International Women’s Day 2023
This International Women’s day at the Drill Hall Gallery we are celebrating the work and long dedicated careers of three outstanding women painters: Noŋgirrŋa Marawili, Elisabeth Cummings and Aida Tomescu. Noŋgirrŋa Marawili’s works are displayed in our current exhibition Fluent: Noŋgirrŋa Marawili & Leo Loomans; works from the ANU Art Collection by Elisabeth Cummings and Aida Tomescu are on special display at the front of the gallery.
Image: Installation view of Fluent: Noŋgirrŋa Marawili & Leo Loomans, photographed by David Paterson.
Noŋgirrŋa Marawili (c1939 – ) is a revered Yolŋu elder of the Madarpa clan, from far north-east Arnhem Land. She paints at Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre, Yirrkala, among a group of respected matriarchs, creating renown through their innovative bark paintings. Curator Cara Pinchbeck has written:
“Marawili paints with courage and conviction. Her commanding works are imbued with an immense knowledge of country rendered with passion. Hers is not an art of precision and exactitude, but one of verve and vigour. Noŋgirrŋa is interested in the atmospheric effects created as country is brought to life through the movement of wind, water or unseen forces. She is not simply documenting sites of importance, she is capturing the dynamism of a living landscape, as the sentience of country collides with her lived experience.”
Noŋgirrŋa Marawili is an internationally acknowledged painter and has won numerous prizes including: the Bark Painting Award at the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards in both 2015 and 2019, and the Roberts Family Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Prize as part of the Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney in 2019. In 2018 the Art Gallery of New South Wales presented a major solo exhibition From my Heart and Mind by Noŋgirrŋa Marawili, a significant exhibition with accompanying publication by Cara Pinchbeck.
Speaking of her own work, Noŋgirrŋa relates her painting to her direct experience and connection to Country:
“This Yirritja painting I’m doing is coming from the heart and mind. But it’s not the sacred Madarrpa painting. It’s just an ordinary fire, tongues of fire, fire burning backwards. A painting with no story, only flames… This is just my thinking. No one told me to do this pattern. I did this on my own. When the elders see it, they will let me know what they think.” 
“I paint water designs – the water as it splashes onto the rocks at high tide…Water.Rock. Rocks which stand strong, and the waves which run and crash upon the rock. The sea spray. That is the painting I do…But I know the sacred designs.” 
Works by Noŋgirrŋa Marawili are on show in the exhibition FLUENT: Noŋgirrŋa Marawili & Leo Loomans, on at the ANU Drill Hall Gallery until April 16.
Pinchbeck, Cara, Djambawa Mariwili, Kade McDonald, and Henry F. Skerritt, eds. Nongirrna Marawili: From My Heart and Mind. Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2018, p 11.
Pinchbeck, Cara, Djambawa Mariwili, Kade McDonald, and Henry F. Skerritt, eds. Nongirrna Marawili: From My Heart and Mind. Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2018, p 19.
Pinchbeck, Cara, Djambawa Mariwili, Kade McDonald, and Henry F. Skerritt, eds. Nongirrna Marawili: From My Heart and Mind. Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2018, p 21.
“The layered and scarred surfaces of Elisabeth Cummings’s paintings create a sense of space that pulses with time as well as movement. Viewer perceptions react to the unpredictably rough and gouged skins of her paintings in direct correlation with the remembered experiences of the ungainly textures of the Australian bush. Her vibrant works reveal the exquisite beauty of the bush’s unkempt structures and rugged exterior, emerging surely from the intimacy of an unconditional love affair with the environments she paints in.” Anne-Marie Jean
“Elisabeth Cummings slows the pace. Her smaller paintings submerge the eye in dense composition and rich assured colour, they function completely as individual entities but also contribute to the frenetic whole. Above all they beckon concentration, packed with pigment, playful erratic line and a highly intimate sense of interior logic that has been honed over decades.” Anna Johnson
Born in Brisbane Queensland in 1934, Elisabeth Cummings was the first born child, followed by her younger brother and sister. Her father Robert Percy Cummings was an architect and teacher who founded the architectural department at the University of Queensland. Her mother Mavis was a teacher before she married.
Elisabeth’s parents were active participants in the Brisbane art scene; Robert Percy was a trustee at the Queensland Art Gallery in the 1950’s. During the war years, the family welcomed many visitors from North America (the Cummings held open house on Sunday evenings for American Soldiers headquartered in Brisbane), including numerous American artists and architects and the well known businessman, collector and philanthropist Edgar Kaufmann. Australian artists were also welcomed guests and Donald Friend, Roy Dalgarno, David Strachan, Margaret Olley, Len and Kath Shillam were regularly in attendance. Their friendship with Brian and Margery Johnstone of Johnstone Gallery, Brisbane in the 1950’s through the 70’s contributed to the steady flow of artistic visitors.
During her last year at high school Elisabeth and her sister Charlotte lived with close family friends while their parents were on sabbatical in Europe. Having already participated in Vida Lahey’s art classes as a child (along with her brother and sister) Elisabeth began private tuition with Margaret Cilento, an artist who had lived and studied abroad. Aware of Elisabeth’s talents she encouraged her to pursue further studies at East Sydney Technical College (National Art School) and by the age of 18 Elisabeth decided to move to Sydney. Although somewhat reluctant, her parents agreed to the idea and organised accommodation in Mosman with relatives. It was a wonderful, large household with an aunt, an uncle, cousins and many adopted family members.
And so began five years of study under the tutelage of many recognizable names in Australian art today: Ralph Balson, Lyndon Dadswell, Godfrey Miller, Frank Hinder, Wallace Thornton, Dorothy Thornhill and Douglas Dundas (head of the school). This was an exciting time to be involved in the visual arts in Australia. New ideas of contemporary art were entering the teaching at ESTC.
Experimentation was encouraged, and under the direction of Frank Hinder the curriculum expanded to include theatre, set and costume design. In 1958, as recipient of the New South Wales Travelling Art Scholarship followed by the Dyason Bequest, Elisabeth Cummings set sail for Europe, living and studying in Italy and France for just over 10 years. During this time Cummings enjoyed regular sojourns throughout Europe to some of the world’s greatest museums and artist’s studios. Travelling in Italy, she concentrated on works by the great Renaissance artists and contemporary Italian painters, paying particular attention to Giorgio Morandi. She travelled to Switzerland, Spain, Germany and England. The 1960’s were a powerhouse for the visual arts in Europe and North America, and exhibitions regularly traversed the continent. In Paris, she immersed herself in the work of Bonnard, Vuillard, Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse and Braque, all artists who would continue to inform, invigorate and influence her work.
From 1963 onwards, Cummings was exhibiting in Sydney at Darlinghurst Gallery and in Brisbane at Johnstone Gallery and Design Arts Centre. She returned permanently to Australia in 1968. In 1969, she began to teach part time at ESTC, and remained there until 2001; in addition to teaching at various other art colleges between 1975-1987.
A love of the Australian bush and an extremely close friendship with sculptor/ceramicist Barbara Romalis and her husband Nick Romalis resulted in an unprecedented act of generosity when they gifted 10 hectares of native bushland in Wedderburn, NSW, to Elisabeth Cummings. Later, joined by Roy Jackson, Joan Brassil, Fred Braat and John Peart, this group of artists established individual studios on the property and agreed to maintain its native state in perpetuity. More than 40 years later Cummings continues to live and work on the Wedderburn property, which now has an additional 15 hectares [purchased in the 1980’s with the support of the Romalises]. This secluded bushland continues to inspire her imagery and practice.
An avid and repeat visitor to remote areas of Australia, Cummings has been traversing the country since the 1980’s. She has spent regular periods of time in the Flinders Ranges, visiting Arkaroola, the Gammon Ranges and their surrounds. Her painting excursions have encompassed Lake Mungo, The Kimberleys, Elcho Island [as an invited guest of the Indigenous community], Menindee, West MacDonnell Ranges, Fowlers Gap, the Monaro and Currumbin in Queensland. Her painting journeys are not limited to Australia. In 2014 she completed a residency in Waiheke, New Zealand; in 2015 at The Nock Art Foundation in Hong Kong, and in 2016 residencies in Queenstown, New Zealand and Moonee Beach, Coffs Harbour. These residencies all resulted in paintings for exhibitions in commercial and public galleries. On all of her expeditions, Cummings carries a selection of art materials enabling her to paint ‘en plein air’ studies. These are most often made in graphite, gouache and watercolour, which are quick to dry, and easily portable. Her Wedderburn studio then becomes the place where her memories and feelings are translated into oil paintings.
Sourced from the catalogue for Elisabeth Cummings: Interior landscapes, ANU Drill Hall Gallery, 2017.
Elisabeth Cummings painting After P de F 1994 [After ‘The Baptism of Christ’ by Piero della Francesca] from the ANU Art Collection is currently on display at the Drill Hall Gallery.
Elisabeth CUMMINGS: born meeanjin/Brisbane, Queensland, 1934
“Aida Tomescu’s art is paradoxical. Like blooms that appear quite startlingly before winter’s end, only to be ravaged by frost and wind and then renewed when the season of their being arrives, Tomescu’s works are in a constant state of becoming. Over the years she has developed her own distinctive, continually evolving visual language, working from one group or ensemble of works to the next. Each series, irrespective of media, is like a new beginning; informed by previous experience and yet restlessly, determinedly eschewing the easy, known path in search of new life…
… There is a feeling in the work of moving in parallel with nature, with the elements of fire, water, earth and air, with the sensations of heat and cold, with darkness and luminosity, with the passions and meditative calm of the soul. The works have within them the energies of the artist and her journeys from openness to resolution in the unfolding of a particular work and from one work to the other. Yet once a body of works is completed and goes out into the world, the cycle unfolds again as the work attains its independent existence, itself open to multiple interpretations. Ultimately what Tomescu’s art … has shown us is that it can never be pinned down to one thing, that it is about open-ended associations, moving between the tangible and the intangible. It is perhaps in giving up the need for tangible certainties in favour of more subtle intimations that this fluid state of becoming is revealed.” (Deborah Hart, excerpts from Aida Tomescu: States of Becoming exhibition catalogue, Drill Hall Gallery, 2012.)
One of Australia’s foremost abstract painters, Aida Tomescu’s career spans over four decades, always developing and enlarging the themes and content of her work. Born in Bucharest, Romania in 1955, she has lived and worked in Australia since 1980. She completed a Diploma of Art (Painting) at the Institute of Fine Arts, Bucharest in 1977 and a Post Graduate Diploma of Art at the City Art Institute, Sydney in 1983.
‘Sometimes we expect a painting to explain too much, we expect it to conclude.’
Tomescu remarks that as an artist, ‘you want it to be alive, to stay open, until it reaches a point where nothing feels arbitrary anymore.’
‘A painting reaches its natural state, and yet this state has no fixed end. By ending a painting, we mean the point at which there is a clear resolve and the unity of the work is visible. The relationships developed between all the elements in the painting are ongoing, the structure is live, yet there is resolution.’
‘Forms that have existed and are disposed of still reverberate and leave their mark within the structure of the work. Sometimes they are disposed of discretely and they become transitions; otherwise, their presence reverberates, hidden in the underlayers, building form.’
Tomescu goes on to explain that the structure of her paintings often transcends the particularities of their initial conception: ‘The form evolves through an intricate chain of transitions. The painting grows from the original intentions and conception and acquires a complex life of its own. The mysteries of the process dissolves many of my intentions, and generally, it always leads to somewhere more interesting, a unity altogether more stimulating.’
Read a further interview with the artist and Terence Maloon (https://aidatomescu.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/1.-maloon-terence-aida-tomescu-milky-way-interview-2012.pdf). See more of her work at https://aidatomescu.com/
Two works by Aida Tomescu from the ANU Art Collection are currently on show in the Riverbend Room at the Drill Hall Gallery.
Aida TOMESCU: born Bucharest, Romania 1955, arrived Australia 1980.
Green to grey 1991, oil on canvas
Poarta unu 1989, oil, enamel, and collage on canvas.
Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by the artist in memory of her mother Ecaterina Tassa, 2010. ANU Art Collection.