2. Alec’s first trip to Alice Springs

Utopia Art Sydney held one or two Papunya Tula shows per year at its Stanmore gallery: one a group show and the other a solo by one of the rising stars. A recurring discussion among collectors and visitors to the gallery was ‘when are we going to Alice Springs’? or even better, ‘how do we go out to Kintore and meet some artists’? I had never been to Australia’s Red Centre so I was interested in those conversations. I did not know much about ‘where the art comes from’.

I first met Helen Read at an exhibition in Sydney in early 1997, having learned of her outback tours. Previously a nursing sister, she was a pilot with her own unique company Didgeri Air Art Tours (now Palya Air Tours). By some good fortune and a bit of effort I gained a seat on her 13-17 April 1997 art centres tour from Alice Springs to Darwin. 

Right: Image courtesy of Papyuna Tula Artists

I arrived in Alice and booked a room at Elkie’s Backpackers on April 12 ($30 a night). That afternoon I met Daphne Williams and Janice Stanton at PTA’s Todd Street gallery… and missed meeting Mick Namarari by ten minutes (The master from Marnpi, page 15). Our tour group assembled and met Marina Strocchi, the art coordinator from Haasts Bluff to discuss art, mainly women’s work.

Two gallery staff were on board Helen’s twin-engine Cessna: Ace Bourke from Hogarth’s in Sydney and Karen Brown from Darwin. On 13 April we departed for Yuendumu, meeting Susan and some artists at the Warlungkurlu Artists centre. We headed north-west to Balgo that afternoon. It was wonderful to see the landscape from 5,000 feet – it made reading of maps make more sense too. We stayed two nights in the ‘Balgo Hilton’ and were hosted by the Warlayirti Artists’ coordinators John and Julie Oster. I soaked up the conversations and looked over dozens and dozens of Balgo acrylics. 

From there we flew over the Wolfe Creek Crater and on to the Warmun Art Centre at Turkey Creek, hosted by Maxine, before leaving that afternoon for Kununurra. At Warmun we watched Queenie MacKenzie working on a large painting, which she enthusiastically described in vivid detail. I sat with Freddy Timms as he crushed red ochres in a mortar and pestle, and I met Beerbee Mungary, and asked him to pose with his painting. 

Seeing the land from the air, walking out to the escarpment at Balgo, and being in local communities gave me new insights into the paintings. Listening to the art coordinators discuss and assess the paintings with Ace and Karen was richly rewarding.

Looking at so many works in just a few days was mind-boggling and eye-opening.

In Kununurra we visited the Waringarri Art Centre, hosted by Kevin Kelly. After looking at another hundred paintings I settled on a small work by Hector Jandany. I remember asking Ace that day for his opinion of a painting I liked. His reply, ‘It doesn’t work for me’, got me thinking… what makes a painting ‘work’? I had only been thinking, ‘Do I like it?’ 

Karen had a different impact on my thinking, the evening before we departed Alice Springs. I had my eye on a large painting by Mick Namarari in Papunya Tula’s gallery (The master from Marnpi, page 15). I said it was ‘too big and too expensive’ and I could buy several paintings for that price. She calmly suggested that it’s usually wiser to get the very best painting you can afford, not a mix of mediocre ones, adding ‘higher quality paintings come along less often and are harder to acquire’. I did end up buying a small work at each centre we visited… and later that Namarari painting too. I’m lucky to have had good advice.

An immense benefit of seeing hundreds of paintings – acrylics and ochres - in a short time was realising some are better than others, and, only a few are wonderful (to me). Some images ‘work’, some don’t. Some artists have something – technique, use of colour, design – that sets them and their art apart. And so many paintings might never sell. I saw the sources of many shows I had seen in pristine galleries in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. In one intensive week of looking, listening and learning from others I had begun to nurture discernment… to develop my eye, to become a bit tougher. All Aboriginal art might be amazing, but not all paintings are good (as commercial products).

I happily noted in my diary at the end of that stimulating air tour: ‘I’ve got a clearer sense of the style of each community, the price range of paintings, a sense of ‘who’s who’ in the current pecking order of artists – at least how the art market is rating these artists anyway. I’ve developed my own taste and perspective about quality and value and what appeals to me. I’ve learned to look more closely at an individual painting and consciously know more about what I’m looking AT as well as what I’m looking FOR’ (emphasis in original).

A few days after returning home I wrote ‘thank you’ cards and posted them to Helen Read at Didgeri Tours, Susan Congreve at Yuendumu, Maxine Taylor at Warmun, Kevin Kelly at Kununurra, and Bryce Ponsford in Alice Springs. And I informed Janice and Daphne that I would go ahead with the Namarari purchase, his Mala Dreaming story. 

A diary entry of Monday 12 May 1997 reads: ‘I sat down and made a list of questions that I wanted to talk about with Christopher at Utopia Art Sydney about where I was at with my Aboriginal art thinking’. Clearly, my head was buzzing. All that looking had stimulated lots more questions.

The third trip to Alice was Thursday 6 November – Sunday 9 November. I visited Papunya Tula, the Jukurrpa women’s art centre, Gallery Gondwana, the Aboriginal Art and Cultural Centre (AACC, to meet Paul Ah Chee) and the Centre or Appropriate Technology (CAT, to meet Steve Patman). I joined a small AACC tour and tried spear-throwing and didjeridoo playing for the first time. And I toured the Desert Park Zoo. By coincidence I also attended the Alice Prize Art Show opening at the Araluen Arts Centre. I met the Haasts Bluff art centre coordinator, Marina Strocchi, and enjoyed long chats with Paul Sweeney and another PTA field worker, Wayne (Iggy) Eager (who was also Marina’s partner). I found their stories of art centre work absolutely fascinating and enlightening. 

I had ‘caught the bug’ and made two more trips to Alice Springs that year. The first (Tuesday 30 September – Sunday 5 October) was to attend a Language and Literacy Conference. I met field worker Paul Sweeney at PTA for the first time. I did a quick tour to Uluru and Kata Tjuta and I found about the Mala Dreaming (The master from Marnpi, page 193). I enjoyed the trip as my diary summarises: ‘I had seen loads of art, learned much more about Aboriginal culture, been to significant sites for the first time, walked around majestic Uluru, and had stimulating conversations with numerous people in the increasingly fascinating world of art in Central Australia. And I had seen Uluru in the bright morning light, surely the most potent symbol of Australia’s ‘Red Centre’.

There’s no doubt that 1997 was a year when a new idea germinated, the idea to ‘give something back’ to Aboriginal art to balance the knowledge and enjoyment I had gained. I can tell you about that new idea in Blog #3…

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