Shortlist year: 2021
Shortlist category: Non-fiction
Published by: Hardie Grant Publishing
At a hinge-point in his life, artist and ex-gallerist Tony Oliver travelled to the East Kimberley, where he plunged into the crosscurrents and eddies of the Aboriginal art world. He would stay for almost a decade, working alongside a group of senior Gija artists, including acclaimed figures Paddy Bedford and Freddie Timms, to establish Jirrawun Arts, briefly one of the country's most successful and controversial Aboriginal painting collectives. 'The Stranger Artist' follows Oliver's journey and the deep relationships he formed, an experience that forever altered his life's trajectory. His story will draw readers close to what he came to know of Kimberley life: the immersion of culture and spirituality in the everyday; the importance of Law; the deep and abiding connection to country; and the humour and tragedy that pervade the Aboriginal world. Evocative and absorbing in equal measure, 'The Stranger Artist' tells not only of the connections that can be formed through the sharing of mutual interests and experiences, but of what it takes to live between cultures.
About the author
Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer who has worked variously as a curator, academic, art coordinator and artist. His essays and criticism have regularly appeared in publications including The Monthly, The Australian, Art & Australia and Discipline, as well as artist monographs and exhibition catalogues. Between 2007 and 2009 he lived on the Tiwi Islands and in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia, where he worked for Aboriginal arts organisations.
Amidst the scorched landscape of the East Kimberley, ancient and modern art worlds collide, coalesce and collapse in this searingly honest account of the rise and fall of Jirrawun Arts. Focussing on the relationship between Melbourne art dealer Tony Oliver, who travels to the Kimberley, and First Nations painter, Paddy Bedford, whose natural talent Oliver nurtures and refines, Quentin Sprague tells of an Indigenous artists' collective that began its work on an open-air concrete slab and ended up in a studio designed by a New York architect. This change was funded by the burgeoning commissions the artists earned under Oliver's guidance. Visiting art patrons from down south would sit out on the red dirt in the intense heat and watch the artists at work, before retiring to the best local accommodation for slap up meals. Despite the artists' commercial success: drunkenness, illness, and death haunt the collective and it ends badly, with the studio eventually reduced to a storage shed for rusting machinery. Sprague's hauntingly beautiful descriptions of country, his deep understanding of two cultures in collision, and his sumptuous descriptions of the act of painting, mark this work as a literary gem.