It’s an unlikely story, but a powerful one. In 1999, a sixteen-year-old Aboriginal boy walked into Short Street Gallery in Broome, Western Australia, with a stack of canvases in hand. He told the owner, Emily Rohr, that he was an artist, and that the old people in his community had important tribal stories to tell, stories they needed to paint on canvas for all the world to see.
Emily, an astute judge of indigenous art – and of people - listened and looked. Daniel Walbidi showed her the abstract canvases he had painted based on what he had only heard about his father’s country. He told her about the art classes at his school, classes that inspired him but that focused on “western” techniques and motifs.
He described how the elders of his community, Bidyadanga, were wise in the ways of their ancestral desert homeland, that they dreamed of returning to their country despite many years living near the coast, and that their stories had inspired him.
Emily saw not only a talented young artist, but also a driven young man. She sent him home with art materials, a commitment to learn everything he could about art, and his dream intact. Emily met with the Bidyadanga community leaders and organized a painting workshop, and with Daniel’s and her encouragement, some of the elders began to re-interpret their memories on canvas, painting the forms of their desert country in the now familiar palette of their coastal home. They juxtaposed the dramatic reds and yellows of the desert with the rich greens and blues of the ocean, and the many shades of green of the nearby forests, and created a new vision in Aboriginal painting.
Emily showed their work in her own gallery, and worked tirelessly to introduce it to museum curators and gallery directors throughout Australia. The work attracted the attention of collectors and critics, with Bidyadanga exhibitions rapidly becoming sell-outs.
The Bidyadanga story actually started in the 1960s and 70s, when a devastating drought in the Great Sandy Desert drove a group of Yulparija people from their homeland. The people began walking north and west, traveling many hundreds of miles to the old Bidyadanga cattle station, at that time a mission station run by the Catholic church. There they joined people from several other tribal groups, and the community eventually grew to a population of some 800 people, and is now the largest indigenous community in the state of Western Australia.
For the next few decades the Yulparitja hunted, fished, and lived a fairly traditional life, albeit in a saltwater, rather than a desert, area. As the old people say, they “learned to eat fish.” But they always longed to go home, to revisit their ancestral country and reconnect with the spiritual places that underscored their traditional beliefs.
As their reputations as artists developed, they began talking more and more about going back home, perhaps for the last time, and showing Daniel and his generation the ancestral country for the first time.
In 2007, Emily and the painters organized the trip, traveling in four-wheel-drive “troopies.” Once back in their desert, the elders cleaned the old waterholes, hunted for game and bush food, built campfires, and sang and danced the ceremonies of their ancestors. And, they painted. They painted from their hearts and souls, and the results were amazing – vivid canvases full of life and energy. Their remarkable return to their homeland was documented in the film, Desert Heart, which recently aired on Australian Broadcasting Company’s acclaimed Artscape channel.
It was shortly after their trip back to the desert in 2007 that I visited Emily in Broome, met Daniel Walbidi, and was absolutely awe-stricken by the power of the Bidyadanga work. Since that time, we have been working together on this exhibition. Booker-Lowe Gallery is proud to host the first exhibition of the extraordinary paintings of the Bidyadanga artists in the U.S.!
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