Reviews/Visual Art

Celebrating yorgas, Country and kinship at Fremantle Arts Centre

26 May 2022

Cass Lynch is absorbed into strata layers of land, family and body in ‘Nih! Yeyi Yorga Waangkiny | Listen! Women Talking Now’.

‘Nih! Yeyi Yorga Waangkiny | Listen! Women Talking Now’, various artists curated by Yabini Kickett ·
Fremantle Arts Centre ·

Walking into the cosy Kathleen O’Connor Gallery at Fremantle Arts Centre, a sombre black artwork captures the eye.

This striking work is Laurel Nannup’s Untitled 1 (2015), part of “Nih! Yeyi Yorga Waangkiny | Listen! Women Talking Now”, an exhibition curated by Yabini Kickett that celebrates established and emerging Noongar Yorga (women) artists Sharyn Egan, Bella Kelly, Ilona McGuire, Lola McKickett and Nannup.

A detail of Laurel Nannup's work, on display at Fremantle Arts Centre as part of Nih! Yeyi Yorga Waangkiny, in which we see a folded up scrap of paper, covered in tiny handwritten notes, against a black background. Two other scraps of paper are visible from the edges of the fram.
Laurel Nannup, ‘Untitled 1’, c. 2015, Photogravure, Private Collection. Photo: supplied

Untitled 1 presents fragments of handwritten text laid against a dark background, as though swallowed up in shadow. The text shard recounts Nannup’s memories of being stolen as a child and removed to a mission. The legible handwriting speaks of a black car pulling up; the surrounding writing obscured and blotted out. The darkness bordering the words has depth and texture, like the visible shadow of a crescent moon.

The artwork sits deep in the fabric-like medium and looking closely one sees that it is not a collage or a painting. It has been produced via photogravure, a printmaking process that utilises etching plates and light-sensitive paper to create something like a photographic image on cotton rag. Its texture suggests that you could pull the fabric away and see all the memories that Nannup has lost or obscured. But the photographic-style process flattens the image, and the viewer recognises that irreplaceable family moments have been stolen forever.

A large installation resembling an exploded anthill fills one corner of the room. Commissioned for this exhibition, Ilona McGuire’s The Sixth Spade (2022) presents an excavated sand pile on the gallery floor. White ochre radiates out from the red mound like tears running away from an eye; splotches of multi-coloured earth are splashed about.

Around the walls are the outlines of five spades, their dark shapes imprinted like the permanent shadows left by detonated nuclear bombs. The sixth spade is a physical one, hung on the wall, ready to keep digging. The installation is surrounded by Noongar language caution tape, with ALIWA and BULAI warning viewers not to get too close, and perhaps also about the explosive violence of extractivism on Country.

In the hallway are the striking and sanguinary artworks of Sharon Egan. Nop Ngooni (Blood Brothers) (2019) is a series of seven large artworks, painted in the thick, crimson resin of the balga: a grass tree endemic to the southwest of WA.

Balga resin has many uses in Noongar culture, one of which is a cement that fixes axe heads to handles. Egan takes this organic glue and stretches it out to create visceral works that hint at a connection between resin and blood. In the artworks are abstract suggestions of light passing through skin, platelets under a microscope, a strange heart in a fog of blood, a glowing ribcage, figures standing in a downpour. The use of resin suggests that the shared blood of the brothers is indistinguishable from the blood of Country.

A detail from A detail from Sharyn Egan's 'Ngop Ngooni (Blood Brothers)', at Fremantle Arts Centre as part of Nih! Yeyi Yorga Waangkiny. On either side of a blue pillar are swathes of red stained canvas. A picture of a woman with three dark shapes that could be birds is hung on the central column.
A detail from Sharyn Egan’s ‘Ngop Ngooni (Blood Brothers)’, 2019, balga resin, white spirit and synthetic Polymer paint on plywood walls. Photo: supplied

A woman’s voice reverberates throughout the gallery space, creating warm vibrations. The poem “Speak For Me” (2021) is a recording, written and performed by Lola McKickett. She speaks of a young Noongar yorga who was homeless and lost her life on the streets of Perth’s CBD.

McKickett’s voice bounces off the artworks in the room: the resin, the ochre, the glass, the paper. Looking around, the gallery building itself is made of Country: hardwood floors harvested from southwest forests, limestone quarried from nearby hills, glass made from heated sand. Air conditioners move the sea breeze in and around, water from dams and aquifers moves through pipes in the walls. Country is not somewhere else, but here.

The young woman elegised in the poem died in a landscape of cold concrete, one among a sad spate of deaths of homeless women in Perth in 2021. The poem cries for this woman’s spirit to be here, to be with other yorgas, in this gallery space that celebrates women, Country, and kinship.

There are other great artworks not described here. The exhibition is a thoughtful and considered collection of works by Noongar women artists, skillfully brought together by Kickett.

Sometimes a viewer glides through a gallery like an albatross: sleek and fast, with feet never touching the ground. This is an exhibition deeply grounded in place and worth landing on.

‘Nih! Yeyi Yorga Waangkiny / Listen! Women Talking Now’ continues at Fremantle Arts Centre until 31 July 2022.

Pictured top is a detail from Ilona McGuire’s ‘The Sixth Spade’, 2022, mixed media installation, sand, ochre, metal shovel. Photo supplied

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Author —
Cass Lynch

Cass Lynch is a Noongar writer and researcher living in Boorloo/Perth. She has recently completed a creative writing PhD investigating Aboriginal stories that reference the last ice age and the sea level rise that followed it. She likes those playground climbing nets that resemble giant spiderwebs.

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