MONEY: Emily Kame Kngwarreye

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Earth’s Creation, 1994
275 x 632cm

This is the second most expensive piece of Aboriginal art ever purchased. After appearing as a highlight of the international artists’ exhibition at the Venice Biennale of 2015, it was sold in 2017 for $2.1m. Four panels of synthetic polymer paint on linen mounted on canvas.

And huge.

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Emily Kngwarreye’s paintings are described by leading international art academics as being equal to the works of Monet and great Abstract artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. Experts have argued that Earth’s Creation, painted at Utopia on the edge of the Simpson Desert in Central Australia … is an even more important painting for Australia than American painter Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in 1973.‘ (The Wikipedia entry)

So there. Monet. Pollock. Rothko. Emily. (Sufficiently big time to have her own design decorate a Boeing 787. How nice that it’s a ‘Dreamliner’.)

In 2007, at one strongly-defined peak of the Aboriginal art market, Earth’s Creation was sold for $1.056m to Tim Jennings, long time owner of Mbantua Gallery & Cultural Museum in Alice Springs. It was initially commissioned for an Adelaide bank but Jennings decided that such a work should ‘come home’ to Alice. In a blog he expanded on why it is more important to Australia than Blue Poles (estimated current value $70+m).

Earth’s Creation was painted by a genius Australian [who was] without any formal or informal art training.

Emily, a female Australian Aboriginal artist, at the age of eighty or thereabouts, combined a deep rooted Aboriginal lifestyle with being a modern, contemporary, abstract painter. …

Aboriginal Art is the bridge of cultures. With paintings of the magnitude and quality of Earth’s Creation, Emily is reaching out to the world. She is putting both Australia and Aboriginal culture on the map.

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(You’re wondering what the most expensive Aboriginal painting has been? Of course you are, and it’s a convenient segue. But keep all that in mind. They’re the topics.)

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Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri Warlugulong
202 x 337cm
Held by the National Gallery of Australia

I don’t know what Mr Tjapaltjarri got for Warlugulong when he painted it, but the Commonwealth Bank bought it for $1,200 and hung it in a cafeteria for 20 years before it sold at auction on the 24 July 2007 for $2.4m.

The painting includes elements of nine distinct dreamings, of which Lungkata’s tale is the central motif. Lungkata is the Bluetongue Lizard Man, an ancestral figure responsible for creating bushfire. The painting shows the results of a fire caused by Lungkata to punish his two sons who caught a kangaroo and declined to share it with their father. On the right are their skeletons. Art talk: ‘an epic painting, encyclopaedic in both content and ambition’.

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Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s Country was out north-west of Alice Springs near Yuendemu. But in 1971 he was at Papunya when a white school teacher, Geoffrey Bardon, began an art program for the kids at the Papunya School. The men of the community took it up and famously painted a mural, ‘Honey Ant Dreaming’, on one of the walls of the school (painted over in 1974 by a maintenance man, an historical misfortune) as well as everything else even vaguely suitable that they could get their hands on. ‘I just could not keep the boards up to them’, Bardon has written. This is the birth of Papunya Tula Pty Ltd, the company/ association/ group these men established to manage their production, … and also the foundation of desert art and ‘dot painting’.

This is dot painting — actually while a wonderful painting not a great example — from about 1993, although with Clifford Possum’s extra flourishes, the brushing out to form the flash points of the storm of the Dreaming he was painting.

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Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri Water Dreaming c.1993
83 x 126cm
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It might be noted that Tjapaltjarri was painting and carving wood art well before this. At right is one of his snakes.

Not much happened for a decade, but in the ’80s this movement exploded. Art centres were established in communities throughout the Northern Territory and Western Australia. In 2010 there were more than 120 such groups in the Centre and across the north from Yirrkala to the Kimberley. You could make money in a culturally legitimate way that brought high levels of satisfaction to individuals and, at least as importantly, to their communities. Today there could be as many as 16,000 Aboriginal artists working in remote Australia. Art commentator Sasha Grishin suggests that, per capita of population, this is ‘the highest concentration of artists anywhere in the world’.

The explosion has not been, to put it mildly, without its difficulties. Clear evidence was provided by the number of whitefellas suddenly hanging round and the range of gambits they employed to take advantage of this situation. There was money swirling round this world such as had never been seen before, and there is nothing like throwing big handfuls of cash into a group of people to disturb its equilibrium. (If you want to read about vicissitudes of the Aboriginal art market try Adrian Newstead’s very fine inside story of this and other periods of Aboriginal art, The Dealer is the Devil.)

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But even in this eruption Emily Kame Kngwarreye (say ‘(k)ing-gorr-eye’) leapt out of the pack as something very special. From an excellent article in ‘Artlink’ by Margo Neale, curator of her three most important exhibitions:

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Emily Kame Kngwarreye was black, female, spoke little English [fewer than 20 words] and was already elderly when she started painting on canvas, in the middle of the Australian desert, on a patch of country called Utopia [the possibly ironic name of a giant cattle station] some 260 kilometres northeast of Alice Springs, a place she rarely left over her 80-plus years.

She was in her late 70s when she was introduced to painting in acrylics on canvas after a decade of working in batik with the Utopia women’s group. Neither batik nor painting on canvas is traditional; both were introduced, in the 1970s and 1980s respectively, as part of a government re‑skilling program.

Perhaps because painting on canvas grew out of the women’s batik group, painting on canvas became a women’s activity, unlike the situation at Papunya begun by a men’s painting group. These were and remain strongly gendered societies. But Kngwarreye broke the mould. 

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At Utopia it was Kngwarreye’s painting that secured her place in the Western art market and brought millions of dollars* into the community as the undisputed boss of the ‘money story’. She was the golden goose. Emily had no biological children of her own, although many others, so occupied a separate place and this, combined with her strong personality (described as bossy), her age, ceremonial status and past employment as a cameleer (a man’s role) also secured her unique status. The strength of her arms from cameleering was not an insignificant factor in the power and character of her painting stroke. [*Estimated at $20.2m, more than twice as much as any other Australian female artist (Margaret Olley, just for the sake of interest).]

She is believed to have produced more than 3000 works during her eight-year career as a professional artist. (Rodney Gooch, see below, says 6000.)

This ooo ahh story could be balanced off to some modest degree by the fact that she had spent decades making body art for ceremonial purposes. But, imagine. You’re an art dealer and there is this … this machine pouring out high value product at an unfathomable rate. The punters simply cannot buy it quickly enough. No wonder the scam artists, and others, pulled up in their endless Toyota loads scouring Utopia for scraps.

Emily’s work developed in quite different directions over those eight years. Earth’s Creation, where we started, was done ‘dump dump’ style, clumps of paint manipulated (‘pounded’ according to one observer) with implements including a shaving brush. Neale calls this her ‘colourist’ period and it came just two years before her death.

Her earliest works are dot paintings. Ntange Dreaming, below, is one of her earlier works but her very special eye is already manifest in the way the dots have been managed. The double dots — big white, small red and black and so on — are a cunning tactic for generating depth. They also trace lines which could be imagined as suggesting growth and fertility. Her jukurrpaKame‘ (or ‘Kam‘) means the flowers and seeds of the desert yam, and this painting could be construed as being about growth, harvest, fertility. It could, but it has also been described as a self portrait.

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Ntange Dreaming, 1989
135 x 122 cm
National Gallery of Australia

Do we need to know what it means in those sorts of ways? Could we? I am inclined to recognise it as a jubilation of paint with a particularly keen appreciation of colour and settled form. It’s just so … good. So convincing. Art. (Not ethnography.)

Then there are the ‘slab’ pictures of another phase, the Awelye (ritual ceremony) series.

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Untitled (Awelye), 1992

There are hundreds of these, and they relate to body decoration at women’s ceremony. But with their emphasis on line they suggest the shift in direction towards the endless ribbons of some of her later work (Yam Dreamings: if you want to be literal, tracks from where yams have opened cracks in the earth as they mature underground).

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Big Yam Dreaming (1995), all 3 by 8 metres of it, is one of the National Gallery of Victoria’s treasures and is, along with Earth’s Creation, one of Emily’s two poster pieces.

Finally a move to colour fields, some of which are even simpler than My Country (1996) pictured here.

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As noted above, when asked what she painted, she always gave the same answer.

Whole lot. That whole lot. Awelye (my Dreaming), Arlatyeye (pencil yam), Arkerrthe (mountain devil lizard), Ntange (grass seed), Tingu (Dreamtime pup), Ankerre (emu), Intekwe (favourite food of emus, a small plant), Atnwerle (green bean), and Kame (yam seed). That’s what I paint, whole lot.

This sacred rock Alhalkere both is the location of, and is, her jukurrpa.

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I have encountered what I would call some of the bottom 10 percent of the 3000 works — knock ups, lines without obvious purpose or pleasure, muddy noodling, colour looking a little like where a brush was cleaned and not much more — in that direction anyway. You’ll find them for sale online for vast prices that you usually have to inquire about. Or I could have been looking at some of the endless fakes. That’s entirely possible.

But as well there is some of her authenticated (and acclaimed) work I like less. For example, I like the paintings from the Awelye period and the Yam Dreamings better than I like Earth’s Creation and its many likenesses. But when she is on form, and she so frequently is, my goodness! There is such confident exactitude in her judgment. Such surety.

Her international career began in Japan. Her work was championed by the distinguished curator Akira Tatehata, in 2008 director of the National Museum of Art in Osaka. He loved her work, was passionate about it, but couldn’t say why. I don’t know how to explain this work. I can talk about it in formal terms, structure, composition, lines, colour but I just don’t know how she got there. I can draw comparison with Brice Marden, with Pollock and particularly with Yayoi Kusama but I know how they got there. … It is a miracle and I just have to proclaim her a genius. But this is only an interim answer. (Quoted in Margo Neale’s article.)

I like the idea of an interim answer because the question is difficult. How does Emily fit into modern art? Some people really worry about that question, and not in moderate or generous ways.

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In 2013 an exhibition called ‘Australia’ was mounted at the Royal Academy in London. It consisted of hundreds of works one-fifth of which, the first section, were by Aboriginal artists. Emily’s Big Yam Dreaming was a centrepiece.

The critical response went off all over the place including some faint praise (good because it’s like what we’ve already decided is good, that sort of thing). But the general tenor was two thumbs firmly down. Waldemar Januszczak (‘Sunday Times’, 22/9/13) preferred:

original ancient rock art to the dull canvas approximations, knocked out in reduced dimensions, by a host of repetitive Aborigine artists making a buck. Out of a tremendous Indigenous tradition, fired and inspired by an enormous natural landscape, the Australian art world has managed to create what amounts to a market in decorative rugs. Opening the show with a selection of these spotty meanderings, and discussing them in dramatically hallowed terms, cannot disguise the fact that the great art of the Aborigines has been turned into tourist tat.

Brian Sewell of the ‘Daily Mail’ provided his own matchless off spin.

The exhibition is divided into five sections, of which the first is Aboriginal Art — but of the present, not the distant past, at last ‘recognised as art, not artefact’. By whom, I wonder? For these examples of contemporary aboriginal work are so obviously the stale rejiggings of a half-remembered heritage wrecked by the European alcohol, religion and servitude that have rendered purposeless all relics of their ancient and mysterious past. Swamped by Western influences, corrupted by a commercial art market as exploitative as any in Europe and America, all energy, purpose and authenticity lost, the modern Aboriginal Australian is not to be blamed for taking advantage of the white man now with imitative decoration and the souvenir. The black exploits the white’s obsession with conspicuous display and plays on the corporate guilt that he has now been taught to feel for the ethnic cleansing of the 19th century — a small revenge for the devastation of his culture — but the Aborigine offers only a reinvented past, his adoption of “whitefella” materials and, occasionally, “whitefella” ideas (Jackson Pollock must surely lie behind the longest of these canvases) undoing his “blackfella” integrity.

Bang. So stick that up your jumper you colonials. By the way, is the Rum Corps still operational? I fancy a drink.

In the ‘Financial Times’ Jackie Wullschlager tip-toed carefully through some well-prepared background, and then …

The largest Aboriginal work here is an eight-metre canvas of livid tangled white skeins of paint, Anwerlarr Anganenty (Big Yam Dreaming), by Emily Kame Kngwarreye. How authentic is it? A ceremonial leader who began painting on canvas in her seventies, Kngwarreye was promoted as an overnight sensation and became the first Aboriginal artist to sell for more than $1m. Her vigorous all-over compositions recall Jackson Pollock – perhaps too closely. One example is not definitive but, according to Philip Batty, senior curator at Melbourne’s Victoria Museum, Kngwarreye’s later work is simply “a mirror image of European desires”.

Uh oh. Sprung?

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Hmm… is that an Emily I wonder?

What’s this thing about Pollock? The two artists were born round the same time, but Emily lived her life almost entirely on Utopia in the middle of the Simpson Desert. She spoke two languages neither of which was English, of which she had just a few words. She couldn’t read or write in any language. Even if she did it would be fair to say that Utopia would never at any stage have been awash in art books. Besides which Pollock poured, dripped and splashed; Emily painted. She had brushes. If you can’t see the fundamental differences between Blue Poles and Big Yam Dreaming … well, what can I say? They both do big ones and they both have a formidable colour sense. Was that enough to trick the critics, or did they just get on a congregational roll, a delicious English pile on?

And just who is this Philip Batty? Was he misquoted? Taken out of context? A Murdoch Press/ ‘Spectator’ snark? Right here the story unfolds with complex beauty.

* * * * * * *

Philip Batty is not a sedentary rodent immured in an inner suburban retreat which he has never left, sharpening his poisonous claws on a keyboard. Philip Batty is currently the Senior Curator of Anthropology at Melbourne Museum who has co-authored (with Judith Ryan of the NGV) an important book about the origins of Western Desert art. But in his past life he was one of the three people who established CAAMA, the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, a landmark media organisation (radio network, video production company and later, a television station). Right there, rock solid, huge credentials. But more to the point, for a time, Rodney Gooch worked for him.

When he joined CAAMA in 1983, I was the organisation’s co-director and therefore Rodney’s manager, although I don’t think anyone could ever really manage Gooch. Before taking up this position, he had been a head waiter at an Alice Springs restaurant where he organised and performed in the occasional drag show. He was extremely energetic, gregarious, creative, and generous to a fault. But he could also get into a terrible funk. (These quotes all come from an article by Batty for ‘Art Monthly’, July 2009 ‘The art of the art advisor: Rodney Gooch and the invention of Aboriginal art at Utopia’. The link is problematic.)

Moroccan Caravan. Rodney Gooch and his camels which he trained and with which he crossed the Simpson Desert. Riding them are Sam Todd and Fairlie Beckner. November 20, 1981. (Photo by Joanna Bailey for Fairfax Media). Flair, or what?

Rodney Gooch became the Art Adviser for the Utopia community.

The Art Adviser occupies a special, if impossible place in the world of Aboriginal art. They are usually white, young and enthusiastic and employed in Aboriginal art centres throughout remote Australia. Fortunately, their zealous commitment to the job helps fortify them against the difficult nature of their work.

Apart from the tedious business of running an art centre, they have to go cap-in-hand to governments each year for funding; soothe angry artists convinced that they have been ripped off; work out what will sell and encourage their artists to paint accordingly; stretch and undercoat innumerable canvases; watch for ‘carpetbaggers’ circling around their artists; deal with vehicle break-downs miles from nowhere; and butter up rich buyers at glittering exhibition openings.

Finally, they must do all this knowing that their artists will give away their ‘art money’ to innumerable relatives or spend it on second-hand cars that inevitably fall apart.

As an art advisor working at the Aboriginal community of Utopia in Central Australia, Rodney Gooch dealt with all these problems and more, but he also took the art of art advising to a more entrepreneurial level.

The short version. Gooch began at CAAMA as a producer and promoter of the Aboriginal bands CAAMA was helping to establish. The batik program at Utopia had been set up some years before in 1978 but, like many such things, after a promising start was foundering and the Aboriginal Development Corporation asked CAAMA to provide assistance.

Gooch, who according to Batty had previously shown minimal interest in or knowledge of Aboriginal art, was chosen for the task (quite probably by his Aboriginal boyfriend’s brother who was on the selection committee and knew an entrepreneur when he saw one). He visited Utopia and the very first time came back wildly enthusiastic ‘laden with brightly-coloured batik silks’ to sell at the CAAMA shop.

However, after some initial success, sales fell away. It was art that was making the money in Alice, not craft. The shop was sliding downhill to the extent that it was threatening the liquidity of CAAMA which at that time was bidding in an extremely pressured environment for a commercial television station licence (which became Imparja).

Rodney decided to take a more interventionist approach. He bought best quality acrylic paint and ‘constructed, stretched and undercoated 100 canvasses all exactly the same size’ and carted them off in the CAAMA truck to the women of Utopia. He showed them how to mix and use the paint and encouraged them to shift from traditional desert ochres to more varied, brighter and more vivid colours and avoid what he called ‘computer painting’, highly symmetrical alternating dots. He didn’t have to work to persuade the women. Painting was a lot easier and quicker than producing batik. Of the 100 canvasses he eventually retrieved 82. (He worried even then about the destination(s) of the other 18.)

Gooch developed links with dealers around Australia including the curator of Robert Holmes à Court’s collection of Indigenous art, the largest in Australia. Sales exhibitions were mounted with the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of NSW. Private galleries were chosen to be key stockists. This process both supported and rode on the rocketing interest in Aboriginal art from remote areas. But the big day came when James Mollison, then Director of the National Gallery of Australia, happened by the CAAMA shop.

Mollison told Rodney that Emily was ‘one of the finest Abstract Expressionists he had ever encountered’, although he was somewhat puzzled. How, he wondered, had an elderly Aboriginal woman living in remote Central Australia ‘mastered’ the techniques and aesthetic conventions of an art movement based in New York? How indeed. Emily spoke very little English, nor could she read nor write. In fact, there was only one white person in the world who had a reasonable grasp of Emily’s language (the linguist, Jenny Green). And as far as Rodney and I knew, Emily had never travelled beyond Central Australia.

It seemed to me that Mollison – an urbane man with little knowledge of Aboriginal people – was projecting his own artistic predilections onto Emily’s work and her aesthetic intentions. But who was to challenge the illusions of the most powerful aficionado in Australian art?

Of course, Rodney had no intention of questioning Mollison’s take on Emily. How she fitted into the history of western art was irrelevant. In any case, Rodney’s knowledge of the New York school of Abstract Expressionism was only marginally better than Emily’s which appeared to be non-existent.

Far more important was the fact that Mollision had not only fallen in love with Emily’s work; he had also bought several of her paintings for the National Gallery of Australia. [A footnote: when Mollison moved to the National Gallery of Victoria he organised the acquisition of Big Yam Dreaming.]

In 1991 Gooch left CAAMA and set himself up as an independent art adviser working with selected artists mostly from Utopia including Emily with whom he had developed a close relationship. It was his idea to make paintings on bits of the car wrecks — doors were popular for a time — which litter the desert. He had a gift for understanding the market and its movements and there is no doubt that he added his own considerable flair to ideas for paintings. Who knows? He might have known about Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, Krassner, Clyfford Still and Yayoi Kusama. Well … Pollock maybe, Blue Poles made a very big splash, but the others … only just the barest maybe.

What is in no doubt is that he didn’t paint the paintings. Or that the women of Utopia did.

After noting several problems that Gooch helped to leave behind — carpet baggers, fakers, desperadoes, exploiters of many kinds — Batty has no doubt that his legacy is positive. Nor that if it wasn’t him, it would have been somebody else. Purists will object, Batty writes, preferring to imagine that Aboriginal art emanates from some pristine, pre-industrial past. But Aboriginal art is an intercultural phenomenon, shaped both by its Aboriginal producers and non-Aboriginal consumers. Rodney clearly understood the nature of this cross-cultural relationship.

That’s what Batty said, and of course he’s right. And he did NOT say that, under the influence of a western Svengali, Emily was knocking out Pollocks.

At the peak of his powers and influence and under the spell of Emily’s work, Time art critic Robert Hughes ‘recognised’ the burgeoning Aboriginal cultural flowering as ‘the last great art movement of the 20th Century’. Emily wouldn’t have cared.

In 1993, she collected a prestigious Keating Award and was taken to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Margo Neale writes: An eager entourage wheeled her to a painting by renowned Australian abstract expressionist Tony Tuckson that they were sure she would relate to — after all, everyone else seemed to see connections between her work and his. On tenterhooks they waited for her happy recognition of a fellow genius. Eventually, she erupted into her Anmatyerre language. The translation revealed that she was worried about her sick dogs back at Utopia and wanted to go home. To stimulate a more appropriate response, the curator Deborah Edwards explained Tony Tuckson’s painting process and his interest in mark‑making and action painting, hoping she would see some connection. Kngwarreye responded in language: ‘Oh poor fella, he got no story. No Dreaming.

Art or ethnography? Pretty much both. (And forget about the money. That’s a different topic altogether.)

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The creation of Earth’s Creation

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Some time ago now I read an article in the ‘New Yorker’ called The Painted Desert. It’s a good yarn which you can read by clicking on the title.

Australian Aboriginal desert art is the broad subject. The Papunya Tula Co-op and Rover Thomas get a mention.

But it is primarily concerned with the story of the Ngurrara mob making up their minds whether or not to sell one of two paintings that they used to describe their country in a land claim (of almost 78,000 square kilometres, about the size of Austria). One of the reasons this is a good story is that the claim was, at first sight and eventually, six years later, successful. One Land Claims Tribunal member described the painting as ‘the most eloquent and overwhelming evidence that has ever been presented’. And isn’t it just?

Ngurrara, The Great Sandy Desert Painting, National Gallery of Australia, 10m x 8m

Note the size: 10 metres by 8 metres, painted by 19 Ngurrara artists. The horizontal mid line is the Canning Stock Route.

Getting your case through the Tribunal is a first step in a long and tortuous legal process. The adviser working at Fitzroy Crossing’s Mangkaja art co-op, was asked to contact someone who might offer information and guidance about selling at least one of the two paintings to provide some cash for the ageing artists. Three had already died. After discussions they decided they would sell one but not for any less than $20,000. Imagine. They could be confidently assured that such a monster painting of such huge cultural and political significance would realise more than that, perhaps 50 times more.

True to ‘New Yorker’ form, the article is very long and packed out with any possible material that a journalist could hoover up for colour, and to fill out 30,000 words. But being the ‘New Yorker’ it will have been assiduously fact-checked which is why I was a little bit tossed when the article seemed to be suggesting that Fitzroy Crossing was in Ngurrara country.

No one disputes (no one would dare) that Fitzroy Crossing is located at the confluence of four mobs: Bunuba and Gooniyandi definitely meeting at the town, the Nyikina a bit further downstream towards the coast with Walmajarri off to the south. Ngurrara country is further inland, real desert country. Its language groups do include Walmajarri, but also Wangkajunga, Mangala and Juwaliny. Perhaps this is the sort of thing you can’t readily fact check.

It just so happens that I was in Fitzroy at this very time and in fact bought an artwork at Mangkaja painted by two Kija ladies I know. The larger purpose of my presence was to introduce a couple of senior members of the Australian school education fraternity to life in remote Australia to try to increase their interest and involvement in the education of Indigenous kids. The Presidents of the Australian Secondary and Primary Principals Associations were the guests of honour.

It was during the Wet. The Fitzroy River, when in flood the river with the largest volume of flow in Australia, was lapping over the bridge (the ‘Crossing’) more than 15 metres above its level in The Dry. Visitors tend not to go to the Tropics in the Wet but, as long as the Monsoon has broken, that’s a mistake. The pindan (‘red soil’) country just leaps into life, furiously, actively, noisily, visibly. It’s like some sort of explosive chemical reaction which I suppose, in elemental terms, is precisely what it is. Just add water and step back.

The estimable John Hill had carted us off to some community schools well off the beaten track. Getting in and out had been something of a challenge, a modest sort of adventure in fact. But we had slept and eaten well at the Fitzroy River Lodge well out of the way of anything in town that might have freaked my colleagues out. (A fairly long list. Which is another thing about the article. The writer seems to take every chance she can to press the poverty, alcohol, sitting in the desert doing weird things buttons. It’s easy enough to do but there’s a lot more going on, and a lot that’s more interesting. It’s the tourist’s mistake, one I’ve made often enough.)

Back to Broome to fly home. Four hours of sliding along a road covered with water — in all that time the Willare roadhouse the only sign of human life — to find that the cyclone we’d been monitoring was due in Broome maybe that night, maybe next morning. Ha ho. So straight to the airport.

Broome takes some international flights and occasional direct flights from Sydney and Melbourne, but the main flight in and out of Broome was a sort of extended mail run around the west coast, a Qantas flight with maybe 150 passengers: Perth – Karratha – Broome – Darwin in the morning; turn around to do the same thing backwards in the evening. If you didn’t want to stay for the cyclone that was the flight to be on.

There are two things about wanting to get out. One is you mightn’t want to be in a cyclone, although none of the locals seemed especially bothered. Everything built in Broome in the last 25 years is supposed to be cyclone-proof. The correct way to prepare is to drive to the bottle shop and procure as much of the merchandise as the proprietors will allow, and hope your mate has been to the supermarket for the chops and snags. Looking at the queue of cars curling away from the drive-through, certainly 500 metres worth, the town was preparing.

The second is that you might get stuck for a while wherever you are. It’s not just that you need to wait for a plane to be able to fly after the storm. The whole schedule is kicked out of whack, so you wait your turn. It could be two or three days, but you don’t know. That might moderate what follows.

We’d booked for the next day so I wasn’t over-confident about getting out that night, although you never know. Not much travel in the Wet. We made our representations to the harried staff. There would be pressure for seats and we probably wouldn’t be leaving and there were people who needed to leave more than we did. Families with little kids, and so on.

The Broome airport is pretty much an open air affair, which suits. You can have quite enough of air conditioning. We’re sitting there watching the world go past, and there’s a commotion. Three top-of-the-line Land Cruisers drive up and screech to a halt like something out of a movie. You don’t screech to a halt. There may also have been ‘get out of the way’ type honking. You don’t honk either. Nine, count them, nine people, an entourage, got out, all apparently in a state of acute anxiety, and began shouting at people: people handling baggage, people who were booking, people who were helping with parking, people who were standing in their way. And then they started demanding things. Demand demand demand in strident American voices which included the identifier ‘We’re “New Yorker”‘ as though all gates would open; and when all gates didn’t open, they started metaphorically kicking them down. The main gentleman started screaming at the booking receptionist.

This is him. Tim Klingender, ‘the Sotheby’s expert who mounted Sotheby’s 1994 exhibit of Aboriginal paintings who divides his energy between Sotheby’s clients — whom he calls “the richest two hundred thousand people on the planet” — and Aboriginal communities, where the living conditions and life expectancy rival those of the most dismal outposts of the developing world.’ I am quoting from the article.

The focal point otherwise was a woman with an attack of the vapours, sobbing when she wasn’t making acidulous and strident remarks to the airport staff.

And this is her. Prize-winning journalist and author Geraldine Brooks with her prize-winning journalist husband Tony Horwitz. ‘They have two sons – Nathaniel and Bizuayehu – two dogs, three alpacas and a mare named Valentine. They live by an old mill pond on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts and spend as much time as possible in Australia.’ (‘About Geraldine’, author’s website) Next time you’re reading Nine Parts of Desire, March, Year of Wonders or Caleb’s Crossing, just remember that.

I wasn’t absolutely certain that I had the right crew, but voila!

There was, indeed, a big rain coming. A cyclone moved close to the coast that night deluging roads and closing airports. After three days of being immersed in the world view of the Walmajarri, I wondered briefly if the snake spirits were angry about the artists’ decision to sell the painting. Apparently not: the cyclone never touched down on land. Klingender and I made it back to Broome before the Great Northern Highway became inundated.

The Presidents somehow managed to get on (we know who you are Ted Brierley and Tom Croker), and the crazed nine, (Q. How many people does it take to write a ‘New Yorker’ article? A. Well …) still complaining, managed to bump three families and elbow their way on to the plane. Memorably unpleasant, twenty years later.

I had two nights at the Mangrove Hotel. It blew a bit. There was a snatch or two of Stairway to the Stars, the moon reflecting on ripples in the Indian Ocean. The hotel’s lawn terrace is the prefect viewpoint. Then, with my painting, I went home … to another world entirely.

Bush Tucker, Madeleine and Yangkana Laurel, 2002, Our kitchen wall