May, 22 2010
Tim Acker

Boundaries are funny things: they come in many forms - lines on a map, fences through the landscape, the water's edge in a rockpool.  All of them mark something, but they only speak one language; without that language, the boundary becomes invisible.  A team of Pilbara Project photographers, artists and writers gathered in Newman, in late May, ready to explore some of these boundaries.  After having done several field trips to the western Pilbara, it was now time to journey into the desert and see how far the 'Pilbara' stretches, and what sorts of languages - visual, physical, literal - were visible in the country that stretches from the iron ore rich Opthalmia Ranges eastwards into the sand dunes and Spinifex of Martu Country.

The Martu people ('martu' means 'the people' in the local Manyjiljarra, Putijarra and Warnman languages) are the traditional owners for an enormous section of the Little Sandy and Great Sandy deserts.  Moving between Newman and remote communities (Jigalong, Parnngurr, Kunawarritji, Punmu, Warralong and Nullagine), the Martu are also one of the last desert groups to set up their own art centre.  Martumili Artists, based in Newman, works with all interested Martu artists, facilitating the production and sale of paintings and fibre works.

The Pilbara Project team (comprising photographers Les Walkling, Tony Hewitt, Christian Fletcher and Peter Eastway, painter Larry Mitchell, writer Bill Fox and filmmaker Michael Fletcher) were linking their trip with Martumili Artists; the plan was to spend a couple of days exploring the back roads of Karlaymilyi, or Rudall River National Park, before meeting Martumili's Manager, Gabrielle Sullivan in Parrngurr, to work with the painters and their community for the last two days.

The first day of the trip was one of practicalities and logistics: loads of gear to sort through, swags to pack, food to buy and to round off the day, sunset on Round Hill.  The second morning saw the convoy of three 4wds rolling east, out of Newman and onto the Billinooka track.  A crumbling ruin of a cattle station, set on the edge of the 'proper' desert country, it was a place to fossick - photographically and literally; the detritus of a couple of generations of people trying to make a cattle station work on such marginal country.

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