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‘This is a protest painting’: Aboriginal artists speak out in exhibition backed by mining giants | Art

OWhen Allery Sandy flew over Yindjibarndi country by plane for the first time, it stirred something deep and ancient in her. A sea of ​​Mulla Mulla (pink wildflowers) swells over the rocky plateaus, where dreamy stories are etched into the landscape and a web of waterways crawls down to the Fortescue River.

That’s when Sandy knew she wanted to paint her ngurra (country). “I said to my husband, ‘If I ever get my hands on a big enough canvas, I’ll paint all the beauty that’s down there,'” she says.

Marni (2021), by Allery Sandy.

A respected elder working with the Yinjaa-Barni art collective, Sandy is now renowned for her sublimely detailed aerial paintings of her native lands. Like many Pilbara artists, country is the place and the heart of her practice, both storyteller and muse; weaving a literature of the land that reveals Indigenous ways of seeing and a commitment to transmitting cultural knowledge.

His paintings rub shoulders with the work of more than 70 artists in Tracks we share: the contemporary art of the Pilbara at the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA). The largest-ever survey of Aboriginal art in the Pilbara, the exhibition celebrates the region’s vast artistic production and the stories, language and songs that connect its people.

Allery Sandy at Yinjaa-Barni Art, in 2020.
Allery Sandy at Yinjaa-Barni Art, in 2020. Photography: Bobbi Lockyer

Born out of a desire to build the capacity and significance of the Pilbara art sector, the three-year project is a collaboration between FORM, AGWA and Aboriginal art centers Cheeditha Art Group, Juluwarlu Art Group, Martumili Artists, Spinifex Hill Studio and Yinjaa-Barni Art, and a number of individual artists.

While the Pilbara is home to the oldest concentration of petroglyphic rock art in the world, its contemporary arts sector is relatively underdeveloped, in part due to the ascendancy of the resource sector, said FORM senior curator Andrew Nicholls. .

“The Pilbara is an incredibly diverse and rich arts hub – and it’s not really known for that. It’s kind of been overshadowed by the mining industry,” he says. “On the other hand, the leaders mining became a eager and eager market for Pilbara artwork, so many artists never felt the need to really push themselves or expand their practices.”

It is anyone’s guess that FORM and its project partners, including AGWA, the Western Australian Government, BHP and Woodside, have decided to move to Tracks We Share, providing economic, professional and cultural development to strengthen the model art center which has been very successful in other parts of Australia. This included commissions, residencies, workshops, mentorships and in-country activities, as well as extensive documentation of the region’s art movement that resulted in a rich archive.

Martumili artists exhibited in the exhibition Tracks We Share: Contemporary Art of the Pilbara.
Martumili artists exhibited in the exhibition Tracks We Share: Contemporary Art of the Pilbara. Photography: AGWA

Support for extractive industries is an irony that probably does not escape the exhibiting artists, many of whom make bold political statements through their art about cultural dispossession and the exploitation of natural resources. As curator and author Dr. Stephen Gilchrist astutely puts it in the exhibition catalogue: “It’s one thing to defend Indigenous art, but it’s just as essential to protect Indigenous cultural sites. One exists because of the other and for the other.

Jill Churnside is an Ngarluma artist who tackles uncomfortable truths head-on. His work Washing Day is an Australian flag dipped in heavy strips of white paint and hung to dry, referencing the painful histories of White Australian politics and the Stolen Generations.

Another of his works, Country in Bloom, appears to be an innocuous depiction of wildflowers – but it pays homage to the traditional owners of Murujuga who were decimated in a bloody conflict with white settlers in the 19th century. “It’s important, these stories need to be told,” she says. “You can’t paint pretty pictures all the time.”

Ngundamurri (detail) by Juluwarlu Art Group, in the Tracks We Share exhibition.
Ngundamurri (detail) by Juluwarlu Art Group, in the Tracks We Share exhibition. Photography: AGWA

Juluwarlu Art Group’s video installation Ngundamurri features an ngunda (substantiated), marking the first time in living memory that such a ritual has taken place in Yindjibarndi country. Wearing white body paint and red bandanas adorned with feathers, the all-male group breathes new life into the traditional dances of their ancestors, while wearing intricately carved Jarnyjin (dancing sticks), made by the man of law and elder Wayne Stevens.

“Juluwarlu loves working collaboratively,” says Nicholls. “They’re the youngest arts center in the area, but they’re so proactive and such a tight-knit group. If you ask one of them to do something, 20 of them will show up.

Nyaparu (William) Gardiner (dec.), Cattlemen in the Pilbara, 2018. Acrylic on canvas, 1520 x 1520mm.
Nyaparu (William) Gardiner (dec.), Cattlemen in the Pilbara, 2018. Acrylic on canvas, 1520 x 1520mm. Photography: Nyaparu (William) Gardiner (dec.) (Spinifex Hill Studio)

Known as “the great poet of the pastoral industry”, Mr Nyaparu (William) Gardiner, who died in 2018, painted his memories of growing up during the time of the Pilbara strike in 1946, when nearly 1,000 unpaid indigenous pastoral workers walked off the job, demanding the minimum weekly wage of 30 shillings.

With its melodious landscapes rendered in subtle pinks and oranges, Cattlemen in the Pilbara reflects a nostalgic longing for Mr. Gardiner’s “old people”, including his father who was a cattle rancher. A latecomer to the art world, Mr. Gardiner painted with Spinifex Hill Studio for the last five years of his life.

The exhibition culminates in energetic acrylic and oil painting by Martumili artists, depicting the Martu people whose lands span remote stretches of the Western Desert. Kintyre, a painting by a group of over 20 artists, vibrates with a joyful and invigorating love of the country.

Kintyre (2020 - 2021), Martumili Artists.
Kintyre (2020-2021), martumili artists. Photography: Martumili Artists

A green section at the top right of the canvas points to the mine site of Kintyre, land on the country of Martu which was seized by Rio Tinto in 2008 to create one of the largest uranium explorations in the world. The proposed site is connected underground to Lake Dora, a saltwater lake of great importance to the Martu people.

“This is a protest painting,” says Martumili artist Desmond Taylor. “We hope to reclaim the land that was taken from us. It’s our story, it’s our home, it’s our way of connecting with the country.

Martumilli artists talk about Kintyre.

Led by Martu Muuki Taylor alumni and the late Mr. Wokka Taylor, Kintyre was created by young and old, coming together to create an intimate web of memory and place – a testament to the spirit of kinship that permeates the land of Martu and the vast landmass of the Pilbara.

“The area is home to such a diverse community of artists from different language groups and cultural backgrounds,” says Nicholls. “But they share their stories together and walk side by side on their creative journey across the country.”

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