Aboriginal artists speak from beyond the grave through crayon drawings
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Aboriginal artists speak from beyond the grave through crayon drawings

When mother and daughter Tess Napaljarri Ross and Lizzy Napurrurla Ross put crayon to paper, they are continuing an 80-year-old tradition for their Warlpiri people.

The two women from Yuendumu, north-west of Alice Springs, are displaying their work at the National Museum of Australia alongside a collection dating as far back as the early 1930s that chronicles the Warlpiri's interactions with white visitors.

Mother and daughter artists from
Yuendumu, Tess Napaljarri Ross, right and Elisabeth Naparrurla Ross, in front of some of their work at the opening of their exhibition "Warlpiri Drawings".

Mother and daughter artists from Yuendumu, Tess Napaljarri Ross, right and Elisabeth Naparrurla Ross, in front of some of their work at the opening of their exhibition "Warlpiri Drawings".

Photo: Graham Tidy

Lizzy’s drawing is a colourful depiction of a sunset and shows her walking towards Uluru ''thinking of the future and the past''. Her mother Tess’ drawing shows an approaching dust storm in the 1960s, shortly after the arrival of missionaries.

''Our people were living in these humpies ... there was a big storm and dust was coming and we were a bit frightened, thinking 'where can we run?' We ran down to the church. In the big storm the humpies would be blown away,'' Napaljarri Ross said.

Tess Napaljarri Ross in front her work: "Remembering a dust storm at Yuendumu in the 1970s".

Tess Napaljarri Ross in front her work: "Remembering a dust storm at Yuendumu in the 1970s".

Photo: Graham Tidy
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The earliest drawings in the Warlpiri Drawings: Remembering the Future exhibition were collected by anthropologist and artist Olive Rose. Rose visited the Warlpiri between the 1920s and '40s during a period of sustained hardship, and collected a small number of crayon drawings from her hosts at Yunmaji.

Later, anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt lived with the Warlpiri of Hooker Creek (now known as Lajamanu). In 1953 he presented the men with paper and crayons and encouraged them to draw and capture their surroundings. The result was a confounding array of representations of life in the Northern Territory on which colonial interaction was beginning to have a drastic effect.

Meggitt stored the 169 drawings with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberra for study. They surfaced again in the 1980s and were presented to the Warlpiri, who advised that ''50 of the drawings depicted restricted men’s themes and instructed that these be locked away''.

In 2011 the drawings were reviewed once more by the Warlpiri and the remaining 119 pictures were deemed suitable for public display.

That year, social anthropologist and guest curator of the exhibit, Melinda Hinkson, travelled with Stephen Wild to the region, taking prints of the Meggitt collection to show the new generation of Warlpiri. This sparked a new round of drawings by artists such as Napaljarri Ross and Napurrurla Ross.

Dr Hinkson said the works show the Warlpiri people ''coming to terms with a new life and a new place. Through their drawings we’re seeing what they’re giving attention to and what they’re thinking about''.

The launch of the exhibition, which runs until the end of May next year, coincided with the launch of a book by Dr Hinkson featuring many of the exhibited works titled Remembering the Future.