Life Education Dots not all, folks: NITV’s engrossing vision of Pilbara artist Allery Sandy at work

Dots not all, folks: NITV’s engrossing vision of Pilbara artist Allery Sandy at work

Artist Allery Sandy works out of Yinjaa-Barni Art in Roebourne, home to a collective of artists chiefly from the Millstream Tablelands and Yindjibarndi language group. Photo: NITV
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The first time Allery Sandy saw Ngarluma country from the air was in 1995, on a domestic flight from Karratha to Perth.

Looking out the window she found herself transfixed by the aerial view of her homelands in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

In Marni, NITV’s first “slow TV” offering, Sandy explains that “country pulled me in when I was flying up in the air in an aeroplane”.

“My spirit was touched, and I knew how I wanted to paint country on canvas.”

Part observational documentary, part long-form art experience, Marni is an intimate and meditative 2.5-hour portrait of an artist at work.

Viewers are invited into the Yindjibarndi elder’s no-frills studio in Roebourne (or Yirramagardu in local language) as she paints Ngarndu Marni – a dot-painting of Ngarluma country in bloom after the rain – in meticulous detail from start to finish.

Four cameras (including one overhead) document Sandy ‘in the zone’ throughout her three-week creative process, which has been edited down and intercut with breathtaking aerial shots of the Pilbara landscape.

Marni is part of the NITV’s Always Was, Always Will Be programming schedule, designed to encourage greater understanding of Indigenous Australian perspectives in the lead up to January 26.

‘See the colours within the country’

“Marni is our artwork that goes into a canvas,” narrates Sandy in a scene from the documentary.

“This is our mark,” she says in Yindjibarndi language.

In Marni, the artist recalls growing up and being taught to respect the land so that “the country will look after you”. Photo: Supplied

The word “marni” has deep ties to the artist’s memories of growing up, learning about how to find water or food by reading the markings left behind by animals like bush turkeys, emus and goannas.

“We would be taught about these markings by our fathers and our mothers, and our mayili and gawarli taught us [too], but there was never paper, they drew it in the sand,” says the artist.

Sandy picked up a paintbrush for the first time in February 2006, at the suggestion of TAFE teacher Patricia Floyd — who was teaching a group at the Pilbara Aboriginal Church in Roebourne.

More than a decade on, the aerial vision of the Pilbara had stayed in the back of Sandy’s mind.

An aerial view of river systems near Karratha airport. Photo: ABC

“It took me a year to mix my colours and to actually study the land and see the colours within the country itself,” she tells ABC Arts.

In Marni, Sandy mixes colours in a large foil tray and then uses a sponge (cut out from an old mattress) to fill in the underpainting, before meticulously adding layers of intricate dots using either a matchstick or a kebab skewer.

“This is the style that I have now and it’ll live with me for my lifetime,” the artist told Roebourne’s local radio station Ngaarda Media in a recent interview.

“The variety of colours just amazes me and inspires me to do more, I will continue until I say I’m finished.”

MARNI

"Marni manages to be thrilling and peaceful at the same time." – The Australian 📺 #Marni NITV's first foray into Slow TV, Tonight at 7.30pm | 💻 SBS On Demand after broadcast. #AlwaysWasAlwaysWillBe

Posted by NITV on Wednesday, January 22, 2020

In 2007, Sandy completed her first aerial-perspective painting, realising a 12-year-long dream to express the “beautiful picture” of ngurra – meaning country and home in Ngarluma language – from above.

In 2012, her talent was nationally recognised when her painting Country in Spring was selected as a finalist in the Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards.

Sandy says her dotting of country reflects that specific moment in time as she experiences it.

When the artist painted Ngarndu Marni, it was “a time of the season that changes in the flowering season,” she says, adding that the yellows signify it was golden wattle season, while the purple and the pink represent the mulla mulla wildflower.

Pink mulla mulla wildflowers are one of 12,000 species of wildflowers found in Western Australia. Photo: Supplied

In Marni, Sandy says “in my heart all the time is the aerial painting … It was given to me. It was a mark given to me by God”.

Listening to country

TV Historian Andrew Mercado told ABC Evenings that in today’s busy world, full of scripted reality TV, Slow TV “is reality, but just showing it how it is”. Photo: Supplied

Slow TV has emerged in a time when 91 per cent of Australians report multitasking while watching television, and streaming services are trialling high speed playback.

SBS’s first take on the movement premiered in the summer of 2017, with the three-hour broadcast The Ghan: Australia’s Greatest Train Journey, which drew in half a million viewers. (A 17-hour version was later broadcast on SBS Viceland and streamed live via SBS On Demand and their Facebook page.)

Marni is a departure from slow TV proper, having a narrator (the artist, speaking mostly in Yindjibarndi language), a character focus, a more creative edit, a soundtrack, and a shorter duration of 155 minutes.

Even so, it offers a more meditative viewer experience that mirrors the artist’s own: besides the laugh of a magpie (or mudlark as Sandy calls him) outside her studio at Yinjaa-Barni Art, her three-week-long creative process is solitary and uninterrupted. (She says her cousin Molly fielded all phone calls and told friends and family she was busy.)

Marni is a departure from slow TV proper, having a narrator (the artist, speaking mostly in Yindjibarndi language), a character focus, a more creative edit, a soundtrack, and a shorter duration of 155 minutes.

Even so, it offers a more meditative viewer experience that mirrors the artist’s own: besides the laugh of a magpie (or mudlark as Sandy calls him) outside her studio at Yinjaa-Barni Art, her three-week-long creative process is solitary and uninterrupted. (She says her cousin Molly fielded all phone calls and told friends and family she was busy.)

Apart from painting aerials, the Roebourne-based artist also finds inspiration from bush seeds, medicinal plants and creeks and rivers. Photo: ABC

Speaking to ABC Arts, she says: “When we go out to country [we] sit and listen quietly to the country.”

“No, you can’t hear any motorcars, you can’t hear the TV going — this is a time for you to enjoy the peacefulness.”

The senior Yindjibarndi woman says it is important to explain the story of country and what it can give, to everyone who purchases one of her paintings. Photo: NITV

NITV commissioning editor Cieron Cody says that “through the slow TV form, NITV sought to embrace those special qualities intrinsic to Indigenous experience and let them really breathe.”

“We ask the audience to shed the load of their day and sit with a fascinating elder and artist who shares a deep mesmerising knowledge of country and culture. The boundaries of slow TV collapse naturally with Indigenous artwork and storytelling, to capture a timeless link between people and country.”

Marni is available to stream on SBS On Demand and Ngarndu Marni is on display as part of the Linear exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney until June 30.

-ABC

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