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Australia A cache of art, missing for almost 40 years, will be unveiled for the first time

11:30  13 october  2021
11:30  13 october  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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An untitled work on a wooden board by Sunfly Tjamptitjin, 1982. (Supplied: SA Museum) © Provided by ABC NEWS An untitled work on a wooden board by Sunfly Tjamptitjin, 1982. (Supplied: SA Museum)

A lost trove of Indigenous desert paintings created at the beginning of an art movement that became world famous is to go on public display for the first time after decades stashed in a shipping container.

More than 20 works painted by Kukatja and Warlpiri men, painted on wooden boards among spinifex clumps at Balgo in northern Western Australia, will be revealed at the South Australian Museum on Friday.

A photograph taken in 1982 of the artists working on the paintings, which vanished before they could be displayed, set off a decades-long search for the works.

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Professor John Carty, from the SA Museum, said the boards marked the beginning of Balgo's art movement, which was now known globally.

"It is a story with most of the early pages torn out."

Professor Carty spent many years living and working in Balgo and had been searching for the boards for 20 years.

"[It was like] the cracks in the desert had opened up. We could never find the boards," he said.

The artworks were found by chance in 2019 in a sea container in Wyndham, 500 kilometres north of Balgo, and almost thrown out because of mould and water damage.

A casual conversation with a local health worker, who understood the significance of the names written on the back, led to phone calls being made.

The boards' discovery was carried like a Message Stick as far as Canberra — before Professor Carty opened an email in Adelaide.

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"I cried."

"I had been looking for these paintings for 20 years. And then I opened this email and these paintings, that had been lying up against the spinifex in 1982, were sitting in my inbox."

But the paintings were perilously close to being lost again with concerns that 37 years of weathering would make them unsalvageable.

Artlab in Adelaide spent two years "dot by dot conserving them" and, while water marks remain from a flood, the vibrant pieces will finally feature in their inaugural exhibition.

"Returning them to the former glory that no one has ever seen," Professor Carty said.

The discovery and display of the original boards had created excitement in Balgo, which is home to more than 400 people from eight language groups.

Warlayirti Arts Manager Poppy Lever said it also brought "rejuvenation" to the art centre.

"A lot of current artists are looking at these works and they're from their father and grandfather and it brings that story back," she said.

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"It reminds people of what their families were doing. And there's been a renewing of stories, a renewing of painting, and of stories they've been given authority to paint."

Ms Lever said the diversity of language and culture shown through the art is something Australians should be proud of.

"That beating heart is still in Australia, still in the desert and still beating strong."

The Balgo Beginnings exhibition at the SA Museum will also feature new works by descendants of those original artists, and mark the launch of a book by Professor Carty charting the art movement.

Professor Carty described Balgo art as "beautiful, powerful and political."

"People's lives were transformed in the 20th century … and painting is a response to Australian history."

"Art is evidence, a witness to history in Australia. The book is a really deep history of Balgo."

Poppy Lever hopes more people see the strength of culture that persists despite hardships "current and past."

"After 40 years Balgo mob are still painting strong. I hope there is a new generation that's introduced to the magic that is Balgo art."

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Royalties from the book Balgo: Creating Country will go to a fundraiser for a dialysis service in the community to keep artists in their home and bring others back to the small community on the desert's edge.


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