Field workers at Martumili have one of the best jobs in the world. They work with incredible Martu* artists as they paint; and adventure through the living desert that is Martu Country; a significant part of the largest remaining desert landscape on the planet. Every March, as the weather cools in Wantajarra season, our two field officers prepare to work on site with Martumili Artists based in each of the six remote communities we represent; Jigalong, Parnngurr, Punmu, Kunawarritji, Irrungadji (Nullagine) and Warralong.
First, for a trip ranging anywhere from a few days to a month long, we cram our beloved Land Cruisers with blank canvas, paint, brushes, buckets, food, water, and camping equipment fit to bursting. Then we squeeze in an artist or two that needs a ride home, plus their gear and maybe even a couple of jarntu (dogs), and we're off!
The drives are beautiful, bordered on all sides and as far as the eye can see by striking red sandhills and rocky outcrops, and blanketed by spinifex, scrub and trees. To start we share the roads with unbelievably long road trains, but the farther we venture the fewer vehicles we'll encounter. And we do go far. At a distance of 860km from Newman (184km sealed, 676km unsealed roads), Kunawarritji is one of Western Australia's most remote Aboriginal communities. Fingers crossed we won't have to change any tires or dig the car out of a bog! Moreover, sometimes torrential downpours transform sandy tracks into the stuff bogging nightmares are made of; heavily pitted and waterlogged ground. Besides avoiding the oppressive heat of yalijarra (hot, dry season), eluding these kinds of conditions is another of the reasons our field work is seasonal.
After hours of peaceful contemplation we're there! We let Newman based Martumili staff know we've arrived safely before checking in with community members and coordinators. If there's time in the day we'll head to our art shed, otherwise we'll cruise straight to our digs (which, depending on the community we're in, could be anything from a solo swag, motel room, community donga, or our own Martumili accommodation) for a shower to wash away the red dirt.
The creation of new and vibrant artworks is imminent! We head to the art shed; open spaces containing little more than a few tables and chairs. After sweeping, then unpacking our art materials into rows of paint pots; piles of canvas; and buckets of water and brushes, the next step is crucial. Turn on the kettle, open packets of biscuits... and by the time we turn around there's at least one artist in the room with us. Considering the relatively recent advent of internet and telephone communication in remote communities, it's remarkable how quickly word gets around. There's no time for mucking around from here - Martumili Artists characteristically get started on their canvas immediately. Many of the artists paint daily during our stay, and the movement of artists and their family through the spaces ebbs and flows naturally throughout the day. Art making here is natural, unmediated, and a matter-of-fact part of life.
After seeing paintings being created on the dusty floors and tables of the art sheds, under trees, and alongside nearby lakes and claypans, it's an incredible feeling to bring them back to Newman. From here the works can, and do, go anywhere from market spaces to international galleries. Formed in Country and representing its intrinsic cultural knowledge, they bring Warrarn (Country) with them.
* Martu are an Indigenous group of people who lived a traditional lifestyle in the Western Desert until the mid-1960s. A majority of Martu were taken into missions, while others worked on cattle stations, typically in exchange for rations and clothing. By the 1980s, many Martu had begun longing to go back to their Country, and with the Return to Country movement they set up three Martu communities—Parnngurr, Punmu and Kunawarritji.
Martu lands encompass the Great Sandy Desert and Karlamilyi (Rudall River) regions of Western Australia. Languages spoken by Martu include Manyjilyjarra, Warnman, Kartujarra, Putijarra and Martu Wangka.