Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that the following pages may contain images or names of people who have since passed away.

Western Desert Kimberley – Connecting to Country, From our Home to Yours

Jul 2, 2020

Image: Mt Hubert is a Landmark for Yindjibarndi people. Photo courtesy Yinjaa-Barni Art.

Connecting to Country, From our Home to Yours is your region-by-region guide to some of the most dynamic Art Centres and incredible artists working in Indigenous communities across the country.

Today, we explore the vast Western Desert and north-west Kimberley regions.

By Camilla Wagstaff

Where are we?


The Western Desert and Kimberley regions encompass the immense Western third of the country. Comprising mostly arid bush that hums with red sands and yellow suns, you’ll find fertile pockets in the sacred waterholes that speckle the land (used for tens of thousands of years as a kind of mapping system by First Nations People), and toward the coast. Geographically, in the east of the region toward the middle of the country, the Central and Western Deserts overlap, and you’ll sometimes hear them referred to as one in the same. 

240km northwest of Alice Springs lies the small Indigenous community of Papunya, widely considered the birthplace of the Western Desert dot painting movement. It was here that we saw the pioneers of contemporary Indigenous art rise to become international names. Today, many of the most well-known practitioners still learn and create here. The Papunya dot painting style derives directly from the artists’ ancient cultural and ceremonial knowledge. They cleverly remove parts of these sacred symbols and ancestral designs, careful not to reveal too much to the uninitiated. What is left is a deeply moving and incredibly emotive translation of Country and culture. 

The last two decades have seen many Art Centres springing up across the Western Desert, in the Kimberley to the north and along the coast of Western Australia, giving rise to a great diversity in the art produced here. Many of these you can see at DAAF 2020. Art Centres are remarkable places that commemorate community, culture and Country. Not only do these professional art making studios empower and support Indigenous practitioners, they become a vital part of community life, fostering Aboriginal identity, encouraging artistic practice, and providing a place where younger generations can work and learn from their elders. 

Perhaps most importantly, Art Centres provide a gateway to explore, understand, buy, share and exhibit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. When you buy an artwork from a reputable Art Centre, you know those funds going back to the artist, with a small portion is invested back into the Centre for operational costs and community programs.


Art Centres to explore…


Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency


Over four decades, Mangkaja artists have firmed up a reputation for their uninhibited style, innovation in new artistic mediums and lively use of colour. Hailing from the Fitzroy Valley region in West Kimberley, work from the Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency is exhibited and collected both here and abroad. Followers of fashion might remember the Art Centre’s seriously cool collaboration with the Australian label, Gorman.

Image: Tommy Ngarralja May, Wurna Jawal, Acrylic paint pens on canvas, 60cm x 60cm, 2020, Photo credit Mangkaja Arts.


Warmun Art Centre


Work from the Warmun Art Centre is easily recognised for its aesthetically unique, graphic depictions of the landscape and distinct use of natural ochre and pigments. Warmun Art Centre celebrates the expression of Gija culture through art, language, Joonba (corroboree), song and dance. This holistic support of culture promotes and preserves Gija heritage and allows for the continued development of innovative artistic practice by both established and emerging Warmun artists.

Image: Mabel Juli, Garnkiny Ngarranggarni, ochre, charcoal and PVA fixative on canvas, 80 x 80 cm, 2020, Photo credit Dominic Kavanagh.


Papunya Tjupi Arts


Papunya is the homeland of the Western Desert dot-painting movement. The artists of Papunya Tjupi have established their own unique identity based on the legacy of their forefathers and are internationally known for their strong-line work and developing new ways to tell old stories. The Art Centre was established in 2007, in response to the vacuum following the homelands movement of the late 1970s, which saw the exodus of many of the famous pioneer painters.

Image: Doris Bush, Bush Mangarri Tjuta, Acrylic on linen, 122 x 91cm, 2019, Photo courtesy of Papunya Tjupi Arts.


Yamaji Art


Nestled in the coastal city of Geraldton about 400km north of Perth, Yamaji Art is an emerging Art Centre that works with artists hailing from the greater Mid-West region of WA. The Yamaji area covers nearly one fifth of the state and includes coastal, regional and remote areas. Artists here work with a variety of mediums including painting, textiles, weaving, printmaking, design and performance.

Image: Lily-mae Kerley, Waterholes, Acrylic on canvas, 42 x 53 cm, 2020, Photo courtesy of Yamaji Art.


Artists to look for at DAAF 2020…


Gloria Pilbara

Showing with: Spinifex Hill Studio

Although Martu woman Gloria Pilbara only started painting in late 2015, she carries on a powerful matriarchal tradition that emerged from Australia’s Western Desert in the early 2000s. Her loose brushwork and pastel palettes have attracted critical attention for their highly affecting presence. She has already exhibited broadly across Western Australia and her work was also shown in Singapore earlier this year.

Image: Artist Gloria Pilbara, Spinifex Hill Studio, 2019, Photo courtesy Spinifex Hill Studio.


Allery Sandy

Showing with: Yinjaa-Barni Art

Allery Sandy is a highly respected member of the Yindjibarndi community and a passionate communicator of her culture. She has been the Chairperson of Yinjaa-Barni Art since 2006, which was also the year she started painting. Allery’s practice focuses on depicting the bush seeds, creeks, rivers, wildflowers and trees of her Country in the Pilbara. The artist’s highly detailed paintings regularly show in galleries in Fremantle and Sydney and she has been recognised in a number of high profile art prizes.

Image: Artist Allery Sandy, Yinjaa-Barni Art, 2019, Photo courtesy of Yinjaa-Barni Art.


Katjarra Butler

Showing with: Tjarlirli Art

Katjarra Butler ‘s clever combination of distinctive mapping, informed by a life lived on Country, as well as her highly sophisticated use of colour, has seen her work emerge as one of the most distinctive in the Western Desert. Ktjtara regularly paints the stories of the Kuniya (python) Tjukurrpa (Dreaming), which belong to Kuurmankutja, an important site close to where she was born.

Image: Artist Katjarra Butler painting at Tjarlirli Art in Tjukurla, Courtesy Tjarlirli Art & Kaltukatjara Art.


Miriam Baadjo

Showing with: Warlayirti Artists

Miriam Baadjo has a knack for colour. Infused with a powerful spirituality taught to her by her uncle Wimmitji, her technically brilliant paintings are a vibrant reimagining of ancient stories. In the early stages of Miriam’s practice, she explored the expression of her Tjukurpa (dreaming) through the medium of glass. She came to paint later, once she was granted permission by the elders to paint her grandfather’s Dreaming. The strength of her culture and Country shines through in each and every work.

Image: Miriam Baadjo, Warlayirti Artists, Photo courtesy Warlayirti Artists.