The mail plane is tiny. The pilot is 22 and looks 15. I exchange worried looks with my travelling companion, Erin Coates, the Fremantle Arts Centre’s exhibitions co-ordinator. In the silver-grey darkness of a July morning we help to push the Cessna 210 onto the tarmac at Newman, a mining town 1000 km north-east of Perth. Once airborne we can’t hear each other and it’s very cold. After a climb we are 3000 metres above the Pilbara, looking down on a vast orange canvas, wrinkled in places. The white glaze on the lakes looks like splashed milk, the grasses and waterholes like dots on a painting. I have plugs in my ears, a sick bag on my lap, and a profound sense of not knowing where I am, only that it is ‘other’ and apparently empty.
My fold-out map of the north Gibson Desert of Western Australia notes several intriguing cautions: Excellent water 45 metres down (no pump). Treacherous track when wet. Camels killed for rations when food ran out.
We beat into a headwind. I look out the window before scribbling a note to the pilot. Yes, he nods, that’s Lake Disappointment. Who, I wonder, was disappointed, and why?
My map tells me that the Martu have exclusive native title rights to the lands surrounding the Canning Stock Route from Wells 16 to 39. It’s easy with a map and some borrowed knowledge to think you’ve got a fix on Kunawarritji, Well 33 on the Canning; harder, though, to escape the feeling that it’s a tiny speck on an ancient landscape, as remote from common experience as it is isolated in time and space.
Two hours later we descend through a carnival ride of bumps and sickening sideways tilts to a safe landing in Martu country.
Kunawarritji, according to my notes, is a “thriving example of the new and growing breed of Aboriginal communities run by white management”. The visitors’ accommodation block is more luxurious than I’d expected: there are newly built rooms with double bunks; a pavilion of showers, loos and a laundry a short hop along the verandah.
We are starving after our no-breakfast-in-case-we-get-airsick 5 am start. In the mess room we meet Tori, a volunteer caterer, who is cooking lunch for the artists and blow-ins. I settle myself with coffee and toast at the long table. My brief as an invited observer is to “meet the artists, see them working and experience the connections between the artworks and the landscape”.
The artists’ camp has been in full swing for hours, breakfast long past. I leave to find it. The sky is bright blue and the air is warming quickly. On the track leading out of camp I can see native grasses rippling like loose silk and what seem to be a hundred galahs in two tight rows, dozing on the telegraph wires. A group of the locals sit on the verandah, catching the sun.
In the part shade behind a large shed where the painting supplies are kept, about 15 Martu women in floral skirts and purple beanies are bent over their work. They sit on a tarp spread over the red dirt. I take my place on the ground and try to blend in. My nearest neighbour is Judith Samson, a young, friendly Martu woman, putting the final touches on a striking painting of emu tracks radiating from a waterhole. She smiles easily. In the way of things out here, Judith has at least three names, and it takes me a while to work out that she’s also called ‘Anya’.
Gabrielle Sullivan is the manager of the relatively new Martumili Artists organisation. Dressed in paint-spattered overalls, Gabe marks the edge of each cut canvas with the name of the artist. Her crew are constantly on the move, bringing whatever is needed – pots of paint, finer brushes, fresh water – to the women at work on the ground. There are no males at this specially convened artists’ camp.
“The women do most, but not all, of the painting,” says Gabe. “And not everyone’s here.” There have been recent deaths. Part of the mob is at Jigalong for a funeral. “The camp nearly didn’t happen; it was touch and go until the senior ladies said yes.”
She points out the senior women: Nora Nungabah, Kumpaya Girgiba, Dadda Samson and Nora Wompi. Amy French, from Jigalong, is working inside out of the sun. At this early stage it’s hard to tell who’s who and no one, except young Judith/Anya, is in the mood to embrace a new arrival.
“Sorry business going on,” explains Megan, Gabe’s co-worker at Martumili.
Another look at the closed faces of the women and I see that I’ve mistaken collective grief for a mild snub. A girl from the community was killed the week before: grog and a bashing are hinted at but no one is prepared to elaborate. From time to time one of the older women moans in a high register. A second and third join in. They weep together unselfconsciously, comfort one another with touch and words, then it is over.
In another part of the yard, children from the community school are working on a painting to honour the dead girl, their young faces intent. They have marked an outline on the canvas and worked out their colours. It’s hard not to imagine some of these boys four or five years from now, the murdered girl’s age, hitting the big towns for the first time, getting in with a bad crowd, tasting grog, losing their way. Most of the news out of these towns is relentlessly downbeat: suicides, bashings, alcohol-driven violence, imprisonment. The old song plays in my head: how do you keep them down on the farm?
When Tori and her helpers arrive with lunch, the mood breaks and we’re all friends. Camp dogs walk over the canvases, children wander in, looking for relatives. A freak gust of wind powders the wet paint with dust and dry grass. None of it matters. The women are painting mind-maps of their country. There’s no danger of losing the thread or the moment.
Kumpaya sits at the head of a large communal painting. Megan explains that each artist may only paint what she has a right to represent, a right conferred by birthplace and lineage. Kumpaya paints concentric circles. The coloured centre represents water; the rings at the edge are depth markers. At the other end of the canvas, two women are discussing the sequence of another grouping of circles when Kumpaya lets out a volley of language. Criticism? I can’t tell.
Working alongside the painters is Kim Mahood, author, artist and consultant to the Martu project. Moving around the canvas, she asks the women to name each waterhole represented by the circles, which she then transcribes onto her map of their map. “All the big desert stories follow the logic of water,” Kim has written in one of her many essays on desert art. Learning and retaining topographic knowledge is a survival skill, not an artistic add-on. The Martu’s paintings are encoded with stories of their country: genealogy, food and water sources, ceremony sites, language boundaries.
“You could drop any of these women into the landscape right now and they would find their way back easily,” says Kim.
“The circles are where we find water,” confirms Kumpaya through an interpreter, pointing to the communal canvas.
That night, I stand outside under a full moon in the bitter cold. Over the fence, camp fires blaze in front of the houses and I can hear children’s voices.
Early next morning the camp is hopping with women getting the Land Cruisers ready to roll. We are going in convoy to Well 35, Kumpaya’s country. Dressed in dungarees and no-nonsense hats, Gabe and her crew heave and shove, pack and tie down supplies for the day.
Penny, the health officer, hasn’t finished her rounds. She’s heard I’m a pharmacist and carries materials I’m familiar with: ointments, pills, Webster-paks, the paraphernalia of dispensing.
Dadda Samson is my first port of call. Ear drops, five each side, then pack with cottonwool. Nasal spray, one squirt into each nostril. (“Remind her to sniff them up.”) But Dadda is having none of it. She shakes her head at me, her expression a granite block of go-away. I apologise and back off. Then, with knowing smiles, the other old ladies help me out. In language, they start ribbing Dadda. For all I know, they’re saying, Look, she’s just a stupid white woman but none of us are going anywhere until you take your medicine, so grin and bear it. Still stone-faced, Dadda allows me to get the ear drops and cottonwool in. When it comes to the nose spray she pre-empts me with a loud sniff-sniff, as if to say, Don’t think you can teach your grandmother to suck eggs, kid.
Dadda was born in the 1930s at Old Jigalong on the Rabbit-proof Fence. Her family walked out of the desert because they heard there was food at the Jigalong Mission. I’m guessing she’s seen her fair share of do-gooding whitefellas.
In the convoy of six vehicles I get to sit in the lead vehicle with Kumpaya, Nora Wompi and Nora Nungabah, who are skin sisters, with Gabe driving, and her pet dog settled on my lap after a session of mad rocketing around the cabin. As we rattle along the Canning Stock Route the three ladies call out, “There, there! Yurla!” and laugh. I look out at the same spinifex, red dirt and stunted trees of a mile back and all the miles before. What am I not seeing?
The ladies are telling the story of the seven sisters. Gabe, who knows the tale well, translates. A lustful man, Yurla, once chased seven women across the landscape. Each screech of recognition by Nora marks a spot where the women hid or the man advanced in this game of desert hide and seek. There is great hilarity among the women as they recount the stages of the chase. “Him too much mingi mingi,” explains Kumpaya.
“Horny,” says Gabe laconically.
We pile out at Well 34, a disused bore with an old painted sign saying ‘Nibil’ (the well is also called ‘Nyipil’). The seven sisters were seen dancing here, Nora Nungabah explains through Gabe. When Nora lived here long ago with her family, they used to carry their grinding stones as they walked, and coolamons (wooden dishes) for cooked meat on their heads. The old lady’s emotions spill over as she approaches the waterhole.
After more miles of bumping along towards the next well, the mood in the vehicle changes. Kumpaya and the two Noras sing us into their country. Hairs go up on the back of my neck. Surreptitiously, I press the button on my pocket recorder. I’m probably breaking a dozen rules but can’t resist the desire to preserve this moment, not for posterity or research, but simply as an antidote to some future bleak day back home.
The tea-trees are the map lines, the pointers to the waterhole that became Well 35 during Alfred Canning’s cattle drive. When we climb down from the vehicle, Kumpaya slides onto the sandy earth and weeps. The other Land Cruisers pull up in the sharp sunshine, metal glinting, and the Martu women immediately break off tea-tree branches, indicating we should do the same. We form a silent line behind the spirit-wakers as they circle the well, singing their country, and tickling the land into recognising our presence. At the end of the ritual we throw the branches in a heap.
“Plenty food this country,” Kumpaya says. Bush turkey. Goanna. Lizard. Kangaroo. Honey-pot ants. Bush tomatoes. Water snake. Pussy cat.
But there is no need to hunt today, even though Kumpaya seems keen on a feed of the Martu delicacy, feral cat. Tori and her team are setting up trestle tables for lunch while Gabe’s crew get the canvases and paint ready.
After a cold morning, the sun is up high and hot by midday. A few of the old ladies strip off their tops to sit breasts-out in the sun. Our tea-tree wood fire reduces to embers, perfect for making tea and damper; we eat wedges of the latter, soaked in golden syrup. I stay close to Kumpaya. There is a ‘first contact’ black and white photograph of her and her mob, taken in 1963 at the Parnngurr rock hole. Kumpaya is to the far left, eyes averted. She is a beautiful thin young woman. She recounts stories of that time with the sort of satisfied laughter that comes of having survived a baptism of fire. How the first sight of a plane sent her fleeing to the cover of bush. How the whitefellas gave them “rubbish food”. How the Martu threw the bananas, oranges and apples into the fire. What sort of food crumples and vanishes in the flames?
“The first-contact women know who they are, where they belong,” says Kim Mahood. “There isn’t the neediness of some of the younger generations.” She makes a comparison between the Martu and the tribe she knows more intimately, the Warlpiri, on whose country she grew up. “Money has spoilt the old ways. We have hardly any of the old ones left to set the tone.”
A shy young girl called Cresna sits hesitantly in front of her piece of canvas. She is Nora Wompi’s granddaughter. I’d met her the day before, painting honey-pot ants back at base. My approaches had made her shrivel into a ball.
Today at Well 35 she is so panicked about putting brush to canvas that Gabe has to whisper in Kumpaya’s ear. This young girl needs instruction: help her, allow her. The tough lesson for Martu youth is that art is not about splashing pigment on canvas. These paintings are the Martu’s visual language, on par with historical texts.
When it’s time to pack up, Kumpaya insists we leave food for the dingoes. I discover later that Canning’s team had positioned Well 35 at one of the most sacred Martu sites. Known to the Martu as ‘Kinyu’, it was the home of the ancestral mother dingo, whose descendants inhabit the rock holes surrounding the well. I’d thought I’d misheard Kumpaya when she identified the small circles on her painting as “puppies”.
On the morning I leave Kunawarritji, Erin, Gabrielle and Kim show me detailed plans and layouts for a forthcoming Martu exhibition, the first major indigenous project for the Fremantle Arts Centre. ‘We don’t need a map’, the exhibition’s title, is a celebratory expression, not a boast.
“Any sooner [for an exhibition] would have been too soon for the Martu,” says Gabe. “It doesn’t mean we can put bad art in just because it’s Martu. We pick the right paintings, the significant places. Not all the story is public.”
The work of Yunkurra Billy Atkins – who was absent from Kunawarritji while I was there because of the funeral – has been attracting attention (Kerry Stokes, the earthmoving entrepreneur and media baron, owns one of Billy’s paintings) and will be featured in the exhibition. I spend a happy hour looking through Billy’s work, which centres on Lake Disappointment and its dark ancestral cannibal mythology. The fanged spirits of this watery underworld were said to come to the surface to feed on human flesh, a reason the Martu give the area a wide berth. In the alternative narratives of anthropology and surveying, the salt lake disappointed explorers who followed desert waterways, hoping to find a freshwater spring.
“There’s a difficult beauty in Billy’s work,” says Gabe “Sometimes people have to be told they like it.”
Leaving Kunawarritji is even harder than getting there. The Cessna is chockers. We squash into our seats between sacks of mail and parcels. Matt, our pilot, warns us it’s windy as he hands over sick bags and earplugs. We descend twice, first at Cotton Creek, then at Jigalong. On the airstrip I stretch my legs and wonder why there are so many wild horses pressing up against the fences.
Back at Newman, the baritone hum of fly-in-fly-out miners piling on to the Friday-evening Qantas jet for Perth breaks the link with silent spaces. Not quite ready for re-entry, I lean my ear into Kumpaya’s desert song.
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