Luke Stegemann reviews 'The Stranger Artist: Life at the edge of Kimberley painting' by Quentin Sprague

The Stranger Artist is a finely structured and beautifully written account of gallerist Tony Oliver’s immersion into the world of the Kimberley art movement at the end of the twentieth century; the close relationships he developed over the following years with painters such as Paddy Bedford, Freddie Timms, and Rusty Peters; and the creation of Jirrawun Arts as a collective to both promote and protect the artists and their work. How these artists, under Oliver’s practical guidance, came to assume the mantle of the legendary Rover Thomas and took Kimberley art to the world provides a compelling narrative: from fascination to enthralment to disillusion. Dreams are born, bear fruit, and die. Like many a fine work of art, The Stranger Artist attracts with a brilliant surface while fascinating with its deeper layers. Behind the thrill and wisdom of the painting – so new and old, so luminous and dark – lurk the tragedies of history and dysfunctional politics. This book – how could it be otherwise? – is peopled with spectacular characters, art, and landscapes. Appropriate to this remote corner of Australia, it is full of intense colour and eccentricity, while also permeated with great sadness.

The subterranean channels of Quentin Sprague’s narrative lead the reader to explore more profound questions about the nature of art, of its capacity to inform and perhaps heal; to consider how Indigenous expression works within white cultural frameworks, and how such expression plays out in the broader context of Australian culture and its ambitions. This is a powerful story of Indigenous art and its relationship to our often bloody history. The book also provokes questions about representations of reality – of how the Kimberley artists rendered their world, and how the driven, obsessed, and perhaps slightly mad Oliver held together his visionary project through both doubt and ecstasy. For the Indigenous artists, painting was the revelation of ceremony and Law, and their relationship to the origins and nature of the world. It was also a way of accounting for history: the largely untold story of the dispossession and massacres of the Gija people in the late nineteenth century.

Quentin Sprague (photograph via Monash University)Quentin Sprague (photograph via Monash University)

Sprague rises to a difficult challenge: the meeting point between the English language – both generous and limiting – and the art under examination. For here are a series of translations and mutations, from the nuanced folds of the Kimberley landscape to Indigenous art, to the language of the writer, each time filtered through eyes, memory, sense, and the shifting mirrors of the human heart. Writing of Rover Thomas’s art, Sprague displays his deft rendering of potentially difficult subject matter: ‘sublime beauty … fields of open colour cut through by lines of ragged dotting; the surfaces were dusty and tactile, in themselves a gentle revelation’. The reader is in good hands.

Sprague understands, as did Oliver, that the Kimberley art movement – in its heterogeneous collective, one of the great visions splendid of recent Australian culture – emerged from a formally ruinous social space, of communities hidden away in decaying homes, too often dependent on the ‘arrogant paternalism’ of the local white population. Alcoholism and suicide deplete one Indigenous generation after another; somehow from this bleakness, teased out by Oliver’s relentless drive, comes astonishing pictorial light.

Yet even as Oliver decamps from the distractions – social and grog-related – of Kununurra and relocates the Jirrawun workshop south to Crocodile Hole, then to Bow River, back to Kununurra, and, finally, to the realisation of his gallery at Wyndham, there is a sense of collapse, despite the supreme efforts of the assorted Kimberley artists – a sense that all this could only last so long, threatened not just by ongoing structural poverty, age, and ill health, but also by greed, remote community politics (often involving white administrators), clashing personalities, the whims of fashion, and, parallel but still important, the financial malfeasance and collapse of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). ‘[A] patchwork,’ Sprague notes, ‘of unresolved histories, a mess of competing visions calcified.’

Even when great success comes, most notably through the fame and fortune of Paddy Bedford, there is a sense that it might not be true: Bedford, Sprague notes, ‘had used paint to transcribe his Dreamings and received in exchange a thick wad of fifty-dollar notes’. Was this, in some sense, all too easy? While many marvelled at the new worlds revealed and their undeniable, even indescribable power, it was only a matter of time before the mundane but inescapable laws of commerce and productivity took over.

Sprague convincingly portrays Oliver as both observer and, at times, participant in the flowing translation of history and law into art. Unlike white painters he had known, hemmed in by anxieties of influence, worried by the anticipated public and critical response that can determine (or undermine) the very nature of a work of art, the Kimberley artists were oblivious to such concerns. Their work seemed ‘effortless: a simple combination of lines and colour and dots reworked in endless variation’. There is something to be said, in this observation, for the enduring power of tradition; for the power of belonging, and for having deep roots in the world, and drawing on the stability that provides.

It was not a stability that would protect Tony Oliver. Key artists and other figures central to one of our nation’s most important art movements began to die; Oliver ultimately seeks a form of resolution in Vietnam. Sprague had described him as operating along a ‘schizophrenic edge’, attempting to satisfy the demands of two worlds while balancing his own inner conflicts. Around him whirled the complex rivalries of the Kimberley collective, its ambivalent relation to money, fashion, and influence, all within the ongoing context of Indigenous political affirmation.

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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