Two exhibitions from northern WA at Fremantle Arts Centre represent a pioneering wave of shows from the Kimberley, aiming to create new understandings about art from the region.
A deluge of colour and pattern greets visitors to John Prince Siddon: All Mixed Up at Fremantle Arts Centre, with the artists’ signature palette transferred to plinths and walls to create a striking first impression urging further exploration. The paintings themselves show micro/macro depictions ‘all mixed up’ in scale, as the Fitzroy Crossing-based artist relates his perspective of life living ‘mixed up’ in two worlds in remote Australia today. He says, “we mixed up, true, let’s keep it that way!” Influenced by television, the traditional Kimberley craft of boab nut carving, at which he is adept, desert iconography and the Narrangkarni (Dreamtime), Siddon’s work is an intriguing mix of traditional/contemporary, positive/negative, and humorous/serious, with storytelling at its heart.As well as canvases, Siddon has painted on a series a kangaroo skins which have been painstakingly partly shaved. These, together with brightly painted bullock skulls, are a strange mix of the macabre and the joyful.
Commissioned by Perth Festival, the exhibition is his first major solo, allowing city audiences the opportunity to familiarise themselves with Siddon’s extraordinary practice. Curator Emilia Galatis says she believes Siddon is one of the most important artists living and working in Australia right now. “He straddles two worlds but his works talk about contemporary political and social issues while remaining true to his cultural heritage.”
A map of Australia, often included in his work, provides a vehicle for comment on colonisation, immigration, the introduction of species, and its effects on native flora and fauna and Aboriginal communities. Other works explore Aboriginal land management, global warming, the renewal and regeneration of the bush, and the reality of violent pub culture. One poignant work, set in a future where humankind has destroyed itself and the planet, animals gather in a circle to discuss what to do next. Another, completed after the devastating bush fires in Australia earlier this year, sees water people and sea inhabitants helping to put out the fires. Siddon says he worried about the animals and people fighting the fires, and still feels sad about it. “The works are about all the things I think about, all the stories trapped in my head, new ways, old ways, whatever comes to my mind.”
Galatis says Siddon’s work doesn’t fit the ‘Aboriginal art’ box, or the narrative people like to hear from remote Australia. “His work is not typical of what’s being created at Fitzroy Crossing, so he’s really pushing boundaries with strong, unique work, which I think is super brave at this time, and has the power to change the way remote artists are seen.”
Born in 1974 in Derby, Siddon, a Walmajarri man, spent his early years working on cattle stations until he lost a leg in a riding accident. It was after this tragedy he began to paint. “Now I can’t stop,” he says. Based in an aged care facility where he resides with his wife Susan, Siddon’s works through Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency in Fitzroy Crossing. Founded in 1981 in an initiative led by local men, including Siddon’s father, Mangkaja is a Walmajarri word for ‘shelter’ or ‘gathering together’ and provides a place for people to study, paint and share knowledge of culture and Country.
Janangoo, accompanying John Prince Siddon: All Mixed Up, features works by one of the Kimberley’s most revered artists, Butcher Cherel Janangoo (1920-2009), who also played a crucial role in the establishment of Mangkaja Arts. He saw Aboriginal Law and languages as fundamentally significant and was a key elder of the Gooniyandi language group who was instrumental in the retention of Law ceremony at Muludja Community. His works are held in national collections and in many private collections around the world. Janangoo was named a State Living Treasure both in 1994 and 2005.
Curator of Janangoo, Lynley Nargoodah, Special Projects Coordinator at Mangkaja Arts, says his works had been hidden in Mangkaja Arts collection since the artist died. “Janangoo was a very important man. I had to have a series of meetings with his family before I was able to begin the process of selecting works. These cultural protocols preceded any interaction with the artworks.”
Galati says the exhibition represents an exciting new direction for remote art centres to author their own stories. “What Lynley is doing, as a remote Aboriginal arts worker and curator, is pioneering a movement of remote voices, and showing how local curators and art centres can deal with their own historic or contemporary content. This is really only the beginning of what Magkaja Arts can do. Art centres usually revolve around supporting living artists to create new works, but they’re actually the best place to be delivering historical content from the region to institutions. It’s really phase one of what we hope is a series of small exhibitions to start the conversation about their narratives.”
After working with art centres for many years, Galatis says she doesn’t put an independent curator hat on often. “I have to truly believe in a project to take it on, and I’m very careful about the type of messages they have. I’ve been working with Prince a long time, but this exhibition is a first for both of us in the sense it’s not connected to an organisation.”
She says the region is so rich artistically you could easily produce 30 Fitzroy Crossing exhibitions and not run out of content. “There’s also six language groups in Fitzroy Crossing. Just that diversity alone is fascinating.”
John Prince Siddon: All Mixed Up and Janangoo are on show at Fremantle Arts Centre until 22 March.