Imagine taking up painting at the age of sixty-four, creating a body of highly original work on very large linen canvases, and selling every one of these works to either major galleries or noted private collectors.
This was the experience of Mavis Ngallametta in her twilight years.
Born in 1944 near the Kendall River about 90 kms south of Aurukun, Mavis Ngallametta lived in the remote West Cape York, Queensland, Australia,
Aurukun at that time was a Presbyterian Mission Outstation where the Reverend William MacKenzie was the Superintendent from 1923 to 1965. Reverend MacKenzie was said to be tough, rule-bound and authoritarian, capable of meting out harsh punishment. At the same time he (along with his wife, Geraldine) he was supportive of aspects of Wik culture and practice, such as language and male initiation ceremonies. 1
Supplies came irregularly by boat so the Mission relied on indigenous families to go hunting to feed the population – a practical reason for encouraging a traditional practice. 2
When the five-year-old Mavis came with her family from the even smaller missionary station at Kendall River to attend the girl’s mission boarding school at Aurukun, she did not loose contact with her family. She also made lifelong friends at boarding school,
Conditions there were tough. In the 1950s, a visiting Australian government health team identified cases of tuberculosis Aurukun. They reported malnutrition at Presbyterian missions, and described dormitories as overcrowded. 3
The indigenous tribes located around Aurukun were spared the cruel relocations and family separations that were the fate of many indigenous people of the stolen generation, largely because of the remote location.
Until the eighties, there was no connecting road to any towns, so geography, and the monsoonal seasons that swelled the rivers making travel even more difficult or impossible, kept the community from dispersion and outside influences.
Wik and Kugu Art Centre
A series of painting workshops for women at the Wik and Kugu Art Centre in Aurukun in 2008 organised by Gina Allain set Mavis Ngallametta on a new course that was to culminate in an exhibition entitled Mavis Ngallametta: Show Me the Way to Go Home, in 2019 at QAGOMA (Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art). Sadly Mavis Ngallametta passed away shortly before the exhibition opened.
Gina Allain noticed that people always consulted Mavis Ngallametta when they needed ochres and charcoal. The male artists used natural pigments in their work but the women painted with acrylics. Gina suggested she use her knowledge of pigments to experiment with making paints, and bought one of Mavis Ngallametta’s early works to encourage her. 4
Mavis Ngallametta began collecting clays from various locations and preparing pigments. Her paintings took on a whole new feel with the use of the beautiful soft natural pigments. They also became more labour intensive, still, she enjoyed the clay gathering trips trips, often with friends and family.
I marvel at Mavis Ngallametta’s physical stamina; collecting clay, making pigments, experimenting with various colours, then sitting on the ground slowly working on massive canvases of around 2×3 metres. There is a beautiful photograph of her in the QAGOMA catalogue, lying on her canvas having a rest before she began work again. Taken in 2018, her hair is snowy white.
Mavis Ngallametta’s Legacy
Mavis Ngallametta was a traditional owner of Kendall River country, a respected elder of the Putch clan, a song woman and a cultural leader of the Wik and Kugu People. Her creative talent first found expression through weaving; she was a renowned master weaver and fibre artist even before taking up painting. 5
It was not the wish fame or fortune that drove Mavis Ngallametta’s final creative outpourings. She told Gina Allain that she wanted to pass on her stories and experiences to her children and to future generations. 6 Her paintings are a family history of sorts, as well as a story of place, and the creatures that inhabit those places.
In western culture, the desire to leave a personal record for children, future generations or posterity most typically takes the form of the written word. In indigenous cultures, knowledge and experience passes from generation to generation orally, through story telling and singing, and visually, through art.
Walking into the airy spaces of the QAGOMA exhibiton I felt a sense of calm and marvelled at the beauty of Mavis Ngallametta’s work. These paintings hold deep love and understanding of place, family and cultural history. Though they refer to life and place as experienced personally, they evoked in me a spiritual feeling, a sense of something greater and more profound than anything we humans can put into words.
1 David F. Martin and Bruce F. Martin Challenging simplistic notions of outstations as manifestations of Aboriginal self-determination: Wik strategic engagement and disengagement over the past four decades Chapter 11 in Nicolas Peterson, Fred Myers. eds Experiments in self-determination : histories of the outstation movement in Australia. ANU Press, 2016.
2 Peter Sutton Peret: A Cape York Peninsula outstation, 1976–1978, Chapter 12 in Nicolas Peterson, Fred Myers. eds Experiments in self-determination : histories of the outstation movement in Australia. ANU Press, 2016.
Online reference for f/n 1&2 : https://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p331981/html/imprint.xhtml?referer=&page=3#
4 Gina Allain Remembering Mavis Ngallametta in Mavis Ngallametta: Show Me the Way to Go Home. Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, 2020 p.35
5 ibid p. 33
6 ibid p. 33