The ReDot Fine Art Gallery is proud to be showcasing an online exhibition - the first in a series - of beautiful works from one of Australia’s pre-eminent art centres - Mornington Island.
Like other artists from Bentinck Island, Kuruwarriyingathi Bijarrb Paula Paul came late to art and art making – but this late start has not impacted the beautiful pieces she creates, have a look at the e-catalogue attached here and you will understand what we mean, her works are spectacular.
She was born in 1937 and lived a completely traditional island life with her “sisters” – Sally Gabori, the late Dawn Naranatjil and May Moodoonuthi (who were all born in the 1920s and 30s), and Netta Loogatha, Amy Loogatha and Ethel Thomas (all born between 1942 and 1946). These women had little contact with non-Kaiadilt people and none at all with European settlers until their forced removal to Mornington Island (also part of the Wellesley Islands) in 1948 as a result of a severe drought during the 1940s and a cyclone in 1948.
On Mornington Island they lived a largely separate life within the local Lardil and Yangkaal communities for over 40 years before those able to live independently negotiated their return to Bentinck during the early 1990s. The residents of Bentinck Island, including Paula Paul, now return to Mornington Island every year to escape the severe floods of Bentinck’s wet season.
Paula Paul’s earliest paintings depicted her favourite motifs of the time: shells, rocks and oyster reefs represented as roundels of contrasting colour on darkly painted backgrounds (often blues or deep purples). She said of these works: “Along the beach of my country are big white rocks. I paint them and I paint the little white shells that are up on the beach. We call them dinghy shells.”
Paula’s work is continually evolving. Her Burrkunda (scar) paintings are constructed differently to the works that feature shells – the backgrounds are white and the marks are made using a single colour. They record the Kaiadilt tradition of marking the body: the ritualised scarring undertaken by men, and the mourning behaviour of women that involves making multiple cuts on their scalps as expressions of grief. Thick stripes of paint are used to build up a surface of markings producing sombre yet highly significant works. They are dramatic in their simplicity and beauty, and stand alone in her oeuvre.
The strong relationship between Paula Paul’s paintings and body markings was noted by anthropologist Dr Paul Memmott, who, in 1982, mapped the Kaiadilt geography of Sweers Island with Paula’s late husband, Arthur Paul.
Even though Paula paints on Mornington Island during the wet season, the work is informed by her extensive and detailed memories of Bentinck Island. She says: “I think about what they [the fish traps and reefs] look like on my country, I think about the last time I saw them and think I am there.”
Paula Paul’s work has been exhibited widely throughout Australia, most notably in commercial shows in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart, Darwin and Cairns. She was also part of the exhibition ’Together’ at the Sharjah Museum for Contemporary Arab Art in the United Arab Emirates in 2008, and her journey is recorded in the book The Heart of Everything: the art and artists of Mornington and Bentinck Islands, published in 2008. She also held her first solo exhibition was in Melbourne in the same year. These are significant achievements for an artist in their 70s who has been painting for only a few years.
Like many older Indigenous artists, painting for Paula is a way of describing iconography. Her stories originate in the daily lives of Bentinck Island people, both from her memory as a very young person and her experiences today. But there is also a fragility about the situation, as the tiny Kaiadilt community continues to shrink. The circumstances of their forced removal have resulted in younger generations being unable to speak their Kayardild language.