At the beginning of May, Western Australia’s 29 Aboriginal art centres received the huge boost of the opening of the $8 million East Pilbara Art Centre, home to one of the state’s most successful art groupings, Martumili Artists.

We’ve received a report on the great event from Gabrielle Sullivan “ now the Director of the Indigenous Art Code but formerly the founding Director of Martumuli Artists:

The opening was great on many levels, but the thing that really struck me was the sense of ownership of that space. I knew the artists were excited as they demonstrated that over the years in the lead up to the project, but the sense of pride expressed was truly wonderful. To be able to showcase Aboriginal art and culture in an East Pilbara mining town is a good thing.

Martu artists travelled from their communities of Parnngurr, Punmu, Kunawarritji, Jigalong, Warralong and Irrungadji to attend the opening night event and weekend of public program activities.

The project started five years ago, well, the idea did. Martumili Artists came into being in late 2006 and now has 300 registered artists with around 75 artists actively painting and up to 30 of those attracting followers in interstate and international markets. Its Newman based operations were managed from a small office space in the Shire of East Pilbara administration building, Martumili quickly outgrew this space and was moved into a slightly larger office space, but still managed to have paintings and materials spread throughout the local government premises.

A majority of the artists worked in their homes in the communities mentioned, and the paintings would be brought into town for cataloguing and storage, or to be sent off for exhibition and sale.

Martu artists would visit Newman for any number of reasons, but there was no real space to paint, traps would be dragged out on to the Shire lawn and an outdoor studio had to be set up and packed up each day. In 2011 Martumili secured two dongas connected by a deck, and this resulted in more space, but not enough for artists to work, and nothing weather proof. However, the space became a hub for Martu artists and families when they visited Newman and a place used by Martu artists living in town.

Newman is a town with a fluctuating population depending on what’s happening in the mining industry, but there a constant population who call it home and a steady stream of tourists, many of whom have also travelled to Martu Country or along the Canning Stock Route. The Martumili office in Newman soon became a place tourists would visit, however, this was extremely difficult to handle with barely enough space to manage the office and materials and artwork storage, let alone space to show customers artwork.

A sea container appeared for storage and then another sea container and more artists using the office to make artwork. Martumili still needed more space. After an initial infrastructure scoping report addressing Martumili’s space requirements it became apparent that there might be funding available to build a space for Martumili to operate from in Newman. The artists had ideas about what they wanted, mainly a big space outside for painting but covered when it’s raining and not too cold in the winter. They wanted to paint in the sun when it was cold, and they wanted to see the trees and hills when they were painting. There needed to be plenty of room so that family who were not artists could sit with them when they were painting and share stories, learn about what they were doing, also so that visitors (non-Martu) could come and say hello and talk to the artists at work.

A design ideas competition seemed like a good idea. We’d get the artists to work with art centre staff and the University of Western Australia’s Faculty of Architecture to develop a brief responding to the artists and art centre’s needs. BHP Billiton generously funded the design ideas competition, which resulted in 16 innovative schemes as entries. The competition was judged by a jury of design experts and included artist representation. The choice of winner was unanimous; it responded to the brief and worked for the space. Officer Woods Architects was the winning team.

There was a lot of excitement about the winning scheme from artists, the community, local government and potential project funders. If this building could be realised in Newman it would be the first of its kind, a first for the Pilbara. Thanks to BHP Billiton, Lotterywest, Shire of East Pilbara and the foresight and Brendan Grylls and the Pilbara Development Commission’s Royalties for Regions, funding support for the project was secured. This was a five-year project
Back to the opening¦¦¦
The opening coincided with a lot of sorry business. But people still came and the opening speeches acknowledged the losses the community had experienced. Newman is not located on Martu Country, it is Nyiaparli Country and Martu are caretakers. Nyiaparli Elders David Stock and Victor Parker opened the new facility with the Martu artists. There were lots of speeches, maybe too many, but they all conveyed the excitement about the new space. For the first time the extraordinary achievements of the Martu artists can be seen in Newman, those beautiful 3x5mtr. paintings can be exhibited in the Pilbara, the artists families can see the work, the artists can see their own work, the non-Martu population can see what Martu people have achieved, and this is important in a town like Newman where there is way too much focus on the visible, negative actions of a minority.

I was overwhelmed by the sense of pride. I knew the artists cared about the project, I knew they were excited about a space that was theirs in Newman, but I didn’t appreciate just how proud they were that the most exciting building in the Pilbara was constructed because of their achievements as artists, and how sharing their art and culture with the whole community is their way of being involved and valued.”

As the prominent Martu artist sisters Lily Long and Amy French put it at the opening ceremony, Our ˜mia’, our art house, is here, and thank you for coming along to celebrate it.

The art centre has opened with an exhibition from Martumili Artists, We Don’t Need a Map: A Martu Experience of the Western Desert, which has come home after launching at Fremantle Art Centre in 2013 and touring seven regional art centres and interstate galleries over the past two years. It’s a wonderful compilation of paintings, photos, Songlines and artist biographies.

Gabrielle Sullivan told The Australian that Martumili Artists has made an effort to create their own collection, starting with artists reaching the end of their painting career. She shares the concern of WA Department of Culture and the Arts Director General, Duncan Ord, that significant Aboriginal paintings by older artists are leaving the state. Last month, Ord told The Australian that culturally and historically important work was being lost to the state because the West Australian Art Gallery and other public institutions are not able to buy them, and Aboriginal communities can’t afford to keep them in their own collections.