As we approach the referendum for the Voice to Parliament in Australia, a new book on the Indigenous artists known as the Spinifex people reminds us of the way painting helped give them a voice 25 years ago in their Native Title battle.
John Carty and Luke Scholes, editors of the book, Sun & Shadow: Art of the Spinifex People, explain why the history of the Spinifex people and their unique contribution to Australian art history remains largely unheralded. John Carty is the Head of Humanities at the South Australian Museum, and Professor of Museum Studies at the University of Adelaide, and Luke Scholes is a research fellow at Deakin University and here they tell the story of these important but largely overlooked artists.
Who are the Spinifex people?
The Spinifex people have been living on their ancestral homelands in the Great Victoria Desert in Western Australia since time immemorial. This continuous narrative was interrupted momentously by the Maralinga atomic testing in the mid 20th century. But after returning to their homelands, Spinifex people began to fight for greater recognition. Painting made their story visible. And it has given the rest of us an incredible window into that world, and the work of cross-cultural understanding that sits before us.
Born of the need to present evidence in Native Title contexts, Spinifex painting has a unique political history and visual tradition that marks it out as a singular element in Australian art history – but one that also sheds light on the on the broader histories of Aboriginal art.
This book position the Spinifex people as major figures in the Australian historical and art-historical landscape.
Why was their art a radical statement?
They remind us where Aboriginal art came from. In the context of Australian history – the transformation of Aboriginal aesthetics from ceremony and body designs into painted canvas was an extraordinary political act. These were legal documents – about the ownership of Country – being translated for us in paint.
But it’s too easy to forget, as painted Country becomes part of the interior design of our homes, offices and parliament, how radical the politics of such art remains. And how much work we still have to do to appreciate the complexity and generosity of this gift.
Why is it relevant to the Voice referendum in 2023?
As we talk about the Voice in 2023, what makes Spinifex painting still so urgent , is the way in which painting made that voice visible 25 years ago in relation to Native Title. People started painting in 1997 around the same time as they were delivering the final evidence for their successful Native Title claim. They saw painting as a way to distill those hundred of pages of evidence into a clear statement of their belonging.
But it was more than that, they also decided to paint ten paintings that would be gifted to the people of Western Australia in exchange for giving their land back. They didn’t need to do this – the land was already theirs as recognised by two different systems of law – but Spinifex people know gifts are about relationships. It was a very beautiful gesture in the context of Australian law, and diplomacy. Our job is probably still to understand that gift better.
Will this book help to record these artists as an important element in Australian art history?
Our hope, and the hope of the artists in making the book, was to share what we all think is one of the most extraordinary stories in Australian history, not just Australian art history. Spinifex people want their story understood, and they want their old people who fought so hard to be remembered.
But the upshot of that – of telling that story of the last half century in Spinifex life – is to reveal one of the most fascinating and important groups of artists in Australia too.
Where can people view any of their paintings? Are there galleries displaying their artworks?
The Spinifex Artists are some of the most highly prized and esteemed in Australia and increasingly in the USA where they have been exhibited in major shows over recent years. Spinifex works hang in most of our major galleries and are currently on display in the Art Gallery of NSW, and the Native Title paintings are currently on display in the Western Australian Museum too.