The Custodians: Country and Culture

Essay by Margie West

The Custodians: Country and Culture Print Folio brings together ten of Australia’s highly respected Indigenous artists. Bardayal Nadjamerrek AO, Gawirrin Gumana, Gulumbu Yunupingu, Kathleen Petyarre, Dorothy Napangardi, Regina Wilson, Lena Nyadbi, Jean Baptiste Apuatimi, Janangoo Butcher Cherel and Judy Napangardi Watson are artists with considerable creative achievements to their names. The first six cited painters have won awards at the Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award (1). Butcher Cherel has recently been listed as one of Western Australia’s State Living Treasures, while Yunupingu and Nyadbi have had their iconic imagery incorporated in the new Parisian Musée du quai Branly as part of the largest international commission of Australian Indigenous art.

These men and women from remote communities across the tropical north and desert regions of the Northern Territory and the Kimberley are indicative of the diversity and vitality of contemporary art practice from these regions. It’s here that the nation’s most compelling art forms flourish, despite often being produced in environments of borderline poverty, poor health and living conditions. And while these artists obviously create in order to sell their work, they also want to present and communicate something about their cultural realities to the outside world and art has become one of the most successful ways of doing this. Selling their art is therefore a cultural as well as an economic transaction that seeks recognition and some sort of rapprochement with the broader society. Gawirrin emphasises this in relation to his Baraltja print, ‘We will always draw that snake this way thinking that’s the way we show ourselves to the Yolngu (Aboriginal) and to the Ngapagi (non Indigenous). Gulumbu Yunupingu also reflects on how her Garak, galaxy of stars, connects us all in common humanity because, ‘there is a link between people everywhere.’


This communication and engagement between different cultures is also an integral aspect of the contemporary Indigenous practice itself, with artists often working in close association with their non- Indigenous peers, exchanging ideas and learning new ways to express themselves. As one aspect of this process, printmaking has become an important adjunct to the usual practice of many remote community artists today, and its maturity is reflected in the sustained and meaningful creative partnerships that now exist between the artists and the skill providers. The success of the Custodians folio reflects this process of thoughtful dialogue and real collaboration between selected artists, Basil Hall and his team of expert printmakers. Every step of the production is developed in consultation with the artist until the print is finally signed and editioned.

The process begins by identifying synergies between each artist’s painting style and extant printing techniques – in some truly inspired instances this has resulted in the birth of new methods such as the punugraph, that utilises the artists’ familiarity with pyrography to burn images onto a plywood plate.(2) For example, silkscreen printing faithfully echoes the vibrancy and tonal richness of Jean Baptiste and Judy Napangardi’s paintings and their colourful palettes.

The other artworks are better suited to etching, with either silkscreened colours or additional etching plates being used to create images of great subtlety and depth. The final result is a set of richly textured prints that capture the very soul of each artist’s style. The predominance of abstract imagery in the resulting prints is striking, yet they are all very different, reflecting the varying artistic histories and cultural backgrounds of each artist. Most are informed by the iconographic elements that typify their regional style. Even so, few of the works could be considered as classic because over time, even some of the most senior artists have experimented with their visual language within accepted stylistic boundaries. Others have created their own highly personal idioms of expression to manifest some aspect of their cultural identity. For those familiar with the artists’ work, many of the images are recognisable, in fact iconic depictions of their oeuvre: the strikingly bold graphics of Nyadbi’s stone points, the delicate tracery of dots in Dorothy Napangardi’s Mina Mina, and the Gulumbu’s shimmering canopy of stars. Others, like the prints by Bardayal Nadjamerrek and Gawirrin Gumana, surprise us with their freshness of interpretation sparked by the experimental possibilities of the print making technique.

Collectively these illustrations of material objects, food species, ancestral sites and beings all have a resonance with the artist’s lives, and all have meaning, because everything in their society reflects the totality of ancestral creation. In this respect mark-making is rarely a random or meaningless act. What an artist can and cannot paint though, is largely governed by their status as custodians and their attendant responsibilities to their ancestral law and their land. This is what provides the foundation for many of the images in the folio, especially those produced by the most senior and ceremonially important artists such as Gawirrin Gumana, Bardayal Nadjamerrek and Janangoo Butcher Cherel. The women also have certain custodial roles that are expressed in their illustration of significant sites and stories. The only artist who eschews any ancestral references in her work is Regina Wilson, who as a master weaver, has chosen to work with the imagery of string.

Many in this group of seasoned artists started painting seriously in the 1990s. Only Gawirrin Gumana and Bardayal Nadjamerrek have been painting for a longer period, starting their commercial careers in the 1960s. Both are now at the point of handing on their custodial responsibilities because of increasing age, and it is likely that Bardayal’s print is one of the last works he will ever produce. Over the past few years he has been passing on his artistic legacy to younger members of his family and to emphasise this, his print includes a superimposed image painted by his grandson Gavin Namarnyilk. The imagery here is particularly poignant, because it symbolises the age-old transferral of custodial rights and responsibilities to the next generation. In this way Aboriginal culture continues to endure, to be reinvigorated and to inspire.

Margie West
Emeritus Curator
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory

(1) Bardayal Nadjamerrek (1999 Telstra Work on Paper Award), Gawirrin Gumana (2002 Telstra First Prize), Gulumbu Yunupingu (2004 Telstra First Prize), Kathleen Petyarre, (1996 Telstra First Prize) Dorothy Napangardi (2001 Telstra First prize, 1991 Museum & Art Gallery Award), Regina Wilson (2002 Telstra General Painting Award)

(2) The term ‘punugraph’ was coined by Basil Hall after developing this printmaking method with artists at Tjala Arts in South Australia.

(3) Quoted to Margie West, 1994.

(4) Karen Dayman, Mangkaja Arts, Clemenger Contemporary Art Award catalogue, NGV, 2006.

Image: Bardayal ‘Lofty’ Nadjamerrek AO at a rock art site near Gunbalanya in Arnhem Land

Custodians Artworks

View the Custodian artworks in the Nomad Art online gallery. View Artworks >>

Photos from the event

Gawirrin Gumana working on the etching at Buku Larrnggay Mulka
Gawirrin Gumana Baraltja
©2008 etching 50 x 39cm
Janangoo Butcher Cherel Girndi
©2008 etching and screenprint 50 x 39cm