9 Apr 20

Indigenous Voices of Creative Assertion and Resistance

In 1986, spirited Warlpiri women of Lajamanu, a small community in Gurindji Country on the edge of the Tanami Desert, in the Northern Territory, painted a groundbreaking series of gouaches for use in the local bilingual school. On their own initiative, the senior women approached Christine Nicholls, the then principal of Lajamanu Community School, and offered to paint their jukurrpa (Dreaming) designs as a learning resource for their children and grandchildren. Accordingly, these hitherto ephemeral designs painted on the body for yawulyu (women’s ritual law) became permanent, public and accessible for the instruction of children and kardiya (non-Aboriginal people) alike. In experimenting freely with modern materials, these artists and ‘bosses’ of Women’s Business had acted to ensure the future conservation and revelation of their language and cultural lore. The Lajamanu women’s project reorientated the history of the Western Desert art movement, which until that time had been largely dominated by male artists working with male anthropologists and art advisers. It is important to evaluate the artists’ powerful assertion of yawulyu in the context of their difficult history of dislocation and privation.

From the 1870s onwards, Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory experienced the territorial incursions of kardiya pastoral owners, prospectors and missionaries. Pastoralists took possession of unceded lands and waterways and introduced herds of cattle to the Central Australian environment, disturbing the ecological balance, while missionaries pursued their goal of converting the First Peoples to Christianity. Ensuing loss of authority over hunting grounds and disruption of food and water supplies debased the Traditional Owners’ way of life, which provoked violent clashes with the settlers.1 See Melinda Hinkson, Remembering the Future: Warlpiri Life Through the Prism of Drawing, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2014, pp. 49–65.

In response to these conflicts, the South Australian government, which had assumed responsibility for the Northern Territory in 1911, adopted a policy of ‘care and protection’ of Aboriginal people, which was replete with the inherent disadvantages of control and paternalism. Through the 1920s, as increasing numbers of kardiya settlers began to occupy Warlpiri Country, food and water resources dwindled still further and theft of cattle and assaults on station owners escalated. The cumulative pressure of a seven-year drought precipitated a crisis, culminating in the Coniston Massacre of 1928, when, according to oral history accounts, between sixty and 170 Aboriginal people were killed in raids in retaliation for the death of dingo hunter Frederick Brooks.2 ibid.

Subsequently, as the number of pastoral leases increased and a gold mine was established at The Granites, in the Tanami Desert, drought and loss of autonomy over Country forced the Warlpiri to leave the Tanami and move to ration depots, in search of food and water. The depots, conveniently positioned near pastoral stations and mines, meant that Warlpiri were prevailed upon to exchange their labour for rations and a degree of protection, an exchange that was arguably tainted with duress and inequality. By 1940, the sociopolitical philosophy had shifted towards a denunciation of ‘protectionism’, which was ultimately displaced by a new vision for Aboriginal people: ‘advancement’ and ‘assimilation’. It was believed that this contrived ‘solution’ could be achieved by establishing government settlements in Central Australia. To this end, Warlpiri would be recruited to undertake the building of Yuendumu community in 1946, followed by Lajamanu (originally named Hooker Creek), some 600 kilometres to the north.

The Lajamanu Aboriginal community was established in 1949–50 by the Native Affairs Branch of the federal government, with twenty-five Warlpiri trucked there from Yuendumu. In 1951, a further 150 Warlpiri were trucked to Hooker Creek from Yuendumu. Homesick, missing their kin from the southern Warlpiri community and separated from their Dreaming sites, some people simply walked back some 600 kilometres to Yuendumu. In 1958 and 1968, two more resettlements and walk backs occurred, before older Warlpiri residents were prepared to accept the new community at Hooker Creek. As Warlpiri artist Elizabeth Nungarrayi Ross has said of this enforced displacement:

When they came and brought us back from Yuendumu, some of those people felt sad that they were in a strange area, strange Country, and they felt out of place there. They walked all the way back. Tanami first, they knew all the water holes there. To Granites, from Granites to Mt Doreen, from Mt Doreen to Yuendumu. They were homesick for Country.3 ibid. p. 91.

The transition to sedentary settlement living on Gurindji Country was a disempowering experience for many of the original inhabitants, as community leader Maurice Jupurrurla Luther remembered:

The superintendent used to line up the people in the morning, like in an army camp, men across here, children in the front, women, across the back … Everybody had to shave, everybody had to have short hair, everybody had to have clean clothes; everybody had to wear shoes. All the workers in the settlement were trained ‘army style’ and they had to march! March with their heads up and arms straight and legs moving in time … We were just like toy soldiers on a table [the superintendent] could play around with.4 Maurice Jupurrurla Luther, quoted in Stories from Lajamanu, Northern Territory Department of Education, Darwin, 1985, p. 12.

In 1982, the Lajamanu community school became bilingual, causing school attendances to leap from 55 per cent to 85 per cent and engendering a sense of local pride and communal participation among the Warlpiri. Female Elders took children in the school bus to gather bush tucker and came into the classroom to teach songs, dancing and painting, and to tell jukurrpa. This was a marked advance, as Maurice Jupurrurla Luther affirmed:

This is a big difference from what it used to be, because first the parents were not allowed to walk across the school grounds … But now we have had the practice dancing for the Purlapa wiri [public ceremony] and the school grounds are full of parents who are singing corroboree.5 ibid. p. 15.

Despite the success of the Papunya Tula men’s painting movement from 1971 onwards, during the 1970s and 1980s there were conservative forces operating in Lajamanu that were opposed to the production of paintings for kardiya consumption. In the catalogue for a 1982 exhibition in Paris, D’un autre continent: l’Australie le rêve et le réel (From Another Continent: Australia, the Dream and the Real), the Lajamanu Elders stated:

We will never put this kind of painting on to canvas, or on to art board, or on to any ‘permanent’ medium. We do not, and do not ever, want to become professional painters. The permanence of these designs is in our minds. We do not need museums or books to remind us of our traditions. We are forever renewing and recreating those traditions in our ceremonies.6 D’un autre continent: l’Australie le rêve et le réel, Ministère des relations extérieures, Association Française d’Action Artistique, Paris, 1983, p. 49.

Ultimately, in late 1985, perhaps aware of new painting projects in the Warlpiri community of Yuendumu, the Elders reversed their Paris resolution and authorised adult educator John Quinn to conduct a traditional painting course at the Lajamanu TAFE. In March and April of 1986, Warlpiri women and men gathered separately, in an intercultural climate of experimentation with modern materials, to begin to make visible and permanent the ephemeral designs previously seen only in women’s and men’s ceremonies.

Given the artists’ close connections with Warlpiri based in Yuendumu, this non gender–specific painting course was probably inspired by artistic developments at Yuendumu during the early 1980s. Significantly, about thirty senior women painted coolamons (wooden containers) and canvas boards to sell in the community, prefiguring the painting of the Yuendumu school doors, 1984, by five male Elders, which signalled the birth of the ‘Fauvist’ palette for which Warlpiri art is fondly known. Moreover, Warlpiri men authorised the women to use dots, which were not part of women’s customary ritual designs, in their acrylic paintings, thereby legitimising the women’s participation as independent artists.7 See Françoise Dussart, ‘Women’s acrylic paintings from Yuendumu’, in Margie West (ed.), The Inspired Dream, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 1988, pp. 35–41. When Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation was founded in Yuendumu in 1985, women comprised more than half of the founding artists, in contradistinction to the Papunya Tula precedent.

In late 1988, blithely unaware of the women’s involvement in the traditional painting course, I travelled to Lajamanu community to negotiate the possible purchase for the NGV Collection of the men’s first paintings on huge offcuts of composition board. The Warlpiri women witnessed my negotiations with the senior men and asked me why I was focusing on men’s work and ignoring their first paintings. Not to be outdone by the men and concerned that I would gain an inaccurate impression of Warlpiri visual culture, the women arranged to show me their first paintings. We looked inside their unassuming keeping place, which was exposed to the elements, and were dismayed to discover that the small works on composition board with boldly painted and vibrant surfaces had suffered irrevocable pigment loss and considerable water damage. Undeterred, the women offered to buy materials at the store and paint another ‘better’ series of works. Their 1988 works, painted in a more practised, neater style with surgical cotton sticks on canvas board, lacked the gestural immediacy of surviving 1986 works on board, such as Lorna Napurrurla Fencer’s Warna Jukurrpa (snake Dreaming), 1986, and Sister Nakamarra Gibson’s Wamparna Jukurrpa (sweet yam Dreaming), 1986. Napurrurla’s rudimentary painting on a scrap of plywood has a blue ground, on which the artist has vigorously applied the red meandering kuruwarri (signs or marks) of ancestral snakes and their ribs, surrounded by a field of white enamel dots.

Still intent on the NGV acquiring a balanced representation of Lajamanu Warlpiri art, the women, in consultation with Christine Nicholls, informed me of the works they had created for the Lajamanu Community School. On a subsequent viewing, I was astonished to encounter more than fifty fluent paintings on cardboard pinned up in the classrooms for ready access by the students. These expressions of Women’s Business for a communal audience were very different in spirit and style from both the works of Lajamanu Warlpiri men and their female relatives’ first paintings at Yuendumu.

The artists experimented with materials at hand: poster colour, powder paint and natural ochres on acidic cardboard or cartridge paper. Such was their energy and enthusiasm that more than fifty paintings were completed in one afternoon. The medium chosen has a less artificial impression than the glossy enamel and acrylic paints applied thickly to recycled offcuts of composition board in the traditional painting course. The soft matt colours on organic supports are closer to natural ochres used in customary ritual contexts. The paintings are intuitive visual statements in which decoration is subordinate to content. There is nothing tight or pristine about either the materials or the working method: the works possess a spirited tactile quality, an urgency and a sense of discovery characteristic of such an experimental phase of art making. The women’s spontaneous designs have the immediacy of body paintings and sand drawings. Dots are spaced out, irregular and less important than the clusters of multiple circular markings, meanders, and bird and animal tracks, which signify traces of ancestral beings, or kuruwarri.8 See Nancy D. Munn, Walbiri Iconography: Graphic Representation and Cultural Symbolism in a Central Australian Society, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1973.

Free of agency, the paintings have an unselfconscious fluency of line and are essays in pure colour. In Lorna Napurrurla Fencer’s Yarla Jukurrpa (yam Dreaming), 1986, cobalt blue, olive green and grass green designs are freely brushed on a scarlet field. The circles and looping lines that structure this gouache represent women’s body paint designs for yarla, the large yam that always regrows in the desert, providing a constant source of food. Moreover, as the roots of the yam ripen, they burst up through the ground, causing cracks to form in the red earth. When cracks are seen, the women dig for the yam with their small coolamons and then cook the tubers in the coals of their camp fires. Yarla is associated with sites of Wapurtarli and Yumurrpa, for which the artist was custodian. The lines, or kuruwarri, that structure the composition are signs or marks of yarla ancestral beings in a mythological topography. They signify ngamarna, the long horizontal yam tubers of the plant that travelled as an ancestral being and became the landscape in the Dreaming.

Moreover, works in natural ochres, such as Liddy Nakamarra Barnes’s Yarla Jukurrpa (bush potato Dreaming), 1986, are more direct translations of striped markings painted onto women’s bodies for yawulyu ceremonies. Nakamarra accentuates the body design for yarla by enabling it to stand against a plain and spacious red ochre surface, without a border. Pigment is applied loosely in these works, tight symmetry is absent and artists exploit negative space to dramatic effect. For example, Liddy Nampijinpa Miller’s Ngapa Jukurrpa (rain Dreaming), 1986, shows a cluster of freely brushed-in arcs to one side, with large dots symbolic of raindrops creating random indentations in the sand. Louisa Napaljarri Lawson is equally unconcerned by the need for symmetry or the filling in of space. Her Mala Jukurrpa (hare wallaby Dreaming), 1986, isolates a line of mala (hare wallaby) paw and tail tracks and a body design for the mala’s camp against a plain red-ochre ground. This drawing in ochre pigments and charcoal on cardboard exemplifies the aesthetic principles of women’s customary body paintings. With her boldly drawn kuruwarri that stand out clearly against an expanse of red ochre, Napaljarri immortalises the truth of her ideology and her affinity with Country. Napaljarri’s untrammelled iconography is performative, akin to women’s sand drawings or body paintings, an intuitive and haptic form of expression readily transposed onto cardboard. Her raw linear gestures are uncompromising in their economy of means.

Lady Nakamarra Barnes’s Yarla Jukurrpa (bush potato Dreaming), 1986, in complementary colours of blue and orange on white, is organic in rhythm: boomerangs, shelters and women digging for yams are scattered as adjuncts to the core design of bush yam roots. Similarly intense and uncontrived is Lily Nangala Scobie’s Ngapa Jukurrpa (water Dreaming), 1986, in which red and yellow curved lines represent floodwater lying in creek beds on either side of a hill at Kamira. The variegated dots in this work are water drops, children of the Rain Ancestor. Nangala uses an inherited visual language of concentric circles, geometric symbols and dots to conceptualise place and the presence or trace of the ngapa (water) ancestor who entered into and became the land. She paints Country from a planar perspective: there is no fixed reading direction. The absence of a horizon expresses the artist’s spatial affinity with the land, but also her closeness to the ground. There is no separation between land and sky or between the artists’ identity and her Country.

These innocent and celebratory works belie the then commonly held assumption that Indigenous art and ritual are the preserve of men. This supposition led to Aboriginal women being excluded from discussion of sacred and artistic spheres and denied access to art materials until the decade in which these works were produced. Non-Warlpiri understanding of this special body of work is underpinned by the pioneering field work undertaken with Warlpiri women by female anthropologists Nancy D. Munn, Diane Bell and Françoise Dussart, and by the emergence of acrylic painting in Yuendumu, 1983–86.

Munn’s research, undertaken in Yuendumu in 1956, clearly showed that women have their own ritual designs, which differ in mythological content and visual thrust from those of men.9 ibid. In Warlpiri men’s ceremonies, the routes taken by ancestors, linking significant places, are of primary importance and therefore straight or meandering track lines – lines of sacred sites or ‘song lines’ – dominate men’s designs.

In women’s yawulyu ceremonies, by contrast, principles of fertility, growth and activities at a specific locality are stressed. Women’s designs therefore tend to be curvilinear, circular and formed of separate units in abundant clusters, as seen in Molly Napurrurla Tasman’s Ngurlu Jukurrpa (seed Dreaming), 1986. In this drawing of abundance, red linear markings edged with white lines or scatterings of dots, circles and looping arc shapes are clustered to suggest Napurrurla and Nakamarra women gathering ngurlu and coming together to celebrate the fecundity of this plant. Moreover, the rhythm of iterated mark making creates sensation. This articulates movement and embodies cultural memory, sharing the mnemonic repetition of performative marks often experienced in customary ritual, which engenders a conceptual mapping of Country. Underpinning the painted surface and fuelling the hand, mind and eye of the artist are sensations of songs, dances and designs – experienced on the ceremonial ground and observed, touched and tasted in Country – that flesh out the ancestral narrative embodied in Napurrurla’s imagination and rendered visible in paint.

Munn’s lead was followed by research into Warlpiri yawulyu by Diane Bell at Warrabri10 See Diane Bell, Daughters of the Dreaming, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1983. and Françoise Dussart at Yuendumu, which established that Warlpiri women manage their own affairs and secret ceremonies, sanctioned by their spirit ancestors. Women’s ceremonies enshrine their role as nurturers of people, land and relationships. Within this principle of nurture are the biological acts of giving birth and lactation, evidence of women’s procreative power and special qualities.

Ultimately, in 1989, with the full support of the community, the NGV acquired this unique collection, which had begun to suffer distortions to the cardboard supports and flaking and powdering of the paint layer owing to constant exposure to light and harsh climatic conditions in the community. In negotiating the acquisition of this collection, the authoritative senior women stipulated that the works should be displayed first in a separate exhibition, rather than subsumed into a larger exhibition such as the then forthcoming Mythscapes: Aboriginal Art of the Desert. Moreover, the women asked that the works be exhibited without frames in keeping with the way they had been displayed in the classroom. This collection, which has a completely different character from paintings produced solely for the kardiya art market, was assiduously conserved and displayed in its entirety in the 1990 NGV exhibition Paint Up Big: Warlpiri Art of Lajamanu.11 See Judith Ryan, Paint Up Big: Warlpiri Women’s Art of Lajamanu, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1990. These paintings of cultural pride and aesthetic innovation afford us a rare glimpse of the power and autonomy of Warlpiri women as artists and managers of their own affairs.

What had begun as a field trip to investigate and negotiate Lajamanu men’s art had concluded with the acquisition of these profound and beautiful attestations of identity. It was not just the objects themselves – it was the witnessing of these women and their tangible grasp of sorority and pride in making known their own past, present and future. The ambition and innovation I had witnessed was a precondition of the creative process we all understood. But governing both the ambition and the innovation was uncertainty, no fixed criteria, no canon, no measure which could have been employed to determine its quality. That is when art is at its most interesting – when it is still uncanonised, still undecided.



See Melinda Hinkson, Remembering the Future: Warlpiri Life Through the Prism of Drawing, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2014, pp. 49–65.




ibid. p. 91.


Maurice Jupurrurla Luther, quoted in Stories from Lajamanu, Northern Territory Department of Education, Darwin, 1985, p. 12.


ibid. p. 15.


D’un autre continent: l’Australie le rêve et le réel, Ministère des relations extérieures, Association Française d’Action Artistique, Paris, 1983, p. 49.


See Françoise Dussart, ‘Women’s acrylic paintings from Yuendumu’, in Margie West (ed.), The Inspired Dream, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 1988, pp. 35–41.


See Nancy D. Munn, Walbiri Iconography: Graphic Representation and Cultural Symbolism in a Central Australian Society, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1973.




See Diane Bell, Daughters of the Dreaming, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1983.


See Judith Ryan, Paint Up Big: Warlpiri Women’s Art of Lajamanu, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1990.