vivonne thwaites



mary knights



Untitled (Camp Dogs), 2005
Digital Image


Untitled (Abandoned Car), 2005
Digital Image


mary knights

From January 2005 to August 2006 I was the Manager and Art Coordinator of the Aboriginal art centre Irrunytju Arts. At the time it was 100% owned by the community and a member of the Desart* network of art centres. My role included managing the art centre, running the painting studio, curating and coordinating a national program of exhibitions, supporting intergenerational learning through bush trips and project managing Irrunytju Arts involvement in the Musée du Quai Branly project in Paris.

At the time it was a relatively new art centre. Irrunytju Arts was established in 2001 by senior women, supported by the first art centre coordinator Amanda Dent, as a place to share stories, paint, encourage intergenerational learning and cultural development and as an economic initiative.

Irrunytju is a small remote Aboriginal community situated at the edge of the Gibson Desert in West Australia. Around 150 to 180 anangu live in the cluster of bessa brick buildings, corrugated iron sheds, dongas and wiltja serviced by basic infrastructure: a water-bore, generator, graded airstrip, community shop, office, tiny school, media centre and a few rambling dirt tracks. On the outskirts there is a stony dirt football oval, a dump for abandoned car wrecks, a deserted chrysoprase mine, and a small graveyard. The surrounding harsh semi-arid country has a sparse beauty. Irrunytju is ringed with low, eroded mountain ranges. Spinifex grass and saltbush grow in the sandy earth, ancient river gums line the dry creek beds.

Many powerful tjukurpa are inscribed in the country around Irrunytju. One of the most important for Irrunytju is the minima kutjara tjukurpa, a complex narrative which tells how two sisters travelled north together. After many years, the older sister was bringing her younger sister home to be reunited with her family. The younger sister was reluctant to go, as she had been raised by strangers after being swept away by a wind when very small. As they journeyed across the country, they stopped at rockholes and other places to do inma, ceremonial singing and dancing, hunt and sleep. Nuanced, multi-layered and especially significant for the women, some aspects of the tjukurpa are only told in whispers. The sisters actions created landmarks in the country. Near Irrunytju the sisters sat on two hills and made hair belts in preparation for womens’ business, then threw their wana, digging sticks, creating the rockhole at Irrunytju, a significant site where senior artists, including Kuntjil Cooper, were born.

A tjukurpa track meandering through the desert from near Irrunytju to Kata Tjuta and Uluru marks the journey of the minyma tjuta, the seven sisters. Many of the artists lived a nomadic lifestyle in the desert and walked this track when young. Travelling north-east, the colours shift and landforms change. The sand becomes burnt red, the flat country gives way to tali (sand dunes), stands of desert oak and broken ranges. Occasionally there are dingos, and inevitably, kangaroos, a wedge tailed eagle circling prey, rabbits and camels. The sisters’ path, made as they crossed the desert pursued by wati Nyiru a sly and randy man is etched into the landscape. Eventually he captured one of the sisters and raped her. After her death the sisters transformed into a constellation of stars, the Pleiades, which can be seen travelling across the night sky, still followed by Nyiru who appears as Orion.

The first incursions by Europeans into this country were relatively recent. In 1873 Ernest Giles and William Gosse led small expeditions which attempted to cross from Central Australia to the West Australian coast. Both parties failed, unable to traverse the Gibson Desert, which Giles named after Alfred Gibson one of his party who became lost and perished. Starting from Champion Bay on the West Australian coast John Forrest successfully passed through this land in 1875. It is still very remote and rarely visited by strangers.

The artwork created at Irrunytju Arts was extraordinary. Most of the senior artists living and working at Irrunytju Arts belonged to the Pitjantjatjara language and cultural group. Straddling traditional and contemporary practices, many continued to practice cultural law and medicine, hunt and collect a range of bush foods. Reflecting the strong relationships between the artists, their country and culture, the artwork brought together contemporary painting techniques and media with ancient visual language and tjukurpa. Painting was only one of the artforms practiced by the artists who also engaged in inma, punu (carving of utilitarian and sacred objects) printmaking and weaving tjanpi baskets. In the art centre minyma pampa, senior women, sat on the floor painting large vibrant canvases. Tjitji, young children, slept and squabbled overseen by grandmothers, mothers and aunties. Mangy camp dogs sprawl outside in the heat. Wati, the men, painted outside on the ground near where they live.

The shattering social reality of many communities, including exploitation and corruption, has been well documented in the national press. Despite which, the people remain resilient and determined, the country is rich and beautiful, many things are strong.

* Desart is the Association of Central Australian Aboriginal Art and Craft Centres. Desart represents art centres that support:
- authenticity of artworks
- 100% returns to Aboriginal people and their organisations
- promotion of professional art practices and ethical dealings with artists

Mary Knights, Director, SASA Gallery, Uni SA

Hobart, January 2009


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