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Risky business: Noŋgirrŋa Marawili & Leo Loomans exhibit vibrant, defiant pieces in Fluent exhibition

Our exhibition Fluent: Noŋgirrŋa Marawili & Leo Loomans was reviewed by Sasha Grishin on February 25 2023 for the Canberra Times.

Fluent: Noŋgirrŋa Marawili & Leo Loomans. ANU Drill Hall Gallery, Kingsley Street, Acton. Closes April 16, Wednesday – Sunday, 10am-5pm.

It is a risky business to bring together in an exhibition two artists unknown to one another, belonging to different cultural traditions, different generations and employing different mediums. The matchmaker in this case is Terence Maloon, the director of the Drill Hall Gallery and curator of this exhibition. He argues that both artists have been collected in the Geoffrey Hassall and Virginia Milson collection and that both artists possess a certain gift for line.

The visual evidence presented in the exhibition does not support a close nexus, nevertheless both artists are interesting creative individuals – Noŋgirrŋa Marawili, the painter, occupying the walls and Loomans, the sculptor, occupying the floorspace. Of course, both artists are also prominent printmakers and it is a missed opportunity that their prints have not been brought together where a meaningful dialogue could have been developed.

Noŋgirrŋa Marawili is a very popular and well-known Yolu artist aged in her 80s. Originally from Darrpirra, north of Cape Shield, she has lived in Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land for a very long time. In Canberra, many people would be aware of her work from the 2017 Indigenous Art Triennial, Defying Empire, and may remember her painting that was awarded the Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2019.

In Yirrkala, she married a leader of the Djapu clan, the late Djutadjuta Mununggurr, who gave her permission to employ his clan’s themes and these emerged in her printmaking. By 2011, she turned predominantly to painting and developed a style that was quite distinct from the prevailing bark painting in the area with its frenetic crosshatching.

Noŋgirrŋa Marawili’s paintings are dramatic, free-flowing and frequently associated with water and landscape elements and do not consciously represent a sacred narrative. She is quoted as saying in 2017: “I paint water designs. The water. As it crashes onto the rocks at high tide. Sending the spray into the sky … And also those things on the rocks that I paint as dots are called dungunanin, the barnacles that dress up the rocks. I just do my own design from the outside. Water. Rock. Rocks that stand strong. And the waves that run and crash upon the rocks. The sea spray. This is the painting I do. You may spy on me and think that I am painting sacred things. This would be a lie.”

Leo Loomans is a New Zealand-born, Sydney-trained sculptor and printmaker who has lived in Canberra for many decades. Much of his sculpture is in welded steel, some reused scrap materials, where shapes are suspended in space and are suggestive of other realities.

The sculptures frequently appear “organic” – they grow in space – articulating adventures in space. Some are on a “human scale”, in other words, the height of a person, and the use of a pedestal forces us into a certain conversation with the work.

A piece such as Outback, 2022, one of his strongest works at the exhibition, invariably engages us on a three-dimensional level and invites us to move around the piece, where from each angle we encounter a new and unexpected perspective. Although stubbornly non-figurative, there is this humanising perspective that begs for us to create a narrative.

Other pieces, including Garden at sunset, 2022, and Parsing, 2021, possess a certain mystical and even spiritual dimension. As viewers, we are invited into a dark world with sombre shapes expressing their identity and claiming their right to exist.

Fluent is an exhibition that contains pieces that are vibrant and defiant: Noŋgirrŋa Marawili is lyrical and dramatic; Loomans is somewhat obsessive and powerfully expressive.

The Drill Hall Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.