Twelve large collaborative desert artworks will go on show at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art next week in a show entitled Martu Art from the Far Western Desert .

The Far Western Desert is a region that is commonly described as harsh, desolate and inhospitable. For the Martu people, the Aboriginal owners and custodians of a vast area across the Great Sandy, Little Sandy and Gibson Deserts, it is a landscape full of diversity. From the shimmering white expanses of the giant salt lakes, to the vibrant, almost neon green colour of new plant growth after a fire, the deep cool liquid of the waterholes scattered throughout the area, through to the dry, cracked clay pans with their almost reptilian patterning “ the artists’ works present an intimate vision of a place that is beautiful, revered and complex.

Martu Art from the Far Western Desert brings together a selection of collaborative paintings by twenty-nine Martu artists of their Ngurra (Country). The exhibited works present geologically and temporally layered views of immense areas. They reflect the artists’ sophisticated knowledge of the landscape, depicting significant sites of personal, cultural, social and ecological importance.

Martu culture stretches back over thousands of years, however it is only recently that artists have begun painting on canvas. It was not until 2001, while Native Title negotiations were well under way, that members of the community held their first painting workshop, an event that eventually led to the establishment of Martumili Artists in 2006. Headquartered in the mining town of Parnpajinya (Newman), the art centre works with Martu artists who reside in the remote communities of Jigalong, Parnngurr, Punmu, Kunawarritji, Irrungadji and Warralong.

Martu paintings, like many Western Desert artworks, are typically created inside large art sheds in remote communities, painted at the Newman art centre during trips into town, or occasionally outdoors during specially convened artist camps. Each work is the product of highly social conditions; people come together to paint and talk, tell stories and sing. Significantly, Martu artworks, particularly the large-scale collaborative paintings, are informed by the everyday life, culture and attitudes of the Martu people.

Works are painted in acrylic on linen canvas lying flat on the ground. This method, particularly for the larger paintings, allows multiple artists to work on a painting simultaneously. The larger collaborative works often begin with one or two senior artists making simple markings that act as geographical indicators. These markings broadly outline a specific region and demarcate the areas each of the other artists can paint. Individual artists will then apply layers of paint using small dots and lines, or broader, more expressive strokes, both familiar styles in Western Desert painting.

This dense layering of rhythmic patternation by different artists is completed over a number of days or weeks. This process, along with a distinctive use of colour, provides a unique energy and intensity within the works. The paintings range in colour from muted pastels to bold primaries, often creating kaleidoscopic compositions. The artists’ use of colour not only demonstrates a contemporary sensibility, but also mirrors the surprisingly vibrant hues of the desert landscape, which change dramatically throughout the seasons.

Painting plays an integral educative role in Martu communities. It is one of a number of formal and informal methods of sharing experiences, remembering and passing on knowledge of Country and culture to younger generations.

It is the social experience of creating work that provides opportunities for younger artists to gain knowledge from older artists. This can act as a catalyst for conversations about a specific site and its stories, and initiate questions from peers, family and young children visiting the painting spaces. Central to this process are senior female artists, who often take on the role of mentoring younger artists, often family members.

Senior artist Kumpaya Girgirba is a respected figure both within Martu and among Western Desert communities. She is widely acknowledged for her key role introducing weaving and painting techniques to the Martu, which she learnt during periods staying with family in communities such as Kurungal, Balgo and Fitzroy Crossing. Importantly, Kumpaya Girgirba guides younger people through an informal process that enables them to work with more senior artists on significant collaborative paintings.

The large-scale work Our Country (2011) by Kumpaya Girgirba, her daughter Noelene Girgirba, Thelma Judson, Noreena Kadibil, Anya Judith Samson, Kathleen Sorensen, Karnu Nancy Taylor, Natasha Williams, Sonya Williams and Marjorie Yates is an example of this innovative mentorship process. It is a painting that developed organically into a highly original representation of Country by a group of cross-generational artists.

Our Country depicts the region surrounding the Canning Stock Route (CSR) from a contemporary perspective, documenting the changes that have occurred over time, in particular the way people travel across the region. It incorporates a range of artistic styles, including the dense patterning for the land that the road traverses, the graphic waterhole motifs, the distinctive markings of the artists’ footprints and the figurative representations of the cars and animals.

Created for the opening of the exhibition Yiwarra Kuju “ The Canning Stock Route in Perth in 2011 “ it had earlier been at the National Museum – the work was begun by Anya Judith Samson, who worked under the instruction of Kumpaya Girgirba. During the painting of the waterholes that surround the CSR, Kumpaya Girgirba joined Anya Judith Samson on the canvas and added her own distinctive marks to the work. Soon after, a number of other artists were invited to contribute – the task of finishing the riotously coloured painting being entrusted to Kathleen Sorensen. This was a significant responsibility for a young artist, who not only drew together the unfinished elements of the work alongside Kumpaya Girgirba, but then completed a number of other components when the painting was returned to Newman.

Cutting across the length of Our Country is the deep red thoroughfare of the CSR 1850 kms long. A convoy of 4WD vehicles drive up and down the canvas reflecting the modern-day role of the road as a major tourist destination. On either side of the stock route are waterholes of various blues, linked by spidery stream corridors. Each waterhole is unique and is surrounded by specific foliage and terrain. Rings around the circumference indicate the depth of the water source. Groups of camels and the odd donkey are scattered across the length of the painting and situated close to the waterholes.

Further afield are the footprints of the artists, walking the Country. As Kumpaya Girgirba notes ˜The jina (feet) show where the Martu walked in pujiman (bushman time), all through the desert, we still walk through our Country, now there are lots of Toyotas on the CSR, tourists, Martu and the Martu rangers working on the Country to look after it’. The background is an intricate and layered landscape, illustrating both the topographical variations of the area, from large rock formations and sandhills through to the patterns made by fire stick burning, as well as personal and cultural stories. Extending across time, Our Country reflects a relationship with the land that engages with the past, the present and the future.

This text is taken from the curatorial essay, ‘Kujungka-laju palyarnu’ (we did it together) by Anna Davis & Megan Robson.