Mavis Ngallametta: A Shift in Perspective

The past five years have been extraordinary for Mavis Ngallametta. Since the accomplished weaver turned her attention to painting, she has been producing expansive and detailed canvases that shift in perspective and offer up new ways to see our world.

Words: Quentin Sprague

Photography: Andrew Watson

It was in 2008 when the Wik and Kugu Art Centre in Aurukun held a painting workshop for local women that Mavis Ngallametta realised her first works on canvas. Prior to this she was well established as a weaver, known both locally and nationally for her finely crafted mats and baskets. Examples of these, along with her more recent paintings, are held in a number of public collections including the National Gallery of Australia and the Art Gallery of South Australia. Ngallametta learnt the skill of weaving as a child at the Aurukun Mission, initially under the tutelage of senior Kugu women who, anxious to transmit local tradition to the mission generation, taught informal classes at the school. A keen student at the time, Ngallametta has carried weaving practices with her ever since. As part of the innovative Ghosts Nets project, in recent years she has even spearheaded entirely new techniques and approaches that have, in turn, seen her become a valued teacher for younger generations.

Although recognised for weaving, it is unsurprising that Ngallametta eventually turned toward painting.

A number of other senior Indigenous women, including Regina Wilson from Peppimenarti in the Northern Territory, have long proven that there are productive intersections between these art forms. Indeed, the repetitive and careful work of weaving often provides a similar platform from which to work. Yet, whereas Wilson’s paintings almost literally translate woven lines onto the two-dimensional support of a painting, Ngallametta has used this shift between mediums to create something new. Although her works, with their loosely intersecting line work, recall woven strings of naturally dyed pandanus, they also suggest other, more expansive references.

Initially Ngallametta experimented with acrylic paint but, after being unconvinced by the results, responded to the suggestion to use ochre instead. After preparing her first batch of locally sourced yellow ochre, she made two paintings on paper. The first, in her assessment, “was no good”. The second, however, held some promise and she decided to persevere. Large canvases soon followed and eventually formed the standout works in a group exhibition from Aurukun held in late 2011 at Martin Browne Contemporary in Sydney. A year later Ngallametta held her first solo exhibition with the gallery. Titled Ikalath, the show featured four large paintings.

In 2013 Ngallametta was awarded the General Painting Prize at the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award in Darwin. Fittingly the large canvas depicted the site near Aurukun from which she sources her ochre – unusual cliff formations next to the Arafura sea, coloured by bands of ochre and red bauxite earth. Although this is not her traditional country (she sought permission to paint this site from her son-in-law), it nonetheless holds personal significance. In her early years she used to go there with her late husband to collect ochre for body painting and carving.

According to Guy Allain, the art coordinator who worked at Wik and Kugu art centre during the period that Ngallametta took up painting, her new body of work similarly depicts “sites around Aurukun that have a connection for Mavis or her family”. These connections vary and include her strong bond to Kendall River, her traditional area of country that, as with many of her other paintings, she simultaneously depicts from multiple perspectives. Like so much Indigenous contemporary art, Ngallametta’s new body of work suggests new ways of visualising our surrounding world.

Mavis Ngallametta – Five New Paintings is at Martin Browne Contemporary in Sydney from 3 to 27 April 2014.

Martin Browne

Since 2011 the work of artist Mavis Ngallametta has risen steadily from about $20,000 to a current market price of $38,500. Dealer Martin Browne attributes this to the scarcity of her work combined with recognition of what he believes is “an artist working at a level almost unparalleled in Australian painting today – Indigenous or otherwise”. The artist has created 20 works since 2011, with each painting taking between a month and six weeks to complete. Interestingly Ngallametta only creates work in one size, approximately 200 by 275 centimetres, this larger scale allowing her to, as Browne puts it, “express her artistic voice”.

Winning the General Painting Award in the 2013 National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Island Art Award brought awareness to the artist’s painting and as a result enquiries after her work increased. The Queensland Art Gallery and the Holmes à Court Collection have both exhibited works they recently acquired. While Ngallametta has yet to exhibit internationally, Browne is in discussions with two overseas institutions with significant Australian Indigenous collections, commenting: “I am confident a painting will enter at least one of these collections before the year’s end.”

Browne first came across the artists work in 2010 when Ngallametta created smaller, domestic scale works but after discussions with her at the 2011 Cairns Indigenous Art Fair he sensed she was up for a challenge and encouraged her to adopt a larger scale to her paintings. The result? Extraordinary and according to Browne, “beyond my wildest dreams of what she would produce”.

Naomi Gall

Sally Butler

Describing Mavis Ngallametta as the “Rover Thomas of the West Cape,” curator Sally Butler clarifies this by adding: “She is someone who has been extremely innovative in creating an entirely new way of painting country for her particualr cultural identity and people, the Wik people”. Having curated Ngallametta’s work in the 2010 Before Time Today exhibition at the University of Queensland Art Museum, Butler was delighted when the well regarded weaver decided to develop canvas painting which she says “gave the exhibition an entirely new dimension”. The exhibition gained international recognition as well as being hugely successful after its Brisbane launch, at which Ngallametta sang a rendition of the Frank Sinatra classic My Way.

A truly genuine artist, Butler relays an anecdote: “I remember she said to me one time, ‘I see country through my feet because when I walk through country I feel all the different surfaces and that’s what I try to paint, that kind of feeling of country’.” A highly respected cultural figure, the artist is actively involved in keeping culture alive, particularly through her efforts with the Ghost Net Weavers where baskets are woven from fishing line debris retrieved from the ocean.

There is an element of mystery about the work of Ngallametta and a sense that no matter how many times you look upon her work, you will always find a new aspect, see a new element or uncover a new depth. Butler sums it up best when she says: “The work takes you on a journey and she’s a wonderful person to take that journey with.”

Naomi Gall

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 68, APR – JUN 2014


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