It’s 1993 and Warlayirti Artists’ hub is nestled in ‘The Sister’s Laundry’ at the small community of Wirrimanu (Balgo Hills), pinned to the North West tip of the Tanami Desert.
Senior men Sam Tjampitjin, Mick Gill & Fred Tjakamarra, Richard Tax Tjupurrula and Johnny Mosquito Tjapangardi; wise country-men who know the desert land here to Wilkinkarra as an eagle might eye the land or a lizard’s paw feel the sand; from the ancestors in the heavens above to spirits’ water-paths honeycombed below; all the invisible force-matrices between, these men would come to ‘Warlayirti’ to sit, and paint.
Hurtling over, flying in in anticipation of supporting the artists and families through their own newly owned Warlayirti Art Centre, the fledgling art tours arrive bringing people with means and influence from far away places to meet the powerful, knowledgable Traditional Owners of land.
Meeting Indigenous Cultural Custodians – men and women of high degree – visitors often have never met a First Australian before. They are taken aback by peoples’ gentleness, perception and formidable knowledge, the richness and beauty of the artworks, and the disparity in living conditions.
Each flying art tour visit becomes a steady routine of arrival and introductions, morning tea all ’round and then sitting, quietly here in Sisters Laundry; the lank blue curtains framing cobwebbed dust on the cross-barred windows where flies have no hope of escape. At first community members would leave Warlayirti Artists because our coming was ‘White-fella Business’ (as usual). Gradually – it took two years or so – the artists stayed, started to talk about their work. Silence between sentences affirmed our readiness to listen and the more we were told.
Over the following years the ‘Sisters Laundry’ would fill with as many people as could fit in to the meagrely adapted room and still have space to show the paintings, in piles ready to be held up one by one and talked about in earnest. Joining in with each other, the artists point directions on the canvas then out across country. Kukatja, Walmajarri, Jaru and Pintupi language is spoken and interpreters – usually younger people schooled in the local mission – translate. In the room fragile trestle tables, already stacked with artwork, near topple as another person sits on the edge. The air is pungent with pigment and bodies and the atmosphere is one of joy and excitement. This is Balgo people’s business, and the Kartiya had come to ‘learn up’, listen, and were loving it.
As each Art Centre manager changed and continuity of support, supplies and interest remained, so it was realised locally that Warlayirti Artists really did belong to the painters themselves. A startling new apparatus arrived, a fax machine. It sat in the tiny office on a tinier table on top of an ‘Aratjara’ exhibition catalogue. Looking hyper-speedy Warlayirti was getting ready for more and faster outside communication.
Pictured above is a painting by Richard Tax Tjupurrula ‘Untitled’ (assw Rainmaking) 1000 x 500 mm, acrylic on canvas 1993. The image is showing people camped in an area where a fire breaks out. Tjupurrula holds the secret ceremonial Men’s Law associated with the powerful rain-making rituals at Kurtal. You can see a cloud is forming at the bottom of the picture. There is cross referencing to women’s business I was told at the time. To finish, like icing on a cake, no matter how serious the content, the painters at Warlayirti say they like their work to look ‘pretty’; making looking, to me, very much like listening.
Richard Tax’s painting is included in the touring exhibition ‘A Thousand Journeys’ which will look back, and forth, twenty years after it’s initial curation by Tin Sheds Gallery, Sydney University in 1997. The exhibition opens at Flinders University Art Museum in December 2017.
This article first appeared on www.palya.com.au/updates 27th November 2016.
Helen Read is an artist and former nurse-pilot for the Pintupi Homelands Health Service in Walungurru (Kintore), Kiwirrkurra, Gibson Desert, Central Australia.
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