Pamela Lofts (August 9, 1949 – July 4, 2012) left behind important legacies in the fields of visual arts and children’s literature. Her ideas and vision reached beyond the Centre but for our readers it is her work in Alice Springs and the desert that is of particular interest and where, apart from her well-loved person, her loss will be greatly felt.
Our archive is not comprehensive but it does trace some of the lines of her legacy – her role as initiator and founding coordinator of Watch This Space (which endures to this day), her achievements as a children’s book illustrator and her career as an exhibiting artist (from 1992 she held 27 solo shows across Australia, and was represented in almost 70 group exhibitions in Australia and internationally). We reinstate here excerpts and images from the archive in her memory.
October 29, 1997
Watch This Space – disappear?
Watch This Space, Alice Springs’ first and only artist-run exhibition space, is more than its bricks and mortar.
While as from the end of this year it will no longer occupy the 1950s ice and soft drink factory behind Swingers on Gregory Terrace, the artists are determined that it will live on.
Earlier in the year they tried to hold on to the building by lobbying the owner, who intends to take over the building for his own Aboriginal art business and warehouse, but to no avail.
They are continuing to look for another venue that is affordable and appropriate as an experimental art space, but lack of a venue does not mean that their activities will cease.
“It is imperative to maintain the local and national profile that Watch This Space has generated with artists and audiences alike,” says Pam Lofts, who has chiefly coordinated activities and funding for the Space since its first exhibition in March 1994.
She cites the Space’s excellent track record of more than 90 exhibitions, events and performances involving over 200 artists, as the reason why funding bodies should continue to support them, building or no building.
There are plenty of other possibilities for making and exhibiting art in the Central Australian context, she argues.
Both the natural and urban environments can be used as exhibition sites.
A virtual gallery on the Internet could showcase work to a wider audience and set up dialogues with other artist-run and contemporary art spaces.
Camps for local and interstate artists, at a venue such as the Hamilton Downs Youth Camp, could be organised, as could workshops and artists’s talks.
Community arts projects could continue as opportunities for artists to explore and develop ideas.
Art could be shown in a nomadic but art friendly space such as empty shopfronts.
Sound works could be broadcast on community radio.
Lofts is concerned that, without a physical location, the Space may not be able to attract funding to develop the new program structure and is urging all interested to write letters of support and to continue submitting proposals for 1998 …
Landscape (on the road again), joint winner of the Alice Prize in 1995 (this predates our digital archive which began in 1997.) Pictured is one of the nine drawings in charcoal and watercolour, presented as a single installation. The work is held in the Araluen Art Collection, acquired by the Alice Springs Art Foundation. Image courtesy Araluen.
December 3, 1997
When Nomads stop walking: Aboriginal women tell their stories in a new book
What was it like, to be a little girl wandering the Great Sandy Desert some 50 years ago, on the cusp of change from a traditional nomadic lifestyle to the forcibly more settled post-contact years? If the question arouses your curiosity, a just-released book will go some way towards satisfying it.
Yarrtji tells the stories of six Great Sandy Desert women, compiled by Sonja Peter and Pamela Lofts. The very first story sets the tone. It’s told by Martingale Mudgedel Napanangka: “When Tjama was little I hit her with stick. ‘Give me tjirrilpatja [pencil yam],’ I bin say. Tjama wouldn’t give me tjirrilpatja. The three sisters, the three Nampitjins – our mothers – they bin sorry for us. Sorry for me hitting Tjama. Two father bring big mob pussycat. Aunty tell me ‘Don’t hit sisters!’ so we can walk round together.”
Three mothers, two fathers! Almost unimaginable for a European reader, certainly fascinating. There’s no psychological exploration of the kind one would expect in a European autobiography. But the women’s first person accounts of their memories, in Aboriginal English and some language, certainly have an emotional tenor, and as you get used to reading Aboriginal English, the simplicity of expression combined with the scope of the experiences being described, has its own poetry.
Often, Peter and Lofts choose to render the accounts in a free verse form, as above, and in this dramatic account by Kuninyi Rita Nampitjin: “We bin start from Yurngkunpali. We bin finishing water. From there travelling to every soakwater, long way to Ngantjaltjara. No water! From there to Kumpultjirri. Summertime, travelling summertime. From there to Yarlu Yarlu. No water! From there to Kurungupanta. No water! We bin tired and slack from no water. Go to Marl, other side of Lamanpanta. We bin digging hole and sleep inside hole. Make ourselves cool. We bin starting walking night time. No moonlight. We sick one now. My father bin crying for kids. Father and mother say, ‘What will I do? I might losem all the kids.’
“We bin cry. Before sunrise we bin start walking east – kakarra. We bin findem water now at Tjarkatjarka – rockhole – deep one. We bin happy.”
The stories of the kartiyas [white people] go before them. Payi Payi Napangarti’s is particularly appalling: “They tell me story for kartiya … The kartiya put mother and father in the fire, cookem like bullock meat – boilem up in pot … People living in Lanu Lanu bin taste the cooked people. Kartiya force-em to eat that meat. The people pretend to eat – liar way, but really they digging hole and put in meat behind.”
Then comes the actual experience. There are many first or early contact accounts, many of them horror stories: of men, accused of stealing bullocks, chained around their necks, beaten, tied up to a tree all night, whipped; of women and children rounded up, bullied, terrorised, shot at.
You can’t help but be impressed by the detail of the women’s memories of their vast itineraries: where they found what to eat, where there was water, and other events, small and large, but especially their ceremonies. Tjukurrpa stories appear in the text alongside the first person accounts, but distinguished from them by red print. This together with the many photographs, collages and reproductions of the women’s paintings, with every page individually designed, make for a multi-layered ïreading’ experience, one that you could return to and take bit by bit, over many sittings.
In view of the limited possibilities of contact between white Australians and Aboriginal Australians living in remote communities, this book helps fill an important gap. The reader experiences a certain sense of getting to know six women who bear witness to a compelling part of Australian history …
November 11, 1998
The Alice Prize winners’ circle
For judge Alan Dodge, Director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia, four artists from Ikuntji (Haasts Bluff) were among the front runners for this year’s Alice Prize, with Marlee Napurrula finally the winner.
As well, two other Central Australian artists featured in his ‘finalists’ group. One was former Alice Prize winner, Pamela Lofts, whose un: Titled [sic] Mr Dodge found “both amusing and beautiful” (detail at left). Lofts presents bagged samples of soil labelled with the Aboriginal place names, packed in tight concentric circles on a round glass platform.
“The greenish plastic and the metal tags contribute to making it work very well as a beautiful formalist sculpture, but you also want to go in there and see what the different colours of the rich earths are. I liked the ambivalence of it working that way. It’s evocative of a narrative, and it’s rather romantic,” said Mr Dodge.
He did not make mention of the poetic statement painted on the floor, circling the work. It reads: “When I am on a high mountain looking out over country, my Ungurr – life force – flows out from inside my body and I fall open with happiness.” This adds another important dimension to the work: the joy expressed is in stark contrast to the bagged ‘country’, a contrast which makes the piece both sorrowful and clearly political, in line with other recent work by Lofts, focussing broadly on reconciliation. Lofts’ play on the word “untitled” also undoubtedly suggests the work’s reference to Aboriginal land title, or native title, issues ….
November 7, 2001
Alice Prize: ‘Immense diversity of humanity’
“An emotional work for now”, “a reminder of the immense diversity of humanity”: these are the qualities of Eye Contact which won for its creator Merilyn Fairskye this year’s Alice Prize. Eye Contact is a video (DVD) work, a first for the Alice Prize, surprising given the proliferation of art works on video over past decades. Its place in the Art Foundation’s permanent collection, till now dominated by paintings on canvas, will enhance the collection’s aim to profile contemporary Australian art practice.
Judge of the prize, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, Scottish-born director of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, was struck by the lack of video and new media works among the entries. (There were no other video works before the preselection panel, and no computer-based works, according to panel member Caroline Lieber). Otherwise, Macgregor said, the exhibition “is a pretty good representation of the wide variety of practice happening in Australia and indeed everywhere … I’m very interested in works that do have something to say, that are not just for art’s or the artist’s sake, works that have some kind of expression of the wider world … A work of art isn’t something absolute that will always look the same. Post September 11 a lot of works have different meanings for us.” …
Alice-based artist Pip McManus’ green line becomes more piercingly relevant as each day goes by, looking as it does at the ancient meeting and clash of the world’s three great monotheistic religions in Jerusalem. While Macgregor stressed the importance of its content, she also hailed its aesthetic achievements as “wonderful”. “The binding together of text and image, which is a very strong part of a lot of contemporary art work, is very successful in this work.”
Pamela Lofts’ sculptural piece Landmarks # 1 (pictured, in a different installation) is more subtle in its reference. It can be read as having a strong Central Australian context – Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations – but it also has a lot of resonance in the current international climate, where there’s a good case to “tread softly”. Macgregor noted the artist’s use of text “not as a narrative, but in a way that’s supposed to fire your imagination, a very beautiful piece”.
February 6, 2002
Pamela Lofts: Wide open spaces
The closure of their shop-front gallery [in Cummings Plaza off Todd Mall] is not the end of Watch This Space. Alice’s only artist-run initiative never was primarily about having permanent exhibition space: its main goal has been to foster experimental and non-commercial art, which often takes shape outside a gallery setting. Founding coordinator and on-going curator, Pamela Lofts, says loss of Australia Council funds which prompted the decision to close the gallery is being seen as “an opportunity to re-evaluate what we’ve been doing”.
“The gallery was a commercial space, chewing up a significant chunk of our budget, and may have altered our direction to a certain extent.”
The Space is also supported by Arts NT and these funds will be used to maintain a scaled-down program of events.This may include a second Outsite sculpture prize. The inaugural prize, with all work sited at the Desert Park, was one of the highlights of the Alice Springs Festival last year. Artists’ camps, now something of a Space tradition, are another possible focus. At this stage, and pending supplementary funding, three are planned at sites linked by the Finke River. As in the past, an established guest artist would lead the camps.
“Artist-run initiatives are about people, about who is prepared to do what,” says Lofts. “We are not in a place where there’s a major arts institution pouring out energetic young artists to support an initiative like this. But we’ve had terrific public support in the past and we’re look forward to that continuing. Artist-run spaces do come and go, but I don’t think this one should, because it contributes so significantly to the cultural life of Alice Springs.” An AGM is due in March, when Lofts hopes an energetic committee will be elected to take the Space forward.
Watch This Space went on to a new incarnation in George Crescent, seen here on the occasion of the opening of Lofts’ show, Free fall.
October 2, 2002
Taking in the art … while taking the air
Outsite 2002, the second sculpture show presented by Watch This Space in the picnic area of the Desert Park, although a little disappointing, is still worth the visit, not least because it is just so enjoyable to consider art in a huge expanse of magnificent landscape, and especially when the art gives itself the task of responding in some way to that landscape. The first Outsite was held last year during the inaugural Alice Springs Festival and, with better funding and a longer lead-in time, attracted interstate as well as local artists and on the whole had greater depth. [With this show] it is pretty much a case of what you see is what you get …
The exception is Pamela Lofts’ Prick. The circle of pompous little gold rabbits, all eyes on a bentwood chair in the middle of the spinifex ring on which they are sitting, is totally surprising and gets you thinking.
Here are playful, multi-layered references to the history of non-Indigenous occupation of Australia (the rabbits, their circle of council, the chair), built on fragile structures (the spinifex ring) that make being “comfortable and relaxed” challenging to say the least (the spinifex cushion) and the fallout of all of this for the natural environment. It’s a neat but complex little edifice for some probing ideas which tend towards brain-snapping because they are so circular and enmeshed (the gold webbing).
It’s rewarding: it challenges you to think and it’s humorous at the same time.
December 10, 2003
His name is Hunwick: born of the pen of Mem Fox and the pencils of Alice Springs artist Pamela Lofts.
Lofts is perhaps better known locally as an installation artist – one of a handful of non-Indigenous artists from the Centre who exhibit nationally and internationally.
But she is also recognised as a children’s book illustrator, the artist behind the Australian children’s classics, Koala Lou and Wombat Stew [by Marcia Vaughan], both into umpteenth editions, and the series of traditional Aboriginal stories for children such as How the Kangaroos got their Tails, which will be relaunched in early 2004 by Scholastic.
Koala Lou was also done with Mem Fox, and the new title, Hunwick’s Egg, takes some of its cues from the earlier book: endearing Australian animal character, touching storyline.
For Lofts, though, Hunwick had the extra appeal for being set in the desert heartland of Australia, where she has made her home since 1991.
She has delighted in rendering in delicate detail and exquisite colour the little-known plants and creatures of the desert. These include bush tomato, parakeelya and parrot, pea or bird flowers (parrot flower pictured below) , as well as the dunnart, mala, honeyant, piedish beetle and case moths. They are the rich environment of the story rather than its characters, and have all been the subject of considerable research by Lofts.
Hunwick, the bilby, is observed in many moods and poses, perhaps a little “humanised” but who would quarrel with that? He is above all very animated, as are all the creatures of this story. This desert is alive!
If Fox is interested in stimulating children’s literacy, Lofts is equally committed to developing their eye, their “visual literacy”. Her work is about illustrating, yes, but also about the art of drawing – mark-making – in which she achieves great finesse.
“For me the project is partly about more traditional drawing being part of our visual world,” she says. Marks made by hand are really important, they are more magical. You can’t achieve the same effect with digital technology.”
Hunwick’s Egg will be published by Harcourt in USA and Penguin in Australia.
June 8, 2006
Local artist Lofts’ love story leaves lots to imagination
An earlier version of Pamela Lofts’ installation, which combines the work of photographer, sculptor, and writer, was called Forensic. It was about process: observation , deduction, investigation over time.
Now, several years later, it is called Country Love: the process has given way to story.
The elements were there from the beginning, in the debris spilling out from this abandoned car in bushland just east of Alice Springs.
Lofts thought at first it was a crash site, and the spectre of a crash in any case haunts her series of images. Some kind of crash – of people, circumstances, emotions – led to this quite wild abandonment.
Among the debris are the accessories of intimate, shared life: a herbal toothpaste, medication, tampons, a newspaper opened on the horoscope page, beads, a bottle of scented oil, a condom packet, salt, a travel brochure, a broken decorated didgeridu, clothing (men’s and women’s) including a hand-knitted red jumper, a tape (Country Love), another (The Dead Kennedys).
This list has thrown you: you assumed, as I did, that this car was abandoned by Aboriginal people but these accessories aren’t quite what you’d expect.
Then you’re thrown again: there’s a pension card bearing an unmistakable Central Australian Aboriginal name. Whatever has gone on here is far more complex than easy assumptions allow.
Lofts stays with the complexity and watches: time slowly obliterates the original chaos, even as it adds its own random elements. But with the red jumper it works on an eloquent emblem : through many seasons the jumper fades, but in a final image (pictured), a little heartburst or open mouth, still red and vivid, appears on its sleeve. The memory of what once was.
Showing at Watch This Space, George Crescent, till June 16.
May 14, 2009
Lost traditions, lost possibilities.
Requiem for Another
Araluen Arts Centre
May 1 – June 14
The desert evoked in Pamela Lofts’s exhibition, Requiem for Another, is a place fundamentally resistant to the desire to domesticate, whether by gaze or by more forceful structuring processes.
It is as implacable as the burnished steel of Lofts’s sculptured tables, as the shimmering horizon line across the lake, as the slowly corrosive forces of wind and sun that little by little will reduce to dust the abandoned outstation the artist has photographed.
In this place has passed ‘Another’ who is mourned by the work, and whom I see as both the people who once knew how to move across the desert lightly, how to live with its unpredictable rhythms, and as the people who could have come into this country and responded differently to what they found. Lost ways of life; lost possibilities.
This is an exciting exhibition to walk into: exciting because of the coherence of Lofts’s vision, which commands the space; because of its aesthetic excellence, particularly in the photographic and sculptural work; because of its hard-edged contemporaneity, both in its concerns and its realization.
There are three strands – the photographs, the sculpture, and the DVD (still at left) – linked by the imaginative space between them as well as by a fourth element, the music. This sparse and haunting piano score for the DVD work (using ‘expanded’ notes from Beethoven’s Fur Elise) was composed by Alistair Noble …
Lofts has united the three strands under her title, Requiem for Another. The Araluen show has provided her the first opportunity to present the work in this way.
The music establishes, in line with the title and Lofts’s intentions, an elegiac mood which strongly directs our response to the work; the initial excitement gives way to a necessary quieter contemplation about what is going on here artistically, what has gone on here in this desert where the artist has placed herself, where she takes us, fleetingly.
The photographs, 11 in all, are diptychs, with the series titled Threshold (mightbe somewhere).
In each diptych (one is pictured above) there is on one side a more closed space, often a foreground surface – a wall, a door – and almost always bearing the mark of someone, a name, a drawing, a splash of paint, the grime of use, the hole from some kind of blow; and on the other side, a more open space – we see through a window, beyond a wall, into a room, across a fence and again, traces left behind, some large (a car wreck, what looks like a static Hills Hoist), some small (a sewing machine, a baby’s jumpsuit).
Look and look again, the artist seems to be telling us: these spaces have their own riches of story. We can even name some who were once here or who were thought about here; we can have an idea of how they might have spent some of their time; we can perhaps read some of their emotions – boredom, frustration, anger, but perhaps also moments of tenderness, of trying to make something work.
The two-sided treatment also emphasises the encounter that these abandoned spaces represent, an encounter between cultures, between types of economy, between people, that here has failed on both sides.
The duality is echoed in the sculptural work, titled Turning the Tables (installation view pictured below).
The form of the table is well chosen for its metaphoric weight: tables are such a place of encounter in Western civilization. But here they rest precariously on supports from another world. Lofts exaggerates their otherness to make her point – the extreme elongation of the claws, their tiny unstable tip.
One is seemingly blank, speaking eloquently both of the pre-settlement terra incognita and the formless land traveled by the Indigenous ancestor spirits who then created its features. But look closely into its lustrous dark surface and the marks of burnishing which could be read as a reference to Indigenous burning practices, a sign of prior occupation of what was claimed as a terra nullius. On this table rests a sculptured object, a hybrid of native animal (parrot) and plant forms – again what was here before.
Into the surface of the other has been cut a Latinate word, Dystoposthesia. We don’t need to know its meaning (“the incompatibility of bodies to the space they inhabit”) to understand that this is the coloniser’s table, bearing the stamp of its imported knowledge system, seemingly tight and closed to the encounter with Another.
The work grieves for the lost past and the history, the other lives that might have been.
The DVD, Ripple Affect, is like a return to source, an invitation to go into the desert afresh, attune ourselves to its rhythms.
However, I’m not quite sure that the timing of this 40 minute meditative piece is right. The lake filmed is an ephemeral one yet we are one third through before we begin to see the transition to a dry lake, with its many changes of surface, each no doubt holding its own story. This duration is both a bit testing for the viewer and a bit unlike the desert.
Nonetheless, it’s worth going with it and Noble’s mesmerising music for the kind of mental space that they open up for thinking about Lofts’s complex of ideas, emotions and associations.
July 17, 2011
A soaring bird can take our hearts with her; in her flight we see an incomparable image of freedom. Conversely, there is no more potent image of mortal endings than her fall to earth in death. “Succumbing to gravity” she leaves the airs, expiring in the space of the earthbound before passing beyond.
Pamela Lofts in two compelling series of drawings meditates on this final physical state. Her subjects are fallen Shearwaters, birds that undertake extraordinary migrations across the hemispheres. Without being told this, we can intuit it from the drawings. The last movement of each body speaks of a profound exhaustion, a life fully expended.
In the smaller drawings, the series of 16 titled Free Fall (a broken curve), the birds appear to have exerted themselves to the last breath, their wings outflung, their heads thrown back. In the five larger drawings that make up the series Landfall (wind-scoured), the birds seem to have drawn their energies into themselves. There is something more desperate in the Free Fall series, the birds’ desire to go on living, to regain the airs, enacted to the very last. With the Landfall series there is a surrender, a final folding of the wing and then no more.
There is sorrow at the heart of this show, but the sorrow is leavened by the work’s meditative beauty. Lofts is a fine drawer. Readers familiar with her book illustrations will know that, but these drawings in the character of their mark-making are more like the work that won her the Alice Prize in 1995, Landscape (on the road again). This was a large-scale drawing of the decaying carcass of a kangaroo, a road kill. The scale allowed an ambiguous reading of the carcass as landscape; Lofts, who always has a strong idea at the centre of her work, was commenting on the brutality of the way we, in this technological age, move across the land. Her drawing was able to render the texture of matted fur, the many tones in its darkness, the contrasting tautness of sinew and muscle, the smooth hardness of claw and bone, which at the same time could all be seen as a tortured landscape under a sombre sky.
The ambiguity in the current drawings is of a different order; the birds are unmistakably dead but still we see life in them, the essence of their lives – flight. With the mark-making there is a similar brilliance in rendering the textures and lights in the birds’ dark feathers, whipped by cold winds, the beautiful curve of wing, domed head, slender neck, hooked beak …
This exhibition, under the overall title Free fall (time after time), opened last Friday at Watch This Space, the artist-run initiative conceived by Lofts in 1991 and officially established in 1994. At the opening the current committee, through its chairperson Dan Murphy, announced the creation of an annual award for a Central Australian artist, named The Lofty in honour of the space’s initiator. Lofts and the five other founding members – Angela Gee, Pip McManus, Jan McKay, Mary-Lou Nugent and Anne Mosey – were also all given lifetime memberships. The award, in December of each year, will give the recipient $1000 prize money and the opportunity to exhibit at WTS in the following year with no charge for gallery costs.
[Click on the title to go to the full review, published since the creation of Alice Springs News Online.]
March 15, 2012
When Australian novelist Kate Grenville opened Obscured by Light, a collaborative exhibition by Pamela Lofts and Kim Mahood showing at Araluen, she referred to the landscape that they have made their stage as the “scary stuff”. It was lightly said but nonetheless an interesting echo of the long held popular conception of the Australian interior as a great and threatening unknown.
A merit of the Lofts and Mahood show is its playfulness and humour in counterbalance to this kind of apprehension, even if there is mostly a comically satiric flavour to their antics in the Tanami Desert. These are mostly enacted by one Violet Sunset (performed by Mahood), a parody of the feminine in gorgeous cocktail frock and kitten heels, created and directed by Lofts …
Woven into the loosely suggested narrative – made up of 53 images and almost as many text fragments – is the elusive figure of The Inland Sea. The preoccupation of early explorers has a contemporary form, suggests the work: “The people in the city where she lives believe that answers are to be found in the desert, although none of them have been there. Although she is not confident that this is true, Violet decides that it is worth finding out.”
There’s nothing like actually being there, the work contends, with all the risks of madness, loneliness, fear, and hardship as well as the rewards of stillness, spaciousness, beauty and joy. “Blue as an eye, curling round the rim of the world” – here is their ‘inland sea’, an ephemeral lake. “She found it in the end just by being there at the right time.” A fundamental lesson of desert living.
Lofts’ photographic images are as gorgeous as the frock – saturated colour, high gloss – and finely attuned to both the drama of the landscape and the story-telling nature of the enterprise. Lofts excels at work in this vein: viewers may recall her wonderfully evocative Country Love series and, more recently, the haunting Requiem for Another.
The Obscured by Light series is edited from many hundreds of photographs taken during the artists’ joint travels in the Tanami over 15 years. It is a treat, both entertaining and thought-provoking, to be taken on this condensed journey with them.
[Click on the title to go to the full review.]
April 5 2012
Three friends – two visual artists, one poet – open themselves to the country around them and to one another. What happens there, like life, is partly elusive, but also partly traced in the work on show at Watch This Space, under the title Beyond Conversation.
Through the work, they take us into the country with them.
Here are Pamela Lofts’ small windows (in oil pastel) onto, mostly, great big spaces, evoking their grand rhythms, their many moods under changing skies, the multiplicity of form and colour that gives the lie to the un-nuanced branding of this place as the Red Centre or the Outback, or even those friendlier common namings – the desert, the bush …
[Click on the title to go to the full review.]
Photo of Pamela Lofts, at work on the illustrations for Hunwick’s Egg, by Kieran Finnane.
All other images by Pamela Lofts (or provided by).
All reports and reviews by Kieran Finnane for the Alice Springs News.
Related article: Pamela Lofts, 1949 – 2012