Postcards from Marlene

Artist Marlene Rubuntja

After COVID-19 hit Australian shores, a small show I was putting on at the Art Gallery of New South Wales titled Joy was postponed. Not a massive deal for me – it just gave me a few more months up my sleeve.

Now, the point of Joy for me was to share with the rest of the world some of the artworks and practices that have been around for a long time but that aren’t as highly esteemed as major paintings and sculptures. They are the sort of works I grew up with. The sort of works that I have in my home. The sort of works that made me fall in love with Aboriginal artists. It all started with small wooden sculptures of animals that were around the houses of my relatives. We could play with these, but not the mimi sculptures, yidaki’s and paintings.

This sense of familiarity of home and play – the objects’ ‘everydayness’ – meant we did not appreciate them for their craftsmanship, but rather because they’d become a part of our lives. The art objects might be ruined in a lifetime because of nieces and nephews playing with them, or a creation might die an unfortunate death because of a tantrum or accident. Those pieces were the ones we used, rather than just admired. I am by no means encouraging the abuse of art! They were just always ‘toys’ to me.

One of the artists that will be featured in Joy is the unforgettable Marlene Rubuntja. Another one of my love stories…

Marlene Rubuntja

Marlene Rubuntja Yellow landscape 2020. Collection of the artist. Courtesy the artist and Yarrenyty Arltere Artists. © Marlene Rubuntja

I fell in love with Mparntwe (Alice Springs) – Marlene’s home – around six years ago. I was there for work with Desart, the Association of Central Australian Aboriginal Arts and Crafts Centres. I have been going to Mparntwe annually ever since, to train art centre workers and to catch up with art centres and artists and see what’s been going on and what’s on the horizon for them. It’s like an annual family gathering where artists from across the desert get together and share what’s news.

This is where I met Marlene. She had been in the public eye for a few years for making stunning soft sculptures that spoke of serious issues such as land rights and mental health, but also of pure JOY, of colourful birds and people.

After seeing this video on the Yarrenyty Arltere Artists Instagram of Marlene getting proactive with COVID-19 awareness, I asked her what she was up to and if she would like to send us a few videos to let people know what it’s like in Mparntwe.

In the two videos she made, you receive a tour of the art centre where she works and a little peek into her practice. Think of them as postcards from Marlene. Your own personal artist’s tour and talk.

I hope you enjoy them and see them as glimpses into the lives of artists in Mparntwe during COVID-19. It was hard to watch the videos and see my friend and not know when I will see her in person again, but also awesome to see familiar sites and places while having a look at some of the works she has been making.

When you meet the artists and see the Country they live in and come from, their work makes complete sense. With that comes a deepened sense of your connection with the art when you are far away from where it was made…

This is a glimpse into the relationship that Marlene and I forged as colleagues and friends. I miss her and I miss Mparntwe. I also hope you take up her invitation, when restrictions lift, to go there, see the artists, their art centres, towns and works. I would take some cake or biscuits too, as I am sure she would like to have a cup of tea with you!