Yunkurra Billy Atkins // Martumili Artists, WA

Tuwa around Kumpupirntily 2014 by Yunkurra Billy Atkins. Gouache on paper 118 x 169 cm (framed). Courtesy private collection © the artist, courtesy Martumili Artists. Photo Bo Wong // Art Gallery of Western Australia

Tuwa around Kumpupirntily 2014 by Yunkurra Billy Atkins. Gouache on paper 118 x 169 cm (framed). Courtesy private collection © the artist, courtesy Martumili Artists. Photo Bo Wong // Art Gallery of Western Australia

 I first encountered Yunkarra Billy Atkins at the Fremantle Arts Centre in the lead up to the opening of We Don’t Need a Map in 2013, where I photographed him and his collaborative video work with Sohan Ariel Hayes. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before – scary cannibals who lurked beneath the surface of a lake – the video was both repellant and magnetic. Over a year later, I was working in Newman at Martumili Artists, where I also had the opportunity to photograph artists Mabel Wakarta, Bugai Whyoulter and Nora Wompi for Design Satellite. Yunkarra was working quietly at a nearby table on huge watercolour paper and agreed to have me photograph him. He even went so far as to offer me the option to choose a new colour palette for a painting. Despite knowing I was a wadjela being humoured, I was pretty stoked, and no, I can’t do a poker face.

Shooting the artwork of the finalists for the 2015 Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards catalogue at the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) recently, some of his large scale, perspective-shifting works on paper had arrived. Hurrah! (no need for poker face here). The Awards are a highlight of the AGWA calendar and this year is no exception – it’s broad national stroke shows a few established names I’ve seen around whilst introducing me to some I’ve never heard of – always a winning combination. The format of the Awards is that of small bodies of work from each artist, so it gives a good insight into their practice. The Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards are on now until 12th October and free guided tour times are here.

Amy Barrett-Lennard, Director at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA) and one of the three judges for the Awards, wrote this insightful essay for the catalogue and along with AGWA, has generously allowed it to be reproduced here for Design Satellite.

Born in 1940 at Palatji (Weld Springs) on the Canning Stock Route, Yunkurra Billy Atkins grew up in and around Wiluna. As an adult he returned north to his traditional Country, which includes important Martu sites such as Lake Disappointment, Savory Creek and Jilakurra. Having narrowly avoided being taken away by missionaries as a child, he grew up with elderly people learning about Country the traditional way, and is now a knowledgeable senior Martu man and an authority on the places he paints. He is also an extraordinary artist with one of the most distinctive styles and approaches to art making and storytelling seen in desert art. Atkins has relentlessly pursued his own vision and particular visual language in works that defy easy categorisation, analysis and at times consumption. His narratives are often macabre and set within landscapes that leave the viewer giddy with their perspectival divergences. They are peppered with obsessive, animation-like translations of the movement of people, weapons, animals and mythic beings through time and place. To understand Atkins’ work, one must first understand the history of the Martu people’s relationship with art. John Carty noted that ‘for many years the Martu avoided painting publicly because they remained unconvinced that the iconographic translations from their desert peers at Papunya and Balgo were safe. ’There was a real fear that the depiction of iconic forms would lead to the revelation of restricted knowledge as well as a concern that misinterpretation may ensue, for although these forms are shared throughout the desert region, their meanings can differ. ‘I don’t like it [Papunya-styled iconographic painting] … that painting. I get frightened.’ So, instead of employing the encoded iconography of his Western Desert peers, Atkins has adopted the artistic strategy of placing figuration within landscapes to depict his Country and its stories. Fearsome cannibals, frenzied honeyants and caches of weapons populate Atkins’ landscapes of rising sandhills, plummeting waterholes and tree-lined horizons. The highly charged energy is palpable in his paintings, which often warn of the dangers of the underworld, particularly that of the Ngayurnangalku, cannibal beings that live beneath the surface of Kumpupirntily (Lake Disappointment) and threaten to devour anybody – ‘blackfella or whitefella’ – foolish enough to disturb the lake’s salty crusted surface. The animated quality of his works and the thrillingly macabre nature of the stories and beings hidden within Kumpupirntily lent themselves perfectly to the creation of Cannibal story 2012, a ghoulish video work commissioned for Fremantle Art Centre’s exhibition We Don’t Need a Map: a Martu experience of the Western Desert.In Kumpupirntily 2013 and Tuwa around Kumpupirntily 2014 we see Lake Disappointment as a flat white central form surrounded by trees, sandhills and waterholes. The landscape rises and falls, however, and we are never quite sure if we are viewing what appears in these two works as a beautifully tranquil and undisturbed scene from an aerial perspective or from one that slices vertically through the sky, lake, earth and watertable beneath. In Wanti Ngayurnangalku 2013 we see a female cannibal, in this case pink and fleshy – a veritable femme fatale, rising from behind a sandhill and set fetchingly against a blood red sky. It is a most extraordinary painting, in its tones, its composition, its use of brush stroke and shading. It is original, contemporary in every sense and disturbing. It confirms Atkins’ status as the great artist of the Martu world, one whose fearless innovation is only matched by his boundless imaginings.
Yunkurra Billy Atkins at Martumili Artists in Newman, Western Australia. Photo Bo Wong // Design Satellite

Yunkurra Billy Atkins at Martumili Artists in Newman, Western Australia. Photo Bo Wong // Design Satellite

Ngayurnangalku 2013 by Yunkurra Billy Atkins. Synthetic polymer paint on linen 107.5 x 151.5 cm Courtesy private collection © the artist, courtesy Martumili Artists. Photo Bo Wong // Art Gallery of Western Australia

Ngayurnangalku 2013 by Yunkurra Billy Atkins. Synthetic polymer paint on linen 107.5 x 151.5 cm Courtesy private collection © the artist, courtesy Martumili Artists. Photo Bo Wong // Art Gallery of Western Australia

Yunkurra Billy Atkins paints at Martumili Artists in Newman, Western Australia. Photo Bo Wong // Design Satellite

Yunkurra Billy Atkins paints at Martumili Artists in Newman, Western Australia. Photo Bo Wong // Design Satellite

Installation view of Yunkurra Billy Atkins' work in the 2015 Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Photo Bo Wong // Art Gallery of Western Australia

Installation view of Yunkurra Billy Atkins’ work in the 2015 Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Photo Bo Wong // Art Gallery of Western Australia

Yunkurra Billy Atkins paints at Martumili Artists in Newman, Western Australia. Photo Bo Wong // Design Satellite

Yunkurra Billy Atkins paints at Martumili Artists in Newman, Western Australia. Photo Bo Wong // Design Satellite

Yunkurra Billy Atkins paints at Martumili Artists in Newman, Western Australia. Photo Bo Wong // Design Satellite

Yunkurra Billy Atkins paints at Martumili Artists in Newman, Western Australia. Photo Bo Wong // Design Satellite

Wanti Ngayurnangalku 2013 by Yunkurra Billy Atkins. Gouache on paper 169 x 118 cm (framed) Courtesy the artist and Martumili Artists © the artist, courtesy Martumili Artists. Photo Bo Wong // Art Gallery of Western Australia

Wanti Ngayurnangalku 2013 by Yunkurra Billy Atkins. Gouache on paper 169 x 118 cm (framed) Courtesy the artist and Martumili Artists © the artist, courtesy Martumili Artists. Photo Bo Wong // Art Gallery of Western Australia

A Yunkurra Billy Atkins painting at Martumili Artists in Newman, Western Australia. Photo Bo Wong // Design Satellite

A Yunkurra Billy Atkins painting at Martumili Artists in Newman, Western Australia. Photo Bo Wong // Design Satellite

Installation view of Yunkurra Billy Atkins' work in the 2015 Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Photo Bo Wong // Art Gallery of Western Australia

Installation view of Yunkurra Billy Atkins’ work in the 2015 Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Photo Bo Wong // Art Gallery of Western Australia

In the courtyard at Martumili Artists, Newman, WA. Photo Bo Wong // Design Satellite

In the courtyard at Martumili Artists, Newman, WA. Photo Bo Wong // Design Satellite

Comments

  1. 1

    Helen Seward says

    I have seen Yunkurra’s work currently on display at AGWA. I am interested to know if any of his work is currently available for sale.
    Thankyou

    • 2

      says

      Hi Helen, I think the Martumili Artists in Newman are the best point of contact to purchase his work. I’m sure they’d be happy to help! Bo

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