“Painting Country presents a positive ‘good news’ story from a remote community which too often only attracts media attention when there’s a problem”
— Andrew Ogilvie, Producer
Deep in the desert landscape of Australia, the ancestral heroes are still alive; mythical beings capable of magical acts still roam the country, explaining the land and its law to the people. The people listen to the land and celebrate its power through song, story and painting.”
Painting Country follows a journey back to the traditional country of ten indigenous artists from the outback community of Balgo in North West Australia. Their art is famous for its hot bright colours, bold composition and creative brush techniques. Its origins lie in the traditional designs done in sand and body paintings. But in less than 20 years it has evolved into one of the most innovative movements of modern art in Australia. And every brushstroke or ‘mark’ is about the artists’ relationship to their country.
Yet none of these artists live in the land they paint. Most were born hundreds of kilometres away in the desert, and lived a nomadic life until they were driven off their land by the impact of white settlement. It has been decades since they’ve seen the land they paint, and for many of the older indigenous artists, this journey may be the last chance to see the country where they were born.
Painting Country takes the audience on a journey into the heart of some of Australia’s most remote and desolate landscape. The group travels through the Great Sandy Desert, towards Lake Mackay, a major constellation of dreaming sites for desert people. All along the way the artists paint and tell stories about their life before the white man arrived. For Tjumpo Tjapanangka, returning to the land he paints releases powerful recollections: “I still remember it. I am from this place. I went through the law here. This is still my place. I grew up and became a man here…we were all naked. We belonged to this country. No white man here. No one else – just us. This was our place.”
Despite decades of absence we witness how the land is still familiar to these artists. They know exactly where one person’s land begins, and another ends. This relationship to the land is determined by family and language groups: “That road…I can talk for it”, and, “That’s the country from my granny’s side.” Their spirit lives in the land they paint, and the act of painting is an act of remembering, of keeping it alive. Every mark or line is deliberate, as the artists recreate a track they used to walk to a particular watering hole, or a place where certain bush foods grew. With flawless navigation, they know each and every turn of the desert country, where the road is rough, and where it disappears. When these details are recorded on canvas, the painting becomes a celebration, a prayer, and a reflection of their deep relationship with the land.
But the journey is not without it’s problems. Unseasonal heavy rains have made many of the roads impassable – turning the Great Sandy Desert into the Great Sandy Swamp. With humour and good spirits the artists dig their way out of the mud until they reach the tiny community of Kiwirrkurra. Here they are forced to sit out the rain until the roads dry out and they can continue west to their final destination of the Gibson Desert. As we travel further and further back into the artists’ country, their stories intimately unfold as to why they were forced to leave their land and go to what was once a Mission at Balgo.
Painting Country provides an evocative and intimate connection with the Aboriginal artists, the laws of their land, and an insight into part of their history. Their paintings keep this history alive. As Balgo community art coordinator Tim Acker, says: “The best of the work out here is as contemporary as anywhere you’d find on the planet. The fact that it’s painted by people whose background, whose perception, whose storytelling, whose priorities, whose whole life is so different gives it a quality that other paintings don’t have.