May, 22 2010
William L Fox

In the afternoon Tim takes us over to visit Gabrielle Sullivan and her staff at the local Aboriginal art centre, Martumili Artists. Formed in late 2006, it is among the youngest of the sixty-five art centres in Australia (twenty of which are in WA). Martumili draws work from six communities--Parnpajinya (as Newman is known), Jigalong, Parnngurr, Kunawarritji, Punmu, and Irrungadji. The Martu were the last Aboriginal people to come in from the country, giving up their nomadic life only during an extended drought. Sitting on the deck connecting the two prefab units of the centre, a covered space used as an open-air painting studio, and looking at the work, it's immediately obvious that something different here is going on. The artists sometimes use dots, sometimes not; the work is at times schematic and map-like--but often not, and is more directly representational than much other desert painting.  An example is a painting of a dry lake, a salt pan, where the painters have used several kinds of white acrylic--antique white and titanium white among others--to recreate the shimmering luminescence of the ground itself. The middle of the painting is a void surrounded by bands of coloured dots, and your eye roves around the outer panel until inevitably it falls into the dry lake as surely as water spiralling down a drain.

In 2003 the elders held a meeting to sort out what they thought they should and shouldn't picture. They pondered what people in communities such as Papunya were painting, and made a deeply conservative decision not to paint their Dreaming tracks, as artists elsewhere were, but to paint their country and its stories. The art would be a way of preserving and passing along knowledge from generation to generation--there would still be encoded information about terrain and food sources, local spirits and narratives about coming out of country--but deeper levels of meaning would be transmitted only through traditional ceremonies amongst themselves.

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