Sally M Nangala Mulda

Sally M Nangala Mulda’s depiction of her biographical truths in paint are a long way from the seductive romance of much regional Aboriginal art, yet these naïve and painterly images of life in Alice Springs’ town camps are communicated with power.

Mulda paints her own experience – it is the medium in which she communicates her story. She has been exhibiting consistently since 2008, yet it was the suite of paintings shown in ‘The National: New Australian Art’ in 2019 which drew the attention of curators and collectors.

This year her work is also part of the Art Gallery of South Australia’s ‘Tarnanthi: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art’, in both the exhibition and an animation, No Trouble Here, which will be shown for the first time in Adelaide. It sold strongly at Sydney Contemporary with Edwina Corlette in September and was a finalist in this year’s Sulman Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. What audiences find compelling is the contrast between the beautiful painterly qualities of Mulda’s storytelling and the gritty realities of life in Alice Springs’ town camps.

On a superficial level, these bright, painterly canvases are naïve urban landscapes, existing in a shallow picture plane. Around and sometimes over the images are written phrases in large cursive script that add a narrative to the unfolding drama in the paintings. In Policeman Taking Man to Big Jail (2019), Sally divides the painting in two, with a red earth and blue sky. Two vehicles are pictured – a police van surrounded by three people and a loaded ambulance. The text, dominating the sky, reads, ‘Policeman taking man to big jail, ambulance man taking woman to hospital with broken arm’. The two policemen’s faces are pink, their prisoner’s face and arms black, all recorded with objectivity. There is no discernible judgement – these images document Mulda’s life lived in a place with a constant police presence, heightened since the Federal Government’s Northern Territory Intervention in 2007.

It was this style of painting, its depiction of incidents from Abbott’s Town Camp that dominated in Mulda’s suite of works at ‘The National’. Corlette suggests, ‘Her work can be interpreted as political, yet she paints in a naïve style. She has been to school and writes about everything that she experiences in the town camp. People understand it, curators are interested in the paternalistic nature of the police in Alice. These paintings describe what life is like in very real art terms without meaning or agenda. Sally is also a colourist, using a high key palette. Compositionally her paintings are loaded with narrative and people find that engaging and interesting. Very few have been to a town camp.’

Town camps’ populations grew in and around Alice Springs in the late 1960s when the switch from rations to pastoral wages forced Aboriginal people who had always lived on their Country to leave it. Initially town camps were informal, oriented toward the campers’ Country of origin. In 1971 they formed housing associations. Tangentyere Council, their representative body, lobbied for formal leases and funds to construct infrastructure and housing. Populations have always fluctuated, with overcrowding causing tension. People marry out of their language group, and residence patterns change. Currently, 2000 people live in the town camps around Mparntwe/Alice Springs with over twenty languages spoken.

Populations have stabilised somewhat since the 2007 Northern Territory Intervention, and some town camps have improved housing. But the issues of many different groups living in close proximity continue today.

Mulda was born in 1957 south of Mparntwe/Alice Springs in the Titjikala community. Her early life was difficult. She attended school, but had problems with her sight, and then lost the use of her left arm in an accident. She began painting when living ‘out bush’, but it was only after she moved to Mparntwe/Alice Springs and began working at Tangentyere Artists that momentum began to build around what she was producing.

Mulda remembers, ‘I heard a couple of ladies say, “We can’t draw ourselves. We don’t know how to draw it”. So we learned.’ Her thick painterly style was developed in response to her limited vision. Corlette recalls, ‘In the art centre, she leans right over the canvas on the table, her good eye 20cm away from the surface.’

When I speak to Tangentyere Artists staff about my questions for Sally M Nangala Mulda, their reply suggests that they are not applicable to Mulda’s situation, they’re too ‘white-western-artist-oriented’. When I ask, ‘how do you begin a painting?’, the response from Mulda is ‘by picking up the brush?’. To, ‘How does painting help you connect with your culture?’, the answer (via staff) is, ‘Sally can’t really answer this – culture is intrinsic’.

Paintings come to Mulda through memories, true stories which are narrated in paint. She spends four or five days a week at Tangentyere Art Centre. Corlette, who has visited a few times, describes it as, ‘Peaceful, quiet and air-conditioned, insulated: originally, art centres were created by the women as safe havens to get away from the madness that may be part of the community around them. Tangentyere is a fully functioning and terrific art centre and studio.’

Design anthropologist Sue O’Connor suggests in a 2011 article that Mulda’s life changed when she moved from Little Sisters Town Camp on the other side of the Todd River to Abbotts Camp, which is closer to town. ‘Increasingly, Sally’s narratives included the police visiting camp, asking if people were drinking, or rounding up drinkers in the riverbed, or stopping cars headed out of town, to check for grog. Her paintings are social documentaries and record many aspects of daily life lived as a consequence of enhanced state policing of people’s lives.’

Yet it is a moment of peace that is the subject of her painting for this year’s Sulman Prize. Sally Feeding Little Cat. Mother Cat (2019) includes a caption that reads, ‘This is me outside my home at Abbott’s Town Camp in Alice Springs feeding my cats. Little cat, mother cat. One woman, my family, playing cards. Nobody bothering anybody. No papa bothering the cats! We are just sitting quietly. I like quiet. Nobody talking.’ A fence divides this domestic scene and its people in the foreground from the township on the other side. It evokes, in its composition, a sense of a respite. Mulda says, ‘Some people thought I couldn’t paint and wanted me to do jewellery, but other people liked my stories. Now I’m painting women making (and) selling punu and initi necklaces.’

Making art provides Mulda with a means to communicate what Terazita Turner-Young, an art worker at Tangentyere, describes as ‘what happens from the morning to the dark … Pay day walking down to (the local shop) Piggleys, in the night, humbug-like harassment. Dry communities and dry camps. No alcohol in the camp and communities. A lot of police entering the camps. Someone who lived the experience and lives it today. Something that will live on their life forever … Sally is telling her story.’

It is in Mulda’s painted narratives of her life, expressed through her hand that the artist may communicate with unmuted strength. Turner-Young suggests, ‘Look at the painting through Sally’s eyes and feel what she feels when she’s putting her brushes onto the canvas.’ This we may all do.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 49, 2019

Sally M. Nangala Mulda: Remembering Now
17 September – 7 October 2020
Edwina Corlette Gallery, Brisbane 

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