University of Melbourne - Baillieu Library - 2004

I was introduced into Aboriginal Australia in 1998 by Dr. Karmananda Saraswati, whilst I was working toward a series of paintings based on Patrick White’s myth of Voss, who disappeared into what could well have been Alyawarere country. My introduction to the Alyawarere community was through its most senior lawman, Albert Akamara Bailey; who was the chairman of the board of the Aboriginal Health Service at Utopia. To grace this auspicious meeting, the doctor of the Utopia community, Dr Karmananda Saraswati, suggested I paint Albert’s portrait for the clinic. In this context we could come to know each other. Albert’s openness to the intimate act of portraiture forged an ongoing connection with the broader Utopia community. Albert’s portrait now hangs in the clinic, along with a number of my portraits of the board members of the Utopia community health service, painted over that next several years. Significantly, each of these portraits have been painted in the context of their subject’s sacred site, as such they are all entitled; 'Sacred Title'. The success of this introduction enabled me the permission to paint the landscape and to meet people within the Utopia community.



The portraits pictured above are not of the elders but represent a selection of the portraits I painted around the various outstations which consitute Utopia.


Ten years on, in 2008, I received a call from Karmananda explaining that Albert and the Aboriginal board at Utopia now wanted to commission two large paintings.  This time of all the traditional elders of the Utopia community. It seems that the earlier portraits had documented their fragile history and substantiated their claim to land rights, but they have also had an enduring affect on the broader sense of community identity. As the Utopia outstations had begun to unite under the ‘Alyawarere Nation’ project, they have begun to value the contribution that these paintings have made to the integrity of their ongoing cultural identity. All the male elders were painted on one canvas and all the significant female law women were painted on another.  Each of these canvasses were approx 1.3 ms  X 2 ms each - making the total scape approx 1.3 ms (high) X 4 ms (wide) -  Click on 'Next' page to view images of the final  'Sacred Title' paintings, commissioned by the Aboriginal elders at Utopia.

Counihan Gallery - Brunswick Town Hall - 2009


Roll-over image for enlargement detail

Sorry Business

                 The day I was supposed to arrive at Urapuntja, the whole community had gone into Sorry Business. By the time I got there, a couple of weeks later, the Urapuntja mob had moved off to Ingwelaye, Kurrajong Bore, about 30 kms down the track. All that was left of the old camp was the rubbish blowing about in the dust. It appeared twenty or thirty gunyas, whurlies and humpies had been torn apart, stripped of anything useful and abandoned in respect of the dead. I never found out what sparked the boy to top himself, the Alyawere and Anmatyere people don’t speak of the dead.

                  It was later, through reading Baldwin Spencer, that I came to understand what Aboriginal people call Sorry Business was a very serious matter which involved public mourning, the open display of grief, ritual self-mutilation and blood letting, the systematic eradication of all traces of the presence of the deceased including the burning down their camp and finally shifting the entire community to a new location. Not attending to any of these details properly could have severe consequences for the relatives and the community in general.

                  I‘d been painting my way through the central Australian landscape transmuting the country into the language of 19th century plein-air painting. In preparation for a body of paintings on Patrick White’s myth of Voss, I wished to glean insight into Ludwig Leichhardt’s experience of the never-never and thus began painting some of the traditional landowners, in the landscapes of their own sacred sites, that dreamtime bond which confers sovereign title in central Australia, in a bid to glean some insight into Ludwig Leichhardt’s experience of the never-never.

                  The Kngwarreye family holds the sacred title for much of the land around Utopia; Urapuntja, Alparra, Arawerre, Ingwelaye, Ngkewenyerre. Tommy and Johnny Kngwarreye Jones and I were painting out on the dry riverbed of the Sandover River, when I first noticed a series of raised horizontal cicatrices, what appeared to be decorative scarring cut across his triceps. Those scars Johnny, what are they for? That’s Sorry Business, he answered with a demonstration, as if with a knife, a disinterested yet committed gashing at his shoulders, first one side and then the next and over again. There was a time when every adult male would have had these scars. They evidence the son-in-law having correctly acquitted his responsibilities to a deceased father-in-law. Not doing so could incur the wrath of the spirit of the Kuruna ,his father-in-law, , which could avenge him in a number of ways at any time, for instance, by taking away his wife. As Baldwin Spencer points out, when the eye goes the Kuruna, eventually comes out of the body and disappears in the form of the Chichurkna, a whistling bird. This creature is an image Patrick White references in Voss: I saw a white bird fly out of the bones of death, its wings opening like hands. It is considered vital to enable the Chichurkna its proper passage. If these rites are not attended to correctly there can be trouble with the evil-minded spirits such as the Eruncha or the Kudaitcha man, Old Feathery Feet as he is colloquially known. Following a death the first level of Sorry Business goes on for two weeks and then after twelve months or so later there is another process which signals the end of the mourning period. These rituals lay the spirit of the dead to rest, settling accounts, making amends, redressing the balance and gracing the community with a peace.

                  In the Baldwin Spencer photographs of 1901 we see an Arrente Widow pictured at the end of Sorry Business. Her entire body is painted with white ochre and ash Her head and face are covered with a headdress known as a Chimurillia, which is made of small bones, fur, hair, feathers and looks a bit like dreadlocks. Twelve months after her husband’s burial she wears her Chimurillia to his grave accompanied by the female contingent of her family and friends. Following further acts of self-mutilation, she throws her body onto the grave of her husband and is danced into the dirt of his tomb by the other women. Then buries her Chimurillia with her blood, her sorrows with the bones of her husband, thereby brings her period of mourning to an end.

Gary Willis - 2004