Mavis Ngallametta / Kugu-Uwanh people, Putch clan / Australia 1944–2019 / Little swamp on the way to Obun 2018 / Natural ochres and charcoal with acrylic binder on linen primed in synthetic polymer paint / 271 x 200cm / Purchased 2018 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © The Estate of Mavis Ngallametta

Little swamp on the way to Obun 2018

On Display: QAG, Gallery 4

Little swamp on the way to Obun is one of the last works that Mavis Ngallametta completed before she passed away in early 2019. It is also one of the most refined of the artist’s pamp (swamp) works, which developed considerably in style over the last decade of her life. A popular site for fishing, Obun is a place where the people of Aurukun, in far north Queensland, go to relax and catch food for their families. The little swamp in the painting is one of the main freshwater lagoons found near the massive saltwater estuary of Archer Bay.

When the wet sets in, there are two little swamps on the way to Obun, on your right side and on your left side. This one is on your left side when you go from Aurukun. We use that road to go to a fishing area. Sometimes in those old days, we used to use the ridge part of that area for a dinner place. There are plenty of birds there. When it’s dry time, you see wallabies in that area, but in the wet time, you see only birds and lily flowers and lots of swamp flowers. There are little swamps everywhere when the wet sets in.1


1. Mavis Ngallametta, artist statement, supplied by Martin Browne Contemporary, Paddington, NSW, 2018.

Mavis Ngallametta was born in 1944 into the Marbunt family of the Kugu people on their traditional country, near the Kendall River in west Cape York Peninsula. An elder of the Putch clan and a cultural leader of the Wik and Kugu people of Aurukun, Mavis is remembered for her rich legacy to her community and to art and culture nationally. Mavis embarked on her journey to become a painter relatively late in life — she did not pick up a paintbrush until 2008, at the age of 64.

Mavis lived a traditional life in the bush until she was around five, when her family was moved to the Presbyterian Mission at Aurukun. She maintained connections with family members and elders despite this upheaval, and, in time, learnt to weave dilly bags and fruit bowls made from cabbage palm and pandanus. As a result, she was first recognised for her weaving using traditional materials, which later expanded to include recycled driftnets and marine debris.

In 2008, Ngallametta began making small paintings depicting important cultural sites, and from 2010, her works grew in scale. Mavis tended to depict sites of personal significance in her paintings. Recurring subjects include Ikalath, where she collected white clay; her traditional country of Kendall River; Wutan, a camping site belonging to her adopted son Edgar; and various pamp, or swamps, dotted around Aurukun.

Discussion Questions

1. Consider the figurative and non-figurative elements of Little swamp on the way to Obun. How do these elements work together to express the artist’s knowledge of and connection to place?

2. Mavis Ngallametta primed her canvases with a base of bright blue acrylic paint. This allowed her to create new colours — including the deep purple here — by applying thin washes of ochre over the blue base. What do you think the blue symbolised for the artist? Do you think the blue base helps tie together multiple perspectives of the pamp (swamp)?

Classroom Activities

Choose a natural environment in your local area, such as a park or waterway. Visit the location and take photographs or create drawings based on your close observation of the environment. Combine these detailed photos or drawings into a macro representation of the site, and consider how this image communicates an overall experience of place.