The Pilbara Project WA – Yijala Yala

I always like a challenge, to be thrown in at the deep end, to go places both personally and artistically and to see what unfolds. This was exactly my feeling when Deb Myers – one of BighART’s creative producers – contacted me to join the company in the Pilbara, Western Australia for a ‘Creative Development’ in May 2011

BighART’s Pilbara Project is about working with the local Indigenous people of Ieramugadu (Roebourne) and the surrounding coastline. It is seeking innovational ways to tell past, present and future stories, using the arts to develop long-term sustainable goals, focusing on the culture and heritage of those that live within the community and those that visit.

I’ve never been to this part of Australia, so with excitement and trepidation I left Sydney with a plane full of miners – mine workers heading west. The Pilbara region is experiencing a mineral resource boom. It’s this boom in profits and expanding infrastructure that has an impact on the traditional custodians of the land.  BighART is an active conduit in supporting and working towards bridging Western ideology and Indigenous culture, helping to produce opportunities and build self esteem for future generations.

I only spent a moment or so in Karratha before changing my first blown tyre along the highway whilst driving to Point Samson and my lodgings. Cape Lambert some 2km from Point Samson is one of the highest and longest open ocean wharves in Australia, extending more than 2km out to sea. That evening after a company induction to strategize, you could see the many lights of the shipping vessels along the pier and at sea awaiting the loading of ore and gas.

On the weekend we attended a ‘Cultural Awareness’ seminar. Enlightening to say the least…I still have so much to learn about the Aboriginal history, rules and customs.

‘Creative Developments’ are just that – developments, so whilst nothing was concrete it was indeed a process of ‘finding’. The week kicked off in Roebourne’s community ‘The 50 cent Hall’ (aptly named due to it’s architectural configuration), with the doors opening up to allow the community to come in and take part or just observe. Many of the early curious were the children, already involved with BighART’s short film – “Love Punks”. Some of the preliminary workshops done in Roebourne had involved photography, film, dance and music experiences with Artisans such as Mariaa Randall, Tess Schofield, Zoe Davis and Kerry Armstrong having leant their expertise and mentoring to this community.

With my easel and supplies set up it wasn’t long before I had a game sitter….what followed was a frenzy of pencil sketches with giggling but attentive children lined up. A full show of those images can be seen here – CLICK HERE

Many of the mums also wanted to be part of the portrait process, curiously looking and observing, but most were happy to sit, just knowing that for 30 minutes or so the focus was on them and that they felt they were interesting. We even had members of the old age home come down to the hall to do some creative expression.

It wasn’t long before Tootsie Daniels, a Yindibarndi Elder wished to have her portrait done and simply put, she had the most extraordinary face! This definitely needed to be an oil portrait. Over the next two days Toostie sat patiently….on occasion speaking with others, including Scott Rankin, Co-Founder and Creative Director of BighART. Toostie recalled times now gone by, when she would frequent the Harding River for washing, bathing and play as a youngster. The Harding River has now been substantially stopped, making way for a Dam, a contentious decision at the time, as much sacred ceremonial land was filled to make way for the structure and mining needs.

It’s these priceless stories BighArt wishes to capture and document, for the current youth and for future Australian generations, I was happy to be part of that process and that the portrait may one day make for a visual reminder of Tootsie and her importantance as a Yindjibarndi Elder. With Roebourne burgeoning as an art’s hub – The community is planning on building its first Arts Centre on the banks of the Harding River, among pale tufts of spinifex and startlingly white sugar gums, that along with other early settler buildings in the region including the Cossack Heritage trail (Pearling era) to the historic Burrup Peninsula, the Art Centre may well become the focal stop point for visiter’s in the promotion of eco tourism.

Scott Rankin, Tootsie Daniels and myself - Photo Courtesy Neil Rodwell

The name Yijala Yala was chosen to reflect the focus of the project. Yijala means ‘now’ in Ngarluma; Yala means ‘now’ in Yindjibarndi, which highlight’s the here and now, rather than of the past. Woodside industries, through the Conservation Agreement, currently support the project and many of the artworks along with a major performance and presentation was exhibited in Perth in early June. This presentation secured future funding for BighART to continue their invaluable work with the community. Further information can be found : 




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