We saw the whitefellas coming, building the road. Us kids all ran away: we ran along the creek and up the hill to make sure the whitefellas didn't catch us.
Ngamayu Ngamaru Bidu, Kunawarritji, 2008
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Martu women and children at Parnngurr rock hole.
Martumili artists Ngamaru Bidu (back row, third from left, with arms crossed), Bugai Whylouter (centre) and Jakayu Biljabu (far right) are represented in the Canning Stock Route collection.
Photo: Bob Tonkinson, 1963.
The Talawana track, which intersects the Canning Stock Route between wells 22 and 23, was surveyed and built by Len Beadell as part of a missile-testing project undertaken by the Commonwealth's Weapons Research Establishment (Woomera) in the early 1960s.
By this time, many Martu families had already migrated to Jigalong mission, or other settlements, but some families continued to live in the desert. For them, the Talawana track became another point of contact between them and the white world encroaching at the edges of their Country.
It was in springtime, when the bloke was coming, that whitefella [Len Beadell]. I sat down and then I heard a noise. I thought it was an aeroplane. I was looking around in the sky, but then I realised that the noise was coming slowly up the creek. I knew it was something on the ground and I looked around and saw a gigantic moving rock coming up from the creek. It was removing trees and rocks. So when the kids saw it they all ran up the hill, but I got up and walked towards it and sat down. The bulldozer that was pushing all the rocks and trees was in the front and another vehicle - a grader - was behind it.
Jakayu Biljabu, Kunawarritji, 2008
Beadell reported this initial encounter between local Martu and the road crew to the authorities. Later, native welfare officers and an anthropologist, Bob Tonkinson, travelled out to Parnngurr to discover whether these people (29 Martu, in all) wanted to remain in the desert or whether they wanted help to come in to Jigalong mission.
The senior Martu people decided that they did want help to bring their families to Jigalong, citing lack of food and fear of warnmala (revenge parties) they believed to be still roaming the desert as reasons for their decision.
We walked all the way into Parnngurr. We waited there for the whitefellas to come back. We all got in the truck and went right up to old Jigalong.
Ngamaru Bidu, Kunawarritji, 2008
These families settled, temporarily, with the rest of their families in Jigalong. Some went to work on nearby stations. In the 1980s, however, concerned about mining interests (among other things) in their Country, Martu began moving back to Parnngurr to set up their own homeland community. And so the Talawana track, whose creation occasioned an exodus from desert life, also allowed Aboriginal people, decades later, to move back to their Country - and continues to allow them to move through that Country today.
The relationship between the history of the desert region, the practice of painting and remote community life today is embodied in Martumili Ngurra, the vast collaborative painting created by Parnngurr artists to tell the story of their Country. In this work, the artists locate the Canning Stock Route at the margins of their story: it sits in the lower half of the painting but exists only as the sequence of Aboriginal waters it always was, not as the road it became.
The painting also makes it clear that the stock route is not the only road in this Country: above this chain of waters another road - the Talawana track - cuts across the landscape, helping to structure the painting and the stories it tells.
Martumili Ngurra, 2009
Kumpaya Girgaba, Jakayu Biljabu, Ngamaru Bidu, Thelma Judson, Nola Taylor and Jane Girgaba, Martumili Artists, acrylic on linen, 324 x 508 cm
When you look at this painting, don't read it like a whitefella map. It's a Martu map: this is how we see the Country, this is how we use a painting to tell stories about our Country.
Ngalangka Nola Taylor, Parnngurr, 2009
Despite its significance in the history of Parnngurr from 1963 to the present, the Talawana track, no less than the Canning Stock Route before it, remains a relatively thin thread in the larger story of the desert. All of these narratives, past and present, unfold within a landscape created by the travels of ancestral beings from the Jukurrpa whose tracks crisscross this land. Of particular importance to the artists here is the story of the Minyipuru (Seven Sisters), who passed through this land and whose creative acts continue to animate Country today.
Other tracks visible in Martumili Ngurra reveal the paths Martu take through their homeland as they visit family, hunt and care for their Country. Living in Parnngurr today is not simply a matter of developing a community, but of maintaining the surrounding land and keeping it alive. An important expression of this custodianship is 'burning the Country', or what some have termed 'fire-stick farming'. Martu recognise at least five ecological stages associated with their burning and hunting practices. These different stages of regrowth are associated with different kinds of animal and plant life:
nyurnma freshly burnt
waru-waru green shoots and young plants
nyukura mature plants with edible fruit
manguu mature spinifex, able to be burnt
kunarka elderly spinifex, dying in the middle
(Ecological information courtesy Ngalangka Nola Taylor, Kumpaya Girgaba, Rebecca Bliege Bird and Doug Bird)
Managing this spatial and temporal mosaic of burnt and renewing areas is an integral part of maintaining the balance of the land. The gradations in colour across the canvas of the painting reflect these various stages of regeneration.
Martumili Ngurra is not a historical painting. The story it tells is not a history of people leaving their home, but one of people continuing to make their homes in the desert. Just as hunting on and caring for the land remains an enduring concern of Martu life in remote communities, so too has painting Country become an important part of the modern economy in these places. Martumili Ngurra doesn't merely tell that story, it is that story. In this way, like all desert art, it is so much more than just a painting.