Developed by the South Australian Museum, Ngurrara: The Great Sandy Desert Canvas exhibition has been touring Australia recently celebrating one of the largest and most spectacular Aboriginal Western Desert paintings: the great Ngurrara Canvas. Painted by senior traditional owners of the Great Sandy Desert of northern Western Australia, this painting has spectacular significance for the people of this community, being presented for the National Native Title Tribunal claim for the Southern Kimberly community in 1997. Aboriginal lawyer and writer Larissa Behrendt tells the important story behind this canvas.

It has been long understood that the genesis of art within Australian Aboriginal culture was vastly different to that in the Western tradition. The creativity of creating art was, for pre-invasion Aboriginal communities, solely part of the cultural practices that showed, connection to country and honoured ancestors. The end result was often discarded and destroyed, made in non-permanent mediums like sand and not kept for aesthetics or valued as property.

The recognition of Aboriginal art as aesthetic, not mere artefact, has meant Europeans reconceptualising ethnographic objects into art. Aboriginal people were encouraged to put their fragile and non-lasting artwork into permanent forms – on canvas, board and bark (where it was not traditionally done) and with watercolours and acrylics. This mirrored the process of changing the mediums for Aboriginal artists – turning sand paintings into acrylic paintings, placing body paint onto canvas, the classification of functional pieces – baskets, boomerangs, shields – as sculpture. These new mediums were an extension of the traditional motifs, symbols and representations and remained fundamentally and intrinsically Indigenous. Aboriginal artists were producing and selling a whole new genre of art specially created to communicate with the outside world.

Ngurrara the Canvas
The evolution of Aboriginal art, its incorporation of European mediums and navigation of European economies and demands, shows the triteness of making a distinction between “traditional” and “contemporary” Aboriginal art.

The Ngurrara canvas provokes reflection on this false dichotomy. It is the largest work of art from the Great Sandy Desert. Currently on tour at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, it falls over two stories and can be viewed from various vantage points.

Its colossal size (measuring eight by ten metres) is the first thing one notices. The eye sweeps across the vast canvas like a wind across a landscape, drawn by the thick horizontal lines. It is then that our focus can rest on the ten careful, colourful harmonised patchworks, each denoting a different story, a different place, a different piece of evidence of connection and attachment to land.

With a bird’s eye view, the canvas makes the viewer feel as though they are floating across the country. The waterholes, trees, salt lakes and people are visible. It shows the path of serpents and ancestors. It tells a panoramic story of ceremonies being performed, creation stories, of spirits, of snoring fathers.

“Home… Telling the Court about our Country”
It makes sense that Ngurrara means home, the place that people have attachment to. And it literally became evidence. In 1997, the canvas was presented to the National Native Title Tribunal as evidence of ancestral, social, economic and personal connections to land.

The idea of painting the canvas was that of Ngarralja Tommy May’s: “… we were wondering how to tell the court about our country. I said then if kartiya [Europeans] can’t believe our word, they can look at our painting. It all says the same thing. We got the idea of using our paintings in court as evidence.”

The painting is the result of the collaboration of over sixty artists from the South Kimberley region. They met at Pirnini, an area to the south west of Fitzroy Crossing, on the northern edge of the Great Sandy Desert to create this work. It was the second attempt to make such a canvas. In 1996 a canvas was produced but the artists were unhappy with it. Artists had worked independently on different parts of the painting, with different notions of scale and so the panels did not fit together the way that they should have. Learning from this experience, a larger canvas was used and there was also a better understanding of how the different elements of the painting should work together. The result is breathtaking in its scope. It captured the extremely strong affiliation to land that people had to the land they had lived off the land until the 1960s.

Becoming testimony, communicating Aboriginal Law for the 1997 Ngurrara Native Title Claim
Jilpia Nappaljari Jones is one of the native title holders and is related to Kurntika Jimmy Pike. She says: “Fred Chaney from the Native Title Tribunal came over ten years ago. I explained to him that these were desert people. Some couldn’t read or write. We’ll paint our country.”

The dominant legal culture has an emphasis on the written word, on economic rights and is focused on the individual. By stark contrast, Aboriginal law has an emphasis on oral transmission, the preservation and maintenance of culture and is communally owned. The Ngurrara canvas, by bringing an embodiment of Aboriginal law into the court for consideration by the dominant culture, communicated across the divide.

The Ngurrara determination was the largest claim in the Kimberley region and recognised exclusive possession native title over about 76,000 square kilometres of land.

Jilpia travelled to Pirnini when the determination was delivered. Justice Gilmour said: “… the Court does not give you native title. Rather, the Court determines that native title already exists. It determines that this is your land. That it is based upon your traditional laws and customs and it always has been. The law says to all the people in Australia that this is your land and that it always has been your land.”

Of this Jiplia says: “We all knew it was our land. I said to the others that it was now done legally. The Queen doesn’t own it.”

The determination was handed down at Pirnini, the same place in which the Ngurrara canvas had been painted.

– Larissa Behrendt

Ngurrara: The Great Sandy Desert Canvas exhibition is currently touring in Canberra at the National Museum of Australia until 22 June, in Geraldton from 2 Oct – 14 Dec 08, in Bathurst from 23 Jan – 8 Mar 09 and Mount Gambier from 4 Apr – 24 May 09. (This exhibition is supported by Visions of Australia, an Australian Government Program supporting touring exhibitions by providing assistance for the development and touring of cultural material across Australia.)

Larissa Behrendt is an Aboriginal lawyer and writer. She is a Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Chair of their Indigenous Advisory Committee. Her novel, “Home”, was awarded a Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. Larissa is also the Chair of National Indigenous Television.

Photos: Courtesy South Australian Museum.
(1) The Ngurrara Canvas. Painted by Ngurrara artists and claimants, coordinated by Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency, May 1997. 10 metres x 8 metres. Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency.
(2) Hitler Pamba and Nada Rawlins completing the Warla section of the Ngurrara Canvas at Pirnini, May 1997. K. Dayman
(3) Nyirlpirr Spider Snell explaining the Ngurrara Canvas, 2005. Ngurrara Artists Group
(4) The Ngurrara Canvas at the Ngurrara Native Title determination proceedings at Pirnini, 8 November 2007. Ngurrara Artists Group

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