Exhibition displays intense relationship of Martu people to their heritage


Artist Doreen Chapman at the opening night of ‘We Call It Home’.

We Call It Home
Spinifex Hill Artists exhibition, FORM gallery, Perth
September 3 to November 30

Many of the Martu people of Western Australia’s Pilbara region, extending out into the Great Sandy, Little Sandy and Gibson Deserts, only ceased living a pujiman (entirely traditional) life as late as the 1960s. Many also took part in the huge Aboriginal stock workers strike of the late ’40s.

The artworks on display in the We Call It Home exhibition convey the significance of ongoing relationship to birthplaces, sacred areas and family stories — as well as political memories.

Many patterns and designs derive from traditional body painting and ceremonial sand drawing. Other pictorial representations, such as Winnie Sampi’s Country no longer the same where my old people once walked, comment on the effects of mining on the landscape.

As a group exhibition there is no one style on show, canvases are as varied as the artists who paint them.

Selena Brown’s Marble Bar, My Country is an exquisite combination of horizontal, brightly painted, dotted lines, bisected by central vertical lines. The colours leap off the wall at the viewer, expressing joy and familiarity with her homeland.

Brown’s practice is painstaking, but Doreen Chapman’s canvases demonstrate a robust, fast application of paint. Her abstract, geometric images immediately grab attention.

Most of the works are connected to stories, which are recorded in the catalogue. In one, Biddy Thomas says of his Top End of Moolyella: “Don McLeod was helping us with the foods, and he got put in jail in Hedland for that. We not allowed to Broome, not allowed to another place. We was blocked, you know?

“Don McLeod helped us with that too, but he went to prison for that. All the black people went marching out to the jail to get him out.”

Don McLeod was the white Communist Party activist who was jailed for his support of the Aboriginal farm workers strike that lasted from 1946 to 1949 — the longest strike in Australian history.

FORM is a not-for-profit group that works with the Port Hedland-based Spinifex Hill Artists, among other Aboriginal arts collectives in WA. Most of the profits from sales go back to the artists.

The Port Hedland group paints for self-expression and also to educate the youth. “When you lose your Country, you lose your identity, language and culture,” says artist Natasha Nelson. “If you don’t know where you’re from, you don’t know your family ties and kinship.”

This exhibition beautifully displays an intense relationship to heritage and culture.

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