August 1: So you say you have a ‘photographic eye’?
Warning: This post contains images of Aboriginal and Torres Island people who are deceased.
The expression a ‘photographic eye’ is associated with a now largely forgotten Australian indigenous artist, Winnie Bamara.
I am currently writing about photojournalist David Beal about whom you will read more. In 1960 Beal traveled to Indonesia where, on the strength of a presenting him an artwork by Bamara, he was granted an audience with President Sukarno, whose relations with Australia at the time were somewhat hostile. The result was quite a scoop; his article headlined by Sukarno’s threat ‘We will have West N. Guinea,’ appeared in The Sun-Herald.
I was intrigued to find out who Winnie Bamara might be and why Beal would have taken her painting to the President.
My investigations revealed that first, there is little information about her, and that second, she was not a photographer, despite a 1957 Sydney Morning Herald newspaper article under the banner “The shy girl with the PHOTOGRAPHIC EYES”.
The absence of a biography set me putting together whatever I could find in order to start a Wikipedia entry on her quite extraordinary story.
The meaning of that term ‘photographic eyes’ was a puzzle that I believe opens a novel perspective on our medium.
Bamara’s reputation as an artist had preceded her when Beal, on his way back from assignment in the Top End, made a detour to visit her in her Port Augusta home, the Plymouth Brethren Umeewarra Aborigines’ Mission Station which operated between 1937 and 1964.
Born in 1939 or 1940 in the South Australian Nullarbor Station near Ooldea on the East-West line, Winnie had lived at the Mission, sometimes amongst 60 other children, since the age of seven, having been taken there, 700km from her birthplace, suffering what she remembered as ‘sand’ in her eyes — trachoma in other words — a painful condition too common amongst remote indigenous Australians which causes roughening inside the eyelids and results quite often in blindness. She was treated for three months in Adelaide’s Childrens Hospital where she may also have acquired the polio that withered her left arm.
After these experiences, her educational progress was affected (though it did not prevent her becoming a teacher at the Mission school in her 20s). Nevertheless her teacher, Miss M. Cantle noticed her quite extraordinary aptitude for drawing and encouraged it; it is her ability that accounts both for her rise to fame at the time, and for her disappearance since into an obscurity so profound that her death, which Beal remembers as coming in her thirties, caused by her diabetes, seems to have passed unrecorded.
In 1959 National Gallery of Australia director Robert Campbell remarked;
“I understand that Winnie Bambara [sic] has had no tuition or contact with other watercolour painters, and so it was a surprise to find that her work was so sophisticated, suggesting that she had studied the work of some of the earlier English watercolorists.
Here was an aborigine who painted in the style an English watercolourist like John Sell Cotman (1982–1842, and above, one of his watercolours in our National Gallery) or Samuel Palmer. I’ve included below a monochrome image by Beal as printed in the newspaper article he illustrated. Though it is not a high resolution reproduction, it is the earliest of her works I can find, and does represent her remarkably assured grasp of perspective and form.
Campbell went on to remark that “it is interesting to find that there is not even a hint of the primitive outlook of some of the Aranda artists.”
Between those words sophisticated and primitive lay her attraction for curious audiences of the time who in their prejudiced frame of reference, 40,000 years of Aboriginal art of all the indigenous nations and varieties, from Cape York to Tasmania and across to Broome was of no interest. But if an aborigine, and a girl at that, could paint like a white person, now that was newsworthy!
That, and the question; “How does she do it?” followed her and attracted 8,000 visitors to an exhibition in Adelaide of the twenty-year old artist, who arrived at the opening driven from the Mission by the Lord Mayor of Port Augusta himself.
She was called a ‘Namatjira in skirts’ in reference to the older and more famous Albert Namatjira who died in the year Beal and Bamara met. He was born Elea Namatjira in 1902 in the MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia near Alice Springs, but it was not until 1934 (aged 32), under the tutelage of Rex Battarbee, that he was taught to paint like a European artist. After his death, critics began to question the value of his art, regarding it as a product of the policy of assimilation. Bamara may have become disregarded in later years by being associated with Namatjira. She had six children and therefore much less opportunity for production and self-promotion. Unlike Namatjira though, her art was remarkable, perhaps unique among aboriginal people, for another reason. Her teacher explained;
“On outings to the Flinders Range, [Winnie] seems able to make a mental photograph of a landscape in three-dimensional colour. She does no sketching or painting on the spot but paints the scene in watercolour at the mission.”
Writing in the The Canberra Times about the 1974 ‘Aboriginal Art Show’ at the Academy of Science in Acton, Canberra, in which her work was shown, Melbourne gallerist and critic John Reed responded to her uncanny ability and called her ‘gifted’, comparing her work with that of Belgian emigrant and Australian painter Henri Bastin.
Campbell, back in 1959, asked “whether some guidance would really be helpful” to Winnie. He gave her some instruction herself, pointing out that she should include shadows, but her teacher records that she then painted nothing but shadows. She was given a correspondence course in painting but produced only blank paper in response to the assignments.
The National Art School flew her to Sydney to participate in their classes, but she was mute in response to students’ and teachers’ attempts to discuss her art with her. Being shown Namatjira’s work provoked her only recorded aesthetic statement; “That is his country. My country is different.”
In 1961 she enrolled at the South Australia School of Art and won an award for her improvement in oil painting. Her mission school teacher, who felt she should develop at her own pace in her own style, was right, and clearly the answer to Campbell’s question was negative. Instruction did not advance her work; in fact, later examples become stilted, indistinguishable from the ubiquitous ‘gum-tree’ paintings of hobbyists. They still lack shadows, though she has been taught to paint clouds.
Instruction seems to have disrupted her vivid eidetic memory from which she had generated her images. Had she seen this kind of realist representation in prints or reproductions in the hospital where she was treated, or in the Mission, her home, that alone could not account for this capability. In her teacher Miss Cantle’s account, she ‘photographed the scene with her eyes’ and only painted that vision later. What John Cotman would make from his sketches on the spot, aided by a camera lucida, and through application of principles of perspective, she did from her ‘mind’s eye‘.
You will have heard of the British savant Stephen Wiltshire (b.1974), who after a helicopter ride over a city can sit down and draw it accurately and in high detail just from memory. Profoundly autistic, he also had a teacher, Chris Marris, who admired and supported his work, but who luckily prevailed in allowing him to just draw what he wanted to, without interference, or ‘teaching’. Neurologist Oliver Sacks discussed the phenomenon, and Wiltshire himself, in a January 09, 1995 New Yorker article ‘Prodigies.’
Is Winnie Bamara’s ‘photographic eye’ a product also of autism? That is for someone else to answer, but was her muteness more than just ‘shyness’? Can we attribute the motivation for her imagery of ‘my country’ to a nostalgic longing for her childhood on the Nullabor before she was taken away? Her only ‘biography’, and only up the age of 19, is this 1959 article, accompanied by Beal’s pictures, sympathetically written, no doubt from Beal’s notes, by the then editor of The Sunday Mail, K. V. Parish.
Is the eye a camera? Is the brain capable of acting like film or a digital image sensor to store images, latent for subsequent retrieval and reproduction? Try it…stand up now, close your eyes, turn round and round slowly and at a random point, quickly open and close your eyes. Sit down again, and now, after a few moments have passed, close your eyes again. Is what you saw in that moment still there? The test of whether it is merely an afterimage is to try to see it behind closed eyes some hours later.
Do you have a ‘photographic eye’?