David Frank

At his core, David Frank is a storyteller. His life in the outback, as a policer officer, and as a traditional healer – a Ngangkari – has fuelled a creative melting pot of ideas and inspiration. Often figurative, David’s paintings tell the story of people and their land. His aesthetic, resembling the Naïve form, offer snapshots into his life, or his observations, that are rich with narrative, history or commentary. The subject matter of his works traverse politics and religion, real-life and the imaginary, humour and seriousness.

The son of a stockman, David Frank was born and raised by his family on the Mount Cavanagh cattle station in the very southern parts of the Northern Territory. These days, he lives and works in at the Iwantja community, on the eastern side of the Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in far northern South Australia. This is close to his mother’s country, which lies in the far west APY Lands near the Amata community; his father’s country is close to the Ernabella community where a large mission was originally established.

David’s grandfather was a renowned traditional healer – a Ngangkari – skills that David was taught throughout his youth and which now form a strong part of his identity. Then in his mid-thirties, David decided to leave the cattle station to take up a posting with the South Australian Police Force. He engaged with his Ngangkari skills as a police officer to calmly heal those he encountered throughout his 15-year career with the force.

While David Frank has come to painting only in recent years, his life experiences have gifted him a wealth of narratives from which he composes his lively and engaging paintings. The lightness of touch and deftness with which figures are placed on his canvases make for pictures that instantly grab the eye. His acute attention to colour and form allow his paintings to reveal a deep richness repeatedly.

You worked as a police officer in South Australia for some 15 years in the 1980s and 1990s. How does your time as a police officer influence your paintings?
I was working hard as a stockman on that cattle station at Mount Cavanagh station. The policeman came one day and asked if I wanted to try the policeman work. The police knew that I was a good man, I had no bad records at all. The community constable also came to see me and asked if I might want to become a policeman. I started police work in 1983; we were based at Indulkana and were working across the APY Lands with Anangu, and also further down in South Australia all the way across the lands.

My paintings need me to be calm and patient, this is the same as the police work. Always you have to be calm and patient, listening and watching, this is when you learn things.

You grew up on a large cattle station before joining the police force. What drew you to becoming an artist? When, where and how were you first exposed to art and painting?
Mount Cavanagh is near Finke, there are lots of rockholes and it’s nice country there. It was a quiet life at Cavanagh, we didn’t have school, but the station lady taught us English there and we would help her with cleaning. Her name was Mona, very nice lady – she spoke English and Yankunytjatjara, she helped me get work at other stations when I got older.

I’ve been painting at Iwantja Arts since 2013. One day I was thinking, I’m not too old, my hands are still working, what can I do? Then I thought, I want to tell some stories and make some pictures, the other tjilpi (old senior men) all go to the art centre, maybe I can work there too. I went and saw Bethany (the centre manager) and said I’m here to paint now. I like all different ways of painting, some paintings with dots, some paintings with people. They’re all good ways. The art centre is a good place, there are lots of Anangu working here. We work hard, all of us.

Tell me about how you choose the subject matter in your paintings. Many of your works include figures – are these real characters, people from your life?
This year I’ve been making paintings about the other watis on the APY Lands. Right across the APY Lands – it’s a big place. I’ve been making paintings about the Kulata (spear) project we all work on together, and looking at photos of the trips we’ve been on all over Australia. Last year I was making the paintings about the policemen years, some were from memories and some were from imagination.

You have been handed your grandfather and father’s Ngangkari (healing powers) skills, which you proudly use to heal and protect your people and land. Do you ever tell these stories through your painting?
I haven’t been telling these stories yet, but I might think about this next year. My Ngangkari power is the dreaming snake and the emu spirit. At night when I’m sleeping, I go out and remove the bad energies, walking around as the emu spirit, making soft whistling, but I don’t leave any tracks. So, I’m even working when I’m sleeping!

Some of your work conjures imagery from the Old Testament of the Bible, others are historical scenes – such as in ‘Our Future’, which depicts Gough Whitlam pouring red soil into Vincent Lingiari’s hands. Do you see your paintings as making a political statement?
I work with the preacher here at Indulkana, I like to make recordings of the inma that we sing. Sometimes I paint pictures from the Bible stories, everyone should know these good stories. The Lingiari painting was about that strong wati Vincent Lingiari, he worked hard to make a good future for his people – this story is important. Maybe they will make a movie about this story one day. There are many good stories out here.

What’s next for you? Are you working towards any new exhibitions or projects?
I’ve been thinking about the land now, thinking about making some paintings to keep this country strong and healthy. There’s a lot of mining at Coober Pedy, I’ve been thinking about this in my paintings.

Courtesy the artist, Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne, and Iwantja Arts, Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands, SA

 Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne

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