Martumili Ngurra canvas
Stories of country
Six Martu women from central Western Australia created this painting, Martumili Ngurra, to tell the stories of their country.
Measuring 3.2 x 5 metres, the canvas is one of the largest in the National Museum's extensive collection of Aboriginal art. Martumili Ngurra (This is all Martu's home) was painted by Kumpaya Girgaba, Jakayu Biljabu, Ngamaru Bidu, Thelma Judson, Ngalangka (Nola) Taylor and Jane Girgaba in 2009.
Martu peoples have the management and care of this landscape, which encompasses sections of the Little Sandy, Great Sandy and Gibson deserts, and is imbued with the journeys of ancestral beings. For countless generations, Martu peoples have fulfilled their responsibility through seasonal burning and, more recently, by painting their country on canvas.
The Museum bought Martumili Ngurra in 2009 as part of the Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route project – a joint creative initiative between the National Museum of Australia and FORM. The project, which explored the history and current art practices of Aboriginal communities along the route, resulted in the acquisition of the Canning Stock Route collection and a major touring exhibition, which opened in Canberra on 30 July 2010.
Dreaming tracks and community journeys
Represented in Martumili Ngurra are the tracks of numerous Jukurrpa (Dreaming) and community journeys, as well as important geographical sites and roadways related to the mining and pastoral industries that arrived in the region during the 19th century. The Talawana Track, which intersects the Canning Stock Route, runs across the centre of the painting, with pathways to communities and water wells.
Sites from one of the Martu women’s most important Dreamings, the Minyipuru (Seven Sisters), are shown in smaller circles, along with paths used for hunting and maintaining the landscape. The repetitive multicoloured lines represent sandhills at various stages of regeneration following fire treatment, or ‘burning the country’, and the waterholes, soakwaters and springs of the area.
Martu peoples were left or were forced into missions away from their homelands after the completion of the Canning Stock Route in 1910, and later, for the construction of the Talawana Track, built to service the Woomera missile testing project in the early 1960s. Many Martu peoples returned to their country in the 1980s.
Creating and selling artworks helps the Martu maintain economic independence and strengthen their communities. The Martumili Ngurra artists are associated with the Martumili Artists art centre and the community of Parnngurr.
Martumili Artists represents artists from six Martu communities in the Pilbara in Western Australia: Kunawarritji, Punmu, Nullagine, Parnpajinya/Newman, Jigalong and Parnngurr. Martu lands cover a large stretch of Country, from south of Well 5 to Well 39 on the Canning Stock Route.
Martumili Artists has grown rapidly, establishing a national reputation for innovative and dynamic art practice, since starting up in late 2006. Martumili has staged exhibitions throughout Australia and is attracting a growing international audience. Martumili focuses on collective arts projects that have strong links to Country and culture, often resulting in the production of large collaborative paintings.
The Martumili Arists profiled below created Martumili Ngurra.
born about 1945, Manyjilyjarra language group, Karimarra skin group, Parnngurr community, Martumili Artists
A respected law woman and cultural leader, Kumpaya was born near Kiwirrkurra and grew up around the Canning Stock Route. For many years her family avoided contact with Europeans, but eventually they moved to Jigalong mission to join their relatives. Kumpaya learned how to paint and weave baskets while visiting family in Balgo, Fitzroy Crossing and Patjarr. She is credited with introducing these skills to Martu people.
born about 1937, Manyjilyjarra language group, Purungu skin group, Punmu community, Martumili Artists
Jakayu was born near Pitu, east of Well 25, and grew up around Kunawarritji, Rarrki and Nyilangkurr, where her father died. In 1963, with her husband and extended family, she met the surveyor Len Beadell, who was grading roads for the Woomera rocket range. This meeting prompted them to join their relatives who were living at Jigalong mission. In 1982 Jakayu moved to Punmu community, where she lives today with her children and grandchildren.
born about 1950, Manyjilyjarra language group, Karimarra skin group, Parnngurr community, Martumili Artists
Ngamayu grew up around Pitu. As a child, she encountered surveyor Len Beadell, who was grading roads near Well 22. He gave Ngamayu and her siblings fruit. Not realising that it was meant to be eaten raw, they cooked the fruit until it was completely dried up. After meeting Beadell, Ngamayu's family was picked up at Parnngurr rock hole and taken to Jigalong.
born about 1956, Manyjilyjarra language group, Milangka skin group, Parnngurr community, Martumili Artists
Thelma was born in the Percival Lakes region and grew up around Yimiri and Kurturarra. In 1964 her family was one of the last Martu groups to leave the desert and be reunited with their families at Jigalong mission. After she left school, Thelma moved to Strelley station and married in Jigalong, where she had her children. Today she lives in Parnngurr with her husband, Yanjimi Peter Rowlands, and their children.
Other artwork by Thelma Judson: Canning Stock Route and Surrounding Country 2008.
Ngalangka (Nola) Taylor
born 1956, Manyjilyjarra language group, Karimarra skin group, Parnngurr community, Martumili Artists
Nola works closely with Martumili Artists as a translator and adviser for Martu people. In 2007 she joined the 'return to Country' trip at Well 36. She translated the majority of the Martu oral histories for the Canning Stock Route project. As a cultural mentor under the leadership of Martu elder, Kumpaya Girgaba, she has also provided guidance and support to curator Hayley Atkins, filmmaker Morika Biljabu and the whole project team. She has helped facilitate many trips in Martu Country.
Other artwork by Ngalangka (Nola) Taylor: Canning Stock Route and Surrounding Country 2008.
born early 1960s, Manyiljarra language group, Milangka skin group, Parnngurr and Newman, Martumili Artists
Jane was the daughter of Kumpaya Girgaba and Nyarri Morgan, both senior Martu elders and artists who live at Parnngurr. She started painting under the tutelage of her mother, Kumpaya. Painting the Martumili Ngurra canvas was the first time Jane worked collaboratively with senior Martu women.
The artist Jane Girgaba is now deceased. The artist’s family is happy for her image to remain on this website.
Photos of the artists, communities and landscapes behind Martumili Ngurra
Painting the Martumili Ngurra canvas
A short video documenting the story behind the painting Martumili Ngurra, created by six Martu women from central Western Australia in 2009, to tell the stories of their country. Features artists Jakayu Biljabu, Ngamaru Bidu, Thelma Judson and Ngalangka (Nola) Taylor explaining the story behind their work, at the National Museum in Canberra.
The Martumili Ngurra canvas is currently on show in the Hall at the National Museum of Australia.