Cooee Art to relaunch as Art Leven marking new era for Australia's oldest Indigenous gallery

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Cooee Art to relaunch as Art Leven marking new era for Australia's oldest Indigenous gallery
Art Leven will unveil its inaugural exhibition in line with this new programming focus on Thursday 27 July 2023 within its bespoke gallery space, located in Gadial Country, Sydney Redfern.

SYDNEY.- Australia’s oldest Indigenous gallery Cooee Art today announces that it will relaunch as Art Leven, ushering in a new era for the gallery under the stewardship of long-term owner and Director Mirri Leven.

Although the gallery will remain focused on First Nations art, in this new chapter as Art Leven, the gallery will exhibit non-Indigenous alongside First Nations artists, through specially curated individual projects. The new gallery vision will focus on transparent dialogue, offering an opportunity beyond the ordinary commercial relationship between artist and gallery, fostering an environment of openness and direct exchanges between artists. Art Leven will work directly with First Nations curators, art centres, and represented artists.

Art Leven will unveil its inaugural exhibition in line with this new programming focus on Thursday 27 July 2023 within its bespoke gallery space, located in Gadial Country, Sydney Redfern. Curated by Gadigal artist Kate Constantine (Konstantina), the exhibition features work created in the Northern Territory Warlpiri community of Lajamanu, organically exploring themes around the craft of landscape painting and ways of seeing and translating land and Country.

This month, Art Leven travelled to the remote NT town of Lajamanu, bringing along Sydney artist Neil Ernest Tomkins for a weeklong painting workshop at Warnayaka Arts, alongside Warlpiri artist Kitty Napanagka Simon.

By welcoming Tomkins and Art Leven staff onto their Country and into their painting space, the art centre’s Warlpiri owners have opened a common space. Here, the artworks created are given room to communicate with each other throughout their creation. The resulting dialogue is free of cross-over interference, occurring naturally during the painting process - osmosis fuelled by mutual inspiration. A few of the other participating Warlpiri artists include Annie Napanangka Simon and Biddie Napanangka Timms, Robin Napurrurla Lawson and Isaiah Tjungurrayi Lewis.

Mirri Leven, Director of Art Leven said: Art Leven intends to honour the legacy of Cooee Art as Australia’s oldest Indigenous gallery. While project-based partnerships with non-Indigenous artists mark a new direction for the gallery, we remain strongly committed to promoting Indigenous art and culture. By broadening the gallery's program, we aim to invite audiences of the wider Australian and Western art world into a more intimate and understanding appreciation of our First Nations’ artists, past and present.

I’m thrilled to be back in Lajamanu. Kitty is incredibly important to me, as an artist and friend. Cooee and the Warlpiri community of Lajamanu have had a close relationship and a long history, even before I came on as gallery assistant almost 20 years ago. Later, Kitty became the first artist I took on to represent as a fledgling co-owner and director of Cooee.

This new chapter is not only an exciting development for us, but hopefully the wider Australian art community. Through this new direction, we aim to foster an environment of openness, transparency and communication that will bridge the gap and encourage exchange between Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists. One tenet of this project is to include artists who are specifically not in an exclusive relationship with Art Leven. In an industry with a sometimes-murky past, I hope that part of the dialogue we foster can focus on what an artist can and should expect of a gallery or representative. Art Leven means to embody the evolution of Cooee, providing a pathway to new ways of working together.

Showcasing two non-Gadigal artists for our first show as Art Leven, it felt important to invite a Gadigal woman from the Eora nation to curate and present the launching exhibition to the world.

Established in 1981 as a hybrid model to represent and support artists in an ethical and sustainable way, Cooee Art has since evolved by adding auctions to its credentials and exhibiting several of Australia’s leading artists. As a market leader with specialist knowledge and insight into the world of Australian Indigenous art, the organisation works with artists, galleries, museums, and private collections bi-annually to curate and consign artworks.

Contemporary landscape painter Neil Ernest Tompkins has developed a painting style recognisable for its blending and fragmenting of imagery and perspectives. He is renowned for his distinctive approach to mark-making and has been featured in myriad exhibitions across the globe, as well as being part of extensive commissions, murals, and residencies in Portugal, India, Peru, Mexico & Tasmania. Tomkins’ process usually begins en plein air, loosely drafted with a focus on composition and framework. Often, the artist refines his imagery by cutting up photographs taken while travelling, arranging them into collages that form a reference for his ensuing paintings. He is regularly exhibited and represented by galleries across Australia.

Kitty Napanangka Simon is a dedicated artist with a distinctive, singular aesthetic. Her paintings – at first denounced by senior men for straying too far from the traditional idiom – have excited discriminating curators and collectors since her first solo exhibition at Cooee Art in 2013, winning admirers both inside and outside her tight knit Warlpiri community. In 2020, Napanangka lost her sight due to cataracts and Leven, through Cooee Art, paid for her surgery. After regaining her sight, Napanangka Simon’s painting practice has dwindled and one goal of the Lajamanu project will be her first major foray back into painting with a renewed confidence in her exceptional talent.

Lajamanu is an isolated township located over ten hour’s drive south of Darwin; eight hours north-west of Alice Springs; and eight hours south-east of Derby. Approximately 1000 Warlpiri people were forcibly moved to the remote point far north of the Warlpiri estate just after WWII.

‘Country X Country’ will launch in the lead up to Art Leven’s presence at this year’s Sydney Contemporary. The debut exhibition between artists Neil Tompkins and Kitty Napanagka Simon will run from 27 July - 26 August 2023.

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