Yulparitja Collection
Feature Article
Bidyadanga Region, WA, Australia

Photography Geoff Sumner
Words Rose Onans

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article may contain images of Indigenous peoples who have passed away.

Kingfisher blue, azure, deep rust red, terracotta and dusty pink – the rich and unexpected colour palette of the Western Australian desert and coastline is brought to life in the work of Indigenous artists from the Bidyadanga community. Now, five diverse artworks by Bidyadanga artists have been given a new medium in the form of a collaboration with Designer Rugs. In silk and Tibetan wool, the handknot rugs that form the Yulparitja collection miraculously capture the original artworks’ detail and graduation of colour, creating pieces that are just as at home hung in a gallery as on a floor in the living room. The artworks in the collection are inspired by the journeys undertaken by the Bidyadanga artists’ elders and their ancestors of the Yulparija and Martu people. The Great Sandy Desert in remote Western Australia was home to the Yulparija and Martu until the mid-1960s, when the destructive legacy of British nuclear testing and Australian mining exploration robbed the land of its natural resources. The most significant loss was water, and drought desiccated the landscape: the Percival Lakes began to dry up, therefore the water system that fed the jila (springs), rock pools and soaks disappeared.

Left, Jan Billycan & right, Daniel Walbid of the Bidyadanga community. Images courtesy of Short Street Gallery.

In the 10 years between 1964 and 1974, the people were forced to leave the drought-stricken land, and many arrived on the coastal Bidyadanga region of Western Australia, where they were welcomed by the traditional owners, the Karrajarri people. The children of those who left would be raised away from the desert, according to saltwater life, hunting turtle and dugong. One such child was Daniel Walbidi, who turned to painting to reconnect with his desert heritage. With a great respect for his culture, he recognised that song, dance and painting were the few ways he would be able to keep alive the culture of his people. As a young man in 1999, Daniel Walbidi approached the Short St. Gallery with four small paintings that showed extraordinary promise. Emily Rohr, the manager at Short St Gallery remembers the first time Daniel, at only 16 years of age, entered the gallery with his work – “I am an artist, he said in a grave voice, and there are old people in my community who need to paint.” In the years that followed, Daniel’s partnership with the gallery gave the elders of his people the chance to paint with fine art materials for the first time, developing the Bidyadanga artists community. Many of the elders were born in the desert and were part of the original group who left in the 60s and 70s. Their work expresses their grief at the loss of the land and the people who died as a result of the drought. They also represent the changed landscape in vivid colour and depict the stories of their first interactions with ‘whitefellas’ and the helicopters they saw flying overhead.

Pictured above, Alma Webou. Images courtesy of Short Street Gallery.

The works in the Yulparitja collection are by four elders who were born in the desert and one by Daniel Walbidi, who was born in Bidyadanga. Each is deeply personal and strikingly individual, yet the works all reflect the innate connection to the land and the singular meaning of different places, belying the Western perception of the desert as simply homogenous, dry landscape. Lungarung by Weaver Jack and Pinkalarta by Alma Webou are named after the artists’ birthplaces in the desert. Lungarung’s graphic shapes and defined use of colour in red, grey and white nevertheless convey a complexity and meaningful depth that captures the history, songs and stories of the land. Pinkalarta uses a soft colour palette with a water-blue background and is extraordinarily detailed, with overlapping dots and lines that create a sense of pattern and wholeness when viewed at a distance. Lydia Balbal’s painting, Pikarong, depicts the underground creeks that traverse the Great Sandy Desert as well as the walking and hunting tracks. Through the linear underpainting, the lines are woven across the canvas like emotional veins. This almost bodily imagery used to depict the land is also represented very strongly in Jan Billycan’s work, which explores the relationship between the land and the body. An elder and marparn woman (healer), Jan merges the bodyscape and landscape, creating a visual representation of her metaphysical understanding of the body that she uses as a healer.

Top left, Untitled 200g. Top right, Pinkalarta. Bottom left, Pikarong. Bottom right, Lungarung. All available exclusively through Designer Rugs.

Since Daniel Walbidi walked into the Short St Gallery nearly 20 years ago, art has become an indispensable part of the life of the community, giving several generations a medium to reconnect with their heritage and tell their stories, both recent and traditional. With simplicity and grace, they offer an insight into perceptions of the Australian landscape, and reflect on the devastating legacy of Australian colonisation. Such meaningful artistic work rarely makes its way into a rug design, or indeed furniture and decor in general, and the Yulparitja collection is not only a tour de force for Designer Rugs but importantly also plays a role in supporting the Bidyadanga artists. Royalties from the rugs are returned to the artists, helping to support a vibrant community that has worked together to survive and flourish through traumatic circumstances. The collection exemplifies Designer Rugs’ ability to push the boundaries of collaboration and innovative design, and is a testament to the Bidyadanga artists’ resilience, creativity and commitment to telling their story.

Published 15 November, 2017
Photography  Geoff Sumner
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