Thinking about natural disasters in Australia, I am more likely to remember the Victorian bushfires or the massive dust storm that enveloped Sydney recently, to pick just two of this year’s traumas. I am less apt to conjure floods. Even when I see the magnificent, brilliant canvases that Patrick Olodoodi Tjungurrayi has painted in recent years, examples of which won him the inaugural Western Australian Indigenous Art Award in 2008, I usually don’t remember that this flamboyant style of painting for Tjungurrayi had its genesis in the aftermath of the severe flood that caused the evacuation of his home community of Kiwirrkura for nearly eighteen months in 2001-2002.
The story of the modern community of Kiwirrkura is intimately connected with the story of contemporary Aboriginal painting in many ways. The Pintupi painters who were at the forefront of the painting movement that began in Papunya in 1971 were among the last people to come in to that settlement in the 1960s, and among the first to leave after revenues from painting began to give them a degree of economic independence. In the wake of the Aboriginal Land Right Act (Northern Territory) 1976, the Pintupi moved further west towards their homelands, setting up first at Kintore in 1981. A small group continued the migration westward the following year establishing the settlement at Kiwirrkura.
In 1984, the famous group of nomads whose members included Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri and Yukultji Napangati emerged from their isolation to join the settlers at Kiwirrkura. Family ties to people living in Balgo made the tiny WA settlement a nexus for a variety of language groups, many of whom were already creating the styles of Western Desert acrylic painting. In the late 90s, Patrick Tjungurrayi’s paintings still shared many of the austere qualities of Kintore art; after the evacuation of the Kiwirrkura community in the wake of the floods, Tjungurrayi spent nearly a year living with relatives in Balgo (Brandy Tjungurrayi is his brother), and the adaptation of the Balgo palette to his established style resulted in the works for which he is now celebrated.
The story of that flood has lately been retold in the context of remote area emergency management. The Kiwirrkura Flood Recovery Project has put together a variety of resources for both members of Indigenous communities and emergency workers to help both sides prepare for this kind of disaster in the future. These documents and videos offer a fascinating, brief introduction to the community while telling the story of the flood itself.
In 2000, heavier than usual rains in the area had significantly raised the water table and caused minor flooding that washed out roads leading to Kiwirrkura. Then during the period from March 3 to March 5 2001, torrential downpours flooded out the community itself. Residents gathered at the school to await assistance. A community that prides itself on being among the best hunters in the Western Desert region found itself without food.
Helicopters dropped supplies and soon managed to evacuate the residents, who numbered at the time about 170. The refugees overnighted at Kintore, but that small community lacked the capacity to take in such a large influx for any length of time. The next stop was the Norforce Army Base in Alice Springs. Again, this could only be a way station: accommodations were available for only four weeks. But more importantly, during those four weeks, some of the residents of dry Kiwirrkura began to run afoul of the grog.
Problems with the grog pursued the community members, already reeling from dislocation and disruption, when they were settled at Morapoi, near Kalgoorlie. What followed was a diaspora, as people scattered, many of them relocating several times to towns across Western Australia, including Newman, Broome, and ultimately, for many, Balgo and its outstations like Mulan.
Although rebuilding efforts at Kiwirrkura were underway by the end of March 2001, it wasn’t until August of the following year that most of the people were reunited in a rebuilt Kiwirrkura. In the months that followed the re-establishment, residents worked with staff from Fire and Emergency Services Australia (FESA) to lay foundations for an appropriate response to future calamities. For FESA staff, this involved gaining an understanding not simply of the Aboriginal connection to country, but also to the way in which the Pintupi understood the activities of the ancestral serpents that brought the floods to the community.
The Kiwirrkura Flood Recovery Project website offers links to an excellent article, “Kiwirrkura: the flood in the desert,” from the Australian Journal of Emergency Management(vol. 24, no.1, February 2009) as well as to a series of Fact Sheets that detail the history of the community, its place in art history, the story of Native Title recognition (awarded in October 2001 in the midst of the diaspora), as well as the flood and the response to it.
The two paintings reproduced below offer a glimpse at the change in style Patrick Tjugurrayi’s work underwent in part as a result of the flood and his displacement from Kiwirrkura to Balgo. The work on the left (courtesy of Papunya Tula Artists) dates from 1999; the one on the right was done at Balgo (courtesy Warlayirti Artists) in 2002. Interestingly, both paintings illustrate Rain Dreamings. The earlier work shows lightning (the sinuous, snaky lines) and heavy rains at Nyakin, west of Jupiter Well, where a group of Tingari men visited the Dreaming’s owner who was camped there. On the right are designs associated with Mudoon, near where Tjungurrayi grew up: the two elongated rectangular shapes depict rain clouds, with a large rockhole in between them.