Works on paper produced at the Aboriginal Print Workshop,
Cicada Press, UNSW Art & Design, Sydney
Calling In, a series of works on paper by Nici Cumpston, capture the haunting beauty of the Murray-Darling Basin in New South Wales, Australia. These works are not only a poetic examination of the ecological crisis that grips this region, but they also tap into the specific Indigenous history of this landscape. Cumpston who has connections to the Riverland through her Barkindji heritage, describes ‘Calling In’ as: “what I literally do when I’m visiting specific sites but it’s also what I do subconsciously when I look for evidence of ancestral occupation of land.”(1)
This pursuit for evidence, draws upon Cumpston’s prior work in the Forensic Department of the South Australian Police Force. Her mastery of the photographic medium reveals an apocalyptic landscape – the result of pollution, salination and the re-routing of the Murray River by the Federal Government in 2007 which cut off the waterflow to Nookamka (Lake Bonney).
Tree stumps, casualties of ring-barking, hover above sandy soil, their tangle of roots exposed; dotting the shoreline of Nookamka like gravestones. Cumpston states: “In every group of trees along the western side of the lake there are scar trees, ring trees, birthing and shelter trees. Artefacts and the bones of our ancestors are being exposed as the drying lake recedes.”(2)
Speaking on Campsite V, Nookamka Lake, 2008, currently on view at me Collectors Room, Berlin, Wally Caruana and Franchesca Cubillo state: “… images of desiccated and dead tree trunks stand as a metaphor for figures in the landscape and the treatment of her (Cumpston’s) people”.(3) Such figures can also be seen in Mulyawongk, 2016 an image of Xanthorrhoea (grass trees) that Cumpston likens to: “Mulyawongk, a Ngarrindjeri word for the bunyip, a monster that lives in the River”(4).
Cumpston’s practice uncovers the co-existence of burial grounds and massacre sites. A deep vein of both presence and loss can be felt in each work. So too, an Indigenous understanding of custodianship; the inexorable relationship between people and the landscape. A relationship that allows a viewing of these ghostly scenes to register a sense akin to human loss. A marked departure from the dominant treatment of landscape within Western Art historical narratives.
Cumpston has undertaken commissions for Shepparton Art Museum and for the Department of Health and the Commonwealth Law Courts in Adelaide. She is represented in major state and university collections in Australia including: the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, Parliament House Collection Canberra, Macquarie Group Collection, Artbank, Flinders University Art Collection, the Adelaide Festival Centre Foundation and the South Australia Museum. She has also worked closely internationally renowned Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the University of Virginia, the USA, and Harvey Art Projects, Ketchum, Idaho.
(1) Correspondence with artist, 2018.
(2) Lane, C. (2012). unDisclosed 2nd National Indigenous Art Triennial. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. https://nga.gov.au/Exhibition/unDisclosed/Default.cfm?MnuID=ARTISTS&GALID=37857&viewID=3
(3) Caruana, W & Cubillo, F (2017). Indigenous Australia: Masterworks from the National Gallery of Australia. me Collectors Room, Berlin. pp 28-29, 2017.
(4) Cumpston, N. (2016) Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. https://www.telstra.com.au/thanks/arts/natsiaa/natsiaa-2016-winners-and-finalists