Cross-cultural art projects and exhibitions are nothing new. But the Fremantle Arts Centre’s current exhibition We Don’t Need A Map: A Martu Experience of the Western Desert is something different: an exploration into a unique and very special part of Australia.
The exhibition brings together more than 30 artists, most from the Martu nation, the traditional owners of vast swathes of the stunning big sky country of the Western Desert. Some of the artists, such as Bugai Whyoulter, are well-known and highly collectible. But there is also an important aspect of the exhibition that includes participation from Martu community rangers and cross-cultural collaborations with urban artists such as Lily Hibberd and Lynette Wallworth.
“The title We Don’t Need A Map, that was because we wanted something that was going to be accessible, that lots of people could come to,” co-curator Gabrielle Sullivan told Crikey. “Often when you’re out on trips with the mob, with the Martu in the desert, whitefellas pull out a map, they say, ‘we don’t need a map, put it away’. You need to let go of your ideas and perceptions of what you need to get around, you go with the people who know where they are.
“We had artists like Noreena Kadibil making art about her family and her mother’s family, her mother is Daisy Kadibil, the last of the sisters from the Rabbit Fence Proof story, so it wasn’t just about fine art paintings that are in every institution in the country, it was important to show the diversity of the works that artists do here. Then you have Curtis Taylor and Lily Hibberd’s work here; Curtis works in film and installation, so that was important in showing you can work in media other than painting.
“The real outsider was Lynette Wallworth and her work. She was commissioned to make a piece that was quite immersive, which gave people a sense of being in the desert. Sometimes at arts centres it can be looked upon quite critically that you could bring a whitefella artist into a place where Aboriginal artists are working, but for Lynette to come it was actually quite opportune for the Arts Centre. Lynette’s a very famous artist, for us a whole new audience would see the artwork because of Lynette’s involvement.”
Wallworth says she “loved every minute” of her involvement. The Sydney-based artist has created a large video piece called Still Walking Country that celebrates the songs of Martu women and responds to their invitation to walk the country.
“It was an incredible opportunity, a really unusual opportunity to go and spend six days with these master women hunters. I love the work and it does reflect that experience,” she told Crikey. “It was eye-opening. Really what was in the work was what they showed me, in many ways that’s what’s unusual about it, the Martu women themselves are in control of what’s in the work, they decided what they would show me, they provided the songs for the work. It’s a very unusual way to make work and a fantastic way to make a work.
“I saw things I didn’t know were still happening in this country, and I guess that’s why they wanted to show those things.”
Curtis Taylor and Lilly Hibberd’s work for the exhibition, entitled Phone Booth Project (image below), is both wry and highly social and communicative, chronicling the importance of Telstra phone booths as social technologies in remote Martu communities. “Gabrielle approached me and asked, ‘do you want to come and work on this exhibition?’ Then I got introduced to Lily who did a show a year before at Fremantle Arts Centre, and that’s how we got in contact,” Taylor explained.
Taylor and Hibberd salvaged a period Telstra booth from Billanuka. “Our first job was to go out to Billanuka outstation,” Taylor said. “We drove back in the end with the phone booth on the back of a tray-back, a Landcruiser tray-back, and dropped it off at the Martumili Arts Centre at Newman Shire office.”
On subsequent trips, Taylor and Hibberd travelled to desert communities at Parnngurr and Punmu. Taylor grew up at Parnngurr. “We stayed there for a week and a half and getting stories around the phone booth from elders, it was very nice that we had that time having Martu people coming up remembering back those days when they had that first phone booth come to their communities,” he said.
Before European contact, Martu families often communicated with each other using fire signals, called Waru, a traditional knowledge still in use by Martu rangers today. Taylor and Hibberd were also able to gather stories at an outback football carnival at Nullagine.
“It was a treat to take Lily out there to the footy carnival, because you know the Western Desert is a very big place and footy, AFL, is a big part of Martu way of life today. Martu travel long distances, you know 1000, 15,000 kilometres to go to a footy carnival that lasts three days or a week, and then go back to their homeland, and this was a great place to meet everyone and see old friends, see family,” Taylor said.
“That was really hard for me, going back home. There was lot of Martu I hadn’t seen in a long time since when I was growing up.” Hibberd says as “an artist and city person and an east coaster, the whole thing was just like being in a different country”.
“In travelling and being out there for even just a few weeks, my outsider view was a perspective I used as a point of conversation — what in art is thought of as an estrangement experience and you see everything as a sharpened perception,” he said. “Obviously we looked into a fair bit of history, the old people starting talking about how communication evolved for them after contact.”
According to Taylor and Hibberd, there’s an important and radical political history tied up in the history of desert communication, from traditional Waru to the development of the “Martu channel”, a two-way UHF radio channel that was instrumental in the early political organisation of Martu communities in the 1960s and ’70s. “Curtis obviously knew a lot of this history, but both of our eyes were opened to the layers and linage of communication,” Hibberd said.
We Don’t Need A Map runs until January 20 and has reportedly been drawing big crowds; Sullivan says there has so far been an “overwhelming response”.