I recently remarked on the passing of the Indigenous community art centre as the basis for exhibitions – whether commercial or institutional. And then I recalled that one art centre persists as the source for almost all exhibitions – Spinifex Art Projects. Yes there’s a young star like Timo Hogan emerging and getting solo shows, but in a show like D’Lan Davidson’s current ‘Spinifex Country’ in Melbourne, there are 11 artists involved, some working collaboratively.
And the lavish new tome, ‘Sun and Shadow’, edited by John Carty and Luke Scholes. reveals the history that has caused this art centre to be the one to stick by the old rules…a history that begins only 7000 years ago!

Then, according to stories still told, the Wati Nyiinyi (Zebra Finches) took it upon themselves to head south from the Great Victoria Desert armed to the teeth with spears to halt the advancing seas, which, thanks to melting ice at the end of the last great Ice Age, had already swamped a seventh of the continent. Their spears became the Nullarbor Cliffs on the Great Australian Bight, allowing 200 generations of Pila Nguru – Spinifex People – to enjoy nomadic solitude and cultural certainty.

Which was only threatened in 1952 when Australia offered the Brits a patch of terra nullius to test their atomic bombs. Fortunately, a Native Patrol Officer with responsibility for some 3 million square kilometres was a man showing “lamentable lack of balance”, according to Australia’s Chief Scientist, “placing the affairs of a handful of natives above those of the British Commonwealth of Nations”!

The unnamed hero organised 26 rescue missions between 1954 and 65, bringing 403 people out to Cundeelee Mission, leaving the Great Victoria Desert empty – apart from the Rictor Family. This group survived there until 1986: “The last nomadic hunter-gatherers on earth: the last representatives of the longest, most stable human condition the world has ever known or is ever likely to see”, according to Scott Cane, the anthropologist who wrote the first book on the Pila Nguru in 2002.

Clearly they were so remote, though, that the Rictors failed to achieve fame as the “Last Nomads” that the Pintupi Five had grabbed in 1984, two years earlier. But, like their predecessors, the younger Rictors – brothers Ian, Mick and Noli and Tjarua Woods – all became significant artists.

But the man at the beginning, middle and end of the book is Mr Hogan, Simon to his friends, presumable as a result of names imposed during the Cundeelee experience. But it was ‘Mr Hogan’ to the future King Charles who opened the ‘enduring civilisation’ exhibition at the British Museum in 2015 beneath a collaborative Spinifex artwork which was Mr Hogan’s Country.

But it was only Hogan’s Country because, at the beginning of the book, Hogan had spoken of “his land, his Dreaming, his Country, his Law, his Tradition” at a WA regional ATSIC meeting, followed by the words “Native Title”. In 1992, it was the first such claim in WA, and it required six years of negotiation with miners and neighbouring Anangu before Premier Richard Court signed away 55,000 sq kms to the Pila Nguru in what he called “The most significant act of my Premiership”.

This process had really begun when Simon Hogan (again) lead his people, Moses-like, home from Cundeelee to Tjuntjunjara, walking 300 kms in front of a grader driven by his son.

It was Native Title that inspired the Pila Nguru to paint their Country and their thanks to the WA people with two major collaborative works, one for each gender. Occasional painting camps followed, a shipping container, two tables and a shovel were acquired, but it wasn’t until 2015 that experienced facilitators Amanda Dent and Brian Hallett were inveigled out to Tjuntjunjara with Federal money to build a proper, dog-free art centre.

And in their fastness, the Spinifex Art Project – have you noticed that the People have no tribal affiliation, though most speak Pitjanjatjara? – such artists as Carlene West, Fred and Ned Ward, Lawrence and Myrtle Pennington, Roy Underwood, Estelle Hogan, Lennard Walker and the Rictor group have continued to paint canvases that “still rumble with huge snakes, thump with ancestral feet, are rooted in trees and glisten with names of rockhole after rockhole after rockhole”. For, as John Carty explains, they have refused to follow other Desert artists in aestheticising their work, allowing for “cultural amnesia” in viewers. (I think were talking about the Pintupi at Papunya Tula). For them, a sighting of their ancient narratives is “essential evidence of (a painting) having been meaningfully created”.

Is that an aspect that the various enquiries into APY art ought to take into consideration?

The book is an elegant production, and its text by a range of experts is rich enough to stimulate such challenges. Artists such as Roy Underwood, whose icon for trees is incorporated in the cover, are profiled, and many artworks are pictured. The tiny size of its print is the only disappointment.

A launch of the Upswell publication costing $70 is happening today at the Raft Art Gallery in Alice, with a huge exhibition that’s almost entirely sold out. And another launch happens next Friday 22nd September at Japingka Gallery in Fremantle with accompanying exhibition, Sun and Shadow: Art of the Spinifex People. Anyone reading the above will understand why it’s being launched by former WA Premier, Richard Court AC.