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Background

Warlpiri Drawings: Remembering the Future

Warning: This website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.


Background

A colour photo of Paddy Japalajarri Stewart's hands.
The hands of Paddy Japaljarri Stewart. Photo: Vanessa Bertagnole.

From Hooker Creek to Canberra

This exhibition is about things that we know, and also about things that we don’t know, and probably never will.

What we do know is that in the early 1950s anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt was living with Warlpiri people at the settlement of Hooker Creek (now known as Lajamanu), in the Northern Territory.

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One day in 1953, Meggitt presented paper and crayons to Warlpiri men and invited them to make drawings. Over 10 months the men, as well as a small number of women, responded with pictures that enchanted and confounded Meggitt.

Some pictures continue to pose difficult questions today.

In 1965 Meggitt deposited the 169 drawings he collected at Hooker Creek with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberra.

He also lodged an audio recording describing each drawing, as well as the photographs he took at Hooker Creek. Each drawing was mounted on card for ease of handling and filed away.

New generations

In 1980 researcher Stephen Wild reviewed the drawings with senior Warlpiri men, who advised him that 50 of the drawings depicted restricted men’s themes and instructed that these be locked away.

In 2011 a new generation of Warlpiri men looked at the remaining 119 drawings and endorsed their suitability for public viewing and new research.

Six decades after the drawings were created, with all their makers and their collector deceased, researchers Melinda Hinkson and Stephen Wild reintroduced the drawings to a new generation of Warlpiri.

Embraced with curiosity and delight

The Warlpiri embraced these drawings with curiosity and delight. 'We never knew about these drawings', many people exclaimed. But they were also perplexed by some of Meggitt’s descriptions.

So ensued a project to try and make sense of the Hooker Creek drawings. In the process, the researchers uncovered further collections of Warlpiri drawings.

The exhibition includes new drawings created by Warlpiri people and shows how this art form has been used to explore 80 years of monumental change, to picture the present and look towards the future.