human behavior

Aboriginal art: Kunbry PeiPei

Posted in Art, Australian Culture & Politics, Race & Ethnicity, Sydney by humanb on October 10, 2009

artistA guy I know told me his parents just sold their tourist shop in the Rocks to open an Aboriginal art gallery. I was expecting fine art, but when I passed by the window display, it looked like another tourist trap selling didgeridoos and manufactured dot paintings.

I must have passed it ten times before finally going in on Friday. The shop did sell a good bit of tourist bait, but in the center of the shop stood one table with stacks of ‘authentic’ Aboriginal paintings on canvas, unframed and at reasonable prices.

I’m generally not a fan of Aboriginal art. I don’t care about skill and technique. I care about the feeling of a thing.

Aboriginal paintings tend to leave me cold, which is remarkable given that the history of Aboriginal Australia is so colored by loss.  But then many traditional painters prefer to depict their myths and traditions, rather than express their feelings about the state of things.

I spent a good bit of time at that table in the shop, and chose this:

paintingAcrylic on canvas, 18 x 24, Kunbry PeiPei

The artist is Kunbry PeiPei, born in Areyonga in the Northern Territory and raised near Uluru (Ayers Rock). From the Dictionary of Australian Artists Online:

Kunbry has been painting for a few years. She taught herself to paint and her paintings are about the women’s places at the Rock. Common themes are kuniya and liru (snakes), women’s inma (song and dance), and the Seven Sisters story. She enjoys painting and says the “money is OK” but would still paint even if she worked full-time. When she has canvas, she paints “day and night”. She prefers big paintings because they “look better”, and says that everyone at Ayers Rock paints well: ‘They paint a true story; tourists buy to get true story – really right; itgood to buy paintings because one gets a true story.’

I have no idea what this painting is called. There was no story provided that explained its meaning. There was only a photo of the artist holding the painting to prove its authenticity.

I rarely care what an artist had in mind when she painted a picture. I’ve even ignored the portrait orientation of this painting – preferring the landscape view. We buy art because it speaks to us in the language of our own lives. This painting weaves together my own memories, with my impressions of PeiPei and my presumptions about Aboriginal Australia.

I think this painting is messy. The colors are muddy. There is chaos of feeling there. There is a preoccupation with scorched earth. It makes me feel hot and dry and conflicted. It makes me feel a little hopeless. And a lot angry. No path leads anywhere. It’s all road blocks. I’m just stopping and starting. The world is a cage.

According to another biography, PeiPei married and has five children and ten grandchildren. She has travelled and studied batik technique in Indonesia. She is a strong advocate for women’s rights and has worked to combat domestic violence against women. For all I know this painting may be a celebration of her enduring hope for her people, or an expression of her pride in the persistence of the Aboriginal artistic tradition, or it could just be a map to a watering hole. But it doesn’t really matter how much our understanding might diverge on this point.

We two strangers are connected now. That’s the magic of art.

I hope she gets paid appropriately.


2 Responses

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  1. Berthier said, on June 9, 2011 at 10:57 am

    Looking at this painting of Kunbry Pei Pei, I am just astonished, voiceless. It touches somewhere deep that I cannot explain.
    I guess time goes slowly with such an image during years and years.
    I don’t know who you are but is it for sell?
    Anyway, thank you

    • humanb said, on June 9, 2011 at 7:13 pm

      Bon jour,

      Je suis désolé, but this piece is not for sale at the moment, though I am pleased that it touches you so. It is the only Aboriginal painting I own, and I have never been able to find anything else like it in the tradition. The artist does not seem to have been prolific.

      I can refer you to the gallery where I purchased it. The gallery sells both fine art and machine-made stuff for tourists. This painting I found at the bottom of a stack of unframed canvases they keep on tables in the middle of the gallery. Each painting includes a photo of the artist holding the canvas.

      If you’re interested in bigger pieces, they have paintings from established Aboriginal artists as well, costing up to $10,000.

      Karlangu Aboriginal Art Centre, Sydney

      Good luck. 🙂

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