The World of Ngukurr

Koskela is excited to be working with Ngukurr Arts on the Yugul Mangi Group Show. This is the first time we’ve collaborated with Ngukurr, so we wanted to give you an insight into the Aboriginal community, it's art centre and talented artists. Keep reading for an appreciation of this amazing place!

Chapter 1. Introduction to Ngukurr

Ngukurr is located off the banks of the Roper River in South East Arnhem Land. The community is made up of many clans and language groups, including Ngalakgan, Alawa, Mangarrayi, Ngandi, Marra, Wandarrang, Nunggubuyu, Ritharrngu-Wagilak and Rembarrnga, together they are known as Yugul Mangi.

Ngukurr is under the Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) which is managed by the Yugul Mangi Rangers. When you come to Ngukurr, you’re entering Aboriginal land, which means in order to visit, you must apply for a permit. To help broaden your perspectives of the land and its people, we are going to introduce you to two key members of the Yugul Mangi Rangers: Clarry Rogers and Cherry Daniels.

Clarry Rogers is the Senior Ranger of the Yugul Mangi Rangers, a group of 20 men and women from several different Aboriginal groups who all help each other in caring for the 20,000 square kilometres of lands around Ngukurr. He leads the rangers in their efforts to manage the preservation of waterways, lands and native fauna. 

Cherry Daniels is a retired member of the Yugul Mangi Rangers, she founded the rangers in 2002 with a group of women, which has evolved into what it is today. She was born and raised in Ngukurr, and from a child was taught the traditional ways of her Ngandi language group.

One of her most salient recollections as a child, was swimming among the water lilies in billabongs, collecting bush food and medicine. Cherry refers to billabongs as ‘supermarkets’ filled with foods, medicines and fond memories. Although these traditional practices were discouraged at the time by the missionaries, the leaders of her group were strong and determined to practice their traditional customs and maintain their sense of cultural identity. 

From what started as a Christian missionary, to what has become independent Aboriginal land, Ngukurr is home to 973 people with seven different language groups (all taught at the language centre). The citizens of Ngukurr are proud of their heritage and are tech savvy. This has resulted in several incredible videos, which they have beautifully put together. Check out one of our favourites below!

Welkam la Ngukurr – Welcome to Ngukurr from Ngukurr Story Project on Vimeo.

Chapter 2. Introduction to Ngukurr Arts

Ngukurr Arts has been operating since 1988 and is home to many renowned artists past and present. Celebrated for their artistic expression and adventurous outlook on art, grounded in storytelling. We excited to introduce some of them to you.

Clockwise from top left:

Norman Wilfred

A running theme amongst the artists of Ngukurr, is the heritage of their practice, something that is passed down to them from family members. Norman was taught how to paint by his father, using paper bark as a surface. Norman was born in Mountain Valley but grew up in Ngukurr. When he was 16, Norman walked to Walker River and created a base there while he and his father searched for their country. After a couple of days, they found Ngilibitji. They stopped there, built a paperbark house and lived on bush food and bush medicine. It was here that his passion and skills for painting were fostered and developed by his father. They began to develop a reputation, and people would fly in from Katherine to buy their paintings. Norman and his father lived in the bush through the wet season. However, in his early 20s, Norman returned to Ngukurr and has been painting on and off ever since, with the knowledge he learnt from his father.

Gwenneth Blitner

Gwenneth has lived in Ngukurr her whole life. She was born in the old Roper River Mission and was educated at the bush school. Painting is something that was passed down through her family, she learnt from her brothers Glen and Donald Blitner. Gwenneth practices her work every day, her enjoyment of this practice, perhaps her most vibrant expression, is painted across her face. Through her use of bright, bold strokes, Gwenneth paints the landscape of Ngukurr through her own eyes, full of colour and vibrance. Gwenneth often closes her eyes before she begins a painting, reflecting fully on her recollection of place before putting paint to paper. She says, “I like to think about this place and paint more…painting makes me happy."

Jill Daniels

Jill lives with her family in Ngukurr, she discovered her love for painting in 2003, and has been painting ever since. Like Gwenneth, her passion for painting runs in the family. Her sister, Amy Johnson is a well-known artist in Ngukurr, and across Australia. Jill enjoys using bold bright colours, with themes of oceans and sea animals as an undercurrent across her works.

Karen Rogers

Karen Rogers lives with her family in Ngukurr. She is a curious artist interested in developing her skills across painting, screen-printing and natural dyeing. Her curiosity is fuelled through her studies at the Bachelor Institute. Karen’s art has developed enormously in the time that she has been studying at Bachelor, she believes that it’s a wonderful way to progress your practice and encourages other Ngukurr artists to study there. Karen’s curiosity for creative outlets has fostered her reputation as the resident screen printer of Ngukurr. She creates and prints all of her own designs, using stencils and rollers. But her creations don’t stop there. She also dapples in eco dyeing, harnessing the natural colours from local bushes and plants.

Chapter 3. Inspiration behind the art   

The Yugul Mangi Group Show features the spectacular works of Jill Daniels, Gwenneth Blitner, Norman Wilfred, Karen Rogers and Rebecca Joshua and captures the diversity and unique history of the Ngukurr community. Each artist explores life on country and experiments with colour, vibrancy and landscape. 

Gwenneth Blitner 

Gwenneth is inspired by the natural beauty around her. Different seasons and the flowers that bloom in them and the way the seasons swell and strain the billabong banks. But, perhaps most importantly, she reflects the way these things make her feel. The vibrancy of colour is a true reflection of the joy Gwenneth experiences while painting, and the depiction of beauty she sees around her. 

This vibrant piece seen above by Gwenneth Blitner gives insight into the landscape of Ngukurr during the wet season (Mijal). It depicts a lot of water, and the buds of new life born from the constant rains. It is a nostalgic place, a place where Gwenneth used to go camping with her aunty.

Gwenneth is particularly fascinated by the billabong on Marra country, and how its banks are a bounty of bush medicine and foods. The billabong was also a deeply a nostalgic place that she would visit with her family. Gwenneth’s art is a vibrant reflection of nostalgia and love for her natural surroundings.

Jill Daniels

Jill Daniels works are heavily influenced by the agriculture and farmland around Ngukurr. They depict daily life on farmlands with the stockmen venturing out to bush to look for wandering cattle to take back to the yards, as well as the stockgirls who look after the cattle in the yards. It shows the gentle nature of an average day of the stockgirls, ranging from riding horses, sipping tea and leading the cattle to waterholes and troughs. It is a gentle and warm depiction of the earthy landscape around Ngukurr. 

Norman Wilfred

His work, Stone Spear, tells a story of history, place and connection between the stone and its country of origin, Ngilibitji. They are special stones which were used in bush before knives, axes and guns to hunt anything from kangaroos to turtles. The rocks can be found in the ground of water banks, their edges reflecting light onto the waters surface, luring people with their beauty. However, beautiful as they are, you can’t just walk to them, as they’re too sharp and would cut your feet. They are called gwarda. 

Karen Rogers and Rebecca Joshua are also heavily inspired by the natural land around them tied to nostalgic stories from childhood. Joshua’s Barramundies are more than a physical reflection of the barramundi in Roper River, but a recollection of fishing as a family and enjoying eating as a child and now with friends.

As you have probably gathered, painting and creating is close to the hearts of the Ngukurr artists. Now is a critical time for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, as commercial operations and townships have shut down for protection against COVID-19. Sales of works from the Yugul Mangi Group Show will go back to the artists and the community, which will help to support them in these unprecedented times.

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