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“When Martu paint, it’s like a map. Martu draw story on the ground and on the canvas, and all the circle and line there are the hunting areas and different waters and tracks where people used to walk, and [some you] can’t cross, like boundaries. So nowadays you see a colourful painting and wonder what it is, but that’s how Martu tell story long ago. It’s not just a lovely painting, it’s a story and a songline and a history and everything that goes with it.” 

– Ngalangka Nola Taylor and Joshua Booth

This work portrays an area of Country that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Firstly, the image may be read as an aerial representation of a particular location known to the artist- either land that they or their family travelled, from the pujiman (traditional, desert dwelling) era to now. During the pujiman period, Martu would traverse very large distances annually in small family groups, moving seasonally from water source to water source, and hunting and gathering bush tucker as they went. At this time, one’s survival depended on their intimate knowledge of the location of resources; thus physical elements of Country, such as sources of kapi (water), tali (sandhills), different varieties of warta (trees, vegetation), ngarrini (camps), and jina (tracks) are typically recorded with the use of a use of a system of iconographic forms universally shared across the desert. 

An additional layer of meaning in the work relates to more intangible concepts; life cycles based around kalyu (rain, water) and waru (fire) are also often evident. A thousands of year old practice, fire burning continues to be carried out as both an aid for hunting and a means of land management today. As the Martu travelled and hunted they would burn tracts of land, ensuring plant and animal biodiversity and reducing the risk of unmanageable, spontaneous bush fires. The patchwork nature of regrowth is evident in many landscape works, with each of the five distinctive phases of fire burning visually described with respect to the cycle of burning and regrowth.  

Finally, metaphysical information relating to a location may also be recorded; Jukurrpa (Dreaming) narratives chronicle the creation of physical landmarks, and can be referenced through depictions of ceremonial sites, songlines, and markers left in the land. Very often, however, information relating to Jukurrpa is censored by omission, or alternatively painted over with dotted patterns.

Name: Gladys Kuru Bidu

Language: Manyjilyjarra

Community: Punmu


“Wantili is my place, where I was born. It’s a place where everyone was living – it’s all of their ngurra (home). It’s the Jukurrpa (Dreaming) of that place. All those claypans, a place where everyone comes together for ceremony and gatherings, all meeting with different families. I went there with my aunt [Jakayu Biljabu] and my sister [Kumpaya Girgirba] - they told me the story of where I was born, in pujiman (traditional, desert dwelling) times. We walked all over the place, I was just a little one.”

- Gladys Bidu Kuru 

Gladys is a Karimarra woman, she was born near Wantili and speaks Manjilyajarra. Gladys and her family were picked up when she was a baby in Yulpul and taken first to Parngurr, then to Jigalong Mission, where she attended the mission school. From there she travelled with her family to Strelley Station, and then to Camp 61, an outstation on Bilanooka Station. “We stayed there with the old people, so many old people they set up a Martu school there” she says, “Then we heard Martu were going back to their homeland, their ngurra, so then we came to Punmu with those old people, Mr Lane and the other old people.” Settling in Punmu during the Return to Country movement of the early 1980s, Gladys assisted with the establishment of the Punmu School in the Community’s bough shelter when she was looking after her sister’s children.

Today Gladys is an accomplished teacher and respected cultural advisor for the Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa Martu ranger program, and works with Punmu School as a senior cultural and linguistics adviser and board member. “I speak on behave of Martu as a board member of the school and KJ and with Martumili. I am a cultural adviser and language adviser supporting people with interpreting, recording, going out bush and going to conferences for language. The school has two way learning: Martu way and English. Helping people to be strong in both ways. It’s a lot of travel many, many places.” 

Gladys was taught to paint in Jigalong by her aunt, renowned senior artist Jakayu Biljabu, and the two now regularly paint together. Gladys paints her ngurra (home Country, camp) of Wantili a large round jurnu (soak) and linyji (claypan) near Well 25 on the Canning Stock Route. The area is dominated by claypans surrounded by tuwa (sandhills), and Nyilangkurr, a prominent yapu (hill) is located on the edge of the claypan. Following rain the typically dry claypans are filled with water, with the overflow from nearby waterholes flowing to Wantili. At that time, Wantili becomes an important place for obtaining fresh water for drinking and bathing. Wantili is significant for the fact that at this site Kartujarra, Manyjilyjarra, Putijarra and Warnman people would all come together for ceremonies during the pujiman (traditional, desert dwelling) era. Many jiwa (stones used by women for grinding seeds) from these times can still be found there today. 

© the artist / art centre