When Allery Sandy flew over Yindjibarndi country in a plane for the first time, it stirred something deep and ancient inside her. A sea of Mulla Mulla (pink wildflowers) swelled across the rocky tablelands, where Dreaming stories are carved into the landscape and a network of waterways crawl towards the Fortescue River.
It was at that moment 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 will paint all the beauty that is down below’,” she says.
A respected elder working with the Yinjaa-Barni art collective, today Sandy is renowned for her sublimely detailed aerial paintings of her homelands. Like many Pilbara artists, country is the locus and heart of her practice, both storyteller and muse; weaving a literature of the land that reveals Aboriginal ways of seeing and a commitment to passing down cultural knowledge.
Her paintings are hanging alongside the work of more than 70 artists in Tracks We Share: Contemporary Art of the Pilbara at the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA). The largest ever survey of Pilbara Aboriginal art, the exhibition celebrates the region’s expansive artistic output and the stories, language and songlines that connect its people.
Born of a desire to build the capacity and prominence of the Pilbara’s art sector, the three-year project is a collaboration between FORM, AGWA and Aboriginal art centres 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 world’s oldest concentration of petroglyphic rock art, its contemporary arts sector is relatively underdeveloped, owing in part to the ascendency of the resources sector, FORM senior curator Andrew Nicholls says.
“The Pilbara is such an incredibly diverse and rich art hub – and it’s not really known for that. It’s kind of been eclipsed by the mining industry,” he says. “On the other hand, mining executives became a willing, eager market for Pilbara artwork, so a lot of artists never felt the need to really push themselves or expand their practices.”
It’s a conundrum that FORM and its project partners, which include AGWA, the WA government, BHP and Woodside, set out to shift with Tracks We Share, providing economic, professional and cultural development to bolster the art centre model which has seen great success in other parts of Australia. This included commissions, residences, workshops, mentorships and on-country activities, as well as significant documentation of the region’s art movement which has resulted in a rich archive.
The support of the extractive industries is an irony presumably not lost on 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’s catalogue: “It is one thing to champion Indigenous art, but it is equally 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. Her work Washing Day is an Australian flag drenched in heavy lashings of white paint and hung out to dry, referencing the painful histories of the White Australia policy and the stolen generations.
Another of her 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 colonists in the 19th century. “It’s important, those stories have to be told,” she says. “We can’t paint pretty pictures all the time.”
Juluwarlu Art Group’s video installation Ngundamurri features a ngunda (corroboree), marking the first time in living memory such a ritual has taken place on that part of Yindjibarndi country. Wearing white body paint and red bandanas adorned with feathers, the all-male group breathe new life into the traditional dances of their ancestors, while carrying delicately carved jarnyjin (dancing sticks), made by law man and elder Wayne Stevens.
“Juluwarlu love working collaboratively,” Nicholls says. “They are the youngest art centre in the region but they are so proactive and such a tightknit group. If you ask one of them to do something, 20 of them will turn up.”
Known as “the great poet of the pastoral industry”, Mr Nyaparu (William) Gardiner, who died in 2018, painted his memories of growing up around the time of the Pilbara strike in 1946, when almost 1,000 unpaid Aboriginal pastoral workers walked off the job, demanding the minimum weekly wage of 30 shillings.
With its mellifluous landscapes rendered in subtle pinks and oranges, Cattlemen in the Pilbara reflects a nostalgic yearning for Mr Gardiner’s “old people”, including his father who was a cattleman. A late starter in the art world, Mr Gardiner painted with Spinifex Hill Studio for the final five years of his life.
The exhibition concludes with the energetic acrylic and oil painting of the Martumili Artists, representing the Martu people whose homelands spread across remote stretches of the Western Desert. Kintyre, a painting made by a group of more than 20 artists, pulsates with a joyous and life-affirming love of country.
A green section at the top right of the canvas denotes the Kintyre mine site, one of the world’s largest uranium exploration sites owned by Canada’s Cameco Corporation. Situated within the Karlamilyi national park on Martu country, the proposed mine is connected underground to Lake Dora, a site of great significance to the Martu people.
“This is a protest painting,” says Martumili artist Desmond Taylor. “We’re hoping to get back the land that was taken away from us. This is our story, this is our home, this is our way of finding connection to country.”
Led by Martu elders Muuki Taylor and the late Mr Wokka Taylor, Kintyre was made by young and old, coming together to craft an intimate network of memory and place – a testament to the spirit of kinship that permeates Martu country, and the vast landmass of the Pilbara.
“The region is home to such a diverse community of artists from different language groups and cultural backgrounds,” says Nicholls. “But they are sharing their stories together, and walking side-by-side, on their creative journey through country.”