Artists of the Spinifex Arts Project own, paint and are responsible for a large tract of country in the Great Victoria Desert in the far east of Western Australia. A strong, traditionally oriented and discrete cultural group, the Spinifex people are active participants in the broad cultural cycles of the Western Desert region. Since successfully negotiating a Native Title determination with the Government of Western Australia in 2000, the Spinifex people are formally acknowledged as the traditional owners of some 55,000 square kilometres of country north of the Nullarbor and running out the to South Australian border.
Spinifex lands and the Spinifex people were strongly affected by the British Nuclear testing Program conducted at Maralinga in South Australia. Living in country immediately to the west of the atomic test area the majority of Spinifex people were relocated southwest to Cundeelee Mission during the 1950s and 1960s as part of the atomic program. Other family groups and relatives were moved to Warburton Mission in WA or Yalata Mission in SA during the same period. With the impending closure of Cundeelee Mission, reflecting a change in government policy, and the first surges of program support for self determination, the Spinifex people began to seek a path back into traditional lands in the mid 1980s. A camp was initially established at Yakatunya on the northern reaches of the Nullarbor Plain. This served as a staging point for the eventual lodging at Tjuntjuntjara, an important soak, four years later. Perhaps the most remote community ever established in Australia, Tjuntjuntjara, located 700 Kilometres from Kalgoorlie, was not acknowledged by funding bodies as a viable settlement and the community initially struggled to attract support and develop infrastructure. Ultimately however the community’s determination and clear sense of developmental direction, coupled with the senior status of the traditional owners involved, overcame most obstacles and a fledgling community was gradually established. Tjuntjuntjara is now permanent home to approximately 160 people and has a store, clinic, workshop and a three teacher school servicing a busy and culturally active remote community.
The Spinifex Arts Project commenced at Tjuntjuntjara in 1997 and was initially embraced by the community as a cultural documentation vehicle that could support the Native Title claim process. Two major collaborative works, one by men and one by women, were ultimately incorporated into the preamble of the Spinifex Native Title determination and a number of significant community owned heritage works were produced and documented during this early phase. Spinifex artists, however, were enthusiastic about the way painting could provide opportunities to demonstrate, record and transmit a meaningful sense of traditional ownership and set out to maintain the Spinifex Arts Project as an ongoing fine arts endeavour. Art works are typically produced on bush trips to country which emphasises the collaborative obligations inherent in a kinship based land ownership system, and the deep connections and responsibilities at work behind an active traditional culture.
Dr Peter Twigg, inaugural Arts Project Coordinator