Nicolas Rothwell vs Bear Grylls

The Bear Grylls of Art Journalism is back at it again! While I love the fact that Aboriginal ladies like Nyurapaia Nampitjinpa gain due recognition for their work in the pages of the national press, one wonders at Nicolas Rothwell’s adoption of The Bear’s hyper-effusive style as he romanticises the complex historical realities of his subjects. Or is his version of the history of inter-racial contact in the Western Desert crafted to suit his own discovery of Nyurapaia Nampitjinpa’s work in the art gallery of a friendly Alice Springs enterpreneur with a smooth sale pitch? See his not-unsympathetic update on the Alice Springs market for Aboriginal Art in December last year? Sets the scene for this particular review…

History aside, what is most disturbing about his mode of review is the sense that the artist subject’s days are numbered, and the suggestion that she is the sole member of her generation to carry such collective knowledge. And so, he suggests, when she goes, “the last custodian”, “the climax of a great tradition”, it’s the end of the line, the end of the authenticity he sees “embodied” in her art. But this is a recurrent theme in his writing: “…what live[s] on in their artworks: they are obituaries of landscape cast in paint” (“Remembrance of things past” April 1-2, 2006, cute title). And as he wrote in 2007: “Death is calling the great painters of the Western Desert”  (“In Remembrance of Times Passing” Nov 24-25 2007, title now a little over-worked). Or, see his “dying man” story of Spider Kalbybidi: “She [Emily Rohr] has come to believe that the disappearances of old northwest desert Aborigines, which are relatively common events, can best be understood as elevations.” (“The Vanishing”, December 13-14, 2008). This is not only a false trope of art historical discourse, it’s a well-established trope of art market promotion. In this case it’s disrespectful of the bodies of work which continue to be produced by the other senior women of the desert.

Wondering what they look like? Here is a recent painting by Nyurapaia Nampitjinpa, painted at Warakurna in 2009.

P.S. And if you really want to know how fortunate we all are to have someone like The Roth gracing our shores, read on…

P.P.S. and there’s a thread


#1 Pammy Faye on 02.16.10 at 11:19 am

For all those who might not know Bear Grylls of “Man vs. Wild” fame, check out his homepage at

The Bear specialises in dropping into remote places and finding his way back to civilisation. Each episode usually features him going hunting with a couple of local natives (none of whom are never wearing sneakers or driving troopies). He exaggerates “the Wild” to the point that it becomes a-historical, untouched by impurities of modernity. And to my mind that’s exactly what Rothwell does with desert art.

I love desert art not because of its capacity to hold onto some impossible past as people inevitably pass away, but because of the possibilities it offers for understanding the complex modernity of the western desert with all its apparent contradictions: dynamic and traditional, difficult yet optimistic, transient and still enduring.

Rothwell’s approach condems all younger Aboriginal people to a place where they can never be traditional enough, and for that reason his “first contact/last contact” approach is both disrespectful and dangerous.

#2 Vanessa Barbay on 03.30.10 at 10:56 am

Tradition is also dynamic, indigenous culture skillfully weaves the new into itself, the dreaming is a perpetual state of becoming.

#3 Nigel on 03.30.10 at 11:23 am

along these lines, see also our reference to Marshall Sahlins’ famous dictum (whereby innovation is recognised as the distinctive way by which tradition proceeds) at artwranglers

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