Eubena Nampitjin at work at Balgo Arts Centre.
Eubena Nampitjin at work at the Balgo Arts Centre. Photo: Justin McManus



Aboriginal art has taken a hit post-GFC, but talk of the end of the road for the painters of the outback is premature, writes Gabriella Coslovich from deep in the Great Sandy Desert. 
 
DRIVING to Balgo, deep in the heart of Western Australia's Great Sandy Desert, is not for the faint-hearted. From Alice Springs, it's a 830 kilometre bone-rattling ride up the Tanami Track, unsealed road most of the way.

On a good day, the trip to the remote indigenous community will take about 10 hours, on a bad day it'll slay your four-wheel-drive. When Sally Clifford and Annette Cock drove out to their new jobs in January 2006, the trip from Alice took 14½ hours and entailed ploughing through water that rose as high as their Toyota Troopy's windscreen, and which would cut off the community for the next five months.

For the past five years, Clifford and Cock have run the Balgo art centre, their tireless work with indigenous artists extending beyond art and into the social realm, helping people with their financial, domestic, medical, legal and, all importantly, transport needs. (In the desert, the only things more important than having access to a "motika" - ideally a Toyota Landcruiser - are food and tobacco.)

Artist Brandy Tjungurrayi.


Best known as home to Warlayirti Artists, Balgo is one of Australia's oldest indigenous art centres. Established in 1987, it is also one of the largest and most financially successful. Only the celebrated Papunya Tula, where the Western Desert art movement began 40 years ago, generates more income from sales.

I made the journey (by mail plane) to see for myself the role art centres play in the maintenance of indigenous culture and in the production of art. The visit was also a chance to reflect upon concerns that are sometimes raised about the multimillion-dollar Aboriginal arts "industry", especially in the aftermath of the financial crisis, which has savaged the art market in general and the market for indigenous art in particular.

Common refrains are that there is a glut of indigenous art on the market, that a lot of it is mediocre, and that the movement is unsustainable and will fade as the last of the "true" desert artists dies. From the ground, however, where art is a way of life, the picture is less simple. For indigenous people, the production of paintings interweaves art, culture and commerce, and resists easy judgments or prognostications. It is a testament to tenacity, and a story about generational change. A picture as layered as the heady reds, mauves, oranges and greens of the desert, and as hardy as the brilliant acrylic paints introduced by kartiyas (whitefellas) in the '70s and taken up with striking vigour in communities such as Balgo.

A work by Eubena Nampitjin. A work by Eubena Nampitjin.

THE strong desert sun is high overhead in a sky of intense, cloudless blue. The dirt road from the airstrip into town is pocked with holes and flanked by tall hummocks of flaxen-green spinifex. Within minutes, we're at the mosaic-covered doorstep of the Balgo art centre. Hand-painted signs out front warn "Have you got enough water? Fuel, spare tyres?"

Artists and their families sit on the breezy verandah, along with a sprawling convoy of camp dogs. It's a big day. Some important collectors are flying in on their private charter.

The art centre building is long and low, fashioned from corrugated iron and painted a rich rust-brown. The building contains a studio, where artists (mainly women) paint, a gallery, and some new additions: a culture centre, where indigenous artefacts, books and photographs are displayed, a multi-media centre where Balgo youth can learn about photography and filmmaking, and a sound-recording studio added just last year.

A Balgo artist at work. A Balgo artist at work. Photo: Justin McManus

But painting remains the core business, and when you enter the spacious, white-walled gallery where the work of Warlayirti Artists is on show, it becomes near impossible to concentrate on conversations without being distracted by the exuberance and energy of the paintings. They vary markedly in style, but all feature Balgo's signature vibrant colours and dynamic design.

The Dreaming, or Tjukurrpa, country and ceremonial life are the foundations of Warlayirti Artists' work. Their paintings celebrate the ever-shifting colours of the desert, the rock holes and soak holes where life-giving water is found, the bush tucker concealed beneath the spinifex, and the curious parallel lines of sandhills that make the Great Sandy Desert like no other.

Balgo's best-known painter is Eubena Nampitjin, who is about 90-years-old and whose ability to distil the energy and wonder of her ancestral lands in sweeping, joyously coloured abstract paintings has seen her compared with the late Emily Kam Kngwarreye. But many artists' paintings catch the eye: the highly textured works of Elizabeth Nyumi, with their thick white dabs of paint representing the snow-like covering of spinifex seeds; the bold, raw abstracts of Nora Wompi, whose work was recently collected by the National Gallery of Victoria; the fine-as-sand dotting technique of Imelda Yukenbarri Gugaman; the op-art like oscillation of Helicopter Tjungurrayi's linear sandhills; the hallucinogenically bright sandhills of Geraldine Nowee, to name a few.

In his 1999 book Balgo: New Directions, former art centre co-ordinator James Cowan described the work of Balgo artists as being "grounded in a quintessential act of reverie".

As the only Aboriginal-owned business in town, the art centre plays a crucial role in Balgo's economic health. After Centrelink payments, art is the main income source and, during boom years, has even superseded Centrelink as the primary form of income.

During the recent art market boom, Balgo's top artists were earning from $150,000 to $500,000 a year in sales. Under Balgo's business model, artists take a 60 per cent cut of sales, the remaining 40 per cent going to the art centre to buy materials, to promote, document and exhibit works, and for the salaries of art centre workers. Not only do artists help finance the art centre, they also support extended families through their creations.

But Balgo, like the art market in general, has had a rough time of late. Three years ago, before the financial crisis hit, Balgo's revenue from art sales was $2.5 million. In the last financial year, sales dropped to $1.3 million. Another relentless wet season, which again cut off the community for months, did not help. As Cock puts it, the Balgo art centre is at the mercy not only of market forces, but also the forces of nature.

As an older, established art centre, Balgo must also contend with the whims of a market that is always hungry for the new. In the past decade, there has been a flurry of art centres established in the Western Desert, such as Martumili Artists in the east Pilbara, as well as others in the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara lands, that are capturing the attention of galleries and collectors. It's a competitive field.

Following the financial crisis, there is less money in the community for ''luxury goods'' such as tyres and cars, says Cock, although she doesn't necessarily see this as a negative. (At one point, 45 men were away from the community and in jail for driving-related offences - cars are a potentially lethal luxury.) What is more pronounced is the lack of money for resources at the art centre - Warlayirti prides itself on being self-sufficient, but of late, Cock and Clifford have had to apply for government grants to keep programs running, such as the ''motika project'', which aims to raise awareness about the perils of not following the road rules.

AT LAST, the star of Balgo arrives at the art centre, steered in on her wheelchair by her daughter Jane Gimme, who also paints. Eubena Nampitjin's constant companion, her dog Tjapanankga, is not far behind. He is famous around these parts for responding with as much glee to the words "art centre" as a city dog does when it's told it's going "walkies".

On this sunny Friday afternoon, Perth gallery owner Seva Frangos has flown to Balgo with five collectors as part of a whirlwind tour of eight art centres across the Kimberley, Tiwi Islands and Arnhem Land. Among the group is Helen Carroll-Fairhall, curator of the Wesfarmers Australian art collection, who is looking to buy a major work by Nampitjin.

Wesfarmers (whose businesses include Coles, Target and Kmart) has a 150-strong indigenous collection featuring works by some of the most important artists of the past 30 years, including the late Rover Thomas and Queenie McKenzie, but, as yet, no Nampitjin. Carroll-Fairhall has come to Balgo to see Nampitjin and her work "in context".

Three large unstretched canvases are laid on the art centre floor for viewing, each worth $22,000. Camp dogs walk blithely over them. The paintings feature Nampitjin's trademark palette of glistening yellows, warm pinks, oranges and reds, and all invoke the splendour of her traditional country, Kunawarritji, which is at least a 15-hour drive from Balgo, near Well 33 of what is now known as the Canning Stock Route. They are all titled Kinyu, after the big white dingo spirit who lives at the bottom of the tali, or sandhills, and who Nampitjin's people would ask for help in hunting.

The collectors are delighted by Nampitjin's arrival and she, in turn, charms them, taking their hands and exuberantly kissing them. She is regal and proud, a grand matriarch, aware of her status, graciously so.

Fairhall is captivated by the artist, her elegance and the movement of her hands as she talks about her work. She puts all three canvases on reserve.

"It's always major works that we are looking to acquire for the collection, and I think I've found that today," she says.

At day's end, I ask Cock whether it has been a success. An ambiguous look crosses her face and she tells me that once upon a time, a day like this would have resulted in sales of $120,000. Collectors would have been "fighting with each other'' over paintings, Cock says.

"The recession has hammered us."

Balgo's greatest resource is its artists. Warlayirti has about 250 artists on its books - that's more than half the population, although only 80 or so are regular painters, among them a group of senior men and women who walked in from the desert to the old Balgo mission in the late 1940s and '50s after being displaced from their ancestral lands by the encroachment of pastoralists and drovers. The establishment of ammunition dumps in the Great Sandy Desert during the Second World War also pushed indigenous people off their territory and towards Balgo. Seven different tribes ended up living at Balgo - the Kukatja, Ngardi, Walmajarri, Wangkajungka, Jaru, Walpiri and Pintupi people.

James Cowan once wrote that Balgo art owed its strength and exuberance to the profound longing the artists have for their traditional lands. He called it the "art of absence".

To watch Nampitjin or Elizabeth Nyumi paint in the art centre studio is to get a sense of that longing. Nyumi sings her country as she paints, slowly and methodically making her marks with a thin wooden stick. She explains her paintings to us, repeating over and over the names of the bush tucker she collected as a young girl.

''I am painting about purra [bush tomato], kantjilyi [bush raisin]. We used to eat these bush tuckers when there were no kartiya [whitefellas]. We walked with no clothes when I was a little girl and we played everywhere.''

Nampitjin works more spontaneously, absorbed in the process. She doesn't hesitate as she dabs her thick, paint-charged brush along the canvas. Cowan wrote about her: ''Of all the women painting at Balgo, Eubena displays a deep sense of herself as landscape, prepared to paint all the rock holes, saltpans, dry lakes, hills and ritual centres that were once part of her bush life. In her paintings she ranges across a vast area of the Tanami and Great Sandy deserts, filling in the sacred geography of her youth and middle years. She is the one painter who, like Emily [Kam Kngwarreye], is capable of breathtaking work which goes beyond Aboriginal art into the realm of modernity.''

But what will happen when these older artists die? Will it mean, as some predict, the decline of the industry?
''People ask, 'What's going to happen when the [true desert] artists pass away? Is the movement over?' '' says Clifford, who is exasperated by such comments. She firmly points out that, first, she and Cock have been employed precisely to ensure that there is a future, and, second, that it is clear from the work now being produced by a new generation of artists that it will be exciting. ''They're obviously not the 'walking-in-from-the-desert people' but they're still learning the Tjukurrpa in the same way that it's been passed down, the family lineage of teaching is still the primary way that people learn,'' Clifford says.

And there is no denying that great indigenous art is being produced in the region, and beyond. The Living Water exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, which features 173 works of art, bought through the Felton Bequest, is proof. Judith Ryan, senior curator of indigenous art at the NGV, who sourced the works in the exhibition, finds it absurd that people predict the end of the Western Desert art movement. ''When Fred Williams passed away, we didn't say 'there is no such thing as Australian landscape painting, there will be no others'. The thing is that these stories - that the art is not the same, that it's changing, that the future looks grim or fragile - have been in the air since I started working at the gallery in 1977,'' she says.

''A previous director of mine said to me, 'Judith, the best work is being produced now'.''

As far as the touted ''oversupply'' of indigenous art goes, Tim Klingender, indigenous art specialist for Bonhams auction house, makes the point that there is an oversupply of all art, indigenous or non-indigenous. ''In art, probably about 1 per cent rises to the top.''

To this end, Clifford and Cock have made it their goal to develop a new generation of artists and, during their time at Balgo, painters such as Brian Mudgedell, Miriam Baadjo, Geraldine Nowee, Theresa Nowee, Imelda Yukenbarri and Graham Gordon have come to the fore, all having inherited dreaming stories from their families. These younger artists look up to the senior men and women and want to emulate their success.

One day, Miriam Baadjo shyly takes me aside. Baadjo wants to become as famous as her aunt, Eubena. She has been given permission to paint the story of her late uncle Wimmitji Tjapangarti - Eubena's second husband and influential painting partner. Baadjo shows me how the iconography in her paintings originates from Wimmitji's own paintings about the Tingari beings who helped form the landscape during the Tjukurrpa. The rock holes, the creeks, the ceremonial poles, and the bush foods. It is clear that she's immensely proud to be carrying on his story. She is hopeful, too, that her painting will help support her family - her five children and her granddaughter.

''I have to work hard, keep on painting to keep them going, not get starve. That's all,'' she says.

THE Balgo art centre is as important to the young as they are to it. While the overall impression is of a safe and welcoming place, like many remote communities, the town has had its share of problems - there was a spate of suicides among young men several years ago, and problems with sniffing. Through the efforts of the community and police, the problems have abated. Balgo is an alcohol-free zone - that is how the community wants it. Not that this always stopped alcohol being brought in. Balgo's Senior Sergeant James Reid says there's been a marked drop in alcohol-related problems since the closure in December of the Rabbit Flat Roadhouse, 250 kilometres away in the Northern Territory. Cannabis use can also be a problem among young men in Balgo - although it doesn't seem to leave the trail of destruction that is caused by alcohol, Reid says. What it can ruin though, is the motivation and mental health of young men.

The Balgo art centre plays an important role here - the new media centre targets young men, encouraging them to learn filmmaking and photography. It gives them something to do in a town with few job opportunities (although a trade training centre, being built with money from the federal government's Building the Education Revolution program, will open in August) and can keep them from destructive diversions.

Shannon Gibson, who once struggled with a cannabis addiction, now spends his time at the art centre working on his photography. His mother, Francine Nowee, proudly tells me that Shannon is always smiling these days. His photographs are on display in the culture centre, panoramic views of the desert, with rocky outcrops and escarpments, and photos he has created for the ''motika project''. But it's clear which photograph is Francine's favourite - the one of her grandson Edmund, a dreamy close-of up the baby's eye, framed by impossibly long black lashes.

With more than 100 art centres like Warlayirti throughout Australia, all competing for a slice of the market, it is difficult for most indigenous artists to make a steady living. But, regardless of fashions and markets, it seems certain that art will remain intrinsic to life in Balgo. One of the first works of contemporary art at Balgo - a wild, sprawling painting merging Christian and indigenous iconography - is still displayed behind the altar of the Balgo church, a testament to the human capacity to adapt, embrace and absorb.

Saturday evening mass in Balgo is conducted in both the local language, ''Kukatja'', and English. Tonight, the priest is away, and a group of women are performing the service, directed and prompted by Sister Alice Dempsey, an Irish nun who fell for Balgo when she first visited in 1981.

The women wear liturgical sashes with traditional Aboriginal designs. They bless the congregation with water using a big, leafy branch of eucalyptus. Helicopter Tjunugurrayi is in a back pew, hitting his clap sticks in time with the hymns. The camp dogs are asleep under pews, and the kids are everywhere - running around the back of the church, sitting atop stacked chairs, chatting to their teachers.

Afterwards, we walk home in the dark, and the football field is going off. The place is ablaze, glowing with scores of bonfires. The kids are setting the spinifex around it on fire, running amok, laughing and screaming.