In 2006, more than ten Western Desert Aboriginal art centres partnered with the National Museum of Australia to undertake a groundbreaking interdisciplinary project focusing on the Canning Stock Route. This critical 2000-kilometre track cuts through three immense deserts in Western Australia − Great Sandy, Little Sandy and Gibson − and traverses sites of cultural importance for Aboriginal people of more than twenty different language groups. Titled Ngurra kuju walyja − one country one people, the project was the first to illustrate in intimate detail, through the use of Aboriginal language, video footage and interactive maps, the very literal correlation between specific localities and the often-described abstract renderings by artists from across this vast region.
Senior Martu artist Kumpaya Girgirba was one of the 120 Aboriginal artists and contributors involved in Ngurra kuju walyja, travelling along parts of the route and producing artwork on site (the Canning Stock Route collection is now held by the National Museum of Australia). Martu lands cover a large stretch of desert country on the stock route from south of Well 5 to Well 39. The painting titled Kunawarritji and Kinyu was painted during 2007, in the midst of this extensive project, and depicts land designated by surveyor Alfred Canning as Well 33 and Well 35, two culturally significant water-bearing sites of Martu Ngurra, or homelands.
The work presents a geologically and temporally layered view of an immense area, depicting the network of springs, rock holes, soaks and sand-hills that comprise the localities of KunawarritjiandKinyu. The highly graphic nature of Girgirba’s work recalls the tradition of sand drawing that has existed alongside Martu oral tradition for many thousands of years. Linear and circular forms feature frequently in Girgirba’s work, illustrating the primacy of underground water sources and the characteristic undulations of the sand-hills of Girgirba’s country, and reflecting her sophisticated knowledge of personal, cultural, social and ecological sites of the area. An individual’s identity and relationship to others is defined by these spiritual connections to place, and entail specific cultural and ceremonial rights and responsibilities. Today, painting country has become part of this ongoing management of Ngurra.
In terms of contemporary art-making, the Martu are latecomers to the practice of painting on canvas. The first painting workshops commenced in 2001 and the resulting intense, kaleidoscopic paintings were presented to the broader public only in 2003. Kumpaya Girgirba has been instrumental in introducing painting and weaving techniques to the artists that collectively practice at the Martumili Artists art centre in Newman, Western Australia, which she learnt during visits to communities such as Kurungal, Balgo and Fitzroy Crossing. Girgirba is widely acknowledged for her key role in collaborative art-making, guiding younger people through an informal process that enables them to work with more senior artists on significant collaborative paintings. Cross-generational collaboration has become a hallmark of the innovative and dynamic art practice of Martumili artists, and was celebrated with a major exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2014.
Girgirba has lived a wildly transformative life. As a young mother she lived a nomadic existence completely separated from white Australians up until 1963, when she was taken to a settlement that had earlier been established to build the Rabbit Proof Fence in Western Australia. Fifty years later she is a leading Martu artist, whose generosity and desire to share her knowledge and love of her country with others has led to remarkable collaborative projects, including the immersive installation at the 2014 Adelaide Biennale of Australian Art with artist Lynette Wallworth and musician Anohni (then known as Antony, from Antony and the Johnsons). Girgirba’s motivations to engage with the world through her painting practice are simple: ‘It is special to teach others (Martu and non Martu) how we live now and always have in this country. We have lived in this country for a long time, this country is us. We need to share it and talk about it and protect it, keep it strong’.
Joanna Bosse is currently Curator at the Gallery at Bayside Art & Cultural Centre, Brighton, and was previously Curator at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, the University of Melbourne.
 Martu artists, artist’s statement, 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Dark Heart, accessed 10 January 2016, http://adelaidebiennial.com.au/2014/artists/lynette-wallworth-antony-and-martu-artists/.