'A landscape of the desert', by Abe Jangala, from The Warlpiri Drawings 1953-54, Meggitt Collection, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.
The remarkable Warlpiri drawings
In 2000 two art valuers had an ‘Oh my God’ moment while looking through the archives of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS).
They had come upon the collection of drawings deposited in 1965 by renowned anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt.
The 169 drawings were by Warlpiri men and women of the Tanami Desert who had been forcibly relocated hundreds of kilometres away to the new government settlement at Hooker Creek in the Northern Territory.
Meggitt had asked for the drawings to be done to assist him with his research into Warlpiri social organisation.
The drawings, which were immediately reclassified from research materials to art objects, may represent the first interaction the people had with the medium of crayon. The art was also created 20 years before the start of the Central Australian Aboriginal art movement.
“There’s a sense that they’re freer forms of expression than we find in pictures that are made to sell,” Associate Professor Melinda Hinkson says.
The ANU visual anthropologist had completed a PhD with the Warlpiri people and then worked at AIATSIS in 2000.
When she saw the drawings, she was mesmerised and wanted to uncover their meanings and history.
“They looked nothing like the kinds of artworks being produced in Warlpiri art centres at the time I was in those communities,” she says.
Hinkson describes the drawings as being like a time capsule.“They are beguiling recordings of people looking around and trying to make sense of this new place they’d been taken to by colonial authorities and longing for the country they had been taken from,” she says.
Hinkson published her research and insights into the Warlpiri drawings in her 2014 book Remembering the future: Warlpiri life through the prism of drawing.
Her work played a vital role in AIATSIS’s nomination of the 1953-54 Warlpiri drawings for the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register. The drawings were inscribed into the register in February this year.