Rich landscapes of the mind
The landscape between Karratha and Millstream. Picture: William Yeoman

Language is another landscape.
John Kinsella, Disclosed Poetics

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FARAWAY BAY

I turn from the infant's grave and head back to what is left of the old West Pilbara port town of Cossack. Earlier I had seen some of the Burrup Peninsula petroglyphs. Now those ancient rock engravings and the inscription on this Cossack Cemetery headstone - "Our Baby Eric Steer Flinders who died 5th November 1897, aged 4 months. God's will be done" - merge sadly, sweetly, in my mind.

"We are damn good at (managing) resources up in this part of the world," National Party leader Brendon Grylls says to a packed, brightly lit Cossack Bond Store after the Pilbara sky has turned from blue to indigo. "What tonight shows is that we are also damn good at art and culture."

It's the opening of the 20th Anniversary Cossack Art Award, arguably the most remote art award in the country. I look for Robyn Maher, marketing co-ordinator at Australia's North West Tourism in Broome and my travelling companion. She's sitting nearer the front, among some of the Pilbara artists. Somewhere behind me are Perth artists Caspar Fairhall and Ron Nyisztor, with whom I had just been discussing art criticism and synaesthesia, of all things, over an alfresco dinner.

Mr Grylls continues. "It's absolutely important that we match the growth in the resource sector with the growth of the community, the growth of art and culture and the growth of our traditional owners. If we all put our minds to that and make sure that at the end of this wonderful period of growth that we all get to the same point then that will leave a wonderful legacy."

I look around at the extraordinary range of work from all around Australia covering the restored walls of the Bond Store - there are more in the similarly restored Post and Telegraph Building - and can only agree. Ars longa, vita brevis: life is short - and resources finite, you might add - but art endures forever.

As it turns out, Fairhall wins the big one: $15,000 Best Overall Artwork for his vibrant enigmatic painting Asteroid III 2012; included is an optional prize of a six-week residency in Cossack, worth an additional $15,000.

"You can't go into an award with any expectations," Fairhall says. "Participation, getting your work out there, that's the important thing."

The Cossack Art Award is open to any artist regardless of skill - a concept Fairhall, a seasoned practitioner, obviously relishes. "I particularly enjoy this award precisely because it's so open and democratic," he says.

"So often our work is only shown in places where a lot of people feel uncomfortable. It's a sad reality and unnecessary really that our galleries are intimidating to many people."

Another big winner is Yindjibarndi elder and previous Best Overall Artwork winner Clifton Mack, who is awarded the $10,000 Best Pilbara Artist prize for his textured, undulating painting, Increasing Site.

The Holy Trinity Church, Roebourne. Picture: William Yeoman

It's the day before. Robyn and I are visiting Mack and some of his fellow artists at the Yinjaa-Barni Art Centre, which used to operate out of a shed behind the Aboriginal Church in Roebourne and is now housed in the heritage-listed Dalgety House on Roe Street, the town's main road.

Mack works alone in a small room, separate from the women artists who paint in a larger, sun-filled space, their long benches covered by canvasses, tubes of acrylic paint, brushes, cloths and kebab sticks used for dot painting. He is busy with a painting for an upcoming exhibition in Singapore. After introducing myself and exchanging a few brief words, I leave him to his work.

The women, Marlene Harold and Celia Sandy among them, are keener to talk, their excited voices carrying over the noise of the television which transfixes a group of children in a corner of the room. Sandy tells me she had only recently started painting and is already benefiting from its capacity to heal.

"I'm really happy doing it, it's really good for me," she says. "I've been in and out of hospital. My health is better now. Used to have heart problems. No more now."

After visiting Ngarluma woman Loreen Sampson at the nearby Roebourne Art Group, Robyn and I decide to picnic at a shady park just across the road, near the Harding River. No sooner do we lay out our fruit, salad, biscuits, bread and cheeses when four small, impeccably mannered Aboriginal children join us, performing acrobatic feats on the grass in exchange for strawberries and slices of apple.

Suddenly, too, it is our turn to answer questions. "What's your name? Where are you from? How old are you? What are you doing here?" In exchange for our answers we receive a family history from the children, and find out Sampson is, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of their aunts.

Finishing our repast, we soon find ourselves contemplating the rusting shackles and manacles on display in the Old Gaol, which is now part of the Roebourne Visitors' Centre. Then it's a drive up Withnell Street and on to Fisher Drive, past the Holy Trinity Church, the hospital and the Community Health Centre, to the Mt Welcome lookout from where we survey the town.

Just out of Roebourne we discover an artists' centre of a different kind, where for the past two years or so, associate producer Elspeth Blunt and artist Stu Campbell have been working with Roebourne schoolchildren and prisoners from the Roebourne Regional Prison as part of the Yijala Yala Now Project run by Big hART.

"The project's basic aim is to promote and communicate the cultural heritage of Roebourne, Burrup Peninsula and Muranjuga," Blunt says as we sit in the project's headquarters. "Up until early this year it was about building relationships. Now we're more into creating content and realising artistic projects in live music and digital media, working towards a touring theatre show which will be premiering as part of the C100 Festival in Canberra next year."

Campbell has been working with a group of children known as the Love Punks. "They're all protagonists in their own comic story," he tells us. That's been attracting every kid in Roebourne. We've had wannabe Love Punks knocking on the door, kids walk from Roebourne out to here in 40C heat wanting to do something."

Yindjibarndi artist Marlene Harold from the Millstream tablelands at work at the Yinjaa-Barni Art Centre, Roebourne. Picture: William Yeoman

Campbell, an illustrator with an interactive design background, originally intended to work with the community to illustrate traditional and new stories. "Then I went into the school and realised they were all playing online video games. So I adapted my approach and decided to make a video game, which was a great motivator for the kids. The deal was that if they wanted to be in the game they had to learn to animate themselves using the software."

After another night in our surprisingly luxurious rooms at the Karratha International Hotel, Robyn and I set out for the Millstream Chichester National Park, part of the country of so many of the indigenous artists whom we had spoken to and whose work we had seen. As our Land Cruiser speeds through the landscape, the gradations between red and chocolate and blue, green and violet unfold between earth and sky, making retrospective sense of the art.

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Throughout our stay, Robyn had regaled me with travel stories from every corner of the globe. This time she recalls an outdoor concert she attended less than a fortnight before at Broome's Cable Beach, during which a light plane had crashed nearby, killing the 27-year-old pilot. She describes the sadness she felt as she and her husband walked past the wreckage the following day.

Our sombre mood quickly dissipates, however, as we walk among the mulla mulla grass, wattles, Sturt's desert peas, wattles and palm trees of the Millstream oasis, the water's music matching the cooing of the spinifex pigeons. The old pastoral homestead, now a visitor' centre, stands among this paradise as a reminder of a shared history. I am loathe to leave.

But leave we must, and the next day I'm on a flight bound for Perth. My mind returns most naturally to Roebourne. But not its troubled past or its historic architecture or even its artists' centres. Just the image of children cartwheeling in the sun.

The West Australian

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