Craig Edwards’ gift of art to the ANU, a concise yet spectacular sampling of which is currently on display at the ANU Drill Hall Gallery, is the most valuable donation of its kind yet given to an Australian university. It comprises 120 Western Desert paintings valued at over nine million dollars.
Craig Edwards, who is an alumnus of the ANU, began collecting in the mid-1990s, at a time when the first wave of Western Desert painting had achieved major international recognition. The painters of the first wave were mostly men, whereas the second wave, post-1995, saw the emergence of a cohort of senior women, many of whom had begun painting late in life, when they were already in their late 50s or 60s. The Edwards Collection is notably abundant in works by some of the most impressive of these women artists. Generally speaking, their paintings depict their ancestral country, the stories handed down by their mothers, the traditional sites of food gathering and places where ceremonies are performed.
Naata Nungurrayi, born in 1932, became the matriarch of a great family of Western Desert artists: she was sister to Nancy Ross Nungurrayi and to George Tjungurrayi (both also present in the Edwards collection). By all standards, Naata is one of the most highly regarded Western Desert painters of our time. Her works are given pride of place in State and National collections and in many important exhibitions. She is highly sought-after by private collectors: she was nominated among the top 50 of Australia’s most collectable artists by the Australian Art Collector magazine in 2004. The Edwards Collection – and now ANU – is stupendously rich in her work: 34 paintings in all.
“This is an incredibly rich and enduring resource for the Canberra community and for future generations of students, staff and visitors to ANU”, said Vice-Chancellor, Professor Brian P. Schmidt. “These paintings will make a huge contribution in defining the whole tenor of the University environment. It is a historic and momentous gift.”
Anne Martin, Director of the Tjabal Indigenous Higher Education Centre at the ANU, has added:
“When the artists or their relatives, or people from their communities come to visit ANU and see the respect that is given to these art works, and when they recognise how these works have been made with such reverence and integrity of purpose, and how they have created such a powerful moment within our University space…I think those visitors will feel strengthened by the inspiration to continue and will understand the importance of sharing. This is not just a big donation – it is all about connection and sharing, and it has come from the heart. It is an enrichment to our community and it will impact on students and visitors to the campus for generations ahead”.
“Permeating the entire campus, the works of art Craig Edwards has given to the University will make a representation, a tapestry, a huge narrative of Country. Country is not just about the here and now – about the land of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people. It’s also the lands that our students come from, where ANU academics have gone and walked with the local people, and the ancestral territory of the artists in the Edwards Collection, who demonstrate through their paintings the importance of the knowledge they are willing to share.”