In the 1950s, the Spinifex People or Pila Nguru were forced from their homes by a severe drought and the nuclear testing scheme that Britain embarked on at Maralinga in the remote west of South Australia, with approval from the Australian government. The Pila Nguru returned to their native lands in the 1980s to find their Country had been rezoned by the Australian government – in the south, the land had been declared a nature reserve, the centre was designated Vacant Crown Land, while the northern section had been leased to another group of Indigenous people.1 Inspired by the land rights claim initiated by Torres Strait Island activist Eddie ‘Koiki’ Mabo, which was resolved in favour of the traditional owners of the Murray Islands in 1992, the Pila Nguru initiated a native title claim to regain control of their Country. The painting practice of people from the community became a powerful tool in this process. Artists from the Spinifex Arts Project produced paintings that mapped the area spanning from The Great Victoria Desert to the Great Australian Bight. Two major collaborative works, one by men and one by women, were incorporated into the preamble of the Spinifex Native Title determination. These paintings were used as visual evidence of the Pila Nguru’s ongoing relationship with their Country and, in 2000, they successfully gained title over 55,000 square kilometres of land. 2 In a symbolic act, members of The Spinifex Arts Project created a series of 10 paintings that were given to the people of Western Australia in exchange for the title. The artworks are currently housed at the Western Australian Museum.
About the artwork
Minyma Tjuta 2016, translates from Pitjantjatjara language to ‘many women’ or ‘women’s collaborative’.3 The painting, realised in a vibrant multi-coloured palette of blue, purple and green, depicts Minyma Tjuta Tjukurpa (Seven Sisters Creation Line). Seven Sisters is a Dreaming that connects many of the different Indigenous communities who inhabit the Great Victoria Desert, and is important to women’s law and ceremony. In the work, the Dreaming is given life through the varied dots, circles, and curving lines, which together create a visual harmony and cohesiveness. Explaining the significance of the painting, the artists have commented:
This songline follows the movements of a group of sisters who traverse the country evading the clutches of a lustful older man known as Nyiru. Nyiru is pursuing the women to satisfy his desire for the eldest sister who he wishes to take for his wife. He is a sorcerer of sorts and can metamorphose into animals or plants and does this on several occasions in an attempt to capture the women but always they seem to narrowly escape. It is during these escapades that the landscape is created and formations left as ever present reminders of the power involved with creation beings. The women take a path north and eventually fly into the sky to become the Pleiades Constellation, one of the closest star clusters to earth.4
A deeper level of meaning is accessible only to those who belong to this land. This secret-sacred dimension to the painting’s symbolism protects the intimate knowledge of Country that binds people and place. The painting exemplifies the resilience of the Spinifex People who, through their individual and collective stories, mark the stories of Tjukurrpa (ancestral narratives) and ancestors, while also being aware of the significant role that art plays as evidence in recording their history and lives.
With thanks to Dr Cathryn Mittelheuser AM
The purchase of this striking painting was made possible through the generosity of our friend and alumni Dr Cathryn Mittelheuser AM, in memory of her late sister, Dr Margaret Mittelheuser AM. The Mittelheusers donated their first artwork to UQ Art Museum in 1997 and have since continued to support the development of The University of Queensland Art Collection. Together and individually, they have given artworks or contributed funds towards acquisitions and have forged an enduring relationship with the museum, making a lasting impact on the Collection.
Much of the sisters’ philanthropic support has been directed towards the acquisition of artworks made by Indigenous women. During the 1920s, their mother worked as a nurse with Indigenous communities in remote parts of Australia, and passed on her regard for the women she met to her daughters. As adults, Cathryn and Margaret became advocates for Indigenous art, and patrons of the arts more broadly.
Minyma Tjuta, which tells the Dreaming story of seven sisters, is a wonderful tribute to Margaret and the Mittelheuser sisters’ passion for the art of Indigenous Australian women.
Adapted from text prepared by Isabella Baker, Curatorial Assistant, September 2016 and Contact Magazine, May 2016
- National Gallery of Victoria, “Spinifex artists,” Tradition and transformation: Indigenous art in the NGV, http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/ngvschools/TraditionAndTransformation/communities/Spinifex-Artists/.
- National Gallery of Victoria, “Spinifex artists.”
- Peter Twigg, Spinifex Artists: Kapi Ninti – Knowing water knowing Country (Melbourne: Vivien Anderson Gallery, 2008),
- Spinifex Arts Project, “Womens Collaborative,” artists file, The University of Queensland Art Museum.