Women Indigenous artists in Western Australia - from ochre to video
Warning. This article may contain the names and images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased. It also contains links to sites that may use images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased.
The diversity of expression in the art of Indigenous women artists in Western Australia, from the Kimberley region in the north through to Perth and the south-west, reveals a rich diversity of culture expressed in a variety of media.
Jukuna Mona Chuguna. Image courtesy of Mangkaja Arts.
Painting and other art forms allow the women's stories and knowledge of country to be passed on. This expression also links the women to ceremonies, travelling in and knowledge about their country as well as their family histories. Their culture is represented in their ochre and acrylic paintings, as well as photographic installations and video art.
There is a strong tie between the art and the land despite widespread displacement of the artists from their traditional lands. Many of the artists are still old law women, playing a key part in ceremonies as well as painting their stories. Women have different Dreaming stories and law to men, and many of the women artists experienced pre-contact traditional life.
Creating art is a significant form of cultural and economic trade exchange that provides a key source of income for women and their communities. The sale of Indigenous art also occupies a key position in the Australian art market that has been sustained since the 1980s.
Recognition as major artists
Peggy Griffiths. Image courtesy of Kimberley Aboriginal Artists.
The first wave of Aboriginal women artists in Western Australia includes Queenie McKenzie, Madigan Thomas, Nyuju Stumpy Brown, Eubena Nampitjin and Peggy Griffiths whose early lives revolved around cattle stations. Peggy Griffiths was the first Indigenous artist to win the Fremantle Print Award in 1995.
Queenie McKenzie (1915 - 1998) started painting in the mid-1980s and exhibiting in 1991 through Waringarri Arts. Queenie mined and mixed the ochres herself for her paintings and thus she created a unique palette of ochres in pinks, purples and later, oranges and yellows. Later, Queenie was instrumental in establishing the first wholly owned art centre for Gija artists in the Warmun community in 1998. A great teacher of language and culture, she was the driving force behind the reintroduction of women's law meetings in the East Kimberley in the early 1980s and one of the first women artists to gain prominence.
Queenie McKenzie was presented with the Western Australian State Living Treasures Award in 1998. Queenie's position as a major artist was recognised posthumously in a joint show with Rover Thomas (d. 1998) in 2000 at the National Gallery of Victoria and then a joint showing of their prints in 2007 at the William Mora Gallery.
Shirley Purdie. Image courtesy of Warmun Art
Other Warmun and Mangkaja artists
Warmun artist Shirley Purdie won the 2007 Blake Prize for religious art with her work Stations of the Cross, illustrating the two-way nature of Gija faith, which combines Christianity with Ngarrangkarni (Dreaming).
Established women artists in the this first wave, like Nyuju Stumpy Brown, Warkartu Cory Surprise, Jukuna Mona Chuguna, and Jukuja Dolly Snell, all working from Mangkaja Arts have exhibited continuously since 1991 with works selected for major awards and national collections.
The second wave of women artists includes women whose lives have been characterised by a walk-in from country establishing their first contact with white people, displacement and then a return to country. One such woman is Jan Billycan (c.1930 - ), whose work has been collected nationally since her first paintings in 2003 with four solo exhibitions since then.
Bidyadanga artist return to Winpa, 2007. Image courtesy of Rebel Films, Desert Heart .
Similarly, Lydia Balbal's (c. 1958 -) family life at Punmu was threatened by severe drought and her family were re-located to the coastal town of Bidyadanga. These Bidyadanga artists work now hangs in Australia's main public galleries. In 2007 these artists with 23 other Yulparitja elders returned to Winpa, in their home country, documenting their journey.
Loongkoonan and other women artists based in Derby: Lucy Ward, Gilgi and Peggy Wassi, were chosen as finalists in the 2007 Wynne and Alice Art Prizes. In 2006, Loongkoonan won the $10,000 Redland Art Award, while Lucy Ward was awarded first prize of the City of Stirling Art Prize. Collectively, these four artists have been represented in some of the most prestigious art prizes in Australia.
Younger emerging artists learn much from these mentors, and create images that combine their cultural heritage with contemporary experience. Significant younger artists include Julie Dowling whose works include acrylic on canvas as well as video and photographic installations. Dowling's work documents the experience of displacement and also expresses the strength of cultural ties with land, family and history.
Cultural knowledge on canvas
Loongkoonan, Bush Tucker in Nyikina Country, 2007, Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist and Mossenson Gallery, Perth.
Loongkoonan (Language: Nyikina, born c1910, Mount Anderson Station, Fitzroy River, Western Australia) is the oldest living Nyikina speaker. She only started painting in 2005.
Like many Indigenous people displaced from their traditional land, the artist and her family worked on Kimberley cattle stations. Loongkoonan would 'footwalk' the country when station work was halted during the wet season. Of this she says:
Footwalking is the only proper way to learn about country and remember it. That is how I got to know all of the bush tucker and medicine.
Artist's statement, Albany Art Prize catalogue, March 2008.
Loongkoonan's works reflect an urgent need to record the Dreamtime stories in their custodianship, to 'commit knowledge to canvas for future generations.'
Loongkoonan composes in organised, box-like sections, within which significant botanical details are depicted, alongside representations of landmarks of her country. They are both highly decorative and filled with cultural knowledge. According to the artist:
I paint Nyikina country the same way eagles see the country when they are high up in the sky.
Artist's statement, Exhibition brochure, Mossenson Gallery, Perth www.indigenart.com.au.
Ochre from the land
Madigan Thomas (Language: Gija, born c1932, Baloowa (Violet Valley) Western Australia) was one of the founding members of the Warmun Art Centre. She has been painting since the mid-1980s and, along with Queenie McKenzie, was one of the first women artists of the Kimberley.
Along with Lena Nyadbi, Mabel Juli, Shirley Purdie, Phyllis Thomas, and Betty Carrington, Madigan Thomas led the way for a group of more than sixty emerging and younger artists currently painting for the art centre at Warmun.
Madigan Thomas, Cocky Boy, 2007, Natural ochre on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist, Seva Frangos Gallery, Perth and Warmun Art Centre, Turkey Creek.
She was one of the first artists to experiment with blending ochres to create an unusual range of colours such as greys and milky greens. She recalls:
I seen them kartiya (whitefella) paint at the shop: blue one, green one, pink one. I was thinking, OK, we can make something like that using our bush paint (ochre). One time we bin try em, me and old fella (Rover Thomas).
Artist's statement, Short Street Gallery, Broome.
Thomas' work is characterised by 'cut-out' figures on a thick ochre ground. She has become well-known for her witty images of white Little Corellas (Cacatua sanguinea) and red-tailed black cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus banksii) perched in an iconic boab tree.
Yvonne Martin (Language: Woolah, born 1961, Wyndham, Western Australia) is from Warmun Art Centre. Martin paints her father's country, near Wyndham in Western Australia.
Kununurra means 'Meeting of big waters' in the local Woolah language and Martin's paintings evoke the flowing, watery nature of this region. The way she uses the ochre as a light wash over the surface further enhances this impression.
Martin is skilled at hunting' for ochres and this is obvious in her superb blending of ochres and in her selection of creamy whites and yellows that are difficult to locate.
Exhibition notes, The gentle light of Warmun, Seva Frangos Gallery, 2008
Peggy Griffiths, Jinamoom, 2008, natural ochres on canvas. Image courtesy of Parliament House Art Collection, the artist, Seva Frangos Gallery, and Waringarri Aboriginal Arts.
Peggy Griffiths (Language: Miriwoong, born 1941, Newry Station, Northern Territory) is a senior law and culture woman. With artist husband Alan Griffiths, she began painting in 1985. She is committed to keeping traditional stories and knowledge alive.
Griffiths' art documents the country of her grandfather. She often paints the convergence of rivers in her family's country, Thinamoom (Keep River) east of Kununurra on the Northern Territory border. Wet season tributaries join the river that flows across the centre of this painting through Jinamoom Gorge, dissecting the canvas into distinct areas of windswept grasses and patchy hillocks.
The artist says:
I paint the grasses dancing in the wind. That's the spirit—still alive in my country. I paint this country because I know it and because I want other people to know—this is my country.
Artist's statement, Seva Frangos Gallery.
Agnes Armstrong, Ivanhoe Station, 2008, ochre on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist and Waringarri Aboriginal Arts, Kununurra.
The work of Agnes Armstrong (Language: Miriwoong, born 1954, Ivanhoe Station, Western Australia) is remarkable for adopting the conventions of two-point perspective, combined with a strong sense of storytelling and the traditional subject of travel through country.
The small-scale works show places that are important to the artist's story. The waterfalls that appear in the wet season cascade down the sides of the ranges, or as here, 'footprints' gather around family homes. Talking about this work the artist notes:
I was born beside that boab tree at Ivanhoe new station before they built the dams. In flood time we moved away from the station house and camped on the hillside. We used to cart all the food and rations.
Artist's statement for work Cat# 995108, Waringarri Arts Centre.
Armstrong uses natural ochres, and she often layers pale ochre over a darker grey to create the stormy, tumultuous wet season sky.
An explosion of colour
Jan Billycan, Kirriwirri nd, acrylic on linen. Image courtesy of the Newcastle Region Art Gallery, NSW. Photo: Dean Beletich
Jan Billycan (Language: Yulparija, born c1930, Ilyarra country (Punmu), Western Australia) was born in the Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia. She was relocated to coastal Bidyadanga, 200km south of Broome, after the desert waterholes dried up in the 1970s. The art of the community is a link with their origins:
Many of [Billycan's] paintings are memory maps made to show the younger generation their elder's origins...
Culture Warriors , National Gallery of Australia, p. 6.
She started painting in 2003 in acrylics that give freedom for creative expression. A vibrant, colourful palette and bold gestures characterise Billycan's work.
Billycan, a respected medicine woman (maparn), demonstrates the connection between body and land. She says very little about her work, but has recorded:
In living water (jila) 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.
Artist's statement , Culture warriors, National Gallery of Australia, 2008, p64.
Nyuju Stumpy Brown, Ngupawarlu nd, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Mangkaja Arts.
Nyuju Stumpy Brown
Nyuju Stumpy Brown (Language: Wangkajungka, born c1924, Ngapawarlu (Canning Stock Route), Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia) is a senior artist born in the Great Sandy Desert who grew up with her uncle droving bullocks on the Canning Stock Route. She now lives and works at Fitzroy Crossing, first exhibiting in 1991.
The artist has written: 'My country is desert country. There are no rivers, we never see running water like rivers, only creeks after the rain, only jilji (sandhills).'
At Nyanpi (corroboree) time Stumpy Brown runs the ceremonies for young children. She is a senior Wangkajungka law woman. She paints with compelling simplicity in bold colours. Her dominant subjects are circular forms that represent jila (waterholes). She carries the 'Women's' Law from the Wangkajungka side right through to desert side at Balgo.' She continues: 'No sleep. All night making Nyanpi right through to daylight. Then we go back to sleep.'
Eubena Nampitjin, Kinyu 2008 (AK14412), Synthetic polymer paint on linen. Image courtesy of the artist, Alcaston Gallery and Warlayirti Art and Culture Centre, Balgo.
Eubena Nampitjin (Language: Wangkajungka, born c1921, Tjinndjaldpa, Jupiter Well, Western Australia) started painting in the mid-1980s. Like others displaced from the Great Sandy Desert, she settled in Balgo Hills.
A feature of her work is a continuing experimentation. Over the past decade earlier, precise dotting has been replaced by thick dot work, described by Will Owen as 'overlapping one another to create large fields of colour, heavy with surface incident.'
Nampitjin's connection to her traditional land is strong. The Dreaming stories she paints, such as Tingari (ancestral women's) cycle, are a living heritage, and are for the artist a 'second language'.
senior custodians [such as Nampitjin] of Women's Law have made substantial works that reflect on the traditions and roles of women in indigenous communities and on the customary practices that they uphold and maintain.
Exhibition notes, Women's Law, Japingka Gallery, Fremantle, 2008.
Reconnecting through art and video
Julie Dowling, is nailed to the cross-2005. Image courtesy of the artist.
Displacement is a common experience for 'first-contact' Indigenous women from remote areas of Western Australia who were forced for various reasons to live away from their ancestral land.
There is another story from white settlement: the story of children taken from their families to be brought up without contact with their own culture.
Julie Dowling (Language: Badimaya, born 1969, Perth, Western Australia) comes from such a culturally dispossessed family. As a painter she has told the stories of forgotten Aboriginal leaders, in an effort to redress the imbalance of historical record.
In 2007 she returned to the place of her maternal forebears. This journey became the artist's first video installation exhibited at PICA in 2008. The multiple screens show significant sites and people, reuniting them again in the artwork.
We reach across generations, trying to understand what happened to our people...
Carol Dowling, Culture Warriors, National Gallery of Australia, p96
Julie Dowling, Oottheroongoo (Your Country), 2008, DVD still. Image courtesy of the artist.
These works of contemporary art hold the memory of the oldest living culture on earth. Language, ceremony, and a way of life are kept alive in the images these women make.
These women are recognised both for their significant achievements in the contemporary art world, and for presenting their relationship to traditional culture.
In the space of a mere thirty years they, and their male colleagues, have created an art movement that forms one of the most successful business ventures the Australian art world has witnessed. Today there are over 60 Indigenous art centres across Australia.
Associations and art centres
- Association of Northern Territory, Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists (ANKAAA)
- Kimberley Aboriginal Artists
- Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency Aboriginal Association
- Mowanjum Artists
- Warmun Art Centre
- Waringarri Arts Centre
- Warlayirti Artists
- Agnes Armstrong
- Jan Billycan
- Julie Dowling
- Madigan Thomas
- Nyuju Stumpy Brown
- Peggy Griffiths
- Yulparija Artists of Bidyadanga
Look, Listen and Play
- Coo-ee Aboriginal Art presents Queenie McKenzie, slide show
- Desert Heart , video clip, David Batty and Rebel Films. From documentary film of Bidyadanga artists return to Winpa DVD.
Galleries representing artists
- Alcaston Gallery
- Brigitte Braun Gallery
- Outstation Gallery
- Redback Art Gallery
- Seva Frangos Gallery
- Short Street Gallery
- William Mora Gallery
- Written in the land: The Life of Queenie McKenzie by Jennifer Joi Field.
- Reconciliation: Indigenous art for the 21st Century
Last updated: 118 January 2016
Creators: Merryn Gates Services for Arts, et al.