Warlukurlangu Artists, Yuendemu - Art Collector

Issue 48, April - June 2009

According to Sasha Grishin Paris and Manhattan are stagnant backwaters of art production compared to Australia’s Western Desert region, which is producing some of the finest contemporary art appearing anywhere in the world.

Yuendumu, after Alice Springs and Yulara, is the largest of the Aboriginal desert communities with a population of between 800 and 1000 people. It lies about 300 km north-west of Alice Springs or about three to four hours drive down the Tanami Track.

Unlike many of the desert communities, almost all of the people at Yuendumu belong to a single language group, the Warlpiri, which provides for a cultural unity. At the heart of this community is the Warlukur-langu Artists Aboriginal Association, which was founded in 1985 and became incorporated as a not-for-profit organisation in 1986. The centre has more than 600 members on its books, all of whom are Indigenous artists.

When Australian Art Collector visited Warlukurlangu Artists last year, the manager Cecilia Alfonso estimated that so far that year they had already inventoried over 4500 canvases by about 400 artists. What is incredible about these figures is that in the community at Yuendumu over half the population is actually engaged in art production. While it is customary to lament the social malaise in these Western Desert communities, another way of thinking about these communities is to see them as a loose coalition of artist colonies producing some of the finest contemporary art appearing anywhere in the world. The concentration of art production in Central Australia makes it into one of the most vibrant and most active arts centres anywhere in world, while Paris and Manhattan, by contrast, appear like stagnant backwaters.

The art movement at Yuendumu commenced at about the same time as it did at nearby Papunya with a number of artists participating at both centres. Less publicised than Papunya, Yuendumu artists only gained recognition in the mid-1980s and became exceptionally popular for their colour saturated palette and rich vibrancy, which received widespread international acclaim. Judy Napangardi Watson, who at 84 is one of the major contemporary artists in Australia and whose dreaming comes from Mina Mina, country far to the west of Yuendemu that is sacred to Napangardi and Napanangka women. Rather than using dots, Napangardi Watson employs the dynamic “dragged dotting” technique, which produces a different and more abstract effect to that encountered in much of Western Desert art. There is a wonderful flowing grace in her work and a complete confidence of touch. I remember watching her paint at Yuendumu; while quietly humming to herself, she kept one eye on the canvas spread out on the floor in front of her and the other on her favourite newly born dingo pup.

Some of the other major artists working out of Warlukurlangu Artists include Shorty Jangala Robertson, Paddy Japaljarri Sims, Liddy Napanangka Walker, Paddy Japanangka Lewis, Darby Jampijinpa Ross and Nancy Napanangka Gibson, all of whom have striking and distinctive styles and all of whom are artists of national and international standing. There is also an extensive and distinguished body of original prints made by artists at this centre.

While a number of desert communities are suffering from generational attrition, under the dedicated guidance of Cecilia Alfonso and Gloria Morales, Warlukur-langu Artists have a program in place where children are encouraged to commence painting at an early age. If they show promise, larger canvases are provided until they graduate to full scale paintings that are then distributed through the centre’s extensive network of outlets.

Warlukurlangu Artists is one of the most vibrant and exciting art centres to be found anywhere in the world.

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