This thesis explores the forces that brought two vast collaborative paintings known as Ngurrara Canvases I & II into being. The larger of the two works, Ngurrara Canvas II sits firmly amongst a small number of celebrated, politically charged Indigenous Australian artworks. Despite this, the production of these two works has had scant attention. Unlike the work of artists from desert communities to the south east, very little has been written about the emergence of painting practice amongst those from the Great Sandy Desert who drifted north, from the mid 1950s, towards cattle stations and the township of Fitzroy Crossing. As the art advisor at the Fitzroy Crossing art centre from 1990 to 2006 I was privileged to witness and document the inception, production, and afterlife of Ngurrara Canvases I & II – the focus of this dissertation.
To investigate this body of work, I trace those who moved north from the desert and the system of jila or living waterholes entrusted to them, and consider the broader cultural and political context within which their art-making emerged. The artists embarked on a process of modifying and codifying their existing practice within the expanded set of obligations and conditions of their post-contact lives. The most significant of these came with the High Court’s Mabo decision (1992) that led to the development of the Ngurrara Native Title claim. Not content with being recorded and represented tacitly in their legal battle, the claimants decided to paint a large collaborative work to help Kartiya understand the complexities of land ownership (including responsibility for jila) under Piyirn law. The creation of the canvas and the subsequent hearings before the National Native Title Tribunal distils the success of the artists’ skills and vision in producing Ngurrara Canvas II, on which some forty individuals worked.
The thesis presents a study of both communal and collaborative enterprise, and a documented analysis of the work of six major artists who directed and contributed to the Ngurrara Canvases. The monopoly of the ‘Dreaming’ as the rationale of desert painting and the artists’ displacement from country, conditions that have directed the reading of the works until now, confine the work in ways that do not recognise the artists’ unique aesthetic or their political and legal concerns when painting the places where they walked in ngurrara.