Author/Collector Jacquie McPhee in Darwin this year admiring Tiwi dancers at the opening of thier annual exhibition

Jeremy Eccles | 21.12.17

Author: Jeremy Eccles
News source: Review

If you're looking for that last minute Christmas present to grace your loved ones' coffee tables for 2018, look no further than Jacquie McPhee's self-published book about her collection under the title, 'the greatest passion of all'. It's full of sumptuous photos of the 200 odd artworks she's accumulated, shots of how they're hung in her home – and it helps that she's an Interior Designer by trade – and shots of herself with both artists and paintings.

And it's a fascinating collection. For Jacquie may lack a real interest in the meaning of Indigenous art but she loves stories about the artists and she prioritises works that suit her visual taste. So, many works are by women, much is pastel, and even canvases by men like Tommy Mitchell and Jimmy Baker have the artists revealing their inner feminine.

McPhee herself, in an introduction, puts her interest in the Indigenous down to hearing of Tasmanian massacres when she was 7, leading to a 'calling' to become a missionary! Fortunately, she resisted, went on to teach in PNG and collect artefacts there, then move to Perth to design homes for the rich – Warren Anderson, Kerry Stokes, etc – and to buy and sell both homes and antiques. Every time she couldn't afford the home of her dreams, she had enough of the latter to sell.

But Aboriginal art seems to have stuck. She had to wait two and a half years before one property sold, and decided early on that the proceeds would go into the art. So she had plenty of time to gen up on the artists that she liked and how much their work ought to cost. When funds were available, it allowed her to rush commercial show openings to get her pick; few purchases are credited to art centres. Photos of her home with its own private gallery show that little wall-space is uncovered. Her three metre Esther Giles from 2010, for instance, appears to be squeezed in between two bookcases. In fact, they were built around the all-important canvas. It's one of McPhee's “top ten favourite paintings”, she tells us in a commentary that accompanies about a tenth of the artworks.

I learnt, as a result, that her favourite Daniel Walbidi – of four in the book – is the one I'd be least tempted to buy. His uncharacteristic use of red in the 2006 work suggests he should stick to his amazing blues, greens and golds. And her three Tiger Palpatjas include two earlier works leading up to the absolutely stunning 'Wanampi Tjukurpa' (2008), which, quite rightly, appears three times in the book, two with Tiger and one with Jacquie.

Other stand-out works are by Joan Stokes and Angelina George from Ngukurr, Lajamanu's Lorna Fencer, Alma Webou from Bidyadanga and Billy Benn from the Alice. It could be Benn's best ever work. And Angelina George's works are accompanied by an assessment from Nicolas Rothwell that she should be “up there with the big boys – Streeton, Drysdale and Nolan” as a landscape painter. High praise indeed from The Australian's specialist writer.

McPhee's other triumph is to buy convincing work by artists I've never heard of. Names that I noted include Martha Proddy from Balgo, Pungkai from Ceduna, who gets the cover, Maureen Hudson who's Warlpiri and Niningka Lewis from Maruku who is able to make real art with hot wires on a walka board. I'm grateful for the introduction – thanks Jacquie.

Her book is probably only to be found in commercial art galleries – who have every reason to repay her custom over the years. It's only failing is not to link the alphabetical list of artists which forms an index at the back to the pages where their art may be found. Second edition???

Then an absolutely win-win stocking filler would be the CD, 'I am here, now', aka Ngarukuruwala from Undercover Music. This is a delightful blend of archival recordings from the Tiwi Islands – love songs, mourning songs, lullabies, etc, which have been winkled out of the AIATSIS collection and go back in time to one of the eleven 1912 recordings they hold made by pioneering anthropologist, Baldwin Spencer. Later recordings are by Helen Groger-Wurm, Sandra Holmes and Charles Mountford.

These have then been played to current members of the Strong Women's singing group, who have sometimes added their responses. And, finally, a talented group of Sydney musicians lead by horn-player Genevieve Campbell have improvised around and counterpointed the songs or chants with everything from a bluesy harmonica to a grumbling double-bass, via a brass trio or Michelle Kelly's bright violin to accompany a lullaby that, weirdly, encourages a child to go to sleep reassured that a lizard or a flea will close his/her eyes! The reassurance comes in an outrageous Tiwi word just 36 letters long!

Some dodgy Hawaiian sounds have crept in via the Strong Women. But that bluesy mourning song was the highlight for me – a soul in limbo, grieving for former connections to the living or future ones to the spirits of the dead.

And I note that the album was featured on the ABC Radio National's 'Daily Planet' program earlier this year. Now sadly killed in the RN cuts. Where would these tracks get played on the ABC today?


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The Study at Jacquie McPhee's home in Perth, crowded with her art, especially a 3 mtr. Walangkura Napanangka behind her desk


A triumphant Leonie Tipiloura on the cover of 'Ngiya awungarra - I am here, now' performing as Yinjula, the old woman with the Tiwi Strong Women's Group.


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