Cover image of the review
Johnathon World Peace Bush, Murrintawi (white people), 2021, locally sourced natural earth pigments on linen 150cm x 200cm. Photo: Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association

Melbourne Art Fair

19 Feb 2022
Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka, Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association, Milingimbi Art and Culture Aboriginal Corporation, Waringarri Aboriginal Arts, Warlayirti Artists Aboriginal Corporation, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre 17 Feb - 20 Feb 2022

Honestly, the 2022 Melbourne Art Fair is good. It’s even great in parts. The greatest part by far is blandly named the “Indigenous Art Centre Program”, run by the non-profit Agency Projects, which is seemingly funded by various government initiatives and other “innovative philanthropists”. If I squint past the grant-speak, it’s revealed that they have fully footed the bill for five remote Indigenous-governed Art Centres to attend the Fair and produce fancy videos about their represented artists. Excellent! Now we’re talking! We love to see our tax dollars flowing to the best sites of contemporary art making in the country. The five centres—Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre, Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association, Milingimbi Art and Culture Aboriginal Corporation, Waringarri Aboriginal Arts, and Warlayirti Artists—aren’t pulling any punches either. They’ve brought the A-team.

I’ve never seen Ben Galmirrl Ward’s work in the flesh before. It’s essential to closely observe the organic triangle that he uses to depict the crannies of a water-systems, valleys and ranges of the Miriwoong people’s land (at the eastern extremity of the Kimberley). The triangles are so soft, so non-geometric, that they almost appear quilted across the country. This innovation would be enough, but Ward also has a breathtaking technique for depicting clouds. Like nothing I’ve seen before, they’re serpents, they’re birds’ wings and beaks, they’re pointy and weightless. Cast against grim, grey skies, the overall effect is tender and melancholy.

Ben Galmirrl Ward, Boolgoormirri and Jigoomirri, 2022, natural pigment on canvas, 130 x 125 cm. Photo: Waringarri Aboriginal Arts

Johnathon World Peace Bush’s Tiwi popes seem cursed with no eyelids, destined to spend an eternity staring out onto the Art Fair. Painted in the distinctive Tiwi jilamara (body painting design), Bush depicts popes and other appropriated western figures with an all-over verve that seems a fitting replacement for Catholic velvets and gold.

From Tiwi opulence to Milingimbi solemnity, walk across the Fair to Helen Ganalmirriwuy Garrawurra’s exhibition and you’ll find a very distinct mood. A minimal painter who has permission to use Liyagawumirr sacred geometry in natural red, yellow and white, Garrawurra and her sister, Margaret Rarru Garrawurra, have also developed a black (mol) dye for natural fibres. Woven into a radiating circular mat that is displayed on the wall, the black dye lends inarguable power to Garrawurra’s dark sun-forms.

Wanapati Yunupiŋu, Gurtha, 2021, engraved aluminium, 75 x 75 x 4 cm. Photo: Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre

While Patsy Mudgedell might have the most beautiful paintings at the Fair, with two recent works appearing to dissolve in front of you, the compromising, miserable booth space does the art zero favours. Contrast this with the stunning set-up for Wanapati Yunupiŋu’s first ever solo exhibition (Melbourne or otherwise), which sets a special corner of the Fair on fire. The south looked jealously to the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art in Darwin late last year when the exhibition Murrŋiny surveyed eight artists from Yirrkala, all working in the medium of engraved “steel” (found metals). Now we get a piece of it ourselves, with Yunupiŋu’s murrŋiny paintings that overlay images of marine life (from deep and shallow water) with ancestral designs of fire. These works do appear both hot and cool. The exposed aluminium twinkles innocently, but I wouldn’t touch the murrŋiny surface; cut with a rotary drill, I bet it’s sharp as hell.