Paruku, Desert Lake

Desert Lake. Art, science and stories from Paruku Blog 1

Artist meeting at Mulan April 2011

PARUKU SEDIMENTS:  art, science and writing in the Tanami Desert Mulan artists meeting with Mandy Martin, Steve Morton, Kim Mahood, and Faye Alexander April 2011, photo Guy Fitzhardinge


Based in the Paruku Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) in the southeast Kimberley region of Western Australia, this project is a multi-disciplinary project that involves traditional owners, scientists, artists and writers. It seeks to develop a greater appreciation and sharing of landscape values between Indigenous and second settlers.  The project started in April 2011 and will run over the next year. (Blog 2 April 2011)


The project has evolved through discussions with all the participants, partners and donors and is supported by the Walmajarri traditional owners.

The prime outcome of the project is to achieve greater national and international understanding and knowledge of how global drivers are modifying Indigenous Traditional Owners connection to country  on the western edge of the Tanami Desert.

During a two-week period in August 2011 all the participants including artists, scientists and writers will work with Paruku Traditional Owners to explore the interface between Indigenous and non-Indigenous ways of representing, interpreting and looking after country. The broader context for the project is the influence of global drivers such as economics and climate change on a unique place and its people.

The project will follow three strands:

-          Art as expression of country and culture – painting, weaving, print-making

-          Mapping – cross-cultural communication

-          Recording/writing – stories, traditional knowledge, scientific observation, contextual over-view.

The painting and print-making strands will be mentored by Mandy Martin, a painter of international reputation who has worked alongside and mentored Indigenous artists for a number of years. She will also make artworks.

Alice Springs artist Faye Alexander will mentor the sculpture strands. She has exhibited nationally and has extensive experience working with Indigenous women. She will also make sculpture.

Kim Mahood,  an artist and writer with a long-standing connection to the Tanami and the Walmajarri people of Paruku  will mentor the mapping process and make collaborative paintings with the Walmajarri artists. She will also make artworks. The mapping will concentrate on a Fire map and a Waterways map painted on canvas, utilising Cybertacker data, monitoring programs and field observations. Input from Guy Fitzhardinge and Steve Morton, in consultation with Rangers and TOs, will help to identify the most effective way to incorporate scientific/environmental information and use the maps as a management tool.

The outputs of the project will be

  • an exhibition by all the Walmajarri and other artists involved in the project, Araluen Arts Centre have expressed interest in hosting the exhibition.
  • a book published by CSIRO and edited by Mandy Martin, John Carty, Kim Mahood and Steve Morton, which will include reproductions of the art works and essays by the writers and the Walmajarri Traditional Owners. The book will bring together the project themes – the intersection of art, science, Indigenous knowledge and global drivers. Walmajarri art, cultural knowledge and stories will provide the template around which the essays and images are structured. Bill Fox, international writer on landscape and cognition and Director of the Center for Art and Environment at the Nevada Museum, will provide contextual chapters. Other contributors will include Jim Bowler (geologist), John Carty and Guy Fitzhardinge (anthropologists)
  •  a DVD film and soundscape which will  accompany the publication.
  • artworks made by the Walmajarri artists suitable for selling in the Warruyarnta Art Centre, Mulan.
  •  the creation of skill development opportunities and some funded work for Walmajarri people through:
  1. Artists and writers fees for the Walmajarri TO’s & language consultant fee for Walmajarri linguist.
  2. The film recording of the project, to be carried out by young local film makers through Balgo Art Centre
  3. The running of painting, map making, print-making and sculpture workshops for the Walmajarri artists at the Warruyarnta Art Center and with  the Mulan school children.
  4. Scientific data useful to the Walmjarri TO’s  through the Waterways monitoring project which is being developed in partnership with the Centre for Excellence in Natural Resource Management, University of Western Australia and the WA Department of Water.
  5. Film work, blogs and written work  which will all be available to  wider audiences
  6. Exhibitions by the artists in various centres--Canberra, Alice Springs, Melbourne and internationally and for the writers--publications in journals and at conferences in Australia and internationally.


Indigenous people see and read the land in a way that non indigenous people find hard to understand. For Indigenous people the land is described in song or as an image and not as a collection of discrete parts. Having Indigenous people paint their landscape with the inclusion of the added disruptions that have followed post colonial settlement provides an insight into how the Indigenous landholders see the changes, and it also enables second settler people to gain a better understanding of the effects of their “development.”

The prime outcome is to achieve greater national and international understanding and knowledge of how global drivers are modifying Indigenous Traditional Owners’ connection to Country in the Tanami Desert.

From the point of view of the Walmajarri artists, the main outcome is connecting them and their community to the wider Australian audience.  This is important to them as the Traditional Owners of Country because they want their stories acknowledged and respected by the nation. They also want others to see the importance of the landscape to them and to understand their deep spiritual and cultural connection with it. They are also keen to develop their art centre, make sales, and find markets and publicity for their work – all of which brings money into their community.

Through the integration of both traditional and scientific knowledge, this project seeks to achieve a greater understanding of the social and cultural needs to achieve sustainable landscape management. Through the Paruku project wider audiences will achieve a greater understanding of the landscape values of the Lake Gregory/Tanami desert area and the deep historic and cultural relationship the Walmajarri traditional owners have with their land.

This project will lay the foundations for a shared understanding of the ecological values of the Paruku Indigenous Protected Area and contribute to the development and implementation of sustainable management practices. It will support and complement the work already being carried out by the Indigenous Protected Area Program, as outlined in the 10 year Paruku IPA Management Plan.

It is anticipated that this project may provide a methodology that can be adapted and used elsewhere, by creating a process for working with remote Indigenous communities in a way that develops respect and understanding among all parties involved.

These outcomes are underpinned by the unique partnerships with CSIRO publishing, the Federal Government’s Indigenous Protected Area Program, a major Gallery venue, the University of Western Australia’s Centre for Excellence in Natural Resource Management, who are administering our project, and also our donors whose contributions and participation are making this project possible.. We anticipate that the outcomes  will in turn generate further spontaneous outcomes as the project evolves.

Mandy Martin, May 2011