2021 marks the 40th anniversary of the Balgo art movement’s beginnings. It also marks the first time many of the earliest paintings from Balgo have ever been publicly displayed. Balgo is one of the most famous schools of Aboriginal art. This exhibition is part of Tarnanthi 2021.
A tiny community on the fringe of the Kimberley and Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia, Balgo has long been revered for the wild colour and bold forms used by the painters who live there. Yet for all its visibility, Balgo art is a story with most of the early pages torn out.
In the early 1980s, spurred on by family painting at Papunya, Balgo people were keen to join the desert painting movement. Anthropologist Ronald Berndt commissioned a suite of paintings in 1981. So did the Catholic missionaries. A local mission cook, Warwick Nieass, supported the artists’ ambitions to build on these commissions with painting workshops in 1982. Yet the paintings created in these early contexts disappeared before they could become an exhibition; before they could become Balgo art. Rediscovered in 2019, after four decades in a shipping container, they have been conserved by Artlab, collected by the South Australian Museum, and are being displayed for the very first time.
The time has come to stitch these pages – flaking and faded and magnificent – back into the unfolding Balgo story. The early paintings will be displayed alongside new works by the Balgo artists; bright bookends to the first 40 years of Balgo art.
The acquisition of these important Balgo works was made possible by the generous philanthropy of Dianne and Terry Finnegan.
We came to the mission from Kiwirrkurra, from Canning Stock Route, from Mulan Lake Country. All the different families. All now to this Country we call Balgo. And we have always enjoyed our culture. We never stopped. Always dancing and singing, teaching our kids and keeping our culture strong. Here in Balgo. We keep our ceremonies; we visit our Country. That’s why we still live here. That’s why we paint. That story from our tjamu and tjatja (grandfather and grandmother). Our rockholes and waters where we used to live. We paint that. Our bush tucker and lovely bush potatoes! We paint that. Balgo is Country for all of us now. We were all born here, these generations here today. We belong to Balgo. That’s what we paint. That’s why we paint. This is our story. – Eva (Joan) Nagomarra, Warlayirti Artists