Name: Wally Caruana
Wally Caruana - Being a mentor on the project [ORAL HISTORY]
Synopsis: Wally Caruana speaks about becoming involved in the Canning Stock Route Project, his favourite painting, and the project's biggest challenges. He talks about his role in the project as a mentor and how it is important to give back to communities. Wally also discusses the process of choosing works for the exhibition, and the way everybody brings their own perspective and responsibility to their families and community.
Language spoken: English
Catalogue number: CSROH_199_Wally_Caruana
Interviewed By: Clint Dixon
Location Recorded: Old Masonic Hall, Nedlands
Cultural Protocols: Public Access - Verbal Consent
Full transcript: Clint Dixon: So this the second curators meeting?
Wally Caruana: That’s right yeah. And the one we had the middle of last year, which we actually held at the Western Australian Museum stores, which is where the paintings are being kept. But this one’s … this one’s actually been much better because we had a wonderful space to work in, which meant that we could actually lay out the exhibition on the floor of the theatre and through a number of little strategies we’re actually able to logically lay it out – so everyone working on the project, especially the curators, can see how all the pictures fit in together, how they relate to each other. So we started off by actually drawing a map, well Terry did, a map of the Canning Stock Route on a piece of butcher’s paper which runs the whole length of the theatre, and on that we marked out each of the wells, starting from one to fifty-one. And the next the next thing we did was actually place, along that piece of paper next to each of the wells which it related to, all of the documentation, or a list of the documentation that we already had for each place. And on the other side we started putting little thumbnail photographs of all the pictures that relate to each well, having done that we then started to … well, early in the week, we started bringing out the paintings themselves and lining them up either side of that map.
So we started off with what 180 or 170 paintings, so they were actually overlapping each other quite a bit, but you could see right from the very beginning that there was a sort of logic in the way the paintings went together, you could see related styles or related artists coming through around one particular water hole, one particular well, or whatever. Once we started going through, in the middle of the week and selecting the works for the exhibition, it was sort of like the first cut but nowhere near the final one, it meant that we started taking things out from the show itself. So these were works that either may be reproduced in the catalogue or the book, which accompanies the exhibition, or they may not actually appear anywhere – however it’s important to record and keep all of those things because they’re part of the larger collection, which in fact is sum total of the curatorial part of this project. So we ended up with something like 75 paintings which were left for inclusion in the exhibition and just seeing those 75 on the floor, they began to make a lot of sense. And, I suppose, a lot’s come out of that in terms of all of us knowing exactly where things fit in the overall big picture and also thinking about visualising the exhibition, about how it will all hang on the walls when we eventually get to that stage.
CD: How has it been working with Terry, Louise and Hayley?
WC: Yeah, I think that … see, even though I’m meant to be mentoring them, and I hope I am to a degree, when you’re working with people it’s always an exchange of ideas and you find that you actually learn from people, whoever it is that you’re working with – especially in a situation like this where we’ve got so much in common and where we talk about, in fact, what it is that we’re trying to achieve by working on this project. And every individual brings their perspective to it and everyone’s got their own view of how this project’s going to work.
But also, there’s this wonderful dialogue between the three of them, and I participate in that of course, to tease out ideas about the show – and some of them are real technical things or detailed things, others are the broader picture, we talk about how things may hang together and how we can make contrasts and rhythms in the exhibition, how we can tell particular stories through the pictures etcetera. But, as I say, everyone brings their own ideas to it and I tell you what, they’re not short of ideas. But one of the, I think, unifying and driving forces for each of those three people is that they feel this real sense of responsibility to their communities and their families, in the sense that most of them come from artistic families anyway and they see their role in all of that as being able to be in a position to actually look after their artists’ needs within the community, their family artists’ needs, their family’s needs and to be able to deal with their work, and perhaps help them and guide them with directions so that they can further their careers – especially in the art world, beyond the communities. And I find that’s such a wonderful driving force, this is why these guys are here, and it’s just wonderful to be able to, personally, to be able to participate in that whole process.
CD: What's your role?
WC: Well my role is as a mentor to the curators. I’ve been fortunate enough to have many years, in fact more than two decades of experience working in art museums and working with art, in fact I started working with art some thirty-eight years ago in a sort of professional capacity. And I’ve always felt too that when one accumulates knowledge, as I’ve been lucky enough to do, that one has always got to give back to the community – you know, whether it’s black artists or white artists it doesn’t really matter in a sense, but you do have an obligation.
I mean, I’ve been very privileged to work in the jobs I’ve worked in, I’ve been extraordinarily privileged to meet all sorts of wonderful people right across the Country, to visit places which very few white people have ever been to, to be taught about Aboriginal cultural and society and to be taught about Aboriginal art from the artists themselves. That sort of knowledge is fine for an individual and personal thing but you want to be able to pass that onto future generations, the younger generations. And it’s not, I hope, a selfish thing, because really you can teach people about things, but really what you want to do is to help them make their own decisions, so you just provide them with the tools by which they can go out and work things out for themselves, rather than like being at school and being told this is the two times table and memorise it.
CD: How did you get involved with the CSR project?
WC: I suppose basically it came through my association with Carly Davenport, because we worked together at the National Gallery of Canberra more than ten years ago. And, we worked on a couple of projects together there, once … when Carly left the gallery and eventually I did too. We also crossed paths when she was on Melville Island, working as an art coordinator. So we’ve always sort of kept in touch … and, then I was lucky enough to be invited by her to participate in the project, and I must say that I … I told her I’d ring her back, but I think it only took a couple of minutes before I did.
CD: How is the project going now?
WC: I actually think it’s going brilliantly. I think it’s one of those wonderful projects where you’re constantly learning about the subject that you’re actually dealing with, I mean, we’re not experts in anything really, in one sense, and our role here is to help present the stories that the artists want to present – both visually and orally. There are so many facets about the project which are really exciting and which, you know, demand your attention. I have to think to myself what would I prefer to be doing right now and I can’t think of anything else, other than doing this project.
There are a number of things which are really exciting. I mean, there are a number of art centres in the project or artists who I’ve known for a number of years, or known their work for many years, although there’s also a whole lot of new art centres that are involved in the Canning Stock Route show, and consequently a lot of new artists as well, or at least new to me. So I find it fascinating to look at their work. But what’s really coming out … one of the things that’s coming out of the project is that we’re beginning to realise, in fact, there’s the whole art history, there are a lot of other things too of course, but from the curatorial point of view there’s a whole art history about this part of the Country, running along the nine communities up and down the stock route, which has not really been studied before, and when you think that over the last twenty years, over the last twenty to thirty years, Aboriginal art becomes so popular, not only in Australia but overseas, so many exhibitions have happened and so many books have been written etcetera. As a result of all of that we know very well the story and the art of Arnham Land and the history of it there, we know the history and the art of the desert, and in more recent years we’ve learnt the history and the art of the Kimberly, but by and large, with a few exceptions, but by and large this part of the Country, the art history has been totally … well, no one knew it existed really. So what we find ourselves doing, as part of this project, is actually trying to piece together that art history – where artists fit in, where the styles relate and how they developed, and of course this is inseparable from the actual human movement of people up and down the stock route, which is part of the historical aspect of the project. And it’s all beginning to make sense, we haven’t resolved it yet and I don’t know whether you ever will, but at least you can … it is the possibility to study the art of this area in a new way – and I think that’s really exciting.
CD: Can you explain about the Olympics?
WC: Yes, that’s right. Well, this is, as far as I know, an initiative of the major sponsors BHP. And to actually have a showcase at the Olympics in Beijing, I don’t know exactly how this works but apparently each Country is invited to take a stall, and which is basically because it’s a huge expo of sorts – so countries can decide what it is, it may not be art, it may be … well it could be anything. But, it seems that BHP want a presence there and they want to illustrate or showcase their presence through this very project. What it means to the project itself, and to the artists particularly and the art community and the art centres they come from, is pretty fantastic. I mean, they’re going to be selecting … and it’s only a taste, it’s only going to be a small number of works because of space and cost limitations. But none the less we’re going to represent each of the art centres who are taking part in the project and within a group of works, perhaps twelve, fourteen works, which we’re actually working on right now … and it’ll be a showcase which will be seen by, from what we’re told, four-hundred thousand people. So that’s pretty good international exposure for a start. And … that’s not an end in itself, I mean that’s only a means to an end I think, and if we can start to get the messages across about this particular, but more importantly perhaps art from this region, across the world, I think we’ll be doing good for all the communities and art centres.
CD: What do you look for when choosing paintings?
WC: Now this is a huge curatorial question, yeah. Where do you start and where do you end? You never … you measure, I suppose, the importance of pictures by a number of different criteria. And especially in a project like this, which in a sense is wonderful because it brings in so many different things, in that you’ve got the styles of painting from a particular area or that of a particular artist at their individual hand. You’ve got … and again they work in the traditions which are millennia old, you’ve got that whole ancestral realm that’s referred to in the paintings themselves – because these aren’t just landscape pictures without any reference to the origins of law and culture. And then you’ve got, overlaying that sort of ancestral history, you’ve got the more recent history of the Canning Stock Route and its effect on Aboriginal people up and down that route. So you’ve got … and they’re only three of the basic layers that form part of the total mix.
It’s important in a project like this to be able to tell a story through the pictures, but again it’s like with any good art, the stories or the interpretation of the pictures actually depends on a lot of other things that you need to know. If you want to look at Renaissance paintings in Europe, you could say yes it’s a pretty picture, great composition, lovely line, great colour and stuff like that, you know, appreciate something aesthetically, but when you know the history and the time it happened, you understand the politics and what was going on, why people were depicted the way they are, you start to delve into all these sorts of deeper levels of understanding – and it’s exactly the same with an exhibition of this nature. However, we’re also dealing with art, so it is important to select works primarily for their artistic qualities, their artistic and aesthetic merit. Because in the end, if you have an exhibition with second-rate pictures, no matter how great the stories are, not many people will be interested. But if you do have a great visual exhibition, a great visual experience and an aesthetic experience, then it becomes a lot easier for people to actually delve into the stories behind what they’re looking at – and I think that’s incredibly important.
Our problem is that we’ve got so many good paintings that it’s very difficult, it is actually difficult, and it’s a nice position to be in, to decide what to leave out rather than what to actually put in. But, you have to look at … there are so many qualities, and if you look at paintings as paintings, and one of the wonderful things about this whole mentorship process, is that with Hayley and Louise and Terry we’ve had time, both this week and the last time we got together, to actually talk about the pictures as art. Not what Country they represent, not about the stories that they’re telling whatever, but just to look at them from an aesthetic point of view only, and the discussions have been pretty lively and these guys are incredibly articulate when it comes to talking about it, which is a lovely thing to see happen. You think, well, with talent like that, you really need to nurture it, these people will go places.
But, when you see the exhibition, you can see there’s a whole range of different styles and different approaches to painting, but there are a number of things that you find in common with pictures, and that is things that actually, in some sense, give you actually an experience which you can hardly put into words and that’s why you paint it, you know. If you could just say the story better than you can paint it, well then just tell the story. But there are things, I think … you know, the basic qualities, the brush marks, the colour, the sensitivity that the artist brings to actually applying paint to canvas, creating a surface which is visually exciting or interesting or reflects moods, if you like, and emotions, and all these things come out in these paintings. And one of the underlying things that goes right across the exhibition, however, is this notion of … there’s a sense of light, in other words, not like this in terms of colour but light in terms of knowledge. If you talk about different cultures and talk about spirituality where people are always talking about light representing knowledge, and of course in Indigenous culture knowledge is one of the most important things that you can possess. And you get the feeling, by looking at some of the great works in this collection, that it is there and there’s that forcefulness, that understanding of the world and interpretation and knowledge of it.
By the same token, and this is not a criticism of it at all, I think its also a strength of the project, but we’ve got various generations of artists. We’ve got artists like Eubena and Tommy May and Stumpy Brown, and a number of others who are actually really well known and have been practicing in the public domain for many years. But we’ve also got the young up and coming and emerging artists in the collection, and I think this is an important part of the process of this project itself, that you can see the different generations in one go if you like and all working in the same context. And I think that’s the foundation for whatever these artists in their communities and their art centres do in the future.
CD: Can you tell me about the three young curators?
WC: Well … Well, they all come from, well they all come from communities, so each of them has a slightly different background. And really, it’s hard to say where they’re going to end up, but I really believe that, well, for a start they do have the potential, but even now I think they’ve got the ability to work … to contribute into the art centres from where they come – in terms of, as I said, best serving the careers of those artists in that community and their families. But I’ve got no doubt that if they were to pursue this profession that there’s no reason why they couldn’t work in the big cities and in the larger museums in Australia – they’re quite capable. And I suppose, in a sense I mean, you can never tell people what to do or predict what they’re going to do, but hopefully the experience of this project will make them realise that they actually have opportunities to go on to do bigger and better things, or just bigger things, not necessarily better.
CD: Why have you chosen the painting behind you?
WC: It’s Cory Surprise from Mangkaja Arts in Fitzroy Crossing. I think it’s one of the strong pictures in the collection and I suppose one of the reasons I selected it was because the … well partly the theme, the major underlying theme of the project is the water holes, the wells along the Canning Stock Route and the history of what happened with them and how people treated them and all that. But … and this is an integral part of the story and the exhibition, it’s also represented in … throughout the show and the paintings themselves and particularly this one … this notion that people’s identity is totally connected to the land, to the Country, it’s expressed in various ways and one of the ways people express that is through the notion of major water holes on their land, their sacred water holes. And on the one level fresh water is the source of all life, on the physical sense, but it’s also getting back to the idea of light that I was talking about before, it’s also the source of nourishment spiritually. And as people believe that the souls of the unborn clan members, or tribal members, actually live in the water hole, and when people die part of their soul goes back to that, there’s this intrinsic link between the individual and that water hole – which in fact is the beginning and the point of describing your identity as an individual, as a communal person, as a family person, as a ritual person as also as an artist. And I think this is one of those lovely things that runs throughout the exhibition and I selected that because this painting … I love it.
CD: What's the greatest challenge that faces the project?
WC: There are a number of challenges and if there weren’t challenges then these projects aren’t worth doing. There are a lot of challenges on a very basic level, in the sense of the physical level of putting together and making sense out of such a large group of works that we started off with and, you know, the hours and hours of oral history that have been recorded and the filming and footage that you guys have taken and putting it together into one coherent whole. And in a sense the real challenge there is you want people to come and see this exhibition, but feel like they’ve actually had an experience, and that experience happens on a number of levels, that they’ve learnt more about the history of this part of the Country, and this is Australian history not just Indigenous history. You want people to come away with the experience of, you know, having seen breathtaking paintings and works of art. Yeah. And it is a challenge to be able to do that in a very sophisticated way, but in a way that is totally accessible to people, and you look at the audience during an exhibition like this and we’re going from primary school children to tertiary students, you know, we’re looking at the broader community, we’re looking at people who are interested in Aboriginal art, we’re looking at people who are interested in history generally and all that. But the challenge is for people to go through this exhibition and when they’re coming out of it at the other end, as it were, they’re much better informed, much… I don’t know, derived some satisfaction. It’s not going to change people’s lives, well it will for some, but that they are in fact much more enlightened in that sense.
But there is another challenge, and it’s a bit of a personal one for me, which is part and parcel of what we’re doing to. In Australia especially, and this applies right across the world, at least in the Western world. There has been this distinction between what art goes into a Museum of Art and what art goes into a Museum of Anthropology or Social or Cultural History, and … it’s hardly unexpected, but so far the institutions that have been interested in hosting this exhibition have been museums of Social and Cultural History – and not the fine art museums themselves. I think that argument is a little bit outdated and I’m hoping that, no matter where this show ends up, that it actually will go a long way to breaking down that division, that you can have both, in fact you can have a lot of things at once. You’ve got great fine art but you’ve also got wonderful stories to tell too.
Video recording: Tape 14
Rights: © FORM, transcript only
Provenance: This material is sourced from Ngurra Kuju Walyja — the Canning Stock Route Project, which was initiated in 2006 by FORM and developed in partnership with Birriliburu, Kayili, KALACC, Mangkaja, Martumili, Ngurra, Papunya Tula, Paruku IPA, Warlayirti and Yulparija artists and art centres.