Mavis Ngallametta’s large-scale paintings, a selection of which are currently being exhibited at Martin Browne Contemporary in Sydney, are both derived from, and imbued with, the material richness of her natural environment. Incorporating white ochres from the cliffs of Ikalath on the west coast of the Cape York Peninsula, mixing fecund greens from a combination of yellow ochre pigment and charcoal – Mavis is both a master colourist and an alchemist of sorts. Her bountiful and interwoven depictions of the waterways, geological formations and flora around Aurukun show her to be a painter of great vision and complexity.
Aurukun is a community on the north-west coast of the Cape York Peninsula in Far North Queensland. Over 800 kilometres west of Cairns and almost 180 kilometres south of Weipa, it is what many of us would call a remote, isolated place. It is also Mavis’ home, and the source of both her subject matter and painting materials.
Like a number of prominent female Indigenous artists, Mavis began her career as a weaver. Taught by senior Wik and Kugu women on country and at the mission school, she became proficient in, and renowned for, creating mats, baskets and dilly bags from cabbage palm and pandanus. In 2009 she became involved with Ghost Nets Australia, a movement spearheaded by Indigenous communities to bring attention to the plastic fishing nets killing marine life and making landfall on beaches around Northern Australia. The project eloquently marries artistic and environmental concerns in the creation of beautiful sculptures woven from discarded nets. In 2008 Mavis began experimenting with painting, participating in a workshop at the Wik and Kugu Art Centre run by facilitator Gina Allain. Relatively quickly, she began working in two dimensions with natural ochres and charcoals.
Whilst not prolific – she has completed less than 40 large scale paintings in the last seven years – Mavis’ output has been impressively consistent in terms of quality (almost a quarter of those works have been acquired by public institutions such as Queensland Art Gallery’s Gallery of Modern Art, National Gallery of Australia, and the Art Gallery of NSW) and artistic vision. Despite her success, Mavis’ achievements have been quietly won – her luscious, multi-layered works are still unknown to many.
Mavis depicts her traditional country of Kendall River, but also draws inspiration from other places around Aurukun where she lives. ‘At the moment I love painting the swamps and swampy areas’, Mavis says, in conversation with Gina Allain. ‘If you come to Aurukun you will see lots of swamps with a lot of water lilies, lots of birds and lots of different coloured swamp flowers.’ ‘Swampy Area at Yalgamungken’, from Mavis’ current solo show, depicts the flowers and birds that appear at the end of the dry season at Yalgamungken, where she collects her yellow ochre.
Works begin with a blue acrylic base colour, the blue of the Arafura Sea surrounding Cape York. From there, the painting is made from the landscape. Mavis says: ‘I can make many colours from the yellow, red, black and white [ochres]… I mix the yellow ochre with the black…from the charcoal and I get greens. I mix the red and yellow and I get oranges. If I mix the white clay with the red ochre, I get pink. I cook the yellow ochre to get the red. Depending on the length of time you cook the ochre, and the colour of the yellow that I have collected, it makes different shades of red.’
Her environmental concerns, so powerfully expressed in her ghost-net weavings, are present in Mavis’ paintings too: the fishing nets and oil drums that wash up on the beach at Aurukun are sometimes incorporated into her densely painted compositions. The presence of this unwanted debris is jarring alongside wetlands in full flourish depicted in the paintings, and reminds us that for artists like Mavis to continue their relationship with these bountiful ecosystems, they need protection.