In recent days, the Australian art world has lost both Jukuja Dolly Snell from Fitzroy Crossing and Jarran Jan Billycan from Bidydanga “ two women from deep in the deserts who ended up on the edges of The Kimberley, recording important desert memories on canvas.

Dolly Snell was marginally the younger “ born in 1935 against Billycan’s c1930 “ but she achieved a greater prominence for two reasons. One “ the Wangkajungka woman known as the ‘Kurtal Queen’ won the Big Telstra last August in Darwin, attending and story-telling with elan; and two “ the operations of the Mangkaja Art Centre in Fitzroy Crossing date back to an Indigenous adult education push in the 1980s, with the women encouraged to produce books of stories, which, of course, they found the need to illustrate. A sequential story with figurative images by Snell survives “ Jirtirr “ showing a sacred place in the desert, A good place to come to. It is good water. A tree with gnarls on its trunk is spread-eagled across the surface because lightning has struck and caused it to fall, still living, into the idyllic deep blue water-hole of her memory.

This led on to painting proper, and the establishment of Mangkaja Arts in 1992. The artists “ including Dolly – had already had their first group show in Adelaide the previous year. In 1993, her work was seen in the important pan-Kimberley show at the NGV in Melbourne “ ‘Images of Power’ “ which came with the sort of generously historicist catalogue that we so rarely see today. A pity.

So, Snell’s career has been on the record for 25 years.

By comparison, the Yulparija women from the same deserts as the Walmajarri and Wangkajunka in Fitzroy ended up in the late 60s in the very different world of the La Grange Mission on the coast, 200kms south of Broome, dominated by local tribespeople. They told their distant stories to their off-spring and maintained ceremony, but were discouraged from recording them visually by the local white bureaucrats’ abhorrence of ‘making a mess’. And it was only when a hungry young artist called Daniel Walbidi took it upon himself to seek the assistance of Emily Rohr’s Short Street Gallery in Broome that a painting room was set up in the town in 2003 and a wealth of product was produced.

Jarran Jan Billycan has since been shown in at least 53 group shows, three NATSIAAs and three of the important Canning Stock Route exhibitions, including one in China during the Beijing Olympics. She was selected for the first National Gallery of Australia Indigenous Triennial in 2007 and she won the State section of the 2011 WA Indigenous Art Awards.

Of course, Dolly Snell was in Yiwarra Kuju “ the Canning Stock Route show – as well. And her 2015 National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Award-winning work, Kurtal “ the water-hole where she was born “ naturally appears in the brand new ‘Telstra Collection’ book that’s been published to celebrate 25 years of the communications company’s association with the NATSIAAs.

Kurtal is also the subject of the must-see film called ‘Putuparri and the Rainmakers’ which is circulating currently. Dolly’s husband, Nyirlpirr Spider Snell plays a larger part in the film than her “ I suspect rain-making is a masculine talent; but she was a key guide and provided strong direction for film-maker Nicole Ma and the Mangkaja Arts team, according to her eulogy. Jukuja was so proud to share the story of Kurtal and to witness the successful outcome of the recent film – she watched it repeatedly at the Guwardi Ngadu hostel with her husband and daughter.

Talking of family, it undoubtedly mattered even more to Snell than her art. Jukuja and Nyirlpirr, her promised husband, who came for her when she was working on Old Bohemia Downs Station, only had two children, Henry and Dorothy, though they raised the future artist Lisa Uhl as their own. Dolly’s children have vivid memories of their parents working on cattle stations. Jukuja taught her family about their culture, about hunting, traditional foods and desert life. Her daughter Dorothy remembers, she took me all around to hunting places. My father used to get meat like wild cat and wirlka (small sand goanna), and she used to take me to get all the bush tucker.

Jukuja was devoted to her family and helped her children to raise theirs. Dorothy remembers, when I had all of my kids “ I had eight “ she was there for me.

Jarran Jan Billycan (Djan Nanudie) grew up in Ilyarra country near the Percival Lakes. This Kiriwirri region “ often the title of her paintings “ is close to the legendary Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route, where other artists like Rover Thomas and Eubena Nampitjin were born. There are jila (living water) in this country including Karrparti, Kawarr, Jurntiwa, and Wirrguj. Other places include Dodo, Kartal, Kiriwirri and Yukarri. When Jan was young she walked all around these places with her parents, and recalled, “In living water there is a quiet snake. Sometimes he rises up, but we sing him down; sometimes he can travel and bring rain. Ilyarra is my country Ilyarra, where I grew up. Lots of tali (sand dunes) and jila in this country. This big dog country.”

As well as being an artist, Jan was a respected maparn “ or healer.

In the 2011 WA Indigenous Art Awards catalogue, Prof Howard Morphy has this to say about Billycan: Her sense of colour is extraordinary. Her paintings combine surface luminescence with a depth that takes the viewer beneath the surface. The overall effect is of a dancing surface dripping with strings of pearls or droplets of water. In context they evoke the glistening salt-encrusted surface of a dry lakebed.

Their families, communities and admirers will miss both Jan Billycan and Dolly Snell “ though their art and their culture live on.

And if you go to, you’ll discover another loss to the little world of Indigenous art, Will Owen, American collector, enthusiast and blogger died in his sleep unexpectedly on December 2nd. His readers will miss that enthusiasm.


Artist: Rover Thomas, Eubena Nampitjin, Jarran Jan Billycan, Jukuja Dolly Snell, Daniel Walbidi, Nyirlpirr Spider Snell, Lisa Uhl,

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Tags: dolly snell , jan billycan , Jeremy Eccles , Mangkaja Art Centre , NATSIAAs , short street gallery , Telstra Prizes , WA Indigenous Art Awards ,