If you are an aficionado of desert art from the Kimberley region, and especially if you read the stories associated with paintings out of art centres like Mangkaja Arts and Warlayirti Artists, you probably already have a glancing familiarity with at least some of the place names that are associated with the Canning Stock Route. Similarly, if you are a student of the literature of western exploration, you may know some of the contours of the country from chronicles like David Carnegie’s engrossing and horrifying Spinifex and Sand: a narrative of five years’ pioneering and exploration in Western Australia (Pearson, 1898). You may have seen the news stories two years ago that told of the reunion between artist Helicopter Tjungurrayi and the pilot, Jim Ferguson, who airlifted the painter, then aged about ten and seriously ill, from a waterhole known as Natawalu near Well 40 on the Stock Route to medical assistance at the Balgo mission in 1957.
But even if you nod your head in recognition at each of those sceanrios, you’ll will most likely find much to surprise, enlighten, and delight you in the wealth of documentation, history, and art that has been brought together this year under the rubric of Yiwarra Kuju: the Canning Stock Route, an enormous project presented now, after years of research, by the National Museum of Australia.
One of the many surprises for me that came from reading through the superb catalog is how minor an impact the Stock Route itself had on the kartiya or white Australian history to which it seems most ostensibly to belong. Charted in the first years of the twentieth century by Alfred Canning as a way to drive cattle from the Kimberley south to the Goldfields region whence they could be safely transported to Indian Ocean ports, the Stock Route was largely a failed enterprise at the time. Even when resurrected, amazingly enough by Canning himself, more than two decades later on the eve of the Great Depression, it still played an almost marginal role in the economics of Western Australia through the 1950s, with mere “hundreds” of cattle being driven along its length in any given year.
In contrast, the charting of the Stock Route had a tremendous impact on the stories of the Indigenous people whose country it traversed. It is an epic of first contact that set waves of migration from the deserts of Western Australia to nascent mission settlements, disrupting patterns of travel, wresting men from their families into employment as captive guides or first generation drovers and spawning many members of what would later be known as the Stolen Generations. Yet until now, these stories have been accessible only in fragments of the biographies of artists like Eubena Nampitjin and Rover Thomas.
So the great achievement of the Yiwarra Kuju (“one road”) project has been to surface these stories and to draw out the connections among the people of the western deserts. The documentation produced over the years 2006-2009 includes 127 magnificent paintings that are now part of the permanent collection of the NMA, hundreds of hours of film, and caches of artefacts, photographs, and interviews. Much of this work was produced during a six-week “return to country” trek along the length of the Stock Route from Wiluna to Bililuna as artists from nine art centres joined a team of curators, filmmakers, linguists, and anthropologists to explore, revisit, and recreate that lost history. Along the way, a new generation of Indigenous curators grew up. Beyond all this, a new generation of children have been taught songs and dances that might otherwise have languished.
To have documented this significant and overlooked chapter in the Aboriginal experience of the western reaches of Australia would have been magnificent in itself. But the experience of Yiwarra Kuju offers much more than that.
For me, some of these pleasures are a mixture of the idiosyncratic and the tantalizing. I have always been fascinated by the links among artists, the genealogical connections that may or may not be visually present in their artworks. I love to follow the evolution of rarrk techniques in western Arnhem Land, intrigued to see how Samuel Namunjdja has transformed his father Peter Marralwanga’s patterning and blocking of color or, closer to the subject at hand, how Christine Yukenbarri has softened and transmuted the essential designs that she inherited from her mother Lucy.
Thus, to learn for the first time from these pages that Stumpy Brown is sister to Rover Thomas is both a surprise and a delight. Or that Lucy Yukenbarri’s mother was once long ago married to Wimmitji Tjapangati, whom I associate rather with his impact on the development of style in the painting of his second wife, Eubena Namptijin. Nor did I ever suspect that Eubena herself helped to raise Donald Moko of Bidyadanga’s Yulparija Artists. Tracing Moko’s connections to the Percival Lakes area farther south along the Stock Route, to an area from which many of the artists of Martumili originated, reveals further links to Yulparija painters. Exposing this connection makes me wonder about possible connections in the vast shimmering fields of color in the late paintings of Alma Webou (not included in the project) and Rita Muni Simpson, one of the earliest and still perhaps the greatest of the painters to emerge from Martumili. Indeed, another of the questions the story of Yiwarra Kuju has raised for me is the role that the project played in the development of Martumili itself, whose artists dominate the collection of paintings at the core of this exhibition.
The paintings are nothing short of glorious. The works from Martumili in all their variety paradoxically expose the links and the continuity among the disparate artistic styles that have developed over the last twenty-five years in the numerous art centres of the Western Australian desert communities. Here again the unexpected connections abound, perhaps most delightfully in the works of brothers Brandy and Patrick Tjungurrayi, whose orbits between Balgo and Kiwirrkura (along with younger artists like Lucy’s son Richard Yukenbarri) are now shown to extend even farther west. Similarly, I had not associated the Patjarr and Kayili Artists with the desert painters of the Canning Stock Route country, and looking at these works through the lens of the far deserts as well as through their connection to Warburton and points east enriches my appreciation of affinities that I’d only previously considered in a linguistic context.
The National Museum of Australia has been responsible for an extraordinary series of exhibitions illuminating Indigenous art in the last five years including Papunya Painting: out of the desert; Ngurrara: the Great Sandy Desert Canvas; and Utopia: the genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye. They have hosted important exhibitions on women’s fibre art, on the documentary history of the Central Land Council and the explorations of Herbert Basedow. Although the credit for Yiwarra Kuju must be widely shared (with FORM, co-founders Tim Acker and Carly Davenport, the nine art centres and seventy participating artists and the various corporate sponsors), I do not hesitate to say that Yiwarra Kuju will stand as the landmark exhibition of the decade and one of the most important explorations of Indigenous history and culture of this new century. In the depth of its research and the breadth of involvement it displays, Yiwarra Kuju raises the bar significantly. It is truly a national treasure.