Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane has re-opened its doors the public after Covid-19 closures and is inviting audiences to come in and explore the major survey exhibition ‘Show Me The Way To Go Home’, which presents a magnificent showcase of work by artist Mavis Ngallametta. An exhibition co-curated by QAGOMA’s former Curator of Indigenous Australian Art, Bruce Johnson McLean, and the National Gallery of Australia’s inaugural Assistant Director of Indigenous Engagement and QAGOMA’s Acting Curator of Indigenous Australian Art, Katina Davidson.
Mavis Ngallametta (1944-2019) was born near Kendall River in the west Cape York Peninsula where she lived a traditional life as a member of the Kugu people, her family moved to the Presbyterian Mission at Aurukun when she was five years old. In adult life Ngallametta became a respected elder of the Putch clan, and a cultural leader with the Wik and Kugu people of Arakun in Far North Queensland. She was an accomplished weaver of the traditional Arakun methods for making string bags and was also skilled in the basketmaking techniques of Christian missionaries.
At the age of 64 Ngallametta attended a women’s painting workshop at the Wik and Kugu art centre in Arakun, and it was there that she was introduced to the practice of painting. Over the course of ten years, experimenting first with acrylic paints then with traditional ochres, Ngallametta developed her own unique painting style showing her to be an artist of extraordinary talent.
Ngallametta was a songwoman who loved to fill the air with her songs. She was often heard singing ‘Show Me The Way To Go Home’, written in 1925 by Irving King (James Campbell and Reginald Connelly) and so it is a fine and fitting gesture that the title of the exhibition “is an ode to a song that she would sing when longing to return to her home on the Western Cape. Mavis was a larger than life personality and that really shines bright in her work,” shares co-curator Davidson.
Featuring over 40 of Ngallametta’s sculptures, paintings and weavings ‘Show Me The Way To Go Home’ traces the transformative stages of the artist’s creative journey from her early practice of ghost-net weaving to a series of small painterly works in the bold bright colours of acrylic paint and her most recent larger than life paintings rendered in the traditional ochres, charcoal and clays she collected on Country.
Reflecting on her own experience with Ngallametta’s work, co-curator Davidson says, “Being able to spend time with these works in person is an absolute privilege. There is something so special being surrounded by towering paintings (most of the works are 2 by 3 meters) that are made from the very Country in and around Aurukun that they depict. From afar, the meandering patterns create bands or fields within the landscape – depicting the ocean, shoreline, lagoons, bushfires, and salt pans – although as you move closer, they become very complex abstract shimmering dots and intertwined lines with beautiful moments of figuration; birds in nests, pigs under a tree, women fishing with a dragging net, and old bush camps with brilliant red oil drums that have been dragged upstream from the foreshore.”
“By weaving together these narratives, Mavis creates landscapes of her Country imbued with generations of memories from her childhood camping trips away from the Aurukun Mission, to visiting sites with her adopted son Edgar while he conducts cultural burning ensuring the seasonal regeneration of the land,” Davidson adds.
This beautiful collection of works includes vibrant illustrations of Pamp (swamps) on Country highlighting the abundance of nature in the tropics after the wet-season with brightly coloured motifs of the plant and animal life that co-exists in the cool tea-tree waters among tall grasses and melaleuca trees of the lagoons surrounding the Arakun Community, as well as representations of Ngallametta’s Kendall River and Yalgamunken Country. Yalgamunken is a local mine site and saltpan near Aurukun and is the place where Ngallametta collected yellow ochre to make the deep rich red pigment that we see in the Yalgamunken paintings.
In a series of large-scale works Ngallametta painted breathtaking scenes of Ikalath, a site to the north-east of Arakun, where brilliant red dirt cliffs and sacred white clay meet on the golden shores of an important cultural site for the Wik people. Although, Ikalath was not Ngallametta’s traditional Country, her connection to it came through the blood ties of her adopted son, Edgar.
Davidson says Ngallametta “was passionate about teaching language and sharing cultural knowledge with the young people from her community. As an Aboriginal curator working within a cultural institution, I really wanted to honour this legacy, so we commissioned Wik-Mungkan and Kugu Uwanh translations of her artist statements, which are the two main languages spoken in Aurukun. The recognition and elevation of Australia’s first languages is a vital step in understanding the complex and beautiful works created by senior cultural women such as the late Mavis Ngallametta.”
Free timed entry tickets are available for ‘Show Me The Way To Go Home’ book online here, and you can also explore a series of videos about the exhibition with Katina Davidson here.
Queensland Art Gallery has put Covid-19 safe health practices in place to meet the guidelines for the easing of social gathering restrictions. The Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) will also be welcoming visitors back to the gallery from Friday 7 August.