Warakurna Artists, Warakurna, WA

In the course of our tour, we were based most of the time in Alice Springs or Darwin, making forays out into the communities. A few of these forays were overnighters, and our first night “on the road” was spent in Warakurna, at the famous roadhouse, just a little bit past the even more famous Giles Weather Station. Giles was established in 1956 by the Weapons Research Establishment to provide weather data for the rocket and atomic weapons testing program being developed by Great Britain as the Cold War heated up. 

Warakurna from the air

The implications for the indigenous people of the Western Desert were enormous, of course. The Weather Station, and the Warakurna Roadhouse itself are on the Gunbarrel Highway, the enormous feat of civil engineering that made penetration of the desert reasonable rather than lethal, as Ernest Giles, for whom it is named, discovered in his attempts to make the crossing from the Overland Telegraph Line to Perth in the 1870s. Although Giles survived his attempts, his close friend Gibson survives only in the name of the desert that honors the memory of those dangers. Those intrepid intrusions were nothing, though, in comparison to the opening of the desert in the 1950s. The roads allowed more than just government officials out into the Ngaanyatjara lands: tourists, prospectors, and opportunists of all kind found their way into the Gibson Desert much more easily. And the people of the desert , when the chose to, had the means of reaching towards European settlements. The story has been told many times over, most recently inCleared Out: first contact in the western desert by Sue Davenport, Peter Johnson, and Yuwali (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2005), which I reported on last December.

We arrived at Warakurna Artists mid-afternoon, our third stop of the day. The art centre at Warakurna differed from the two previous, a sort of middle ground in terms of space and construction. Where Warburton boasts a new, modern, beautifully designed multi-building complex and Kayili Arts crowds into a small paint-splattered cinder-block box, the centre at Warakurna is a spacious corrugated iron building that might in other circumstances house a motor pool or community warehouse. There is a small office near the front door, and at the rear another room is partitioned off for storage of completed and inventoried artworks. The bulk of the building was lined with recently completed paintings waiting to be documented or shipped off to exhibitions; it also provides working space for the artists. As we arrived late in the day, there were few people still around, although Mrs. Porter was there to greet us, along with manager Edwina Circuitt and a few other artists and their families.

The main doors of the art centre (Photograph courtesy of Warakurna Artists)

Mr. Peter Lewis was among the elders still gathered at the centre. He and a few friends were leafing through a book of remarkable photographs that had recently been brought into the community. It was a scrapbook of vintage snapshots taken in the area during the 1950s. Many of the artists still painting at Warakurna and in the neighboring communities were represented in the pictures as young men and women in their teens and twenties–and maybe younger. There were photos of people who were advanced in years back then, but any dismay that may have been occasioned by seeing their photos remained hidden, and the mirth at recognizing now elderly relatives as vivacious youngsters and shouts across the shed as someone came across another old friend or relative predominated. The old people were not only enjoying their own memories, but they were eager to share them with us, pointing out family members, and occasionally jabbing a finger at a photograph and then twisting around to point to a painting leaning against the wall of the shed, recently completed by the person in the photo, or by a close relative.

In the back stock room there was one of the loveliest displays we’d see in an art centre. A metal brace ran around the room at just about eye level, forming a narrow shelf. Along part of two walls, small paintings, maybe 30×40 cms, were lined up and stacked two or three high. The cumulative effect was like a mosaic of mosaics, the dots on each individual canvas echoed in the larger design created by the massed collection of small works. Some were composed of circles in bright primary colors, others were sinuous designs in pastels. A few were raw splashes of rough dots flung across the small surface, others looked like studies for complex compositions: perfect miniatures of subjects that deserved much larger scope. It was hard to resist the temptation to take a dozen away with me.

A Warakurna Artists mosaic of paintings. (Photo by Wolfgang Schlink TRIBAL eARTh GALLERY)

Once again I fell into a conversation with the community impressario, a young Remote Area Nurse named Christian, who works with the local kids who play rock and reggae music. Christian put me on to the Thunder Boys, a band out of the APY lands in the northwest corner of South Australia, hailing from the communities of Nyapari, Fregon, and Kanpi. The Boys got together in 2001, and made their debut CD Kungka Kutju (One Girl) in 2005, the same year they palyed for the crowds at the 20 year anniversary celebrations of the handover of Uluru-Kata Tjuta. I was lucky to pick up the CD a couple of days later at the CAAMA Shop in Alice Springs. (It’s not currently available from the CAAMA website, but the liner notes say that the Thunder Boys can be contacted by writing to Tjungu Palya.) Although the Boys often sing about the problems of petrol and drug abuse, the music is bouncy, upbeat reggae and is distinguished by the melodic out-front bass lines supplied by Roy Jugudai.

Soon it was time to make our final selections from the wealth of artwork in the centre, and with John Oster’s encouragement, I purchased a brilliant canvas by Clifford Mitchell, who along with his father and his uncle, Peter Tjuluri Lewis and Tommy Mitchell, created the collaborative work, Ngaturn Tingari Wati Tjukurrpa that featured in the publicity was the Western Desert Mob’s inaugural Kutju–One exhibition at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery during the 2007 Perth International Arts Festival. And then, too quickly as always, it was time to close up shop and head for our evening at the Warakurna Roadhouse.

Evening at the Warakurna Roadhouse

We couldn’t have asked for a better time for our first night on the road. After checking into our rooms, we all gathered around a blazing fire for a barbeque in the company of Edwina, Mrs. Porter, a few members of her family, and a couple of dogs. By the time the food was ready, full night was upon us, and the temperature started to drop, making the fire more appealing with each passing hour. The lot of us started the process of getting to know one another, swapping life stories, debating with Edwina the merits of aesthetics vs narrative in appreciating indigenous painting, and learning about bush medicine from Mrs Porter.

We also got a taste of roadhouse life, chatting in the kitchen building with a couple of blokes who had decided to take the long way from Alice to their destination and were camping on the grounds that evening. There was a television set playing in the kitchen, and stopping in at one point I became captivated, along with most of the Australians there, by a parliamentary debate in which the Prime Minister was trying to argue a position on something; I couldn’t quite get the gist of what was happening because it seemed like every time Howard spoke, he was greeted by a chorus of groans and catcalls from the assembly. At first I thought I was watching The Chaser, or some other form of televised political satire, but John assured me that this level of “disrespect” wasn’t at all uncommon, and I wished that George Bush would get this kind of treatment in America, where he never appears before Congress except in tightly managed moments of solemnity.

The remains of our barbeque fire in the cold light of morning

Pretty soon the time was edging towards nine o’clock and although I thought it was far too early to turn in, my bunkmates for the evening, Joel and Wolf, suggested that it really was time to call it a night. As the group started to break up and drift off to our various quarters, we tried to make sure that we’d all wake up in time for breakfast and the early call to the airport. Being guys, Joel and Wolf and I assured Margo and Kerry that we’d be awake in plenty of time to knock on their wall in the morning. I’m sure you can see the punch lines coming: the guys repaired to our rooms, and promptly fell deeply asleep. Although Wolf said he spent an hour and a half in the middle of the night searching his brain for some phantom trace of the day’s activities, Joel and I took advantage of the earplugs DirectAir had supplied for the flights that day, and knew nothing until Kerry pounded on our door the next morning, wondering why we’d fail to fulfill our promise of the night before to make like roosters. Wolf was the first to recover, and generously made coffee for the still sleepy.

Warakurna Roadhouse, early morning

In the early dawn light, the Roadhouse was peaceful, the ashes of last night’s fire reminding us of wonderful day’s adventures, and the frigid temperatures (“Must be two bloody degrees this morning!”) making us eager to get on our way. (If you scroll back to the first entry I posted from Central Australia, you can get some idea of how cold we all were that morning just before Edwina loaded us all in the troopie for the drive back to the airport.) One final note on Warakurna, and the Gunbarrel Highway: I’m not sure the road has been graded since the last time Len Beadell came through. I’m exaggerating, of course, but I don’t think we encountered quite such a stretch of corrugated road anywhere else on our travels. The two pictures below, taken just before leaving the Roadhouse, and then on the road, will give you a little bit of an idea.

Setting off for the airport….
…Riding the Corrugated Road

And finally, a few scenes from the countryside around Warakurna, taken as we flew off towards Kintore.

Warakurna lies in the upper left corner of this picture
Heading north towards Kintore
This entry was posted in Art, Communities, In Australia and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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