their exploration and pushing of form and content. The immediacy and inventiveness of his texta works emerged from Ngarra’s need to express the period of major transition for Aboriginal culture that came with the growth of the cattle industry in the Kimberley. As a result, traditional Aboriginal signs and symbols were integrated with imagery of stockman, horses and native wildlife, illustrating the collision of the old and the new.
A visual stream of consciousness, the monograph outlines the texta drawings from his earlier heavily planned and balanced compositions, to works created during his early onset of dementia.
A rewarding read, Ngarra the texta drawings tells a story of an individual who was determined to carve a significant and unique life out of a period of volatile change for Indigenous Australians. Ngarra’s success resulted in an opening of new worlds and audiences to him, as he commented to Shaw about the vast difference between the “big city exhibitions” where “the really proper sensible people want to know all about really bush blackfella like a me” and his life as a “lonely bush blackfella”.
Ngarra the texta drawings
Mossenson Art Foundation
Courtesy the artist and Mossenson Art Foundation