The fertile space between us – Part 4

p2169WTS-Tang-Boko-selfie-s By KIERAN FINNANE (continued) 


In our midst here in Alice Springs, Tangentyere Artists have been providing persistent and explicit dispatches from the contact zone, using this same language of figurative narrative painting, sharply tuned in to the interactions and tensions between the cultures and proposing subtly different ways of seeing things. I’m going to look at the work of three women, all of them core artists of the group.


Margaret Boko’s father’s country is M’Bhungara (Glen Helen Station), and her mother was a Warlpiri woman from north of central Mount Wedge. She was born in Alice Springs, went to school at Jay Creek, and speaks Arrernte, Luritja, Pitjantjatjara and English. She is a grandmother. We see her in this self portrait (left) standing outside her home in Little Sisters Town Camp, where she cares for her extended family.


When she first joined Tangentyere Artists she painted tjukurrpa stories, but she has since developed a figurative narrative style, often using text, to tell stories about everyday life – whether at Little Sisters or out bush or from her childhood.


p2169WTS-Tang-Boko-Tjulpu-sThe 2013 work at right by is called Tjulpu and tjitji – meaning ‘birds and children’. As a depiction of an Aboriginal community full of affection and delight, it swims against the tide of overwhelmingly negative impressions of this domain from mainstream media to government reports. Boko picks up on two elements in particular that have drawn endless commentary and attempts at external controls – rubbish and the vulnerability of children.


She situates this community in a landscape dotted with flowers. Forget about prevailing views of sun- and wind-blasted desert environments and run-down, barren settlements. There are waterholes, animals, people, houses, cultivated gardens, cars, all in happy congregation. Most spirited of all are the tjulpu high in the sky and – as the artists spells out in text – they are playing with plastic bags, some of which are also ‘on the wing’ by themselves. With this charming take on plastic bags in the landscape, she is surely challenging the preoccupation of outsiders with rubbish in town camps and communities.


Her title also draws attention to the tjitji who are less prominently shown in the bottom right-hand corner, playing, as her text tells us, “around humpy houses”. Again the message would seem to be – especially in the context of our post-Intervention times – the tjitji are OK, or at least they would be in such a community .


Sally Mulda, a Luritja Yankuntjatjara woman, was born at Titjikala but has lived in Alice Springs since she married some thirty years ago. She lost the use of her left arm in a childhood accident and her vision is also impaired but she doesn’t let that keep her from painting. She also uses figuration for her disciplined reports from the town camps – particularly Little Sisters and Abbott’s – and some of the public spaces in between – the river and Gap Road outside Piggly Wiggly’s – sticking to what she observes without embellishment.


Although less idealised than Margaret Boko’s painting – or might we say less provocative? – in terms of the charms of the setting, this 2013 painting (below) by Sally Mulda works the same narrative seam. Consumption of grog and the policing of grog are frequently visited themes in her work. But they are quite absent from the scene here (and there others like it), showing everyday sociability and creative work in camp. Here are women sitting at a campfire, painting what look like coolamons; another woman is making necklaces; and, a mother encourages her toddler to walk. Mulda underlines the tenderness of this vignette with her text: “Mother said come on / baby walking to her.”




While Boko and Mulda invite viewers into Aboriginal communities, one of the younger generation of Tangentyere artists, Louise Daniels, takes us to her experience of the wider multi-cultural town. An Anmatjere woman, Daniels grew up at Laramba, in her mother’s country. She is now the mother of three school age children who live with her and her extended family in Alice Springs. She learned to paint from her uncle and her grandmother in the dotting style that for a while she also applied to small found objects, such as bottletops hammered flat and made into earrings for sale. She has gone on to rendering ambitious narratives of sharp social observation. She is also an art worker at the art centre.


p2169WTS-Tang-Daniels-selfiShe “really loved” doing the ‘selfies’ like the one shown here, even if at first she and the other artists were “all worried”. The project started with the artists taking photos of themselves, but they were all saying that they weren’t going to draw themselves. She heard some ladies saying “only white people do this, not Aboriginal people”. It’s a different story now. All four of Daniels’ selfies sold, including one that went, with five by other artists, to the University of Queensland museum.


But it’s Daniels’ survey of the local sports scene that I’m particularly interested in here. It was shown at the 2014 Desert Mob – a triptych on canvas and a larger-scale work on a car bonnet.


While the footy game in the 2013 triptych, Football, cricket, racing (below) is an all-Aboriginal affair – the faces unmistakeably black – she emphasises the mixed race involvement in the cricket match, and the seeming mono-cultural character of the horse-racing scene. The Aboriginal great love of football, in town and out bush, is well-known. Here in town the league competition is mixed, but in her picture Daniels is thinking about the Lightning Carnival when community teams and supporters travel in for matches at Traeger Park over the Easter long weekend each year.




With the cricket painting, Daniels said she had heard about some Aboriginal men playing for the first time. She didn’t go down to watch a game but looked at some photographs of a match and imagined the scene from there. The imagining extended to the spectators – the Aboriginal players’ friends and family have come along, making for a very mixed crowd. Her approach was similar with the horse-racing. She’d been to horse races out at Ntaria / Hermannsburg but never to the racecourse in town. She looked at a video of the Melbourne Cup to get her ideas. She enjoyed tackling the subject –  making good use of her strong sense of rhythm and pattern.


p2169WTS-Tang-Daniels-GrandThe experience behind her larger scale work on the car bonnet, Grand Final – Alice Springs, 2013 was more directly personal. Here we see a baseball match in progress. This sport is dominated, unsurprisingly, by the Americans living in town but it so happens that Daniels’ sons were introduced to the sport at school and they’ve taken to it. We see them here, one batting and the other fielding.


“I’m so proud,” Daniels told me, “they never played baseball before. In the communities, they don’t play baseball. They play football and basketball. And softball is only for women.” And somewhere in the crowd Daniels finds a place. She enjoys going to watch and says it’s good for her boys when she does. The contact zone needs these kinds of reckonings, these quiet yet firm challenges to our everyday preconceived ideas about the divisions in the community we are living in.


Towards the end of San Roque / Santospirito’s The Long Weekend in Alice Springs, the character Amos rejects politics as “boring” and suggests seeking out “a poetical history of humanity” – “We can save ourselves with imagination,” he says.


p2169WTS-library-big-books-Lack of imagination, I’m convinced, does terrible damage in our town. It’s led to a bland, often harsh urban environment that sits heavily on black and white, and does little to promote ways in which we might come together – to experience community. European culture might be given dominant representation but it plumbs the depths of banality.


Right: ‘Big book’ signage at the entrance to the  town library. All books are by Nevil Shute, a mid-20th century, white male – hardly  a reflection of the cultural diversity in town and not a fair reflection of the library’s hard work on this front. 


We can however take heart that as far back as 1981 muralists Kaye and Bob Kessing laid out a different aspirational view of community on the rear wall of Coles facing into Railway Terrace (detail below). We’ll hear more about this landmark work in the second ‘Fertile space’ presentation. For now, it is enough to say that the mural’s explicit bi-culturalism is different from almost all other works of public art in Alice Springs – themselves sporadic. Alison Hittman’s mural at the town pool also shows a culturally diverse community through many charming little vignettes, but its impact may be weakened by the small scale of its imagery.




The Gathering Garden, 2009, foundered when it came to addressing bi-culturalism. While the upturned bronze coolamons gave worthy expression to Aboriginal belonging and cultural achievement, non-Aboriginal presence was addressed in boring little texts on plaques. (There is quite a local tradition of plaques but I’m not sure it’s one worth protecting.) In recent times we have seen a kind of quid pro quo entering the popular discussion about art in public places. ‘They’, meaning Aboriginal people, got ‘their’ Gathering Garden – no-one’s fooled by the plaques – so ‘we’, meaning non-Aboriginal people, should be free to have ‘our’ Stuart statue. And now that we’ve got ‘our’ statue, Aboriginal people should also have ‘theirs’ – likely to be of Albert Namatjira, by all accounts. This is not quite the process envisaged in the consultation leading up to the revitalisation works in Todd Mall. It was probably important to have outsider consultants involved to help rise above this kind of parochialism.


p2169WTS-Carter-group-smThe emphasis of Paul Carter, from Material Thinking in Melbourne, was on place-making, rather than the traditional masterplan. His process was to gather the distinctive ideas and stories of the town as “a unique meeting place of Arrernte Dreaming Stories and non-Indigenous histories of exploration, settlement and migration”. Without wanting to diminish the difference between them, he saw the potential these two story traditions offered for “cross-cultural meeting”, as both are about “travelling, about processes of bringing country into being”.


Above: From Material Thinking, Paul Carter (centre)  and Mike Innes (far right), with a talent-packed group of locals, from left, Pip McManus, Pamela Lofts, Susan Dugdale, Tracy Spencer, Sonia Peter.


p2169WTS-Mothshade-from-aboThe bi-cultural dimension of this aspiration remains perhaps under-realised in the works to date in Todd Mall. But a significant step, nonetheless, towards redefining the town – in the positive, by reference to its own qualities – has been taken with the works’ acknowledgement of the ongoing presence of Arrernte cultural tradition. And if we think about it, the incorporation of imagery of the totemic moths into the shade structures – the spaces where we find shelter – metaphorically expresses what Mrs Turner talks about, of the two cultures holding each other.


Above: Moth shade structures by Susan Dugdale & Associates; moth art by Pip McManus.  Arrernte and English names for the local moth species are incorporated into the design.


There’s continuity between this and the work done around the Foundation Tree, as Mrs Turner calls it, which survives by extraordinary good fortune (and a degree of good management) in the very centre of the mall. The decluttering of the tree’s environs involved the removal of 32 structures large and small on final count. As well, exotic plantings from around the base of the tree were removed on request of traditional owners.


The design team was led by Steve Thorne of the Melbourne-based Design Urban, with local architects Susan Dugdale & Associates doing much of the hands-on work. They commissioned a creative brief from Mike Gillam. Written with support and guidance from Doris Stuart, the brief was particularly significant in achieving a focus on the Foundation Tree, and in opening up the sightlines of Parsons Street to the distant landscape in the west, replete with totemic sites, and to the culturally important river to the east.




Of an afternoon the sun sends its long rays down from the west through the filigree of branches of the grand old tree, filling the large open space of the intersection and on eastwards to the banks of the river where the white bark of another sacred tree is lit like a shining beacon. This sight … no it’s more than a sight … standing in the presence of these trees and being reminded of the sacred character of the landscape all around us never fails to uplift me. This experience, and the accumulated others that I have discussed in this writing, leave me full of optimism and aspiration for the imaginative possibilities of remaking community in our contact zone.





All images courtesy the artists / art centres or from the Alice Springs News archive unless otherwise stated. 



Go back to Part 1.  Go back to Part 2.  Go back to Part 3.


To COMMENT please go to Part 1.




Craig San Roque for The Lofty nomination last year, and for his invaluable insights and inspiration in this whole consideration of the contact zone we live in.


This goes to for the other artists, writers, producers whose work I have discussed – and there are significant others whose contributions could have been considered under the same heading, had time permitted (as well as whole big events, like the Yeperenye Festival in 2001 and the Mbantua Festival in 2013). You have challenged and enriched us.


Particular thanks to Alex Hullah (Watch This Space coordinator), Pip McManus, Alice Buscombe, Mike Gillam, Jennifer Taylor, Jacqueline Chlanda, David Nixon, Dan Murphy, Sia Cox, Adrian Warburton, Penny Drysdale, and the Watch This Space board and generous volunteers.


And special thanks to Erwin Chlanda, in particular for creating the Alice Springs News that has done so much for the development of a critical culture in Alice Springs.


It’s interesting to think about the early ’90s in Alice Springs – Watch This Space began in 1993 and Erwin signalled his intention to start publishing with a flyer in November the same year. Then the first issue of the News followed in March 1994. There must have been some good creative energy in the air around then. But that both the News and the Space have survived to become local institutions has required not only commitment and ingenuity from key drivers but also – and critically – the many levels of contribution and responsiveness from the community. And for your part in that, I thank you all.


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