This year marks the 35th anniversary of Warlayirti Artists, a melting pot of extraordinary artistic freedom, confidence, and sense of place in the desert country of Balgo, Western Australia.
Established in 1987 in response to the developing demand for acrylic art across the desert. Warlayirti Artists paved the way for experimental Aboriginal art, establishing themselves as a creative space for art to be developed, viewed and purchased, while also stepping away from the standard ochre colours and embracing vibrant acrylics. Described by John Carty (professor of Humanities, SA Museum) as “35 years of some of the most unexpected, bold, experimental, psychedelic and heartfelt painting of any school in Australia”, the vibrant, colourful art style is uniquely wild, like nothing else on earth.
With two galleries of artworks on sale, a ‘keeping place’ collection of significant art and objects, and a professionalrecording studio, the centre directly benefits the local people in numerous ways. Prior to its establishment, the location was an unstructured meeting space where the elders sat amidst the spinifex, talking and painting on old boards – creating stunning artwork that depicted ancient traditions that were finally being made visible to the world. Now, still true to its traditional origin, the centre serves as a regular meeting place where cultural decisions are made, lead by and for the community. It’s not just about selling art – it’s about the artists, their space for cultural expression, exchange and community support.
Warlayirti’s artists comprise seven different language groups who live in Balgo, Billiluna and Mulan – their homelands stretching across the deserts to the east, west and south along the Canning Stock Route. For the artists themselves, this anniversary means far more than simply the length of time they’ve been around. It is an acknowledgement of their history and their work to reunite the local artists with their countries and homes. For some of these artists, they had never seen their homes, despite having been painting them for years. Through the art centre, they have had the opportunity to see and immerse in their country.
Speaking to Director Poppy Lever, her favourite memories all relate to the development of the Art centre. From having the elders talk to her about taking her to their country and showing her their homes, to seeing those plans become reality. She recalls holding one woman as she cried from the overwhelming happiness, relief and pain of finally returning to her country.
Warlayirti Artists are looking forward to the future. Having noted a growing return of the younger generation coming in to paint, Poppy feels very privileged to experience and support this development. They are now working to maintain the adjacent cultural centre, with much excitement about developing the information that is provided and continuing to support their artists spiritually, culturally and artistically.
A huge heartfelt Happy Birthday to Warlayirti Artists – 35 years of community support, cultural development and amazing creativity.
Warlayirti Artists is located in Wirrimanu Community (Balgo), on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert, 300km south of Halls Creek. For those who don’t have it listed on their travel plans any time soon, you can visit their website and online shop here