A tiny woman of indomitable spirit, Weaver Jack came to national attention in 2006 when her self-portrait caused a stir for the Archibald Prize. This was because it was, on the surface, a landscape painting. This was a challenge for many in regard to the traditions of portraiture, especially in the context of Australia’s most lucrative art prize. Yet an identity founded in the substance of one’s Country has always been intrinsic to Aboriginal self-understanding. For those in exile, like the Yulparitja people of The Great Sandy Desert, the contours and memories of their country have become even more indelibly etched within them. During the 1960s, severe environmental changes (brought on by drought, mining and the introduction of large cattle stations to their lands) had forced the desert nomads to journey to the coast, some dying from thirst and hunger along the way. The rest settled at Lagrange Catholic mission, now the remote township of Bidyadanga, 200 kilometres south of Broome. It was through painting that Jack reawakened the half-submerged memories of her childhood and youth and re-invigorated that aspect of herself. She became the undisputed leader of the group who began painting in 2000 at their aged care residence.
Encouraged by the young Bidyadanga artist Daniel Walbidi, who had been intrigued by their stories from the past, the group chose a distinctive array of colors that inadvertently captured their geographical shift; coastal blues and cool greens alongside desert reds and purples, stark whites, dry browns and dusky yellows. The somewhat discordant and clashing hues, placed with assured and loaded brush strokes and an absolute certainty of composition, shocked the public but sold out when exhibited in Melbourne in 2004. The paintings were snapped up by leading state galleries (including the National Gallery of Australia and NGV) and private collectors. Each of the elderly artists brought their own perspective to this “imaginary repossession” of their distant homelands and spiritual source. Painting, singing and sharing memories, they summoned the past back to themselves.
Jack’s fluid designs depict her traditional country, south of Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route and near the Percival Lakes, a huge, largely seasonal salt lake area that teems with bird life in the wet season. Her birthplace and spiritual home is Lungarung, (a jila, or spring of living water) in which resides the great life-giving snake Wirnpa, who created the underground water system that threads through the desert country in a series of freshwater soaks. Jack’s early memories centre on walking through these lands with her family, gathering food and hunting, camping among the dunes, and at times participating in large ceremonial gatherings with other nomadic tribes. Jack’s process of sketching in the skeleton substructure of the land, (in deep purples or Prussian blue) and then over-painting with loose and continuous dotting, in varying, sometimes starkly contrasted hues, retraces a palpable sense of this absorbing world. She married her promised husband and had children but was gradually forced to walk westwards in search of food and water, eventually coming to the coast and settling at Bidyadanga during the 1960s. She was considered the senior law women for the Yulparitja people and her paintings remain as important symbols of a lost time and the unique affinity between a people and their country. In 2007, some of the group, including Jack, made an artistic and healing pilgrimage back into the desert, documented in the film Desert Heart.
Profile author: Sophie Pierce