We are honoured to present this exhibition of paintings by the late Peter Newry of Waringarri Aboriginal Arts.
The late Peter Newry described his paintings to Waringarri Aboriginal Arts centre manager, Cathy Cummins, as history paintings. History as a discipline comprises time, place and a narrative, and Newry’s paintings certainly meet those criteria. But Newry’s use of the word ‘history’ was also shrewd, as it plays to the cultural weight bestowed on the discipline History by Western cultures. To each nation, history is a cherished notion, binding its citizens within a continuum to a place and cultural story. History is, ultimately, a nation’s identity.
By evoking the classification ‘history’, Newry inserted his paintings not just into the discourse of art, but also into Australia’s history, thereby making them harder to ignore. Where the Western discipline of history typically busies itself with significant nation-forming events, Newry’s history paintings follow three broader, intertwined strands: the personal (locating himself within his Aboriginal heritage and lived experiences); the Australian post-contact narrative; and the Ngarrangarni (Dreaming) of his Country. His paintings were a vehicle for examining the passage of time in relation to his own memories, historical events passed down by his family, and the omnipitent, timeless presence of his spiritual beliefs that anchor him to his Country.
Jarnem tells the story of his homeland, where there is a large hill and water. It was a theme he returned to many times, depicting the changes to the country through the seasons. His Goorladoorboo - Alligator Creek paintings document what Newry referred to as a “really cruel story. My feelings were truly hurt when I heard this story about my grandfather”. Newry’s grandfather was witness to a mass murder of his people by poisoning; his grandfather only survived because he didn’t eat the meat that was left at Alligator Creek. The certificates state: “He walked away from that place back to the Keep River. Evidence of the dead is shown at the top of the image with Newry’s grandfather's footsteps leading back to the Keep River flowing along the lower edge of the image.” These works are simultaneously a personal and emotional recording of a family tragedy, and the careful documentation of a historical crime that has contributed to the shaping of Australia’s darker national history.
The Jinamoom paintings are his memories of walking through Keep River country with his father, learning about how the Country came into being. Where he uses three lines, the central line is the river and the two outer lines represent the hills. Warridja is the ancestral story of women bathing naked in a creek who were frightened to death by some young boys who tried to sneak up on them and swim through their legs. The black rocks represent where the women died of fright.
Lizard Billabong is another ancestral story about a lizard that sat to watch the sun cross the sky; he made the billabong watching the sun. On either side of the billabong are hills. Moorlem, Gamanggarr-ngarim and Lizard Billabong offers a slightly different perspective on this country. It describes a place between Binjin and Jarnem in Keep River country. On the left is a ridge with two billabongs, Moorlem and Gamanggarr-ngarim. On the right is another ridge with Lizard billabong and another small billabong with no name.
Stylistically, the defining characteristic of Newry’s work is an absolute economy of form. Rather than load his paintings with symbolic details, Newry instead says all he needs to in the elegant drawing of just a few lines and ragged dots. It is enough to suggest images of the vast Kimberly with its rugged, sinous mountain ranges and majestic land formations. Everything Newry needed to say about his histories are encapsulated in those few expressive gestures on expanses of saturated, textured pigment.
This sense of space in Newry’s canvases allows the viewer to also bring their own emotional responses and memories to the interpretation of his work. We begin to see that the great dignity and serenity in Newry’s paintings can only have come from a lifetime of patiently observing the nature of time and place.
In closing, it is pertinent to quote a section from a current review of the major Mondrian exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, as the parallels between the two men – although they were born nearly 70 years apart – are startling:
“Before you start to think about Mondrian’s paintings,” says the Dutch artist’s biographer Hans Janssen, of the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, “you have to realise that he was born, in 1872, by candlelight in Amersfoort, a backward, economically undeveloped town in Utrecht. And he died, aged 71, beneath fluorescent lights, on the 3th6 [sic] floor of a skyscraper in New York. That’s an enormous leap, from the 19th into the 20th Century – and I think it’s very telling for the artist.”
While Newry never lived abroad, he witnessed equally enormous social and cultural changes as well as technological innovations throughout his life which had a profound influence on his art. If anything, it was these changes that compelled him to record his history in paintings. Newry knew that his paintings of his past and present would be important for us all well into the future.
 Alistair Sooke, Mondrian: The joy of being square, BBC Culture, http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170710-mondrian-the-joy-of-being-square