Kunmanara Carroll honoured as JamFactory ICON

Feature

The work of Kunmanara Carroll tells stories of Country. Through intricate yet minimalist stoneware ceramics, paintings and tapestry, the late Luritja/Pintupi/Pitjantjatjara artist pays loving tribute to the land, his family and roots—from Pukatja, South Australia, all the way up north to Kintore, Northern Territory, and west to Kiwirrkura, Western Australia: his custodial lands.

Carroll’s remarkable work is shown in Ngaylu Nyanganyi Ngura Winki (I Can See All Those Places), a major solo exhibition, as a part of the JamFactory’s ICON series. Carroll is the first Indigenous artist to be celebrated as a part of the series, which has run since 2013 to honour senior figures working in craft-based disciplines in South Australia. The exhibition will then tour to 12 venues around the country, and is accompanied by a monograph, published by Wakefield Press.

The artist’s story is an extraordinary one. Born in Ikuntji (Haasts Bluff) in the Northern Territory, at the age of 19, Carroll moved to Pukatja. After retiring from a long career as the town’s constable, he turned to art, beginning to create at Ernabella Arts in 2009. Encouraged by then-owner Julian Green to start making marks on paper, it became apparent quickly that Carroll was something special.

“He had a very distinct style straight away,” says Mel George, who until recently was the manager of Ernabella Arts, and worked closely with Carroll and the JamFactory on the new exhibition. “Some makers you have to really push, and some people just get it. He just had it. He did very subtle work that is compositionally beautiful, and his mark-making was unique.”

From there, Carroll’s career and profile grew. He was shortlisted for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards for four years running, and his work, both solo and collaborative, is held in national and international collections.

In 2017, along with fellow Ernabella artist Derek Jungarrayi Thompson and curator Luke Scholes, Carroll returned to Kintore and Kiwirrkura for the first time since his adolescence. Connecting with senior Pintupi men to learn more about his heritage, the landscapes and their natural features, became a prominent source of artistic inspiration. “He was interested in telling stories of his family’s Country,” says George. “In some ways, he thought about these places and thought like this all of his life, but hadn’t necessarily translated them into a visual form.”

Carroll’s influence on his community was shown not only in his artistic output, but through his leadership and vision—he brought more of the younger generation into Ernabella Arts, and encouraged more young men to join what has historically been a largely female-led craft discipline. “He was an inherent leader, he was loved and adored by everyone in that community,” George says.

Kunmanara Carroll, Walungurru, 2020, Stoneware, 540 x 230 x 200 mm and Kunmanara Carroll, Tjukula/Waterholes, 2020, Stoneware, 80 x 300 x 225 mm, photographer: Grant Hancock.

For the first Indigenous artist in the ICON series, it made sense for JamFactory to work with Ernabella Arts, considering the long history between the two organisations, dating back to the 1970s. “We’d long wanted to have an Indigenous artist in the series, and we had made a conscious decision that it should be an artist associated with Ernabella,” says JamFactory CEO Brian Parkes. “It was Mel’s suggestion to add Kunmanara Carroll to the mix, because she understood the extraordinary influence that he was having within the community and nationally.”

Carroll worked on the pieces for the ICON exhibition over a two-year period, coinciding with the pandemic. “He would come to my house every day. I set up a makeshift studio in my lounge room, and he’d watch ABC News, make his work and get me to make him cups of tea and lunch,” George says. “He didn’t want to stop.”

Parkes admires the individuality of Carroll’s work. “A lot of ceramic work produced by Aboriginal artists in remote communities has a particular stylistic consistency. Kunmanara Carroll’s work doesn’t seem to come out of that; it’s driven by something else,” says Parkes. “There’s a unique vision to it, and there’s a confidence in the looseness of form and decoration. There’s a lot of lived experience to draw on, and I see that in the work really clearly.”

Sadly, shortly after Ngaylu Nyanganyi Ngura Winkiopened, Carroll passed away. “What he achieved in such a short amount of time is kind of unbelievable,” says George. “The exhibition is more meaningful now as it’s his legacy.”

JamFactory Icon 2021: Ngaylu Nyanganyi Ngura Winki (I Can See All Those Places)
Kunmanara Carroll
JamFactory: Adelaide
7 August – 26 September 

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen