Queensland Art Gallery presents extraordinary works of late Kugu artist

Please note this story contains the name and image of someone who has died.

With several works metres tall never before displayed in the same space, the art of Kugu woman, the late Mavis Ngallametta, is finally together at the Queensland Art Gallery.

While both the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) are closed to the public until further notice due to COVID-19, Ngallametta’s works are on display in all their glory.

Born on Kugu Country along the Kendall River in west Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, Ngallametta lived a traditional life until age five.

Although her family moved to a Presbyterian Mission in Aurukun, the community was able to maintain traditional practices due to their remote location and strength in culture.

First known as a master weaver, Ngallametta used both traditional and missionary-introduced methods of weaving in her work.

She first picked up a paintbrush at 64 and her career bloomed from there.

Mavis NGALLAMETTA Kugu-Muminh people, Putch clan Australia QLD 1944-2019
Ik (Basket) 2010
Reclaimed nylon fishing net (ghost net), raffia and found object / 38 x 48 x 48cm (irreg).
Purchased 2010. Collection of The University of Queensland.
© The estate of Mavis Ngallametta
Photograph: Carl Warner

Named after the artist’s favourite song, Show Me the Way to Go Home, the exhibition was co-curated by QAGOMA’s former Curator of Indigenous Australian Art, Bruce Johnson McLean, and the National Gallery of Australia’s inaugural Assistant Director of Indigenous Engagement and QAGOMA’s Acting Curator of Indigenous Australian Art, Katina Davidson.

“Mavis was a larger than life character,” Davidson said.

“She would love to travel … She would love to get up and talk and speak publicly, but also sing … and one of the songs she loved to sing was Show Me the Way to Go Home.”

“We thought that it would be a really beautiful way to talk about her work and her painting … she’s gone back home again but her paintings are what remain.”

An Indigenous woman with cultural connections to the Kullilli and Yuggera people herself, Davidson said Ngallametta is a really important artist in Queensland’s Indigenous art space.

“It’s really significant [because] she’s in a number of major collections across the country … but she’s also won the Red Ochre Award … for lifetime achievement in 2018,” Davidson said.

Despite her standing as an accomplished Aboriginal artist, Ngallametta has never had a solo survey exhibition of her own works, until now.

“We have 49 works [in the exhibition] and 33 of them are her very, very large paintings that she created,” Davidson said.

“[They’re] about two by three metres, they’re absolutely stunning being all in one place.

“The works … really glow like jewels when you see them in real life. There’s no reproduction that can really do them justice.”

Mavis Ngallametta painting Ikalath #9 2013, from the
Janet Holmes à Court Collection, in Cairns, 2013 / Artwork
© Estate of Mavis Ngallametta / Photograph © Gina Allain.

Unfortunately, a few months after QAG received the green light to put together the exhibition, Ngallametta passed away.

“She let us [and her family] know … she still wanted the show to go on,” Davidson said.

“One of the ways that we’ve tried to include Mavis’ voice through the exhibition is by [presenting] a lot of her artist statements.

“We also worked with some translators to have a lot of them translated into Wik and Kugu, because it’s really important [that] … Indigenous voices are represented.”

Davidson believes Ngallametta is an important figure for all artists and other Indigenous communities, too.

“Mavis worked a lot with language and young people in the community, and she actively wanted to lead by example in keeping culture strong.

“She would often take young people … with her to gather ochre [for painting] … and tell stories at these sites.

“She was one of those wise Aunties … you can feel them looking at you, but looking through you because they’re looking into your soul and your spirit and who you are. She just had this presence.”


Sisters in art

Ngallametta’s longtime friend, Arts Advisor and Personal Assistant from 2008 to 2019, Gina Allain met the late artist for the first time when Ngallametta was 63.

“When I met her … she was a very strong community person and cultural person,” Allain said.

Allain first ran painting workshops for the women at the Wik and Kugu Art Centre in Aurukun, managed by her husband, Guy Allain to address the gap between men and women’s art participation.

“Straight away she started to do some really beautiful acrylic [paintings],” Allain said.

Within six months, Ngallametta was exhibition and selling her paintings through an art dealer in Brisbane.

“She started to paint and then she just kept working at it, kept doing it, she liked it. She thought it was a good way to pass on stories,” Allain said.

“I think possibly because I’m an art therapist as well as an artist … I encouraged [the women] to bring something out of themselves … I think that was helpful for her.”

Mavis NGALLAMETTA Kugu-Muminh people, Putch clan Australia QLD 1944-2019
Mo’Yakal (White and yellow wattles in flower) 2008
Synthetic polymer paint on linen / 84 x 96cm.
Gift of the artist through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Fondation 2015. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art.
© The estate of Mavis Ngallametta
Photograph: Natasha Harth

As her number of exhibitions increased, Allain said Ngallametta loved being at the centre.

“She loved being a star, and she was a very giving person.”

Speaking of their relationship, Allain said Ngallametta considered her not just a colleague, but a sister.

“[We were] … really close, really intense … she would only work when I was around because I took care of everything,” Allain said.

Allain would prepare Ngallametta’s canvases for her, help mix paint and collect material for paints, too.

The pair would run workshops together and Ngallametta would come on as a mentor if Allain had another job on the go.

“I think being with her when she painted, and also going out when we travelled. It was a lot of fun … there was always a lot of laughter.”

Katina Davidson, Gina Allain and Bruce Johnson McLean at QAG in 2019. Photo supplied.

Reflecting on the incredible work of her friend, Allain said she hopes visitors to the exhibition take away the wonder of what Ngallametta achieved.

“She was in her early 60s when she started painting. Just the braveness of it, really.

“I hope they think about this country and the First People here and how they’re still connected to that land.

“Her work is extraordinary … she’s up there with anybody in the world.”

By Hannah Cross

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