Dreaming in Motion - Mimi: Investing in the unknown

Dreaming in Motion - Mimi: Investing in the unknown
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
WARNING: This clip contains coarse language
Access fees

An art auction. A woman is purchasing two pieces of art – a Mimi statue and a painting of a barramundi fish.

Summary by Romaine Moreton

A clever film from director–writer Warwick Thornton (Kaytej), that satirises the Indigenous art industry, poking fun at white art connoisseurs who purchase Indigenous art purely for its investment value. Richard Bell (Kooma, Kamilaroi, Jiman, Goreng Goreng) won the 20th Telstra National Aboriginal Arts Award in August 2003, his winning entry was titled Scienta E Metaphysica (Bell’s Theorem), or Aboriginal Art Its a White Thing, and is an Indigenous artist’s perspective on the Aboriginal art industry satirised by Thornton in Mimi.

Indigenous art is a growth industry that came into prominence during the 70s, and implicit within the notion of authentic Indigenous art is also the idea of the authentic Aborigine. Thornton exploits the idea of the authentic Aborigine when Catherine (Sophie Lee), having bought two pieces of Indigenous art, one being a Mimi statue which mysteriously comes to life and haunts her apartment, asks her friend if she knows any authentic Aborigines who can get rid of the Mimi presence for her. In fact, Aboriginal art is required to have a certificate of authenticity to prevent fraudulent reproductions, and it is this correlation between the idea of an authentic Aborigine and authentic Aboriginal art that Thornton comically manipulates in this short film.

Thornton is a respected cinematographer as well as a writer–director of film. As a cinematographer, he worked on films such as Queen of HeartsRadiancePlains EmptyFlat and Buried Country. His other works include Green BushThe Old Man and the Inland Sea, and Photographic Memory: A Portrait of Mervyn Bishop.

Other films in the AFC Indigenous Branch drama initiative Dreaming in Motion are Black TalkFlatShit Skin and Turn Around (all 2002).

Mimi Synopsis

A short drama about a young Western art collector who gets more than she’s bargained for when she purchases Indigenous art pieces that include a Mimi statue and a painting of a barramundi.

Notes by Romaine Moreton

Education notes

This clip, taken from the beginning of the short feature Mimi, shows Catherine (Sophie Lee) at an art auction, where she successfully bids for two Indigenous artworks, a Mimi spirit sculpture and a painting of a barramundi fish. Credits for the film are cleverly included within the auction catalogue that Catherine is flipping through. As she collects her purchases, she asks the auctioneer if the artworks will double in value over the next year. Returning to her modern apartment, she leans the artworks against a wall, checks her phone messages and prepares to go out to meet her friends. She puts the artworks in a closet, discovering the Mimi sculpture has left a mark on the wall, and leaves the apartment.

Educational value points

  • The Indigenous art market has flourished since the 1990s and is now the strongest sector of Australia’s fine arts industry, with around 5,000 artists producing art and craft works worth more than $100 million a year in 2007. There are about 44 Indigenous community art centres across central and northern Australia, as well as specialist Aboriginal art galleries in the major cities.
  • Investors have capitalised on the growing popularity of Indigenous art, particularly in the international art market. Unscrupulous intermediaries have been accused of profiteering from Indigenous artists by paying nominal amounts for works that are then sold at much higher prices.
  • Contemporary Indigenous art is an ongoing part of the oldest continuing tradition of painting in the world – a tradition that embodies Indigenous spirituality and tells Indigenous stories. The current interest in Indigenous art had its genesis in the 1970s when Geoff Bardon, a school teacher posted to the Papunya settlement in central Australia, encouraged Aboriginal artists to use Western materials such as acrylic paint to paint traditional designs.
  • According to the beliefs of Indigenous people from central Australia and Arnhem Land, Mimi are mischievous and capricious spirits who are believed to possess mystical powers and to live forever. Mimi taught the first Indigenous people in western Arnhem Land how to hunt and paint, and are often consulted by Elders, who can see them. Tall, thin beings who live in the crevices of rocks and caves, they speak the same language, observe the same ceremonies and are bound together by the same kinship system as the local Indigenous clan group. Mimi feature in Dreaming stories and art from this region.
  • Mimi mixes comedy and horror to question attitudes about Indigenous art and Aboriginality. In keeping with the horror genre, the mark left by the Mimi when it is first brought back to Catherine’s apartment presages the bloodlike tracks that the Mimi later makes across the apartment’s clean white surfaces as it colonises Catherine’s territory. Though put out of sight in a cupboard, the Mimi refuses to be ignored or forgotten. This is in keeping with the horror convention of items being placed out of view only to return to haunt or terrorise the protagonist. That the Mimi is also scared of Catherine adds a comedic twist to its otherwise menacing presence.
  • Sophie Lee began her career in television before moving into film. Lee first appeared in the television series The Flying Doctors, and also hosted the Bugs Bunny Show in the late 1980s, which was popular among both children and adults. She presented the program Sex in 1991. Her first film role was in Muriel’s Wedding (1994) as Tania, the 'friend from hell’, and this established her talent as a comedic actor, leading to roles in He Died With a Felafel in His Hand (1999), Holy Smoke (1998) and The Castle (1997). Lee was a member of the Melbourne band Freaked Out Flower Children.
  • Writer and director Warwick Thornton is also an internationally acclaimed cinematographer. Thornton trained as a cinematographer at the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) in Alice Springs and then went to the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. His credits as a cinematographer include Radiance(1998), Buried Country (2000) and Beyond Sorry (2003). He has directed several documentaries including The Good, The Bad and The Loud (2003), about the history of CAAMA music, as well as the short film Green Bush (2005), which won the Panorama Award for Best Short Film at the 2005 Berlin International Film Festival.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Blackfella Films
Darren Dale, Rachel Perkins
Warwick Thornton
Warwick Thornton
David Gulpilil, Sophie Lee, Aaron Pedersen
Produced with the assistance of the Indigenous Branch of the Australian Film Commission, SBS Independent and the New South Wales Film and Television Office

Catherine is at an art auction where she successfully bids for two Indigenous artworks.
Auctioneer And so we come to the last item on the list tonight – to artworks from Maningrida in Arnhem Land. The first, a painting depicting a barramundi and the other a Mimi sculpture. The artist is unknown. We’ll start the bidding at $500. Who’ll give me $500? Madam – $500. $600? Thank you, sir – $600. $700?
Catherine No, 800. 
Auctioneer Is anyone $900? Any? For $800 sold. Thank you very much, madam.

Catherine pays for the artworks.
Catherine Do you think that’s a good price for these things?
Auctioneer Yes, they’ll look beautiful together anywhere in your house. 
Catherine I mean, like, in a year’s time will they double in price?
The auctioneer stares at her with hostility.
Catherine Come to think, I do like the fish one.

Catherine returns to her apartment, leans the artworks against a wall and plays her phone messages while she gets ready to go out.
Woman (on first phone message) Cath, you bitch. We’re drinking at the Goanna Bar. You stood us up again. Hurry up and get down here. (on second phone message) Hey, we’re at the Echidna Bar. Might head over to the Dugong Club. So get your shit together, girl.
Catherine puts the artworks away in a cupboard before she goes out, discovering that one of them has left a mark on her wall.
Catherine Shit.