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Martumili artists Ngayartu Kujarra

Ngayartu Kujarra (Lake Dora), an immense warla (salt lake) of glittering whiteness, has a palpable presence in Punmu community. It looms large in the psyche of Martu people who were taken away from Punmu to Jigalong mission and worked on pastoral stations during the 1960s and have relished the return to their homeland. This warla of blinding whiteness, an eccentricity of natural geography, has inspired twelve Martu women artists of three generations to express viscerally their profound affection for it and the surrounding water sources.

The monumental work was collaborative from its inception. In November 2008 a large group of Punmu women met and decided to make a painting of Lake Dora for Punmu and asked Gabrielle Sullivan, manager of Martumili Artists, to prepare a really big canvas so that all of the women could work on it together. The 3 x 5 metre canvas was too large to fit in the Punmu art space (a converted laundry and ablutions block), so it was laid out on a slab in front of the community office where there was some shade. In 47.9 °C degree heat the women started singing and senior custodian, Rosie Williams, made the first mark – a broad white brushstroke – then eleven other senior and younger women walked onto the canvas and painted Lake Dora with her.

The women painted for ten hours on that first day, singing for each of the waterholes surrounding Ngayartu Kujarra. For most artists it was the first time they had worked collaboratively and certainly the first time they had painted on a canvas of this scale. Daughters worked with mothers, sisters with sisters and grandmothers with granddaughters. May and Doreen Chapman came from Warralong to paint their country. Punmu community watched as the work was created, children walked by on the way to the oval after school.

There was much discussion about the size of the lake, observers conjectured about whether there should be so much white, but Williams explained that’s what is there, a big warla, so the big white has to be there, that’s what’s there.

Day three of painting included a stroll down to the lake and some of the waterholes, recording stories about pujiman days of living nomadically and walking naked to these water sources. The painting evolved dramatically after this short trip, the warla became textured, many and various types of vegetation appeared along the lake’s edge and the rocky spurs protruding onto the lake appeared. Painting continued for another four days. Finally, on day seven when the painting was finished, the unstretched canvas was taken to Lake Dora and placed on its dried crystalline surface where the Punmu residents admired its shimmering and unrelieved whiteness and gave voice to its inherent songs and dances. Artist Nancy Chapman accompanied the painting into Newman and added a final coat of white to the lake (in the air-conditioned, no-dog zone of the Shire of East Pilbara Council Chambers) because it was too dirty from all of the dogs and cups of tea and little kids touching it.

This incomparable collective work – the seamless centrepiece of Before and After Science: 2010 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art and of Living Water, National Gallery of Victoria, 2011 – heralds the achievements of Martu artists in being able to immortalise on canvas the warla, tuwa (sandhills) and jila (living water) that signify their ngurra (country) and its ‘grounded holiness’.

Judith Ryan, Senior Curator, Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2012).