At 68, Aboriginal painter and matriarch Regina Pilawuk Wilson has a dream: to make the long journey from Australia’s outback to the U.S., where her works will feature in a landmark exhibition of indigenous women’s contemporary art. “I’d love to come see America and my paintings hanging on the wall, and meet other different people. How many hours from Australia to America?” asked the acclaimed artist and great-grandmother from remote Peppimenarti, southwest of Darwin.
“It is important for us to show our painting in a different part of the world,” Wilson said. “You know these two cultures, white and black, are still learning from each other, so we have to show our work to other people.
“It’s really special to us, for our name to be in America.”
Wilson spoke to Women in the World ahead of the opening this September of Marking the Infinite, a major exhibition set to be one of the most widely-toured shows of Aboriginal art in America.
The collection of the works of nine artists — seven of who are still living and practicing — will grace will some of the country’s most prestigious private galleries and state museums, including the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.; the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno; Miami’s Frost Art Museum at Florida International University; The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Arizona, and The University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology, after debuting at New Orleans’ Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane University.
In addition to Wilson’s paintings, the exhibition includes works by Angelina Pwerle, Carlene West, Gulumbu Yunupingu, Lena Yarinkura, Nonggirrnga Marawil, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Wintjiya Napaltjarri and Yukultji Napangati.
As a child on a “mission” where Aboriginal people were forced to live under church or government control, Wilson recalls painting “landscapes, totems and dreaming.”
She only took up the brush again in her 50s “so the kids — my children and their children — won’t forget about what the old people used to do a long time ago.” Her talent quickly drew critical attention, winning Wilson her first big art award, in the coveted Painting section of the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards.
But her cultural rebirth had begun in 1973, when Wilson and her husband Harold left the mission and helped establish the traditional community of Peppimenarti, now home to a notable group of women artists.
Under her stewardship the women painters (due to premature death rates among Aboriginal men they tend to outlive their male counterparts) have transformed the ancient traditions of weaving, dot body-painting and fish netting into critically lauded, innovative art on fiber and canvas.
Explaining her two outsized works in the forthcoming exhibition (one is 8-feet by 11-feet) Wilson said “one is about mat weaving and the other, fish trap.”
“We call it syaw. My grandfather used to make five or six fish traps to put in the creeks and rivers and billabongs near where he and my grandmother and mother used to live. And different clans would go there.
“But I remember from when I was 12 and the missionaries took us back to the mission. We lost everything: our culture and what our ancestors used to do a long time ago.
“At the mission we weren’t allowed to talk our own language or sing Corroboree and dance so two old people said ‘enough is enough.’
“They said to my husband: ‘Let’s go back to the homeland and practice our own culture. Let’s trap our fish.'”
“Everybody moved from the mission and started Peppimenarti, practising their culture and looking after their own totems. The old ladies started teaching us again, doing dilly bags, fishnets and baskets. My mother and my grandfather used to make big fishnets made out of sand-palm, rolling it on a leg to make long strings.”
As the senior artist leading her peers at the Durrmu Aboriginal Art Corporation, Wilson oversees a team of experienced and up-and-coming artists.
“The women of Peppimenarti are traditionally weavers and have transposed their knowledge of fiber and textiles onto the canvas,” Durrmu’s website explains.
“The results are paintings of intricate, abstract mark-making; some clearly representing syaw and wupun (basket weaving) through their layered textures, whilst others resemble fine tapestries.”
Dennis Scholl is a Miami art collector and philanthropist who has traveled extensively to Australia to meet with Aboriginal artists. He dreamed up Marking the Infinite and commissioned the works in collaboration with U.S.-based Australian curator Henry Skerritt.
Scholl also enlisted the support of the Australian Embassy in Washington via the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
“Our intention working with the Australian Embassy is to bring some of the women to the United States,” Scholl told Women in the World, noting that the trip could also give some of the artists potential opportunities to enjoy their own private shows outside the group exhibition.
“Some of them really want to come and we are working very hard to try to make that happen.”
Contemporary Aboriginal Australian women’s painting emerged later than the men’s practice, attracting global attention especially from the 1990s. “Women now are permitted to paint, which is a very significant cultural step,” said Scholl. “And because many of them began to paint later they were more exposed to a broader range of global cultures.
“I see a lot of freedom in their painting and a willingness to experiment. That’s what got us most excited alongside the fact that they are working across all media from bark to ceremonial poles and even video.”
In her catalogue essay for Marking the Infinite, academic Hetti Perkins illustrates the importance work such as Wilson’s has to her community. “While cultural activity has always been central to the secular and sacred lives of women, art making in recent decades has offered a key means for women to also maintain their social and economic independence. Wilson’s paintings of syaw epitomize the artist’s innovation in interpreting the woven form, as well as employing art as a means to support community initiative.”
As for Wilson, she said she is very happy with her contribution. “It took a long time and I’m really proud that I’ve done two big paintings for Dennis for the exhibition,” she said. “Also, my family are really proud that my two big paintings are going to travel everywhere overseas.”
The artist traveled once as far as New Caledonia for an art festival, and has been to cultural events in the Australian capitals, but laughs when she contemplates the prospect of a marathon trip to the United States. If she can find the money for the plane fares she will bring some members of her family along too. “It’s really hard and it’s a long way but I would like to come,” she said with a laugh, adding that she would prefer to journey with one of her sons and one of her daughters “so I can be comfortable.”
“You know, I don’t like traveling.”
Skerritt is optimistic Wilson’s dream will be realized: “There are plenty of things still in the air, but the ducks seem to be lining up.”