Mavis Ngallametta

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that photographs in this article contain images of a deceased person.

The cover of the exhibition catalogue for the Queensland Art Gallery’s (QAG) retrospective exhibition of Cape York artist Mavis Ngallametta’s work says it all really.

It shows the artist photographed from above, apparently sitting on a board floating on the cerulean blue sea of the Gulf of Carpentaria as she looks inland and paints her Country there. Red cliffs falling to the beach, a line of white clay at the bottom – material for her painting – and behind, swamps that are rich in flowers, water-lilies, fish and waterbirds, all meticulously detailed. Her act of painting followed the laborious collection of ochres from that Country and their manipulation.

There’s an appearance of abstraction that makes the late Mrs Ngallametta’s work so appealing to non-Indigenous viewers. But Gina Allain, the artist’s ‘Number One handmaiden’ at Aurukun, insists, ‘her paintings are in fact precise physical renderings of specific sites, as well as spiritual and emotional maps of Country.’

Anyone familiar with the history of artwork by the Wik and Kugu peoples of Aurukun finds Mrs Ngallametta’s unique take on landscape quite extraordinary. As recently as 2003, a previous QAG show of Cape York art, ‘Story Place’, prominently pictured the muscular ironwood sculptures of the men with their minimally striped ‘Law Poles’ and ‘Bone Fish’, and a menagerie of carved animals. It was work for sale, but it was also serious spirituality, straight out of Ursula McConnel’s 1930s researches for The Myths of the Mungkan. Early carvers even claimed that the sculptures made themselves. The women were shown weaving baskets.

Five years later, Wik and Kugu Art Centre manager Guy Allain brought his partner Gina up to the Cape to introduce these master weavers to painting on canvas. ‘Mavis, aged sixty-four, went from master weaver to painter in just five months’, Gina tells me, ‘initially in the acrylics that I’d brought with me.’ But she wondered whether the ochres that the men used would suit Mavis, and after a couple of efforts that the artist herself ordered destroyed, a work like Sacred Swamp (2008) emerged. It’s a tidy 66 x 76 cm painting with detailed land apportionment, overlaid by fine dotting, as a certain Emily Kngwarreye had employed in her early career.

But it was enough for Brisbane dealer Andrew Baker, who’d shown Aurukun women’s weaving before, to present Mrs Ngallametta’s first paintings in a 2008 mixed exhibition of weaving and canvases.

Two years later, Iklet III (2010) was a major step towards the artist’s mature voice. It employs the same limited brown, black and white colour range, but throws away dotting in favour of much more confident mapping of place that became her signature style – though not yet in the same detail or colour range as she would demand of herself later.

QAG curator, Bruce McLean explains in his catalogue essay, ‘her weaving experience was central to her durational compositions. Just as a weaver envisions the final form of their work and, with every action, works towards it, Ngallametta pictured the final form of her canvases, working towards it carefully, one gesture at a time.’

It took an encounter at the 2011 Cairns Indigenous Art Fair for Mrs Ngallametta to make her final leap. Sydney dealer Martin Browne, who’d had an association with Wik and Kugu sculpture, saw the smaller works she was painting and told her they weren’t large enough for the walls of his gallery. ‘How much bigger do you want?’, she demanded. ‘Three metres’, he replied.

So, a few weeks later, an anonymous tube arrived at Browne’s gallery – rolled inside was a 2.95 metre canvas, ‘and it was a masterpiece’, Browne recalls. ‘Mavis strides between the custom world and the European world with such aplomb.’ And he had no hesitation, says Gina Allain, in seeking exclusive representation of an artist for whose work he would soon be asking five figure sums.

This led to Mavis leaving the art centre which she’d chaired, where she’d initiated ghost net weaving, and where she’d lead the fundraising for a separate women’s painting house. Happily this didn’t lead to the sort of boycott that the late Tommy Watson has faced since he left his art centre – never receiving the sort of retrospective from an institution like the QAG that his brilliant Desert art deserves.

But it didn’t change the artist’s philosophy. As Gina quotes Mrs Ngallametta in the catalogue, ‘I paint my Country – the places where we camp, fish, collect ochre and clay and the beach hibiscus that I burn to make charcoal. My paintings tell my grandchildren and their grandchildren the stories of those places and what we do there, the animals and birds and fish that live there, the plants that grow there.’ So they’re not mythic or ethical stories, as many classical First Nations artworks are; but practical survival stories made beautiful and universal through abstraction and genuine acts of aesthetic creation.

Mavis Ngallametta loved to travel with her work, even if the QAG show is called ‘Show me the way to go home’, after the song she would often sing on her travels. In America she encountered leading abstractionist painter Brice Marden, staying with him in New York. Afterwards, he announced that the unlikely pair ‘shared an artistic outlook – she is a mystic painter.’

At home, Mavis Ngallametta was recognised in the inaugural Tarnanthi Festival in Adelaide in 2015, where Guy Allain explained, ‘her work stretches boundaries to blur the distinction between landscape painting and storytelling; it as once a synthesis of artistic conventions and a revelation of Kugu art and culture. In a full sense, Ngallametta is a true modern.’ In 2013, a work of hers won the General Painting Award at the Telstra NATSIAAs. And in 2018, she took out the prestigious Red Ochre Award for a Lifetime Achievement in the Indigenous Arts.

Mavis Ngallametta died last year knowing that this retrospective was planned. Her visual memories of the lands that were lost when miners moved into her Country and the subsequent fight to win the High Court Wik Case survive in the sixty plus works she imprinted on canvas. Many of the best can be seen in the QAG’s lively YouTube videos – though sadly not in the subtly-coloured flesh in its unpeopled galleries.  

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 51, 2020

Mavis Ngallametta: Show me the way to go home
20 March 2020 – 7 February 2021
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane

Latest  /  Most Viewed  /  Related