Feb 5, 2016
Kluge-Ruhe, Upcoming Exhibition

Loongkoonan only took up painting in her mid-90s, embracing it with such originality, confidence and dedication her work soon found its way into museums and private collections.

She only took up the paint brush in her-mid 90s. And now, at what she calls the “still very lively” age of 105, Aboriginal Australian artist Loongkoonan is being honored with the first international exhibition of her work, minutes from the White House.

The woman who inspired the show Yimardoowarra: Artist of the River is an indigenous elder and matriarch from the west Kimberley region in Western Australia — Nyikina country or the country of the river, named the Fitzroy by European colonizers.

Diminutive but authoritative, the former livestock musterer’s mesmerizing renderings of “bush tucker” (the hardy plant and animal foods of the Australian outback), sacred places, bush medicines and tools of her ancestral land are comprised of shimmering overlaid light and dark dots and circles. “Loongkoonan’s work challenges expectations about what some international collectors expect of Aboriginal art — dot and ochres,” former Paris-based Aboriginal-art dealer Mary Durack told Women in the World from Darwin. “That Loongkoonan’s work doesn’t comply with this is what makes her works so special. She is completely original.”

The works have earned Loongkoonan — a highly respected custodian of the endangered Nyikina language, which is spoken only by a few hundred people — glowing reviews, art prizes and high-level exposure in Australia’s Old Parliament House, galleries and universities. However, this is the first time her canvases have traveled internationally.

“I had a good life on the stations and three husbands,” Loongkoonan summed up her life, in an artist’s statement. “Today I am a single woman, and I like to travel about looking at Country and visiting Countrymen [the generic term for people.] I still enjoy footwalking my country, showing the young people to chase barni(goannas) and catch fish.

“In my paintings I show all types of bush tucker — good tucker, that we lived off in the bush. I paint Nyikina country the same way eagles see country when they are high up in the sky.”

The unique retrospective of one of the world’s oldest practicing artists is on display at the Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C. until April 26, before it moves to The University of Virginia’s Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection in Charlottesville.

It charts the extraordinarily dense late-life career of an indigenous woman who has brought a century of memory, tradition, and spirituality to her artwork. “This is a world view that has been shaped by cultures coming into collision in historically unprecedented ways,” curator Henry Skerritt, an expert on Aboriginal art and culture, and doctoral candidate in art history at the University of Pittsburgh, told Women in the World. “And the collisions didn’t occur just once but over and over again throughout her life, living on the frontier during a period when there were still people living nomadically throughout the Kimberley. Loongkoonan would have known those people because she would have gone back to them in the wet season.”

It took some encouragement from her niece Margaret to get the future-artist painting in the Manambarra Aboriginal Artists Studio in Derby Western Australia in 2004, but Loongkoonan quickly attracted critical attention.

At the age of 95, the budding artist embraced painting with such enthusiasm, confidence and dedication — producing an astonishing 380 works in just under five years — that her very first work titled “Nyikina Country” immediately caught the eye of art dealers Diane and Dan Mossenson. They were the first to show the elder’s art to a Melbourne audience in the year following her painting debut, and have lent all the works in the current exhibition.

Despite a flourishing local art scene, Loongkoonan’s work bears little resemblance to her peers’ — even those who work alongside her.

Born around 1910, Loongkoonan grew up on one of Western Australia’s huge stations or enormous ranches on Mount Anderson, that covered her people’s country. She worked as a cattle and sheep musterer, riding horses, and cooking for the camps.

The cattle industry shut down for half a year which meant people like Loongkoonan were able to spend the wet season walking the country, performing ceremonies and fulfilling all their custodial obligations.

Her paintings express the richness of a life lived almost entirely in her ancestral land and from the outset were marked by an “urgency to record the sacred places, orbooroo, of Nyikina country”.

“She has grown up working from dawn to dusk on the cattle stations but when she wasn’t doing that she was fulfilling all her obligations and doing all the things her people have been doing for 40,000 years,” says Skerritt.

Despite the flourishing art scene in the Kimberley, Loongkoonan’s art bears little resemblance to others’, including those who worked alongside her in the studio. “This show is about one artist from a very distant culture and even from a distant time who grew up in the early part of the 20th century, sharing a way of seeing the world cross-culturally — and that’s an extraordinary gift,” says Skerritt.

He emphasizes the importance of recognizing the history of Aboriginal art as the history of individuals “making a dynamic statement in the present about the way in which indigenous traditions persist” — not just a group of artists whose works are usually presented collectively in “sumptuous’” blockbuster exhibitions.

“If we really want the world to recognize the Aboriginal Australian movement for the great contemporary art movement that it is we do have to start recognizing the achievements of the individual innovators,” the curator continues. “And Loongkoonan is doing work that is deeply contemporary and that has no obvious precedent. There is a wealth of art-making traditions that go into producing this very idiosyncratic body of work.”

The journey to Washington, D.C. for her exhibition opening was too long for Loongkoonan to undertake, although she will be heading to the South Australian capital where her works will be hung in the prestigious Adelaide Biennial beginning later this month. But all the acclaim and international buzz has not changed the artist.

“While Loongkoonan clearly painted for the Western art market, and enjoyed traveling to exhibitions of her paintings she has expressed relatively little interest in the reception of her work,” says Skerritt. “She traveled all over Australia with her work and most of the time the whole art world thing concerned her less than the ability to see other places.”