Spinifex Arts Project: Art Centre Profile - Art Collector

Issue 75, October - December 2015

One of the most remote art centres in the country, Spinifex Arts Project doesn’t let location limit their reach and influence. Helen McKenzie writes.

Women working on a collaborative piece at Spinifex Arts Project. Photo: Claudia Jocher

Located 700 kilometres North East of Kalgoorlie, Spinifex Arts Project is one of the most remote art centres in the country; it also has an intriguing history that includes, astoundingly, recent first contact and the role their art has played in Indigenous political activism.

In 1986, a desert-dwelling family who, according to historian Greg Castillo, were “the last of 500 generations to pursue a nomadic way of life,” walked in to the Tjutjuntjara community. Known as the Rictor family, their arrival caused a frenzy in both media and anthropological circles, not simply because they were billed as the “last lost tribe” but because the adults in the party had witnessed and survived the British atomic bomb tests that occurred in the Maralinga region between 1956 and 1963 that resulted in extensive and irreversible local radioactive contamination.

In 1997 community members began painting their birthplaces in the Spinifex Country to support a native title application. The large, collaborative artworks were known as government paintings. The artists mapped their birthplaces and the resulting paintings became legal evidence of traditional land ownership. In 1998 the works were unveiled at the signing of a native title framework agreement.

Today the work by artists from the Spinifex Arts Project enjoys international acclaim. Earlier this year, The British Museum showcased two major works – a men’s collaborative and a women’s collaborative – in Indigenous Australia, Enduring Civilization. There have been exhibitions in Germany, the United States and work is currently being prepared for an exhibition in Brussels next year. Institutions and private collectors wait patiently to collect from the 200 paintings produced each year, which are then sold through 10 galleries in Australia and abroad.

Current centre manager Amanda Dent says: “There are reasons why the work has been so successful internationally. One is that the artists do really amazing work; they are really strong painters. The other is the personal story of the artists themselves; it resonates, people are really interested in people who have just walked in so recently. Also because of their isolation they haven’t been influenced, they haven’t seen other art works; their work is a very personal interpretation of the Tjukurpa (Dreamtime).”

The Spinifex Arts Project has just opened a painting studio. Until this year all materials were housed in a shipping container, then tarpaulins were spread on the sand and artists set up with paint and canvasses. Dent is delighted with the new studio and the possibilities it offers to engage younger people in painting. “It became too hard for us to service more than 25 (mainly senior) artists. We’d drag the tarps out, we set them up with their paints and colours and then dogs would get into fight and we have to sort that out, then someone else is calling you because the wind has blown their canvas over. It becomes really chaotic,” she says with a laugh.

Previously many of the works were completed on painting trips into Spinifex Country. Dent says: “The Dreamtime stories are multilayered, so depending on your level of initiation, or how much knowledge you have been taught, or what you are capable of understanding, then that level of the story is told. There are places where everyone can go, open stories, then there are other places which are very sacred men’s places where only initiated men can go and places that are women’s places.”

Dent and fellow manager Brian Hallett were initially asked to the centre to fill in for a month. 18 months later, Dent says: “Living and working in remote communities can be difficult, but the people here are so generous. They are amazing people who have a lot of pride in the Spinifex Arts Project. One of the things they say is: ‘This isn’t the same as in other communities where people are doing painting. This is number one because this is how we got our land’.”

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