Since he began exhibiting in the mid 1970s, Ken Searle has held twenty-four solo exhibitions in commercial and regional galleries in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. He is best known for his large paintings in oil on canvas, depicting the suburban and industrial areas of a number of Australian cities. These include Geelong and Ballarat, as well as parts of Sydney and Adelaide.
Searle has said that he sees his paintings 'as maps, and also as portraits'. While his aim is 'to portray place, and the people who are part of that place', his method is 'to walk into a painting, letting the area itself shape the form and content of the portrayal'.
The images of desert landscape from this current exhibition may seem a far cry from suburban yards and urban streetscapes, and yet Searle's objective and method have not changed. As the statements by two Papunya elders below show, this ngurra (country) forms a kind of backyard to the community, as well as being a road travelled over countless millennia by the Anangu whose home it is.
Ken Searle became acquainted with this ngurra over the period 1998 to 2001 while he was working as a consultant at the school at Papunya (where the Western Desert art movement had begun, some twenty-five years earlier). As part of his work, Searle designed and co-illustrated the multi-award-winning picture book Papunya School Book of Country and History, which includes the visual and written text of some forty Anangu staff and students.
In his free time at Papunya, Ken would draw and paint around the community. Children would always gather around to watch the pictures develop, and often adults would come and have a look. It was important that people saw and approved the images. On weekends, Ken would go out to paint the surrounding ngurra. When he brought the work back to show people, they put names and stories to the places which he had painted.
Over recent years, friends from the community have frequently stayed at Ken's home in Sydney. As Ken has re-worked his Papunya material in the studio, he has shown the paintings to these visitors, to check the titles and to make sure that he has got the ngurra right.
Linda Tjonggarda Anderson and Punata Stockman are former colleagues from Papunya School. They are both artists, as well as being past or present members of the community's Council. When they previewed the pictures from the AROUND PAPUNYA exhibition, they made the following assessments:
Linda Tjonggarda Anderson: 'Ken Searle's paintings
of Papunya really catch the eye. The pictures remind me of the ngurra
I knew as a child, growing up around Papunya — before we had cars,
riding out on camels and horses, or going by foot. We were so happy to
go and camp wherever we liked. We loved being out there in the ngurra,
away from the sound of the generator and the car noises, listening to
the birds singing in the morning and the evening.
Punata Stockman: 'I see Ken's paintings and I feel happy — it's like home. Our parents used to take us travelling by foot or by camel. We'd go to a waterhole or the sandhills, and stay overnight or three or four days. We'd go around Ulumparru for holidays, and our parents would show us the bush tucker and the animal tracks. They'd tell us stories and we'd learn from our parents. Seeing Ken's pictures remind me of that. It feels like home.'