Captured on canvas

Her broad facial features and lean frame make her easily distinguishable. And Peggy Patrick’s voice, although gentle, commands attention. ‘We want all people to be strong in their spirit and strong in their country.’ Peggy is an elder and leader of the Warmun people, an advocate for reconciliation and instrumental in promoting the history and stories of her people.

A community of around 400 predominantly Aboriginal people, Warmun is one of the hottest places on earth, in the same league as the Sahara desert. It is also one of the most isolated. The next town is Halls Creek, 165km away. Food is at a premium here, an apple will set you back a little over a dollar. Petrol, at $1.99 a litre, is also a little pricey. Both food and petrol are freighted up the west coast from Perth, along the Great Northern Highway, the lifeline of this community. Without it, the community’s few businesses—the local shop, the road house and the art centre—would suffer.

While the shop and the roadhouse provide the essentials for passing tourists and the families that live here, the art centre is a business returning much more. Although produced in the most modest of circumstances, Warmun art is renowned world-wide. More importantly, the sale of the art produced here provides the community with a growing economic independence and stability. The art centre itself has a colourful past; it was the first building erected here in 1890, 800km south-west of Darwin and almost 900km east of Broome. Originally an inn and butcher shop, the building was to become a post office in 1897 and later a telegraph station. During the early 1900s this post office served as an outlet for dispensing food rations to the needy. It became the art centre more than 80 years later, in 1998.

Now the artists sit in the shade under the building and paint in something like a meditative state. Each artist only paints their own country, the land in which they were born and raised, the land to which they belong. There is no such thing as a rough draft, each piece is permitted to take form during creation.

Many of the artists come from separate tribes and each paints the stories of their own people. Although most of the artists use traditional symbols, it is described as contemporary Aboriginal art. Some artists even incorporate Western style figures and emblems into their work. Each painting is created using traditional ochre and natural pigments. The rock is crushed in stone bowls with the rounded end of a heavy steel rod and then sieved to remove any unwanted material. Crushing the rock is hard on the back and inevitably painful when fingers get in the way. Several blackened and bloodied fingernails and an hour later, a rock the size of a tennis ball is reduced to a fine powder.

This powder is then mixed with a little water and PVA glue and applied to the canvas with whatever may be handy; a brush, a stick, or a gnarled finger. Charcoal is used in the same manner to achieve a midnight black. The result is breathtaking, a fusion of textures and colours, each unique and impossible to recreate. Each work comprises geometric figures; circles, half-circles, spirals and straight or curved lines. These shapes are often repeated and combined to create balanced patterns of great elaborateness. Never, however, have these patterns been regarded as pieces of abstract art by the Warmun artists. Rather


they are used to share the stories particular to each tribe.

Many of the artists are happy to share the story of their work with a curious onlooker and the question ‘What are you painting?’ is always met with the same answer, ‘I paint my country’. Nora Nagarra, an artist from the Bungle Bungle region laughs when asked what she is painting, for the answer is clear. Her pieces almost always include the repetitive bald dome shapes of the Bungles, in dusty hues from pale pink to chocolate. She sits, cross-legged on the concrete, twig in hand, bent over her canvas in deliberation. Aside from the constant dot, dot, dot of her hand, she is motionless, absorbed in her work.

Hector Jandany is the oldest artist here. He is so old, not even he is able to pinpoint his exact age. He guesses he is around 90—36 years older than the current life expectancy of Aboriginal males. Hector paints rarely now, making his work all the more valuable. Recently, one of his earlier works was re-sold for $300,000. Hector holds the brush gingerly in his long bony fingers, his leathery hands shaking and contorted with effort. Pausing regularly, Hector contemplates each mark. His beard is silver, streaked with dark gray and his eyes a rheumy yellow. His brush wavers from the pot to the canvas and back again. No dot is accidental, no line misplaced.

Like Peggy, Hector too is known among his people as a leader and chuckles about having met the prime minister. ‘Yea, I met John Howard’, he says, ‘and I just said to him “G’day”’. In all likelihood, Hector probably had far more say than just ‘G’day’. He is an advocate for education of both children and adults and partly responsible for the opening of the primary school here in 1979. Of the many children that wander this community barefoot during the day he says, ‘look at all these children here, they should be in school, they should be learning like you have’. He is, of course, referring to the Western education afforded the majority of Australian children.

The primary school is called Ngalangangpum, meaning mother and child and has around 140 children enrolled. The facilities are excellent, yet less than 40 children, usually the same ones, turn up each day. While many of the elders of the community are of the same opinion as Hector, enforcing education is an arduous task at the best of times.

In addition to writing, reading and arithmetic, the children are taught their native language and traditional stories with the help of Aboriginal Teaching Assistants. Their language is Kija and all of the elders and many of the children speak at least some Kija. One senses that the elders deliberately speak to the children in their own language to promote the learning of their culture. Kreol is also spoken here; it is a mix of Kija and English. Aboriginal English refers to the consistent adaptation of the English language and is distinctively different to Kreol or poorly spoken English. Although the children are encouraged to talk in English at school, they converse in Aboriginal English as this is often spoken in the home and in the wider community.

Water is precious here. Even the smallest of children warn against wasting water. Those that use the drinking fountains carelessly in the playground are regarded with disdain. It’s not hard to understand why. During the dry season, from April to October, the ground is cracked, hard and dry. The heat is unrelenting, with an average temperature in the mid 40s and the air hot and breathless. The last few months of the dry season are often referred to as the silly season, as the heat drives people mad. With the first rains comes a tangible sense of relief. It is during this more comfortable weather that the elders like to return to ‘their country’, taking their children and grandchildren with them.

Cattle Creek is a favourite camping destination for Patrick Mung Mung and Betty Carrington, who are also artists at the centre. They care for around 12 of their own grandchildren in addition to many other children in the district. Patrick and Betty met at Texas Downs Station, near Cattle Creek, which is around 50km east of Warmun.

Texas Downs Station is now inhabited by snakes and bats, both of which the children delight in stirring up. This is daring, considering the lack of anti-venom kept on hand. It expires quickly and is simply too expensive to keep. The nearest hospital is at Halls Creek, nearly two hours’ drive away. Those seriously injured are air-lifted by helicopter while others may be forced to endure a trip in the back of the four-wheel drive.
 
Both Patrick and Betty were born and raised on Texas Downs Station and as a result have an intricate knowledge of this land. Betty is able to identify the exact tree under which she was born and the shed in which she lived for her first 20 years. At the time of Betty’s birth, there were too many female babies. Some of the elder Aboriginal women decided it would be best to leave Betty on an ant nest to die, rather than bring her up. Betty was taken from her mother, who was in ill health after giving birth. After a day, Betty’s grandmother, (who Betty speculates may have actually been a great aunt), went to check on Betty and discovered she was still alive. She decided that the baby girl was strong and that she would raise Betty herself. Despite living on the same station, Patrick and Betty don’t think they met until Betty was around 20-years-old and were married ‘bush way’. The tree under which they were married stands less than ten metres away from where Betty was born.

This is Patrick’s and Betty’s country. This is what they paint. Their work is then priced according to size, packaged and sold, often before the paint has dried. They receive 60 per cent of the sale—not profit—which is used to support their family. The remaining 40 per cent is used to fund outings to collect ochre, to pay for equipment and for other supplies such as canvas and brushes. A small percentage of this is returned directly to the community.

In an arid and unforgiving climate, the small band of Warmun artists are able to provide their community with strength and hope and to ensure the survival of their culture and stories. Patrick, Betty and their fellow artists demonstrate that technology is one of the least important ingredients of successful existence—that the things we have been clever enough to invent have been much less important to our survival than our capacity to live together in groups, to co-operate with one another. As Alan Thorne and Robert Raymond suggest (Man on the Rim: The people of the Pacific, Angus and Robertson, 1989), they are ‘living proof that what is in our heads and our hearts is more important than what we carry in our hands’. 

Gemma Gadd is completing her Masters in Journalism at Deakin University. For more information on the artists and art of Warmun Art Centre visit www.warmunart.com. Gemma would like to thank Peggy Patrick, Nora Nagarra, Hector Jandany, Patrick Mung Mung and Betty Carrington for sharing their methods and stories and for allowing her to partake in and witness the creation of their work.

 

 

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