Walyja: family and art history in the Canning Stock Route Collection
John Carty, The Australian National University, 22 September 2010
CAROLYN FORSTER: My name is Carolyn Forster and I am President of the Friends here at the National Museum of Australia. Today we are absolutely delighted that we have John Carty to speak to us about some of the art in the Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route exhibition downstairs. Those of you who have seen the exhibition really enjoy it very much. John, I am so pleased you are here. It’s lovely.
John is an oral historian and anthropologist based at The Australian National University and has worked extensively throughout the Western Desert and the Kimberley regions. As the Canning Stock Route project anthropologist, he has recorded many oral histories with artists and custodians of the desert Country. John is also the co-curator of the exhibition and is co-editor of the project’s upcoming book, which I am sure will be greatly sought after. His broader research examines contemporary Aboriginal art with emphasis on the Western Desert painting and the Balgo art. I am not going to read all of this because I think we want to hear from you, John. There’s lots of wonderful things in John’s CV here but what we want to do is hear about all the art. John is highly qualified to give us this talk today, and please join me in welcoming him, thank you.
JOHN CARTY: Thanks very much, Carolyn, and thanks for having me back. I very much enjoyed my last lecture here, although you duped me into talking for a very long time and I rambled and left my daughter too long in child care and got in trouble. Today I am going to read mostly. If you see me wandering off and pointing to the screen too much, please direct me back to my notes because otherwise we will be here until the sun goes down.
The last lecture I gave was on the relationship between history and the Dreaming as manifest in the Canning Stock Route collection and in the exhibition space itself. Today I wanted to talk about something that I am teasing out, something that is not utterly resolved, the question of the art history that emerges out of these paintings and out of the oral histories that were recorded at the same time as we collected the paintings in the Canning Stock Route collection.
The Canning Stock Route collection tells many stories and provides insight into many realms of desert life. Among the most remarkable of these is the concept of walyja (family), which lies at the heart of desert society. One of the central impacts of twentieth-century history in the Western Desert was the movement of people away from their Country and the subsequent separation of family groups. By exploring the family relations that unite the Canning Stock Route collection paintings, we gain a greater insight into not only history but the Aboriginal art history of the Western Desert.
The story of Western Desert art, and the rise of contemporary Aboriginal art in Australia more broadly, is grounded largely in the story of Papunya - as Friends of the Museum you will all be very familiar with that, particularly with the Out of the Desert exhibition from a few years ago - and the school of painting that emerged there in the early 1970s. Papunya provided a locus around which to organise an understanding of a diverse array of painters as a movement and has subsequently and understandably become a kind of origin myth for contemporary desert art.
Yet west of Papunya, despite an extraordinary efflorescence of painting in multiple communities over recent decades the story thins. While the painting movements at Balgo, at Fitzroy Crossing and more recently at Bidyadanga and the Martu communities, who dominate the exhibition downstairs, have all received attention and commentary there has been no overarching framework from within which to discuss these seemingly diverse schools as movements of interrelated artists. There has been no story, no unifying context for the work of desert artists west of that Northern Territory line, where people from the Gibson, Great Sandy and Little Sandy deserts dispersed from their traditional homelands in extremely divergent directions and where art movements emerged seemingly autonomously in space and time. As a result, our understanding of the contemporary art history of this vast area of Western Australia remains fragmented and peripheral to the established narratives of Central Australia, the Kimberley, Arnhem Land and elsewhere.
The Canning Stock Route acts as a prism through which it is possible to trace both the human movements and the subsequent artistic movements that came to characterise the changing landscape of the Western Desert in the twentieth century. The stock route is an 1800-kilometre chain of waters, a line on a map that crosses three deserts, many dreaming tracks, multiple language areas and the traditional countries of many diverse but related desert peoples. Today, the Canning Stock Route is also surrounded by art centres. The existence of these art centres is a complex social, economic and historic phenomena, the full extent of which I don’t pretend to exhaust today. What I do want to focus on is the fact that these places and the art that emerges from them are the products of the historical movement of people out of and back to the Country surrounding the Canning Stock Route.
This is a map of the area [image shown]. That is the stock route, the red line through the middle. This is a very broad brushstroke map of the kinds of movements that were traced in the oral histories that we recorded as part of this project and the movement of people away from their Country to different places like Jigalong mission, Wiluna but predominantly also to missions like Balgo. Some Manyjilyjarra people from around the Canning Stock Route area ended up at Papunya and were those people who were involved in the early 1970s in Papunya. Other people from west of the Canning Stock Route moved to Bidyadanga, but some came south and a lot moved north and ended up being seemingly Kimberley people. That is not gospel, but that is a broad sense of some of the movement that we are talking about here.
The Canning Stock Route funnelled people northwards to Balgo or Billiluna and thereafter west to the stations of Fitzroy Valley or south-west to Wiluna and Jigalong following the trail of resources and family. As people settled into these new lives, they also found themselves separated for decade from their kin and Country. They became identified as new groups - Kimberley people, coastal people, mission people - or subsumed under generic terms such as Martu or Pintubi. It’s worth noting just fleetingly that people who you think of as Pintubi today, the men who painted for Papunya or the Kukatja at Balgo or the Yulparija at Bidyadanga, these are not concrete, locked-in, eternal, persistent terms; they are names that have emerged historically. A lot of the people who we call Pintubi or illbidga call themselves, if you dig, Manyjilyjarra There are people who would identify as being Manyjilyjarra all around these places, and in the Canning Stock Route exhibition we try to tease out some of those family connections. I am just flagging that as one of the threads of today. Behind these new names that people have today such as Martu and Pintupi - there were no Martu 100 years ago; Martu is like ‘Anangu’, these names that mean ‘one of us’, us, people - to which these art movements have been ascribed lies the modern story of the Country itself.
While there is no category of Canning Stock Route art just as there is no homogenous group of Canning Stock Route people, the stock route is a story which connects the people and the art of the region. While the stock route itself was often peripheral to much of what happened in the Western Desert during the past 100 years, as the principal colonial artery of the region it was and remains a vector and a reference point for Indigenous narratives and cross-cultural communication and encounter. For this reason, the Canning Stock Route is a particularly useful lense through which to refocus perceptions of both the people and the art of the Western Desert. It provides both a historical and a geographic focus otherwise lacking in our understanding of this hugely important group of Western Desert artists.
The Canning Stock Route project began with the premise that there were artists from each of these art centres surrounding the Canning Stock Route who had historical and familial connections to the stock route and adjacent countries. That was the very loose premise but we thought it was a good enough premise to start with, knowing that all these art centres surrounding the stock route had artists painting there who were all painting the Country there in the middle. We knew that artists such as Eubena Nampitjin, Billy Thomas, Stumpy Brown, Donald Moko, Spider Snell, Patrick Tjungurrayi and Rover Thomas all had these very explicit connections to the stock route. But what couldn’t have been anticipated, as people came together and shared their stories throughout the project, was the extent of these family connections between seemingly unrelated artists from geographically diverse art centres.
The real revelation for me in this process was on the first Canning Stock Route trip that we went on in 2007 was arriving at Well 36 in the middle of the stock route. All of the artists from all the different art centres arrived there for the first big collective painting workshop through which some of the paintings in the exhibition emerged. From my background I knew lots of the Balgo artists and I knew that they had relationships to some other groups further south in the desert and so on. But when we got all these artists together at Well 36, the relationships between people from the far ends of the desert, brothers and sisters, parents, cousins and grandparents was extraordinary. It was a revelatory sense of this hidden web of connections that underscored contemporary art movements.
It was at this point - not right then but in the days around this moment - that we began to tease out the genealogical connections and the relationships between artists. People sitting there painting together, who I thought would have no reason to know each other, who were painting the same Country and who were chatting like they had known each other 60 or 70 years ago walking around the desert because it was their cousin or their cousin’s sister or their uncle’s brother. I spent a lot of time sitting there trying to be an anthropologist figuring out how everyone was related. And I didn’t figure it all out in the few days we spent at Well 36. I spent another three years teasing out this story in fragments, sitting down with individuals, sitting down with families over the next three years and trying to figure out exactly what this web of social relatedness across the Western Desert was that was previously invisible to me. I knew there was a relationship but not on the scale that it was. There were instances like this [image shown]: this is Yupinya Nampitjin who is the matriarch of Western Desert painting and Jakayu Biljabu, whose painting downstairs is the really big painting in the big seven sisters wall up in the sky. Jakayu married Yupinya’s brother a long time and they are sisters-in-law. They are very close and they see each other at funerals and so forth. It’s an image that I want you to keep in your head as we tease through some of the other examples today, because Yupinya is an extraordinarily important part of this story.
I won’t go into who was related to who and how everyone was related to everyone - I don’t think you guys need that anthropological nerd detail today - but the depth and density of these relations across the artistic compass of the Western Desert is dazzling and disorienting for those of us used to thinking in geographic terms of Balgo art or Papunya art or Bidyadanga art. The product of all that research is this diagram, which you can’t see too well here [image shown]. If you go down to the book store and have a squiz in the back of the catalogue or better yet go and buy one, you will see this diagram which is a cross-section of an archaic scroll that we have created which maps all these family relationships across all these artists. This is just a cross-section of a handful of artists from the exhibition. You will see from the number of paintings there that, in a relatively small contained group of relatedness, all of the art centres represented in the exhibition downstairs are in this relatively small family group that you can trace to a few ancestors and marriage - these being the grandparents, parents, current generation of artists and the children. I won’t go into this again in great detail today but it’s the principle. It’s easier to get at this story through more concrete examples as well.
Among the most striking examples of the relationship between social and artistic dispersal around the Canning Stock Route is that of a man who is probably not regarded as a Western Desert artist at all, and that is Rover Thomas. Rover Thomas was born at Yalta, a soak just north of Kunawarritji, which is Well 33, and grew up around the Canning Stock Route in the 1930s. After the death of his parents, Rover met up with drovers travelling back along the stock route and followed them north to an improbable future in which he became one of Australia’s greatest artists. In his wake other ways of contemporary art history, less obvious and less commonly understood, fanned out across the desert. As Rover moved north, his sister Nyuju Stumpy Brown followed behind, moving to Balgo and later to Fitzroy Crossing. Rover’s other sister, Kupi, gave birth to Mary Meribida, whose painting is downstairs, and they moved to Bidyadanga. Rover’s older brother, Charlie Brooks, came looking for him, travelled all the way up to about Well 40 or 41 and then came back down and ended up settling at Jigalong where he had his family, and then his son Clifford Brooks moved down to Wiluna. [See Rovers family movement map]
Rover’s extraordinary trajectory accords with the rule of Western Desert history in the twentieth century, not its exceptions. The initial dispersal of his siblings to Balgo, Bidyadanga and Jigalong reflects the defining of story of so many families whose lives intersected with the Canning Stock Route. Kin moving at different times, and for different researches, out of their home country found themselves thereafter settled and separated on missions and stations at vast distances from one another. It was in these small communities that contemporary art flourished in many localised forms. So it is that from one small family group we find artists from four geographically and stylistically diverse schools of contemporary desert painting.
There is perhaps no greater embodiment of the family connections underpinning the story of contemporary desert art than the men’s collaborative painting (Kunawarritji to Wajaparni) that was produced at Well 36 in 2007 as part of the ‘return to Country’ trip. The work was painted by eight men, representing five different art centres from across the desert. The painting makes no reference to the line of the stock route at all; rather, the men took a cross-section of the country intersected by Wells 33 to 38 and used it to explain the vast relational logic of their own social world. Martu artist Jeffrey James was explicit about the meaning of the painting for the artists. He said:
Realised almost entirely in shades of white, the variations in dotting technique across the sections of the painting reveal the hands of separate artists and the general styles of different art centres. But they meet around the wells, as their ancestors once did, to share a common story for that country. That such a small cross-section of the stock route country could be painted by men from five art centres spread across the perimeter of the Western Desert embodies the whole story I am trying to tease out today. You only have to remember the diagram I showed previously to see that the notion of the desert family tree expressed in the men’s painting is itself reflected in the broader story of contemporary art.
But it is not just about genealogy. Expansive Aboriginal notions of walyja, of family, don’t fit neatly into Western models of family or even anthropological expectations of what Aboriginal families look like. That is why the oral histories recorded throughout the Canning Stock Route project have been an invaluable tool in piecing together these new perspectives on contemporary art that I am broaching today. Oral histories include the kind of people and the kind of relationships that genealogies may often lead out. Donald Moko from Bidyadanga is another artist who allows us to peak behind the curtain of geographic isolation to see artists in their historical and familial connections. This is an oral history we recorded with him in Bidyadanga. He says:
Donald Moko’s life story provides a framework for understanding the family networks that radiate out from the CSR region into the Kimberley and east into central Australia. While Moko gravitated towards the coastal mission at La Grange, now Bidyadanga, his extended desert family ended up in Balgo and Kiwirrkura. His life history also suggests the expansive notion of family that underscores Western Desert society. In this quote he refers to our mummies and daddies, he refers to all his mummies at Balgo. These are the clues about how people talk about their social world. One of the things we try to communicate in the exhibition is that there is a fundamentally different understanding of relatedness and of family and therefore of self, I think, expressed in Aboriginal social life about how you are constituted by your relationships and how you can have multiple parents, multiple cousins and multiple brothers and sisters in ways that we would see that as non-family, as a separate kind of relationship. When you understand the scale of that relatedness, the impacts of history and the separations that twentieth-century history in the Western Desert impacted upon people’s lives become all the more present.
Another aspect of Donald Moko’s story which I think is really enlightening is that he remembers being grown up by Yupinya Nampitjin. He was walking around a little naked kid - that’s not part of this story but it came out in other stories that he told. Yupinya was living in the same country, for a time Yupinya took care of him. It seems also that Yupinya took care of half of the artists in the Canning Stock Route exhibition so that may not be profound insight. But it is a profound insight in terms of what we are talking about in terms of this broader sense of family that we want people to understand.
Kayili artist Pulpurru Davies remembers growing up Papunya Tula artist Charlie Wallabi when he was young, and conversely another artist Nola Campbell remembers Charlie growing her up when he was a bit older and she was just really young. There are many iterations of this within the Canning Stock Route project. That’s Nola’s painting and that is Charlie on the right [image shown - Tika Tika painting, and Nyaru painting, by Nola and Charlie respectively].This is a quote from Nola saying:
It is in these intimate remembrances of family life in the desert of who people travelled with, who carried them, who gave them meat and who they, in turn, fed and cared for that the heart of the Indigenous histories of the region emerge.
The oral histories of Western Desert artists pivot on the themes of movement and family. It is the fragmentation of families that define the local history of the Canning Stock Route country; and it’s likewise the unceasing movement of people back and forth between family members today that has defined the recent art history of the region. Just as these life stories detail the movement of families to distant points of the desert perimeter, so too do they outline the contemporary patterns of mobility and cultural transmission which reconnect them. The seasonal, ceremonial and social movements of Kimberley, Pilbara and desert people also represent a blueprint for the transmission of, among other things, painting practices and styles. It is no accident that the Canning Stock Route is today ringed by art centres.
One of the easiest ways to understand this sense of how this Indigenous art history is leading to these art centres so it is not just a simple case of a white person turns up at Newman and says, ‘Look, the government has got funding to give you an art centre. Do you want an art centre?’ There are levels on which you can explain how each of these art centres and each of these movements happened in a fairly practical way. But that is not the story that the artists tell, and this is the story that I am interested in.
The emergence of Martumili, which is the most recent of these art centres, is the one I want to explore a little bit here because the Martu artists were the very last to start painting, along with some Martu down at Wiluna. But of all the artists in the Canning Stock Route region, and in the Canning Stock Route exhibition particularly, the Martu artists were the last. They only began painting around the same time as the Canning Stock Route project commenced. They started as an art centre in 2006, and our first trip was in 2007. The reason they didn’t paint for the 35 years leading up to that point because they had real reservations about what they saw the Balgo men and the Papunya men painting. They felt that some of the designs that were being painted - and this happened in the 1970s where men from other parts of the desert raised concerns about what the Papunya men were painting, but that got resolved by the men themselves. But the Martu sat over here watching that and just thought ‘no, it’s not for us.’ They didn’t want to paint and they had real reservations and cultural concerns about what was being released into the public realm in these paintings.
The question was: why in 2006 did they finally feel that it was okay to start doing this publicly. I think the answer lies in this Indigenous art history and this social dynamism in the desert. The high mobility of desert people today has given Martu exposure to a broad sense of what painting has become for other desert people. Through family networks, funerals and ceremonial travel, Martu observed developments in the Fitzroy Valley at Mangkaja and in the west Kimberley with the Bidyadanga artists where different styles of painting were emerging, styles they were perhaps more comfortable with. They were also aware of relatives who were beginning to paint commercially for Kayili artists. This is quite a long quote but I have included it here because, again, it is another part of the important part of the oral history revealing the story for us. This is Kumpaya Girgaba who is responsible for the very big paintings at the start of the exhibition downstairs. She is the sister of Helicopter and Charlie Wallabi. Her mother was the woman who was flown away in the helicopter with Helicopter, and she came back south and lived with the Martu. She has huge connections across the desert. This is her oral history about how she started painting:
It sounds fairly mundane on some level but this is, to my mind, the equivalent of some of the great Dreaming stories, some of the great ancestors who travel around the desert and collect ceremonial objects and steal things from other groups and bring them back to their people and create new dances and create new songs. This is the kind of lineage that we need to understand contemporary artists within. Individuals such as Kumpaya loom large in the Indigenous art history of the Martu. Her journeys to visit kin in far away communities, bringing back fibre works and painting to the Martu communities, capture the essence of Indigenous art historical narratives in a way that discussion of funding applications, government, policy and art centres never will.
Kumpaya was one of the first Martu women to translate the artistic developments in other communities into something the Martu were comfortable with, and her journey reveals an aesthetic apprenticeship that characterises the transmission of artistic practices in the Canning Stock Route Country. It is also a narrative of transmission tentatively bound to the enduring Martu concerns about what other desert artists paint publicly. Kumpaya is very careful to down play the notion - I didn’t include this quote here - that she learnt anything at Balgo because of the concerns I spoke of earlier. In another interview I did with her she said, ‘I didn’t learn anything at Balgo. I wasn’t sure about doing painting straight away there.’ So she’s very deliberate about saying, ‘I didn’t paint at Balgo. I painted at these other places and that’s the painting I brought back to the Martu.’
Other Martu artists, who spent more time in Balgo, draw more explicitly on Eubena Nampitjin as having been an early influence. [Image shown] Here from your left to right, that is Nora Wompi, Bugai Whylouter and Kumpaya in the middle and Nora Nangapa. They collectively did the first painting when the first painting you see when you walk into the exhibition, Kunkun, with all the circles. Nora Wampi and Nora Nangapa walked into Balgo via the Canning Stock Route in the 1950s and later returned to their home country of Coonawaragi when the community was established. Both artists regularly travelled to Balgo when they learned to paint with Eubena - Wompi in the 1990s and Nangapa more recently. Actually when I was living in Balgo, Nangapa - I didn’t know who she was, she was just someone’s grandmother at the time - was sitting next to Eubena and Eubena said, ‘Here, have one of my painting boards.’ I watched Eubena teaching her to paint long before I knew I was going to be involved in this project. Nangapa said, ‘I don’t know how to paint,’ and Eubena said, ‘Just do what I do, no worries.’ She did this very beautiful painting - and she still does.
This is Wompi, Eubena and Nangapa [these are the paintings in the section - image shown]. On some level you might think they don’t look so similar to start with. These are the paintings downstairs [images shown]. I could choose three paintings by these women and they would look like three sisters standing there before you; they are just not the ones in the exhibition. But if you know how to look, you can actually see the structure, the pallette and the basic premise of what Eubena does expressed in slightly different idiosyncratic forms in both what Wompi and Nangapa do. There are other paintings that express that more clearly.
The skills learnt by Wompi and Nangapa during these apprenticeships have been passed down to other Martu painters with whom they live, including Wompi’s daughter-in-law which is Bugai, the second from the left there [image shown]. Bugai says she learns how to paint by watching Wompi: ‘Nangapa and Wompi really know how to paint. I watch them and I learn from them.’ Explaining the rationale behind an early canvas - in fact, the first canvas she ever did was on that Canning Stock Route trip, she says that she tried to paint like Eubena because Nangapa, Kumpaya and Wompi had told her that’s the way you have to go. If you want to be safe about what you paint, do what Eubena does. ‘Safe’ also happens to mean luscious, incredible, gestural, abstract masterpieces. So the Martu have a good template for safe painting.
The influence of Eubena’s loose and really expressive, confident brush strokes as a style that took her decades to develop is already resonant in the confident mark making of these Kunawarritji women with whom she has shared that style. These notions of cumulative influence, aesthetic apprenticeship, cultural transmission are not only processes that lead to the development of new painting schools they are the dynamic which functions at their core. The reality of artistic practice in desert communities defies perceptions of stable and discreet groups of artists producing homogenous and localised styles. Many Canning Stock Route painters spend time with family members in other communities where they invariably paint together using materials and pallettes available in these locations.
Several artists paint for multiple art centres. When we were travelling around on the Canning Stock Route trying to get Nangapa to record stories, we went to Kunawarritji to find Nangapa, and they told us she had gone to Balgo to visit someone. So we ended up going back, and through another trip we went to Balgo trying to find Nangapa and they told us that she was down at Kiwirrkurra. A couple of weeks later I was at Kiwirrkurra and she had just left because there was this football carnival on at Kunawarritji that she didn’t want to miss. We were was chasing this old woman around the desert. She was like lightning.
Yanjimi, one of the men who does the Lake Disappointment paintings downstairs - not the figurative ones but the more abstract or iconographic one - lives at Parnngurr. The first painting I ever saw from him was at Mangkaja when he had been staying for a funeral and he had done some paintings there to help him pay for his way home. Then later in the trip, I had heard that he painted for the Martu but I had never seen him painting for the Martu. The painting that is actually in the exhibition downstairs we had to get from Wiluna because he hadn’t done that painting up here (where he normally lives and paints) . He had done these great paintings dotted around the Western Desert but none where he was supposed to. These are just two examples but these are really common. This is the extent of an artist’s movement that in a matter of weeks through sports, through funerals, through ceremony and paintings are part of the economics of how you move yourself around the desert.
The most famous of artists who paint between two different art centres, and the artist who has most successfully achieved that in his actual paintings, is Patrick Tjungurrayi. He moves between Balgo and Kiwirrkurra. He is one of the men who walked off the Canning Stock Route as a young man, grew up in Balgo on the mission, got married there and then, when he could, moved back south to his country at Kiwirrkurra. It just happens that Papunya Tula and Balgo are two of the most famous painting schools in the Western Desert and they are very different. There is this really strong cerebral, compositional style through Papunya Tula and this really expressive slightly psychedelic experimental style at Balgo; and Patrick has moved between the two over the years. He won the painting award in Darwin one year with a black and white composition from Papunya Tula, which I couldn’t believe because the paintings I had seen at Balgo were more psychedelic than this [image shown Canning Stock Route Country]. He is one of these artists who has combined the best of two art centres to create his own extraordinary kind of style. People just sort of assume that it’s either Balgo or Papunya; but it’s actually neither. It is one artist moving between the two.
Tjungurrayi is an artist whose critical and commercial success has not been defined by the style of the art centre for which he paints but by his capacity to absorb and interpret diverse artistic influences over a long career spent moving between the dual centres of his family’s residence. This mobility is both the response to the contingencies of history to family members being separated by vast distances and the continuation of the processes of social and cultural dynamism that have forever operated in desert art.
Acrylic painting is only the most recent manifestation of these enduring cross-cultural processes of aesthetic transmission and economic exchange. For many thousands of years before Canning and the first explorers left their prints across the desert realm, the people of the CSR countries travelled widely and were engaged in trade and social exchange with each other and with more distant peoples from all directions of the compass. The archaeological research currently being undertaken along the Canning Stock Route also illuminates these patterns of deep historical, social and aesthetic dynamism within the regions surrounding the Canning Stock Route. Tools, artefacts and artworks where the particular kinds of blades, the shape of a shield or the designs engraved on an object painted on a rock wall or dotted on a canvas are all embodiments of these processes.
There is a painting by Jackie Giles downstairs but I am not using it in this display because it doesn’t serve my purpose, but the big yellow pulsing circles downstairs [Purrungu] is by Jackie Giles. This is the artist I am showing you here. His early paintings, with their mazes and interlocking key designs echo, the incised designs of pearl shell and hardwood shields which entered the artistic repertoire of desert cultures from the north and west coast via the great trade routes. You can see in the designs of his painting, and these two objects are downstairs in the exhibition [images shown].
You see the engraving on the shield, which you can go and look at more closely, and also the engravings on the pearl shell mirroring those designs. These paintings recall the journeys of exchange that crisscross the deserts along the pathways that were intensified, cut off or forever transformed by the coming of the stock route.
I won’t go into this in any detail today but this is what I am talking about. This is a map that Kim Akerman did [image shown]. We threw some objects onto it when we were playing around trying to work this all out at some point - ignore the objects to some extent. These are maps of trade routes of how certain shields, certain kinds of knives, certain kinds of designs move into the desert area along specific routes through specific relationships between people; and also how other kinds of objects came into the desert area from Central Australia that might not have been - dare I say - Indigenous to that part of the desert. The material culture of the Western Desert has always been a product of this interaction between other material cultural systems. I am suggesting that this is just the latest expression of that particular process of change and transformation. Such paintings also remind us that these traded items - pearl shells, spear points and other objects from the Kimberley and Pilbara - sometimes took on new meaning and significance as they became absorbed into desert cultures. Objects perceived as relatively mundane by one group could become the magical articles of another group. The open and public designs or materials of one group could similarly become restricted and sacred to another; and vice versa.
We had this issue come up with pearl shells even within the context of curating the exhibition. The pearl shells that have been traded down into the desert since time began, the Kimberley people were very comfortable with those shells being seen as museum displays, as being art objects, as things that you trade, as things that people make today to sell to galleries and so forth. The Martu don’t have that same history of relationship. They have similar ceremonial uses for pearl shell long and enduring but not that public exchange with the outside cultures. We had to negotiate even within the groups involved in the exhibition about what we would do about pearl shell. The decision was, after going back and forth between the Kimberley and the Martu communities over a couple of years, that we could use pearl shell in the exhibition but that they couldn’t be anywhere near the Martu paintings. You will find them buried at the end - in the space where they should be anyway because that’s where the dreaming narrative for those objects is - but these things played out even in the curation of the show. They are very much alive in what we had to consider in putting this story together.
To paint in the desert is a very powerful act. The aesthetics of contemporary desert art emerge out of multiple practices, including body painting, rock art, sand drawings, sand sculpture and object design. The aesthetics and iconographic elements of these practices are often grounded in ritual or restricted contexts. Even when acrylic paintings make no reference to such designs or their contexts, embedded cultural associations mean there is always the possibility of misinterpretation by other desert people. Given the ongoing cultural and political negotiations occurring across the Western Desert and beyond about what public art can be, painting is not without risk. As noted earlier, such concerns informed the Martu resistance to the commercialisation of their art for many years.
Yunkurra Billy Atkins, who is arguably Martumili’s most experienced artist - he is also their most conservative although you struggle to know that by looking at his paintings - he embodies Martu cultural conservative, and that is why he paints the way he paints. When I was recording oral histories with Yunkurra and talking about paintings, he said to me during the course of the project, when I was talking about had he seen Balgo and Papunya painters, he said, ‘They got their ngurlu and their ngurra mixed up.’ Ngurlu means sacred and ngurra means country. What he means is that ngurlu, the sacred designs and things that you might see on rock walls or sacred objects, are for Aboriginal people and probably (more specifically) initiated Aboriginal men, not for release to the public; and ngurra, which is your country, your land, that is what you should be painting. He thinks Balgo and Papunya - he thinks the last 30 years of Western Desert painting were all a bit mixed up really and they shouldn’t have been doing that.
His answer is to paint in this warped landscape style where he tells crazy cannibal stories. He will put a carved shield design into the painting but he’ll put it inside an actual carved shield. So in his mind he is not releasing these designs out into the world; he’s finding ways to paint these things that he doesn’t think the Martu should be painting. This is the next wave of what’s going on in Martu art at the moment. It’s really fascinating. The point of that being that, for the Martu, it is considered very dangerous to paint the kinds of things that people at Balgo and Papunya take for granted as being completely fine to paint. This art history and this debate is still very much alive in the desert about what you can paint.
For the Martu artists who began painting around the same time as this Canning Stock Route project commenced, these processes are still only in their infancy and now, having decided to paint, Martu artists are exploring the formal and aesthetic possibilities of the medium in creative tension with their own cultural constraints. These constraints and the innovations they necessitate continue to fuel the transformative quality of desert acrylic art as much as the processes of transmission that I described previously.
Today through new processes of exchange, paintings that are produced in the wood smoke and family patter of community life become revered objects on gallery walls. They move from one cultural context to another, and in that transmission they become transformed by the values and meanings of the art historical tradition into which they are subsumed. These social dynamics which underlie contemporary desert art do not represent a rupture in tradition but a continuation of the processes of travel, exchange and transformation that have long characterised the cultures of this extraordinary region. If you take this quote from Jackie Giles - again it’s a long one but there’s a reason for it - he says:
I have provided this quote in full here because it gives an insight into the broader scheme of life in which people understand contemporary painting. The movement of acrylic paintings into networks of national and international commerce is, to artists such as the great Mr Giles, a strangely coherent expansion upon the vast relational logic of their own lives. However we eventually come to reframe Western Desert painting movements in historical, geographical, material terms, for the artists themselves such narratives are to be understood in uniquely personal terms. This is Mr Giles’s wife. She says:
And there is a great quote from Mr Giles which follows this quote which says, ‘I started painting. It was all me.’ Such localised art histories rarely refer in the first instance to the institutional or non-Indigenous aspects of developing an art centre or movement or a market. One way or another desert artists attribute personal origins to the evolving story of their art. I spoke in the introduction about Papunya as a kind of origin myth for contemporary art. If we could ask many of those artists, and if you do the reading, a lot of those artists attribute the beginnings of that painting movement to Namatjira. He was the one before them who was painting in the way that artists today attribute it to Rover or to attribute it to the Papunya old blokes.
And likewise Stumpy Brown refers not to local art historical events or influences at Fitzroy Crossing - the adult education centre, the literacy centre and these kinds of things that underscored the art practice - but to her brother Rover who made painting possible in a different way. She said:
Stumpy, determined not to be derivative of her brother, went on to pioneer her own very distinct style. Yet at the opposite end of the of the CSR in Wiluna, Clifford Brooks has been inspired by his aesthetic heritage to paint the classical circle line compositions of desert iconography in the ochres that his father’s brother, Rover Thomas, pioneered in the east Kimberley. Painting the story of Rover’s departure from the desert, Brooks explores his own authority to paint through the story of an ancestor who walked from Well 33 to the Venice Biennale.
Referencing Clifford Brooks paintings in the section of the web site: Rover's legacy
These Indigenous art histories foreground the role of individuals, of family members who dreamt a new song, pioneered a style or went on journeys from which they brought back painting in the same way that people might bring a gift or a ceremony to fulfil relationships of obligation. In these ways the creative actions of contemporary desert artists such as Rover Thomas, Kumpaya, Eubena and Jackie Giles not only reflect the economic logic of desert society but also the essentially creative character that exists at its core.
In the Jukurrpa, Dreamtime ancestors stomped and flew across the desert, interacting with family and strangers, fulfilling obligations, making and breaking the law, all the while leaving their creative traces in the design of the landscape and the ritual designs associated with each country. Today, contemporary artists travel in much the same way, following their Law, making their marks, leaving their designs and passing on their creative powers through painted country. To see family members painting the same Country in very different styles or indeed to see people from the same art centre now painting different Country in the same style is to begin to piece together the human art history of contemporary desert painting.
Of course, not all artists I have discussed today paint Country directly along the line of the stock route, some belong further east or west, and not all followed the stock route to their current communities. Many avoided it and many moved in different directions. But all of the artists represented in the National Museum’s collection consider themselves part of the story for this Country and this is a story that, while often organised around the Canning Stock Route, ultimately surrounds, absorbs and overwhelms that line. The expansive logic of the Canning Stock Route collection and the exhibition downstairs reflects this need to recognise the logic and primacy of walyja, of family, in the Aboriginal story of contemporary desert art. This intimate logic of relatedness pulled the focus of the exhibition away from the line of the whilefella road and out - north to the east Kimberley, west to the coast and east to the fringes of Central Australia, and perhaps as we sit here today further east still into the evolving story of the Country. Thank you. [applause]
CAROLYN FORSTER: Thank you, that was just lovely. We really enjoyed that. It has given us another overlay to the exhibition. We will be spending more time down there. I don’t want you to be fined for the babysitter.
JOHN CARTY: It’s okay, we started a bit earlier today.
CAROLYN FORSTER: So if people would like to ask a few questions.
QUESTION: Do the Balgo and Papunya artists articulate a rationale for what they do paint, what the Martu man is concerned about them painting?
JOHN CARTY: It’s never settled. Even at Balgo or at Papunya there will still be arguments between families, between artists, about what you can and can’t paint. The basics were sorted out in the late 1970s, I guess, in terms of there was certain versions of the story and certain ways of telling it and certain iconographic forms that were considered to be open and relatively non-problematic that, if anyone saw them, there would be no danger: they couldn’t possibly interpret or read into it or see things that they weren’t supposed to see. The classic Tingari, which you would all be familiar with, a grid of circles with connecting lines, this was decided to be a safe thing that men of the desert could paint and it wouldn’t be problematic. Funnily enough, it’s the one thing the Martu say, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that.’
I am relatively young. I went to Balgo in 2002 for the first time, and this had been sorted out on some level for 20 years - people had been resolved about what you can and can’t paint. That said, there wouldn’t be a week that goes by without there being some family argument about someone painting something that someone else has rights to. It’s not that it shouldn’t be seen; it’s that you’re not the one who’s allowed to paint it. They are more the arguments that go on today.
QUESTION: [inaudible] it shouldn’t be painted at all, it’s not appropriate to paint.
JOHN CARTY: I imagine now in the infancy of this artistic movement that that conversation is not finished. I suspect this guy [Billy Atkins] is already playing with those forms in slightly hidden ways that he will end up doing paintings that a few years ago he would have said were not appropriate because he’s an experimental artist in his own way. He’s playing at the very edges of his culture of what he can reveal. That’s why Martu art is so interesting for us around at the moment who weren’t necessarily paying attention in 1970 - and for me I wasn’t born - to pay attention. Most of you probably were, I suspect, but you should have been paying attention. You can actually see these things playing out now, and that’s what really interesting to me.
QUESTION: There has been a similar discussion around Namatjira himself, the way he took what is sacred and not to be used and used it in ways differently from traditionally, but used it nonetheless.
JOHN CARTY: He painted places that are sacred but he painted them in a seemingly acceptable way. I think that’s the artistic tension that desert artists sit at the very edge of. There are some artists who shy away from it and just won’t go near it; then there are the others - and they tend to be the great artists - who actually play at the edges of what is possible, what you can and cannot paint. They are often the most conservative cultural custodians who are the most experimental artistically.
QUESTION: This is a very simple question. I haven’t actually seen the exhibition so I don’t know if it’s explained - I will go and see it straight away - but we have several international friends here today. I have just been asked the question: what is a stock route? Can you please explain what it is. If you happen to come from Switzerland, Cyprus, Italy or Central America, they don’t have Canning Stock Routes.
JOHN CARTY: I assume a great many Australians wouldn’t know what a stock route is either.
QUESTION: If you could just explain this particular one as well.
JOHN CARTY: I took a few liberties and I assumed a few things today because I had lectured a few weeks ago so I thought I might have explained some of those things already. A stock route, and the Canning Stock Route, is a road basically created with waters, with wells sunk to allow the movement of stock - cattle primarily but it could be other stock - through the desert from one station to another station or from a station to market. All of the cattle that were eating grass up here needed to be moved down to the markets in southern Western Australia at the goldfields.
QUESTION: How far is that?
JOHN CARTY: That is 1800 kilometres - on foot. They were walked. So the cattle will walk. It took a few months. There were 50 wells and they had to walk to a well each day so the cattle could drink. So the stock route was created through Aboriginal country using Aboriginal waters to create this commercial highway through the desert to unite the pastoral and the mining industries, to bring cattle from the pastoral industry down to the mines that were emerging 100 years ago in Western Australia as the two arms of the Western Australian economy.
QUESTION: One more question: How did the wells eventuate? Were they dug by the miners or are they natural water spots?
JOHN CARTY: The man who surveyed the stock route, Canning, used Aboriginal guides to find the water and he then sunk wells over the Aboriginal waters to create these wells that would feed cattle. That was the source of great cultural conflict between the Aboriginal people, who then couldn’t access their waters, and the drovers who would be coming along later with all these cattle drinking all of their waters. As discussed earlier, it was a very poorly thought-through pioneering Australian story, along with the rest of them.
QUESTION: The Aborigines were also slaves essentially.
JOHN CARTY: The Aborigines were chained up to be led to these waters. As you will see in the exhibition downstairs, that was a hugely contentious part of the way that the stock route was built, which has cast a shadow over its operation.
QUESTION: John, it just struck me looking at this map that you have used a few times today that all of the art centres, with the exception of Balgo and Wiluna, are actually quite a way away from the stock route itself. Is that a result of the fact that the Aboriginal people were pushed away from the route while it was active? We talk about people migrating into centres, but it struck me that the stars are all a long way from the route.
JOHN CARTY: They are. [image shown] That shows you on some level - ignoring for a second that side of things - that’s the periphery of the frontier in the twentieth century. This mining town of Newman was relatively recent but the mission of Jigalong came up here and the mission at Balgo is there. They came up in response to the stock route and the people being displaced. The missions were very strategic in where they located themselves. Aboriginal people couldn’t really go to Wiluna because it was a town. There was no place for them in a town. Aboriginal people had to go to a mission or a station where they couldn’t be seen and where they could be dealt with. They weren’t really allowed to go to Wiluna.
The ones that came to Balgo - their country might have been over here and they came across and up to Balgo. But a lot of their family walked up to Fitzroy - like Stumpy Brown, a lot of her family walked up to Fitzroy. She followed her uncle who was a drover from Balgo and then went to Fitzroy. In this country here [indicates] they moved for a different reason due to drought not cross-cultural conflict - they moved this way later and other Martu moved out to Jigalong at different times. There is no one story.
I use the stock route as our story to help hold all this information together. There is no one reason why people moved in these directions, but the stock route is the symbol of those processes that were going on in the twentieth century. They weren’t all cross-cultural but they were increasingly inflected with cross-cultural elements, because if family had travelled with drovers to Balgo out of their own free will - out of interest, a sense of curiosity, wanting to follow the beef, wanting to taste the tobacco, wanting to know more about tea and sugar. Other family members would then follow looking for them, so it was kind of a snowballing of related causes that led people to these different places.
QUESTION: You touched on it earlier when you said that somebody went to one of the northern areas and painted pictures to buy his way back to his home. This commercial aspect of Aboriginal art, this explosion of art and commerce, must be changing the quality of pictures. Can I have your opinion on that please.
JOHN CARTY: It certainly can do if someone is just knocking out a painting because they want a quick dollar, certainly. But my argument around that is that, if you look at everything that I have just described - if you look at the last 100 years and look at the displacement of people from their Country and the emergence of these art centres and why they emerged as economic entities, as a way that people displaced from their country could re-imagine their economies, re-harness their country as a resource to engage with the rest of Australia in a way that was taken away from them in their hunter gatherer social lifestyle, painting has always been a deeply economic practice. It is just that the economic practice is not separate from the deeply cultural elements of what is painted. I think in Australia we struggle with the relationship between economic and religious modes of thinking. Michelangelo had patrons. The Sistine Chapel didn’t get done for free. Aboriginal artists paint for money, absolutely, and that’s not counter to painting for cultural reasons - that is my argument.
The bigger argument I am trying to develop is the historical emergence of these art centres is a response to this economic impact of the last 100 years, because people have no other way to earn a living. In these communities in the middle of the stock route there is no way of engaging with the Australian economy other than through selling your culture. So the genius of contemporary art, the genius of painting, is that it’s a way of doing what you want to do, of reproducing your own cultural values, in exchange for what we value, or what we encode in value, which is money - and then using that money to buy a car to go hunting in your country. Or to reproduce the social relationships that I just described. The money that this man got from his painting here [Yanjimi Peter Rowlands] allowed him to fulfil his social responsibility which was to attend that funeral. If you don’t attend the funeral there are consequences; if you don’t attend ceremonies there are consequences. But when you live on welfare you can’t fulfil your cultural obligations. You can’t get from here to here on welfare, so you paint. It just so happens that people paint with great integrity and we have extraordinary paintings as a product of that.
The great story that is still not being told in Australia today is the relationship between the economic, the cultural and the religious elements of contemporary art because we do like to keep the economics separate from the metaphysics of our art. I have lots of friends who are artists, white friends, and they all love to get paid; they love it when people buy their paintings. They are not separate. We need them to be separate in some way for our own idea of art, but I think that does a violence to what Aboriginal artists are doing. That’s a long answer to a fairly simple question, but there you go. That was a good question, and it allowed me to talk more.
CAROLYN FORSTER: John, thank you so much. I know that everyone has enjoyed today. To get that overlay of family that perhaps isn’t quite so evident downstairs really helps. To think that not only were they perhaps painting to go to a funeral but also painting maybe to go to the football also is quite endearing as well. Please join me in thanking John once again for speaking to us today.
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Date published: 29 November 2010