“What do you think of the Pilbara?” asked the hotel manager in Newman. “A lot of red dirt?” The immediate answer was: “Yes. A vast, seemingly endless expanse of red dirt, criss-crossed by trains carrying identically formed hillocks of iron ore. The trains stretch for kilometres at a time. You see them on the horizon, running parallel to the highways that connect the region’s major towns of Karratha, Port Hedland and Newman.
On those roads one is continually running up behind gargantuan semi-trailers and extra-wide loads. The protocol is to ask the driver, via radio, when it’s OK to overtake. You’ll get a polite answer, and maybe told to have a great day.
The mining industry has shaped the Pilbara so indelibly one cannot travel anywhere in this wedge-shaped region of more than 500,000 square kilometres without seeing its traces. BHP, Fortescue and Rio Tinto are the great gods that are carving one of the oldest landscapes on the planet into newer, flatter configurations. Their activities have huge ramifications for the Australian economy. The value of the Plibara’s iron ore exports last year was estimated at $136 billion.
On a local level, the big miners are the major employers, suppliers of infrastructure and occasional philanthropy. The planes that fly back and forth from Perth every day are packed with mine workers in fluoro jackets. The neat modern towns, battened down against seasonal cyclones, have their rich and poor suburbs, the former populated by mining managers.
There is, however, another Pilbara: a land where people have lived for tens of thousands of years, networked by songlines that carried knowledge from the north-western corner of the continent right across Australia. The locals claim the Pilbara as the origin of many things. The thylacine for instance, popularly known as the Tasmanian Tiger, is recorded in the ancient rock art of the Burrup peninsula. It was allegedly driven east by the incursions of dingos, until it ended in Tasmania, which was still connected to the mainland.
The continental crust of the Pilbara dates back some 3.6 billion years, making it as venerable as any landscape on earth, while Aboriginal people have lived in the area for 30-40,000 years. The mining industry only began a full-scale escalation in the 1960s, bringing mixed fortunes to the local communities. On one hand, the miners have contributed a degree of prosperity and material comfort to an isolated environment. On the other they have often displayed gross insensitivity to the lands and practices held sacred by Indigenous people. The culmination of this ruthless attitude arrived with Rio Tinto’s dynamiting of the Jukkan Gorge in 2020.
Nowadays the resource companies are sponsors of many art events, but it could easily be argued that the emphasis on mining helped retard the growth of a local art industry that has only recently begun to realise its potential. The same might be said for tourism, particularly eco-tourism, which now sees 300,000 people a year visit the remote Karijini National Park, known for its stunning, precipitous gorges.
Today’s Aboriginal art movement dates its origins back to the early 1970s, when schoolteacher, Geoff Bardon, encouraged the men at the tiny settlement of Papunya in Central Australia, to begin recording their stories as paintings. The practice would spread like a bushfire from one community to another, until art centres had sprung up all over the country. Painting would bring economic benefits and help keep alive the Creation stories (the Tjukurrpa) handed down over innumerable generations.
In the Pilbara, the first art centres were established in the early 2000s, considerably later than the rest of Australia. Many of these places are still works-in-progress, such as the Cheeditha Art Group, just outside of Roebourne, which boasts one rising star, in the painter, Wendy Warrie, in a group consisting mostly of Wendy and her sisters. In Roebourne itself there is the Yinjaa-Barni art group, which has produced a number of important figures including the late Clifton Mack, known for his irresistible paintings of the local lighthouse. A new intitative is fashion, with a range of clothing being made and sold, bearing dazzling Yinjaa-Barni designs.
Up the road, in the very same town, is Juluwarlu Art, which includes a large, uncategorisable group of painters, from Wendy Hubert who creates expressive landscapes, to Barngyi (Pansy) Cheedy, who paints the Evening Star on canvases covered in thousands of delicately-applied dots. There’s an impressive sense of organisation and togetherness at Juluwarlu, led by the commanding figures of Michael Woodley and Lorraine Coppin, who balance the demands of the community with a proper respect for heritage.
The two most advanced art centres are probably Spinifex Hill Studio in South Headland and the Martumili Arts complex in Newman. The day we arrived in Port Headland, Spinifex Hill was launching a retrospective by one of the great Pilbara artists, the late Nyaparu William Gardiner. A former stockman who painted his memories of the old days, Gardiner appears like a ghost in his own paintings – among carefully drawn figures that float over brilliantly coloured landscapes. I once compared him to Sidney Nolan, and that comparison – although completely coincidental – remains relevant.
The Martumili Gallery must be one of the largest buildings in Newman. A spacious, shed-like structure it has won architectural awards for its ability to adapt to the needs of local artists while providing first-rate display facilities. The current exhibition, Waru (Fire), brings together many pictures by Martumili artists, who range across a full spectrum of ages and painting styles. As ever, there are a few obvious stars, such as Muuki Taylor, an artist with a highly distinctive touch, and Bugai Whyhoulter, who has the instincts of a truly great painter. A recent series of Bugai’s, based in the salt pans of the region, has a cumulative force than simply sweeps the viewer away.
These artists, and many of their peers, are featured in a landmark show at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, titled Tracks We Share: Contemporary Art of the Pilbara, now in its final weeks. The exhibition has been organised by FORM, an independent, not-for-profit arts agency that has been working with Pilbara artists for the past 15 years, helping to nurture talent and create markets for their work. The overwhelming impression one takes away from the show is of a staggering variety of approaches. These include the youthful Layne Dhu-Dickie’s comic books, detailing the adventures of Captain Headland, and a bizarre animated film about cannibals by the late Yunkurra Billy Atkins. Such self-consciously contemporary pieces are set against paintings in more traditional styles, including collaborative works on a monumental scale.
So while my memories of a week in the Pilbara will always be filled with red dirt, ore trains and heavy transport, thoughts of the region’s towns and landscapes are now permanently associated with the work of many artists. Beneath the biggest, bluest sky to be found anywhere, a movement is stirring that may change the way we think of the Pilbara – not as a source of buried treasure for the mining companies, but as a living celebration of an age-old culture and a stark but beautiful environment.
Tracks We Share, Art Gallery of WA, Perth,
11 March – 28 August, 2022
He is Myself: The Art of Nyaparu ‘William’ Gardiner,
Spinifex Hill Studio, Port Hedland, until 10 September, 2022. And touring