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Home is like your house, but home to us is like our Country ... we'll always come back to that tribal Country; where old people used to walk around and used to hunt ... That's what we believe. When we die, we become one with the Country. Our spirit goes back.
Curtis Taylor, Parnngurr, 2009
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Helen Hill, between wells 27 and 28 on the Canning Stock Route. Photo: Tim Acker, 2007.
Ngurra, which means both 'Country' and 'home' in Western Desert languages, is integral to understanding the culture and values of desert people. It can refer to a bush shelter, to vast tracts of land, or even to a modern house in a community.
In the desert, however, Ngurra is usually defined through reference to important water sites. Springs (jila, yinta), rock holes (wanirri) and soaks (jurnu, jumu) sustained Aboriginal people as they travelled across their Country, hunting and gathering, visiting family and fulfilling ceremonial obligations.
Country also defines people's identities. Before desert people are born, their spirits exist in the form of an animal, a plant, an ancestral being or a natural phenomenon. During pregnancy, parents encounter the spirit or jarriny of their child, and at birth the place where this encounter occurred is identified as the child's Country.
People also describe the places where they were born or grew up, or that they inherit from their parents and grandparents, as 'my Country'. Each of these connections to Country entails specific rights and responsibilities, both cultural and ceremonial, for the management of Ngurra. Today, painting Country has become a part of this enduring process.
Kumpaya Girgaba, Martumili Artists, acrylic on canvas, 124 x 291.5 cm
Kumpaya calls this painting Kaninjaku (Canning Stock Route), but the road is invisible and the canvas is dominated instead by the rhythm of tali, or sandhills. Despite the road's prominence in colonial history, and its strong influence on the lives of Aboriginal people, here it has been absorbed into the artist's language and her vision of her Country.
Canning Stock Route and Surrounding Country by Martumili Artists
Kumpaya Girgaba, Ngamaru Bidu, Mabel Warkarta, Nola Taylor, Thelma Judson, Marjorie Yates, Dulcie Gibbs, Yuwali Janice Nixon, Rosie Williams, Nora Nangapa, Bugai Whylouter, Nora Wompi, Jakayu Biljabu, Morika Biljabu, and Martumili Artists, acrylic on canvas, 292.3 x 129 cm
This painting, which was produced by 14 women artists at Kunawarritji (Well 33), represents a stretch of Country crossed by the Canning Stock Route. It depicts a number of the waterholes that were made into wells, but many other permanent and ephemeral water sources are also included. When the Canning Stock Route was in use as a droving highway, many of the artists relied on these other waters to ensure their safe passage through this contested land.
Lowulowuku Yinta by Mulyatingki Marney
Mulyatingki Marney, Martumili Artists, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 75 cm
Lowulowuku yinta is a permanent water and jurnu (soak), represented here by a single brown rock hole among rainbow-coloured tali, or sandhills.
Martilirri, Kalypa and Kartarru by Ngamaru Bidu
Ngamaru Bidu, Martumili Artists, acrylic on canvas, 147.5 x 99.6 cm
This is a well called Martilirri [Well 22]. And around there is also Kalypa [Well 23] and Kartarru [Well 24], in the middle. And in summertime we could stop in those places because they have permanent water. After the rain we could move back to our homeland because the rock holes and soaks would all be filled again.
And the footprints are a Dreamtime story of a man looking for a water. Wanti [woman] and a man travelling together and flying. When they checked it, there was no water around that rock hole, and when there was no water they flew. They went forever. That was in the Dreamtime when they were walking around.