With International Women’s Day upon us last week The Starfish popped into the opening of Artitja Fine Art’s latest exhibition, Knowing Country – The Power of Aboriginal Women in art.

The exhibition, now showing at Earlywork Gallery in South Fremantle, is a focus on the importance of Aboriginal women’s role in a contemporary visual art movement that began only decades ago but now has tentacles spreading nationally and across the globe.

The show was opened with a speech by Judith Hugo, Art Curator at Central Institute of Technology (TAFE), and we thought her words both touching and informative.

Judith Hugo

Here’s is Judith’s opening address.

“In the 19650s and 60s all that the world knew of Australian Aboriginal art were the barks and carvings from Arnhemland, encouraged for sale by the missionaries and bought up by mining entrepreneurs (like Louis Allen from USA) and anthropologists, keen to get them into museums around Australia and overseas as cultural artefacts.

“However, no-one imagined then that any art could be made in the barren desert, as few except a few anthropologists (like Charles Mountford) had been privileged enough to witness desert mob corroborees and the intricate sand paintings that accompanied them.

“Then in the early 1970s all that changed with the Papunya Tula Art movement and its catalyst Geoffrey Bardon. Encouraged to translate their sand paintings, memories of country and ceremony, onto a 2D surface using acrylic paint, the art world responded and clamoured for more of the men’s work – recognising that the world’s most ancient culture was now producing its most contemporary artistic expression!


Dennis and Sue Fischer


Up to the early 80s, women were essentially excluded from this male domain – ie. until the artificial boundaries of these Aboriginal settlements began to relax and the various language groups found their way back to their traditional homelands.

What resulted, with new facilities provided, was an upsurge of women artists painting their beloved restored country – and in an explosion of colour: purples and pinks, blues and yellows, so different to the men’s traditional earth hues.

Gunvor Veluze and Loiuse De Villiers


Some strong feisty Aboriginal women leading the charge were:

Queenie McKenzie from Warmun who jealously guarded her own store of pink ochre and reminded Rover Thomas that he owed her for saving his life, and therefore should not return to his central desert country to die.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye from Utopia, who often hid away from the prowling art dealers, and kept one jump ahead of her imitators by constantly changing her style.

Daisy Andrews from Fitzroy Crossing, where the art movement evolved from a literacy program, and her early works on paper showed a charming naïve depiction of country with mixed western iconography and perspective.

Eubena Nampilin from Balgo with her iconic corner signatures and marpan powers, and Lucy Yukenbarri with her breakthrough pinti-pinti style of merging dots.

Moana Lutton

Lily & Rosie Karadada from Kalumburu, whose ochre Wandjina figures on bark gradually morphed into acrylics on canvas and prints on paper.

Soon enough second and third generation women artists were taking up the mantle.

The Petyarre sisters, Minnie Pwerle and Emily’s niece, Barbara Weir from Utopia. Madigan Thomas, Shirley Purdie, Mabel Juli & Geraldine Carrington from Warmun. The Joshua sisters (Ginger Riley’s cousins) from Roper River, Arnhemland

Artitja’s Anna Kanaris

The Sims sisters, Liddy Walker and tiny but prolific Judy Watson from Yuendumu – and the list goes on and on, with new art centres and artists emerging all the time…

On a recent visit to the fairly new Papunya Tjupi art centre I was amazed at just how different from their male forebears in the 1970s are the works of the predominantly women painters –eg. the sinuous almost marine-like patination in the huge paintings of Beyula Puntungka Napanangka, the bright animated landscapes of Martha McDonald Napaltjarri and the jewel-like canvasses of Candy Nelson Nakamarra, all descendants of the leaders of the original art movement.

In the Pilbara the women artists are beginning to take a political stand – eg the bold paintings of Gnarluma woman Loreen Samson who rails against the destruction of her country by the mining industry, and the Yindjbarni women who are anxious to record the beauty and sacredness of their country and waterways before they are again exploited by greedy entrepreneurs.

Of course, it almost goes without saying that fierce political comment has been part of the urban Aboriginal women artists’ agenda for many years, and we owe much to the likes of Brenda Croft, Destiny Deacon, Tracey Moffatt, Fiona Foley, Bronwyn Bancroft, Judy Watson, Sandra Hill, Norma MacDonald & others for their exposure of the hypocrisy, cruelties and inequalities of our imposed paternalistic system.

But let me get back to the role of Aboriginal women artists still on country.

National art awards like the Telstra, Desert Mob in Alice Springs, the WA Indigenous Art Awards, our bi-annual Revealed showcase of WA artists as well as numerous commercial exhibitions both here and interstate constantly reveal how many more Aboriginal women than men are producing art now – and winning major awards.

Art centres are the lifeblood of communities, a place where artists can seek sanctuary, financial support, companionship with friends and family, an opportunity to pass on ancestral dreaming stories to the younger generation while they paint.

Traditionally, women’s work has been about food gathering, fertility, and the dreaming sites associated with them, while men’s work focused on ancestral laws, punishment for transgression and secret ceremonies.

And herein lies the sadness. Dependence on the welfare system has been particularly disempowering for men; no longer do they need to hunt to provide for their families and the authority of the Elders is gradually being eroded in the face of western contemporary pressures.

Add to this the scourge of alcohol and drugs, and we have two or three generations of men who feel redundant and angry. As violence erupts in some communities, it again falls to the women to protect their own, either manning night patrols (as in Yuendumu) or providing safe houses for young women and children.

So how doubly important it is to them and their children that they are able to produce beautiful works of art like these here, which reinforce their vital connection to country and their knowledge of their spiritual ancestors’ wanderings over the landscape, creating unique landforms and lush food gathering places to ensure the continuity of their people.

Knowing Country – The Power of Aboriginal Women in Art runs until 25 March at the Earlywork Gallery, 9/330 South Terrace, South Fremantle.

Starfish Photographs: Peter Rigby



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