Bidyandanga- Emily Rohr

SYDNEY- 8 March 2015


In 1999, a young man entered the Short Street Gallery in Broome. He shyly declared that his name was Daniel Walbidi and that he lived at Bidyadanga, a coastal Aboriginal community 180 kilometres south of Broome, and that he would like to become an artist. He then placed four small paintings on the desk, works that showed extraordinary potential. Daniel then explained the history of his people, the Yulparija. This is their story.

During the 1960s, drought began to change the landscape of the Great Sandy Desert in remote Western Australia where the people then lived. The Percival Lakes began to dry up and the water system that fed the jila (springs), rock pools and soaks disappeared.

The people who inhabited this country, the Yulparija and the Martu, suspected magic, fearing that someone had ‘sung’ the waterholes dry. A war among the people ensued and many died from the senior tribesmen’s use of black magic: a hair is all that is needed to ‘sing’ a person to death. With little knowledge of colonial settlement and modern technology, the remote Yulparija and Martu people were unaware of the truth behind the deterioration of their land. They had observed white men only from a distance and were unaware of the extent of the white settlement across their continent, which had been going on for 180 years. As traditional desert people, they were continuing to live essentially as their ancestors had done for the past 20,000 years or more.

In fact, what was happening was caused by other events altogether. The colonial history of this desert country is predominantly one of disregard. Invasive activities such as British nuclear testing to the south-east and Australian mining explorations to the south, together with the expansion of grazing activities and genuine drought, all combined to rob the land of its natural resources and most importantly water.

The decade between 1964 and 1974 would bring great change. During this time different groups left their traditional country and headed for the La Grange mission on the west coast, at a place now called Bidyadanga, south of Broome. Here, they were welcomed by the Karrajarri people, who are the traditional owners of this saltwater country. The children of the Yulparija would be raised according to saltwater life, fishing and hunting turtle and dugong. Furthermore, they would attend schools established by the Catholic mission and would learn the ways of the white man.

Daniel Walbidi was one such child. Well educated, he realised as he progressed through school that his interest in art was very strong. Painting became a way for him to return to his desert heritage and learn the stories of his people. With a great respect for his culture, he saw that song, dance and painting were the means by which he would be able to keep the culture of his people alive.

With the encouragement of Sister Pat Sealey, a Josephite nun at Bidyadanga, Short Street Gallery in Broome presented a generation of elders with an opportunity to work with modern art materials for the first time. Using acrylics on paper and canvas, the Yulparija produced work of an extraordinary style, thus beginning the Bidyadanga art movement.

Their work combines their desert heritage with their saltwater experience: desert iconography is portrayed in the rich blues, greens and reds of the coastal landscape. However, their work is not restricted to landscape. They have also painted stories of their first encounters with ‘whitefellas’ and of the helicopters that they saw fly overhead during their years in the desert.

The work of the Yulparija people is truly contemporary art but based on the people’s experience of traditional existence as native Australians. Critical to their work are their memories of journeys taken throughout their country, travelling on foot from jila to jila; their story is one of survival in a harsh desert landscape. It is a story of unity and the importance of working together for the collective good of the community. Additionally, it is a story of time and of creation as the artists focus on sites specific to significant mythological stories. Through their work, they are able to transgress the boundaries of the ‘real’ and take their work to a philosophical and a metaphysical level.

For Weaver Jack (c1928 – 2010), the experience of migration resulted in complex and sophisticated paintings that continually surprise and disturb the viewer. Her work captures a momentary glance at the immediate landscape yet is suggestive of a world beyond the confines of the canvas. From her depictions of the desert country comes a sense of space that captures the essence of the location.

Weaver’s work has a unique rhythm by which the contrast of light and dark is able to dance across the canvas as a visual representation of traditional song. There is a spontaneity about her work that allows the vibrant colours to collide, creating a dramatic energy. She has become a true master of her palette as she challenges traditional western notions of colour to produce a fresh and unique representation of culturally significant sites and mythology. 

Although from the same background and language group as Weaver Jack, Jan Billycan (c1930 –) creates dramatically different works. Jan is a Marparn (medicine) woman and has been bestowed with the ability to see in X-ray – a fact that is evident in her painting. The landscape of the body and the country become one, consequently taking the boundaries of human physicality to a metaphysical level. In fact, this is an idea reiterated throughout the entire movement of Bidyadanga painting. Jan does not see the human form as separate from the landscape but instead as one with the country.

Throughout Jan’s work there is a rawness that has pushed the boundaries of the ‘acceptable’ in contemporary art. She mixes the colours on the canvas and repeatedly works the lines until they have a density and colour that reflect the uniqueness and individuality of each sand dune in the desert and each bone in the body; her work reflects creation of the ‘living’.

Working recently with a textured medium, Jan has brought a new dimension to the art of the Yulparija. On one level, her work is disturbing for the viewer, with its fecundity raising issues of one’s own mortality. Furthermore, it is reminiscent of the ‘grotesque’, as referenced by Francis Bacon, and therefore imposing an awareness of one’s own physical limitations. Her compositions have a haunting beauty that continually enthrals the viewer, and there is a depth in her work that embodies the very essence of painting. It is through this depth that she can raise complex issues despite their reduction to the physical nature of country, the body and the paint itself.

Like Weaver Jack, Jan Billycan and fellow Bidyadanga artist Alma Webou, Parlurn Harry Bullen (1923 – 2009) was forced to migrate to the coastal town of Bidyadanga. However, despite their similar lifetime experiences and circumstances, his work is the antithesis of Jan’s gestural strokes and Alma’s frenzied dot work – his work is refined and calculated. Each mark on the canvas was a carefully considered act and his work has an energy that stems from the contrasting elements present.

Parlurn Harry Bullen was an important lawman and was not afraid to include the law in his work. His gentle and unassuming demeanour masked a great strength of character and power. Despite his humility, he was able to tame the elements and this is evident in his work through the strong contrasts of light, colour and form. His work has a tension that is created through each controlled line on the canvas, and his courage in recreating the landscape was testament to his knowledge of a world beyond the picture surface.

It is impossible to know any of the Bidyadanga artists and not be moved. With extraordinary simplicity, they challenge our perception of how the desert landscape looks. The land has an importance to them that has no white equivalent. Additionally, the work brings to light complex issues relating to the impact of white settlement on the lives of Indigenous Australians. Like a handful of artists before them, the Bidyadanga painters contribute to discourse on the metaphysical nature of existence.

The greatest irony is that the western perception of a simple people and culture is a fallacy. In fact, traditional Aboriginal culture has a deep understanding of the true meaning of existence, which is revealed in its art practice. This cannot truly be understood without a fundamental shift in western thinking. Art that demands such a shift is, by definition, great art, and perhaps these artists will prove to be some of the greatest ever to have lived.