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Martumili Artists


Martumili Artists is an Aboriginal art centre representing the Martu people of the Western Desert. The Martu, including Martumili artists and their families, are the traditional custodians of vast swathes of the arid lands of central Western Australia, encompassing sections of the Great Sandy, Little Sandy and Gibson Deserts, as well as the Karlamilyi (Rudall River National Park) area.

Martumili means ‘belonging to Martu’ in Martu Wangka (language), a fitting name for the art centre which is dedicated to celebrating Martu culture and Country. As recently as the 1950s and 1960s, most Martu lived a traditional, semi-nomadic lifestyle, living off bush foods and following songlines between water sources. Today, Martu people live and work in their own communities including Jigalong, Parnngurr, Punmu, Kunawarritji, Irrungadji and Warralong, regularly visiting Martumili’s central gallery and studio based in Parnpajinya (Newman) in the East Pilbara.

Art making, along with environmental ranger work, is central to contemporary Martu culture, providing vital opportunities to document and maintain Jukurrpa (Dreaming stories) and cultural and ecological knowledge. These occupations create a framework for nurturing important social connections, as well as providing an independent income stream for Martu people on Country.

The art centre was founded by a core group of pujiman (desert born) artist-elders, committed to passing down stories of traditional Martu life to younger generations. These senior artists have established reputations as exceptional painters and cultural leaders, educating the new generation of Martumili artists— informed by Country, empowered by culture, and inspired by their predecessors.

   Helen Dale Samson hunting at Wantili claypan, 2018.
   Photograph by Alice Boardman, courtesy of Martumili Artists.

Ancestral stories relating to the creation of the landscape play a key role in the paintings of Martumili artists. These stories often follow the travels of ancestral beings between significant sites, elucidating how these places came to be, such as the epic journey of the Minyipuru Jukurrpa (Seven Sisters Dreaming). Prevalent elements in Martu works include geographical landscape features such as tuwa (sandhills), pila (sandy plains), linyji (clay pans), warla (salt lakes), jurnu (soaks) and other water sources.

Aesthetically diverse, the artwork of Martumili Artists encompasses a dynamic range of styles, unified by the core themes of Country and Jukurrpa (Dreaming stories), cornerstones of Martu identity. Martu painting is often characterised as loose, uninhibited, subtle, bold, authoritative and masterful in colour use. The paintings of senior artists in particular, transcend these descriptions in a technicolour assault of startlingly vivid and profoundly numinous works. The offerings of these artists are exceptionally generous gifts, inviting the viewer to connect with Country that has been protected by Martu for tens of thousands of years.

Collaborative arts

In addition to their individual artworks, Martumili artists are renowned for creating powerful collaborative works. Many of these paintings are held in the collections of major art institutions, an acknowledgment of technical distinction as well a powerful expression of the indivisible relationship between Martu people and Country. The creation of these collaborative works provides an essential space for educating younger generations to keep Martu culture strong into the future.

Martu connection to Country runs strong and deep, and their knowledge of the land is encyclopaedic. Following a twenty-year campaign to have their land rights recognised, today over 130,000 square kilometres of Country rests under the exclusive control and traditional ownership of the Martu people.

“Anybody can come and paint in Martumili, this for all of us . . . Young artists will learn how it was in the pujiman (traditional, desert dwelling) days when they paint. They will learn about the Country. We must learn, you know, from the old people, so we can hold onto our stories. Here they are teaching us young ones.”

– Cyril Whyoulter, 2017
Photo credit © Aboriginal Signature Estrangin Gallery, Brussels, with the courtesy of the Martu.
1. Marra (Catch it) by Gabrielle Sullivan
2. Bugai Whyoulter in the studio, 2013 Photograph courtesy of Martumili Artists.
3. Jakayu Biljabu tells the story of her painting to younger staff members. Photograph courtesy of Martumili Artists.
4. PARNNGURR Photograph courtesy of Martumili Artists.