I never thought for a moment in the late 1990s that I would write a substantial book about Namarari. And never imagined, that if I did, it would get a double-page write up in a major Sydney newspaper. Yet on Saturday 27 October 2018, there it was in full colour, a delightful article by Elizabeth Fortescue about my book on Mick Namarari.
My half-formed idea to ‘give something back’ to Aboriginal art came into view in 1999. I would write a little story, nothing too fancy, about Namarari’s life. With a little help from my friends - who knew more about Aboriginal art than I did - perhaps something worthwhile would fall into shape.
I didn’t really have a plan, and my approach to research was initially haphazard. With support from Christopher Hodges and Daphne Williams I made contact with important people who agreed to be interviewed. I talked with people who actually knew Namarari and worked alongside him in the 1970s as he painted – Geoff Bardon (The master from Marnpi pages 79-83), Peter Fannin (The master from Marnpi pages 84-85), Dick Kimber (The master from Marnpi page 93) and John Kean (The master from Marnpi pages 97-99). Those fellas not only deepened my knowledge about Namarari but significantly increased my interest in him, as an individual and as an artist. I was beginning to collect pieces of a jigsaw and certainly didn’t know how they might fit together.
The late 1990s was also when I first saw Bardon’s documentary about Namarari, ‘Mick and the Moon’ (The master from Marnpi pages 102-103), as well as a fascinating documentary about the Pintupi people, ‘Benny and the Dreamers’ (The master from Marnpi pages 129-130). I chatted with Christopher and talked about Namarari’s paintings in the Utopia Art Sydney survey (The master from Marnpi page 16). I was finding more than enough material to stimulate my thinking.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s I continued my trips to Central Australia. Each visit to Alice Springs included Papunya Tula to see the art and pick up art-world gossip. I made short trips to the Eastern and Western McDonnell Ranges to soak up the scenery and experience the peace and quiet of sitting on cool river sand under shady gum trees, or enjoying the view of majestic red-rock escarpments. Trephina Gorge was especially captivating and I saw rock art that celebrated the local Caterpillar Dreaming at Emily Gap. A favourite spot close to Alice Springs was Simpson’s Gap with its shy rock wallabies.
I enjoyed camping as it allowed for early morning walks to watch the sun rise over hills and valleys, listen to the birds and see flowers open. It made me think of Namarari - as a child with his family or later as a stockman mustering cattle around Tempe Downs.
The years sped by. I worked part-time in my training business and looked after Rosie and Anna (both in high school), while Helen was a very busy senior executive. I kept reading about Aboriginal art in general, made visits to exhibitions and attended art auctions, and travelled enough to keep my interest alive in the slowly unfolding ‘Namarari project’. Industry magazines had articles about Aboriginal art, though it was more descriptive than critical. At art auctions I made rough notes and endeavoured to decipher how the auction scene worked, and whether I was any good at estimating prices. It seemed the Australian galleries who had missed ‘the early Papunya boards’ were now paying skyrocketing prices to acquire them, because international buyers were busily bidding too.
I must have been caught up in art-collecting conversations, because I made a note in my diary (17 April 1999): ‘Here’s my theory – do your homework thoroughly before paying a lot for art. If some dealer is telling you you’re getting a bargain at below market rate for such-and-such, a well-known artist, consider walking away.’ It was a more complicated issue than I realised, but at least I was thinking about it and talking with people who knew more than me.
I had a wonderful adventure in June 1999 to the western Kimberly region of WA to do the ‘Bush University’ program with the Ngarinyin people. Camped by a river, our small group enjoyed visits to Wandjina sites, bush walks, long talks around the campfire, and fishing in the billabong. No, I didn’t see any crocodiles. One of our teachers, the elder Laurie Gowanulli, was a shy man but a great teacher, and a respected artist. I couldn’t resist getting one of his paintings.
A few dates from those early years are worth underlining. The 17th March 1999 was the day that Christopher called Daphne in Alice Springs to check that it was ‘OK’ with Papunya Tula that I could ‘do a story’ about Namarari. On 17 April 1999 The Australian newspaper printed an article about the possibility of ‘fake’ Turkey Tolson paintings, which stirred the market as it raised the prickly issues of provenance and authenticity. I was getting into ‘the art scene’ when issues beyond my experience were grabbing people’s attention. Conversations in galleries often turned to these issues, because collectors didn’t want to be duped and dealers didn’t want to be caught up in the exploitation of Aboriginal artists. I began writing too – my diary of 1 November 1999 records: ‘Starting to try to put together a chronology of events key points from the period 1971 to 1980 in relation to Namarari’s life and the Pintupi artists of the time.’
On Saturday 11 November 2000 Helen and I joined a huge crowd at the Art Gallery of NSW for an art auction to raise funds for a new dialysis service for Pintupi people. A great success! It raised about $1,100,000 to kick start a service that the government refused to fund. The most important artworks on offer were collaborative men’s and women’s works from Kintore and Kiwirrkura, donated by Papunya Tula Artists. The funds were for the Western Desert Nganampa Walytja Palyantjaku Tjutaku Aboriginal Corporation – we couldn’t pronounce it but we knew what it stood for – ‘Making all our families well’. People now know it simply as The Purple House (it’s in Alice Springs).
As much as I thought of research as working on a jigsaw puzzle, it was also a mapping exercise. In the early 2000s my project about Namarari’s life was somewhat disjointed, a disparate collection of notes, interviews, exhibitions, conversations, auctions, travels and perhaps more importantly, thinking and reflection.
I was naïve enough to imagine that it wouldn’t get too much more complicated and enthusiastic enough to keep plodding along. The time for more focused research and writing was approaching. As I passed the half-way marker of that decade I realised I needed to make more of an effort. I had enjoyed my explorations of the Alice Springs area but really needed to get to Kintore. In March 2007 I made it! And while there I met Namarari’s widow, Elizabeth Marks Nakamarra, and I made a promise.
More about that in next month’s Blog… see you then… on the road to Kintore!