The Beautiful Collaborative Art Making of Martu Artists

Martu artists painting a depiction of the Seven Sisters' Dreaming story. Courtesy of Social Ventures Australia, 2021.

Indigenous communities all across Australia have unique artistic traditions that are connected to their country and Dreaming stories. One community in particular is the Martu people - the traditional owners of a large portion of central Western Australia, stretching from the Great Sandy Desert in the north to Wiluna in the south (Martumili, 2021).

The Martu are world renowned for their incredible collaborative approach to painting, with up to 10 artists often working on a single artwork. Their stunning works have been featured in exhibitions nationally and internationally, and many artworks are held in the collections of major institutions such as the Museum of Contemporary Art. Incredible achievements aside, painting is so much more than just creating an end product. For the Martu, it’s a process of sharing, telling stories and keeping culture alive. Their paintings reflect their knowledge of Country, depicting significant sites of personal, cultural and ecological importance (Social Ventures Australia, 2021).

Martumili Artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition: Martu Art from the Far Western Desert. Courtesy of MCA, 2014.

Up until the 1950s and 1960’s, the Martu people maintained an entirely independent, nomadic lifestyle in the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia. Around this time, they began to move into settlements due to a long and severe drought. Despite having to move out of the desert, the Martu remained determined to keep their connection to Country strong. Painting and contemporary art has become an important way for Martu people to share their stories of Country and culture. Through creating art, as well as environmental conservation work, the Martu are able to document and share knowledge of their Jukurrpa (Dreaming stories), culture and surrounding wildlife (Martumili, 2021).

One of the ways in which the Martu passes down stories of traditional life to the younger generations, is through the Martumili Artists Art Centre. Founded in 2006 by a core group of Pujiman (desert born) Elders, Martumili Artists come from the communities of Parnpajinya (Newman), Jigalong, Parnngurr, Punmu, Kunawarritji, Irrungadji and Warralong. Artists live in communities and regularly visit the regional centre of Newman, where Martumili’s key base and gallery is. In each community, there is an art shed where artists come together to paint. Here, the artists gather, accompanied by a jarntu (dog) or two, and sing in language as they paint (Martumili, 2021).

These ‘art sheds’ are so much more than the name implies, they are bustling working studios and community hubs for the Martu. Martumili provides the community with a culturally aligned source of income and a way of preserving their precious culture and knowledge through creating and sharing art (Martumili, 2021).

Martumili Artists working on a large collaborative artwork together. Photo by Tristan Deratz, courtesy of MCA, 2014.

Collaborative painting is at the heart of contemporary Martu culture. The creation of these collaborative works provides an essential way of educating younger generations about Martu culture. The process brings together artists young and old to talk, tell stories and sing together. Elders teach young artists ancestral stories related to the creation of Martu Country. The Jukurrpa often follows the travels of ancestral beings between significant sites, such as the epic journey of the Minyipuru Jukurrpa (Seven Sister Dreaming). Paintings include geographical landscape features including tuwa (sandhills), pils (sandy plains), linyji (clay pans), warla (salt lakes), jurna (water soakage) and other water sources (One Of Twelve, 2021).

Large scale collaborative works are typically painted in large art sheds in communities or outdoors, during specially convened artist camps organised by Martumili. It's truly impressive how large groups of artists (up to 10) can work cohesively to create these incredible artworks. Through the Martu artists educating each other on Jukurrpa and painting techniques, the result is the creation of grand works that bring stories of their culture and Country to life, as well as bringing their community closer together as a whole (Social Ventures Australia, 2021).

Art creation is a significant part of Martu communities, and the way in which they create art is a collaborative and ever-evolving process. It is a process that creates unity, and, most importantly, documents and preserves ancient knowledge of Martu Country and culture.

Learn more about Martu artists and view some of their beautiful works on the Martumili website or Instagram