Where is home: Mavis Ngallametta at Queensland Art Gallery

One of the most important questions an Australian can ask is: ‘Whose country am I in?’ For the late Aurukun artist and Putch clan elder Mavis Ngallametta (1944–2019), this question was central to her immense and intricate canvases as she painted her Country, and her adopted son’s Country in western Cape York, alongside people and moments of significance to her personal life. ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’ at the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane surveys her relatively short but important career (she began painting in 2008), offering unique expressions of place from one of the state’s most remote and beautiful regions.

As the adoptive mother to a Wik man, Ngallametta had opportunities to access the dramatic red and white cliffs of Ikalath in north-east Aurukun, an important site for the Wik people and a source for the white ochre in her paintings. Ikalath #10 (2012) features the colourful rock faces abutting the water’s edge. It recalls a specific memory of a time when the artist and her son brought family and friends to collect clay at the bottom of the cliff shown towering above them in Ngallametta’s painting, standing by their small boat pulled to shore.

In his catalogue essay, lead curator Bruce Johnson McLean describes Ngallametta’s approach to landscape as a distinct view, ‘as if looking out from a coast-hugging, low-flying aircraft’ combined with ‘varying degrees of abstraction … to unify macro and micro worlds’. Her works are also distinguished by her often-used bright blue acrylic undercoat, the inspiration for McLean’s choice of wall colours and catalogue design.

Bush Fire at Kutchendoopen (2014) is another grand, nearly three-metre-tall canvas in powerful charcoals and red and orange ochres, picturing the landscape during and after cultural burning practices carried out by Ngallametta’s family. The work, primed with her signature blue, simultaneously pictures the devastation of fires as well as the flourish of flora and fauna that follows. This greenery takes centre stage in her striking wet-season landscape End Swamp #2 (2017), in which the blue priming layer becomes a body of water covered in a network of soft pink, white and yellow flowers.

The title of the exhibition, lifted from the classic 1925 British song (with words and music by Irving King and Hal Swain), is also a nod to Ngallametta’s place between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures. Multilingual artist statements on the wall labels, provided in English, Kugu Uwanh and Wik-Mungkan, elevate a direct dialogue with her kin and community members. In ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’, Ngallametta’s singular perspective, both biographical and monumental, offers an opportunity for all audiences to take stock of the country in which we find ourselves.

Emily Wakeling, Brisbane

‘Mavis Ngallametta: Show Me the Way to Go Home’ brings major works from the late artist’s Ikalath, Kendall River, Pamp/Swamp, Wutan, Yalgamunken, intertidal estuary and bushfire series together for the first time at Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, until 7 February 2021.