Kayili Arts, Patjarr, WA

Welcome to Patjarr.

Patjarr is a tiny community, a couple hundred kilometres north of Warburton, and about the same distance west of Warakurna in the Ngaanyatjarraku Shire of the Gibson Desert. I’m told the regular population tops out at around sixty people. We arrived on the Monday after the big football weekend at Warburton, and so the resident population that day had shrunk to about half a dozen elderly ladies who had gathered at the art centre, seated around a campfire burning in front of the shed’s verandah.

Michael Stitfold, the coordinator at Kayili Arts, has been out in Patjarr for about two years now, almost as long as people have been painting there. Mike is a former Papunya Tula field worker, and in his short tenure he has guided the artists through their first group show, at Alcaston Gallery in Melbourne in July 2005 through a well received showing at last year’s Desert Mob in Alice Springs. The selection of work that we were able to view in Patjarr showed that the vitality of this tiny community’s efflorescence continues unabated.

Many of the artists whose works we inspected were the same we had just viewed in the magnificent, historical collection at Warburton hours earlier: Fred Ward, Jacky Giles, Pulpuru Davies, Arthur Robertson, Ngipi Ward. Had the names not been fresh in my mind, I might have missed this fact, for the new works demonstrated that these artists are not content to rehash old traditions, but are striving to re-invent themselves. Jacky Giles’s new paintings, deep pastel fields scored with meanders based on pearl-shell designs, and Ngipi Ward’s thick encrustations of solid color fields were discoveries, new territory being mapped for the first time. Arthur Robertson, afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, works with fluorescent pens and straight edges to continue to produce startling new designs. 

The Patjarr Cultural Centre

There’s a new cultural center at Patjarr, right next to the airstrip where we landed. It’s a beautiful new building, unfortunately still largely empty for lack of funds, and almost equally unfortunately distant from the center of the community itself. But it stands as a promise for the future, as well as a repository of the past. In one of the most startling moments of our brief visit to the community, Mike extracted a series of extremely fragile drawings from a drawer in the center: a trove awaiting explication, a time capsule that still needs interpretation.

A view of the interior of the Cultural Centre
John Oster of Desart in front of one of the large panels that decorate the interior of the Culture Centre at Patjarr with stories from the Dreaming, this one a tale of the warriors assembled to fight a large battle

I spent less time with the paintings than I might have, for on a trip down to the Centre’s offices, a short walk from the painting shed, I encountered Steve and Jabber. Steve works for Ngaanyatjarra Media, which is based out of Alice Springs and Wingellina and provides media and broadcasting services to people in the Gibson and Great Victoria Desert regions. Jabber seems comfortably at home in the Patjarr/Warburton region. They’re both involved in recording the music being made by local musicians, and gave me a quick listen to some of the tunes they’ve recorded and mixed up lately using GarageBand, the audio software for the Macintosh that they said was “made for the desert.” If you want a taste of this, you can listen to some tunes by the Wanarn Band at the NG Music site on MySpace.

Steve and Jabber were equally enthusiastic about the potential for computer technology as a tool for enhancing the transmission of traditional cultural knowledge and for involving the younger generation in new ways of finding means of artistic expression in it. In addition to its usefulness in making rock ‘n roll, the lure of information technology, especially its implementation on the graphic Macintosh platform, might be equally a key to stimulating young people to engage with the process of creating their own designs based on the visual tradition they see the old people painting. The potential of technology to enhance the creative potential of the youth in the Ngaanyatjarra lands was a happy theme encountered here at Patjarr as well as at its sister community in Warburton.

Near the Culture Centre. The country immediately to the right of this sign is especially sacred to the people of the community, and a large sign asks visitors to refrain from entering it.
An aerial view of Patjarr taken from our plane as we departed gives a sense of how small the community is.
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