“The energetic renewal of traditional Aboriginal art, and the emergence of new, contemporary forms – especially rock painting imagery on bark and sand painting designs on canvas – stands in stark contrast to the complex crisis of painting in recent Western art.” [Smith & Smith (1991), p. 495] This post is a comparative discussion of the work of Maringka Baker, an artist from the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands in the north-western corner of South Australia, and Jenny Sages, an artist who has been working professionally since the 1980s. Australia has a history of exceptional women artists, without necessarily according them the status that they deserved in comparison to their male contemporaries. These two contemporary artists, despite their highly divergent backgrounds, reflect in their work some common interests and concerns about the current political and social environment.
Maringka Baker is a senior Pitjantjatjara artist living in the remote community settlement of Kanpi, and painting with Tjungu Palya at nearby Nyapari. She was born around 1952 at Kaliumpil rock-hole, a traditional camping hole in the Nganyatjarra Lands. Maringka is a custodian of several significant Tjukurpa (Dreaming) sites and stories that she paints. These include her birthplace of Kaliumpil; a site called Anmangunga, a camping place near Watarru in her mother’s country where she played as a child; and the site of Kuru Ala/Kata Ala, near Wingellina, and its multiple associated Tjukurpa of Kungkarrakalpa (Seven Sisters), Wanampi Kutjara (Two Watersnakes), and Nyli Nyli (Zebra Finch).
Figure 1- Jenny Sages (2005) ‘Road to Utopia’
Source: Art Gallery of NSW
Jenny Sages is one of the most prominent landscape artists working in Australia today. She is quite a bit older than Baker, born in Shanghai in 1933 of white Russian and Jewish ancestry. She attended the Franklin School of Art in New York. Working initially as a commercial and fashion illustrator, she became a full-time artist in her fifties. She has been a frequent finalist in all the major Australian art prizes, and won the Wynn prize for landscape art in 2005 for Road to Utopia.
The above brief biographies are telling in their difference. Maringka Baker’s identifies the country she is associated with and the important Tjukurpa sites of which she is the custodian. Jenny Sages’s is a western biography that emphasises her personal achievements and, through these, her justified prominence in the art world. Sages is a professional artist in the Western sense, earning reward through the holding of gallery exhibitions and the sale of art, impressing the right people, accumulating positive reviews and building up a reputation until her name on a painting can command a significant price. This is not to denigrate Sages, but merely to highlight the gulf between these two women in terms of their respective starting points. Baker only began painting in 2005 and her work is a natural extension of her deep spiritual links with her country. The art she produces is a direct successor to sand patterns and songs that her mob have produced for millennia to pass on their sacred stories. Thus, as I will explore below, although Sages art displays considerable connection to aboriginal art, the two artists occupy different worlds in terms of the source of their artistic impulse. Although one could speculate that Sages may not even herself be able to pinpoint the instinctive source of her creativity, in Baker’s case this is defined with clarity. It’s source is a deep sense of place and the custodianship of Tjukurpa entrusted to her by her ancestors – ancestors who, to her mind, live on in those places and watch over every move she makes.
Despite what I argue is a wide division between their starting points artistically, there is nevertheless commonalities between the two artists’ work. The landscape art that is produced by both women is not perhaps readily identifiable as such by ‘the man in the street’, who at the suggestion of ‘Australian landscape art’ may conjure up mental images of that produced by the Heidelberg School, with a readily identifiable subject and a horizon dividing the land and sky. However, both Baker’s and Sages’s work coveys a sense that the viewer is looking down on the land from above. The Wynn Prize-winning Road to Utopia is a somewhat atypical landscape for Jenny Sages, who normally produces abstract work, such as ‘Fragments Remembered’, discussed below. The ‘Utopia’ in the work’s title is actually an aboriginal settlement near Uluru and the overgrown road may be read as a commentary on the Government neglect of its people, providing an ironic twist.
The commonalities between the artists may be best explored by investigating some representative examples of their work. Anmangunga is a work by Baker that possesses the ‘looking down from above’ approach to the landscape discussed above.
Figure 2 – Maringka Baker (2006) ‘Anmangunga’
Source: National Gallery of Australia
Anmangunga is described by Baker described by Baker thus:
“These are the papa kunga [girl dogs] sitting down. Tjukurpa [these girls are creation beings, disguised in the form of dingoes]. This country is towards Watarru. Ngayuku nguntjuku ngura [my mother’s country]…. All the dogs were sitting down about to go to Wingellina. The father was calling all the dogs “papa tjuta pitjanyi!” [hey, all you dogs come quickly], “ananyi” [we are going]. One dog said he wasn’t going to travel. He stayed there by himself. That dog is there in the country marked in the landscape by a rock.” [Cumpston & Paton (2010), p. 158]
Anmangunga typifies Baker’s style, which often features regular interlaced grid patterns, sometimes encompassing recognisable symbols, such as emu tracks or crescent shaped icons representing people viewed from overhead. Just as often (as seen above) the representational element is obscure. “Maringka Baker’s paintings are rich in colour and cultural significance, and grounded in country and ceremony… Where some see the desert as barren, Baker paints it green: testament to her perspective of seeing life and soul beyond the merely obvious.” [Clark & Jenkins (ed.) (2009), p. 54]
Minyma Kutjara (below) is another richly effected landscape work by Baker. It retains some of the regular patterning of Anmangunga, however with symbols and other Tjukurpa elements more identifiably clustered.
Figure 3 – Maringka Baker (2008) ‘Minyma Kutjara’,
Source: Anaguku Arts (2010)
Maringka Baker’s work is steeped in her country, and recognisable as such by those with whom she shares the stories. Sometimes, she will share part of the story with the wider public, as with the story of Anmangunga related above. However, although the primary objective of aboriginal artists is to share their culture with the wider world, it is unlikely that the full story is revealed. Her works will contain information that is sacred to her mob, and as a subset of this, information exclusive to the women and girls of her mob. This information will only be revealed to girls at the discretion of elder women such as Baker. Sometimes, she will sing the sacred information while she is painting and the young women are assisting her. Thus, while the identity of Baker’s works as landscapes may not be immediately apparent to us, the ‘country’ is indeed apparent to those of her mob who share its kinship.
Two examples of Jenny Sages landscapes are presented below:
Figure 4 – Jenny Sages (2010) ‘Fragments Remembered’
Source: Osborne (2010)
Figure 5 – Jenny Sages (2003) ‘Cycles’
Source: ‘The daily act of living, just the doing of it’, King Street Galery
Sages typically produces works on textured hand-made paper or board. She applies encaustic, oils and pigment, “impressing the soft waxy surface with delicate linear traceries and scratchy markings into which she works earthy pigments. She eliminates nearly all but the most subtle colour to allow the luminosity of the encaustic to emit a quiet, meditative presence.” [Osborne (2010), p. 36]
In the case of the two Sages works presented above, whilst it cannot be claimed that her works are steeped in Tjukurpa like Baker’s, there are some remarkable similarities – both visually (in the case of Fragments Remembered) and in terms of the underlying connection to the land. Osborne comments:
“Her paintings are testaments to her sense of connection with the natural environment of the inland. For twenty-four years, from the mid-1980s until 2008, Sages made annual sojourns with groups of women friends to walk the land. Over many years of trekking through Central and Northern Australia, she developed lasting friendships with local Indigenous people and gained a partial insight into their traditional relationship with the land. Her approach to abstraction is not imitative of Aboriginal art but there are affinities evident in her repetitive organic rhythms and textures and also in the underlying allusions to nature as a well-spring of spiritual understanding.” [Osborne (2010), p. 36]
Fragments Remembered bears some resemblance to Baker’s paintings in the grid-like, topographic appearance, however the tones used suggest a different attitude towards the desert country than Baker’s. Sages work is earthy and organic; reverent, but with a sense that this is forbidding country that people can die in, if they’re not careful. They are the works of a respectful outsider who will always be an outsider. Baker’s works see another reality in the same country, one hidden to the outsider but a reality to celebrate and offer to the world in a form that satisfies both the outsider and the insider. The outsider can appreciate the numinous nature of the work and the references to the artist’s custodial landscape whilst remaining at a permanent distance from the inner secrets of the work.
Cycles is closer to a ‘traditional’ landscape, in that it at least has a horizon just creeping into the top of the image. The name of the work is suggested in the brown of the inland imbued into the underlying landscape, overlaid with the bright yellow of wildflowers and bushfires. Other works by Sages – most notably ‘The Desert was in Bloom Again’ and ‘Burnoff’ from her exhibition ‘The daily act of living, just the doing of it’ (2003) present landscapes that are snapshots in time, compared to the whole cycle of life in the inland represented in ‘Cycles’. [Sages, (2003)]
The art of Maringka Baker and Jenny Sages possess other commonalities in these respects: they are the work of women, and women of advanced age. Maringka Baker may be only in her 60s, but the life expectancy of women in the APY lands is 15 – 17 years less than women in the general Australian population [Nganampa (2009), p.9], so few women there live into their 70s. Baker’s and Sages’s art is the settled, reflective work of women comfortable with their time and place. We do not see in Maringka Baker’s art, for example, evidence of confluence with Western art forms that has evolved elsewhere in Aboriginal art in recent decades. Hers is the work of an elder; her subject matter is broadly restricted to the stories and places of her custodianship. Presented below is a 2011 work by her, for example, ‘Pukara’, concerning Wati Kutjara Tjukurpa (the creation story for two serpent men) associated with her ancestral site of Kuru Ala/Kata Ala:
Figure 6 – Maringka Baker (2011) ‘Pukara’
Source: Short Street Gallery
Is the work of artists like Maringka Baker a last-ditch effort to corral and protect the remnants of a culture that is mostly lost already? This month marks the 30th anniversary of the granting of Native Title to the APY lands; the first of its kind and a landmark moment in Australian history. However the hope of that moment has largely dissipated. Today, the population of the APY lands suffer from chronic health problems, widespread unemployment, poor education outcomes, domestic violence and substance abuse. “These paintings have arisen in a context of the ongoing assailing effects of colonialism-dispossession, displacement, land rights, Native title.” [Biddle, p. 16] This, then must present a very strange and unsettling juxtaposition for an artist such as Maringka Baker. A major work by her will sell for in excess of $25,000, and mostly her paintings never even get to be displayed in her client galleries, since they are snapped up by buyers before they can be hung. She only produces about half a dozen such works each year. Smaller works will augment this considerable earning potential further. Money raised goes to Tjungu Palya Arts Centre, who she paints for, and then is shared among the community. If there is an amount she might earn personally, this would, in the Anangu culture, also be shared with anyone who asked her for help. So, despite the significant earnings from the sale of her artworks, she lives among dire poverty in one of the most remote parts of the APY lands. The administrator of the APY Lands estimates that governments spend between $100 and $250 million a year on services to the Lands. Despite this, there were newspaper reports in 2011 that children in Ernabella were suffering from malnutrition, and although this was officially denied, the South Australian Aboriginal Affairs Minister was subsequently replaced.
This, then is the extreme environment in which Maringka Baker paints. Is this reflected in her work? Perhaps in the obverse, in the sense that amongst the chaos and deprivation of the APY Lands, Baker’s paintings hark back to a sacred, formative time for that country. And the spirits of that Tjukurpa prevail to this day, providing her an anchor of certainty. Her paintings are also grounded in a deep notion of place, her subject matter always the handful of sacred landscapes that she has watched over as custodian since she was a child.
One might expect Jenny Sages to provide a clear contrast to an existence such as Baker’s. Born in Shanghai, of Jewish and Russian ancestry, a migrant to Australia, training in New York and with an early life in the fast lane of fashion art, writing travel stories for Vogue Magazine before becoming a landscape artist. Is this nomadic life reflected in her art – in contrast to Baker’s, where the chaos of her surroundings are not evident? It seems this is also not the case for Sages. Rather than expressing her roving life in her landscapes, “her abstraction is grounded in the small details of organic life – the shapes, the tones and textures of vegetation, the desiccated skins of animals, the weathered patina of abandoned things.” [Osborne, p. 36]
Maringka Baker and Jenny Sages are two women artists who appear to have found a settled core to life, and reflected this centeredness in art produced late in life, drawing inspiration from the same Central Australian landscapes, but revealing it in different ways. If we accept Smith’s thesis with which I opened this post, does Baker then represent renewal and Sages represent the crisis of Western art? Arguably, this is not so. Rather, these two artists present us with two different, but independently legitimate lenses through which to view not only the Australian landscape but Australia as a nation and as a cultural entity. With 20 years of imbibing the landscape of inland Australia, Sages (and, by extension, all we non-indigenous Australians) may never establish a connection with the land on a par with someone born at Kaliumpil rock-hole. But that is not an argument to de-legitimise what she has to say about the Australian landscape. I have suggested that her art is perhaps reflective of the mindset of we who occupy the coast and view the inland as a threatening place; something that we vainly strive to control and bend to our will. Its original inhabitants could be included in this view.
As for Maringka Baker, will art such as hers – at this moment a phenomenon on the world stage – become in 30 years just another fad in the Western art world’s never-ending search for the ‘next big thing’. Or does it truly represent the real renewal in art that Smith suggests? A generous heart would hope for the latter.