Main image by Sundae Studio, Courtesy of FORM

Depending on your viewpoint, you could associate the Pilbara with any number of things.

For those looking on only from afar, it might be the proliferation or iron ore mines and the very busy ports from which that economic staple is shipped.

Those who have visited the region and seen it up close might pick out the beautiful yet often rugged coastline, the picturesque gorges of Karijini or the remarkable colours of the Great Sandy Desert.

But what about the Pilbara’s Aboriginal art? It’s an interesting question, particularly in light of the Tracks We Share: Contemporary Art of the Pilbara exhibition that opened at The Art Gallery of Western Australia in mid-March and which runs until August 28.

“People outside of the Pilbara might be familiar with certain artists and art centres. But there probably hasn’t been a broad understanding of the region’s contemporary art movement as a whole,” the project’s and FORM Building a State of Creativity Inc.’s Lead Curator Andrew Nicholls said.

“People in other parts of Australia, who are familiar with Aboriginal contemporary art, probably have a sense of what the artwork of the Kimberley looks like, or they’ll know what the art of Central Australia looks like.

“They may not know all of them intimately but they’re probably going to know that some the art of the Kimberley is going to have ochre in it, or that the Western Desert is going to be bright acrylic on canvas.

“But the Pilbara doesn’t yet have that same recognition, because it’s comparatively quite a young art scene.

“We’re really hoping that through this project more people start to have a familiarity with the Pilbara art scene and that, for people who already know it, maybe they’ll be surprised by some new discoveries and realise it’s more diverse than they had thought.”

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To describe Tracks We Share as an ambitious project might be understating things. In total it brings together more than 190 artworks and features more than 70 artists, with some of the works being giant canvases that featured contributions from more than 20 people.

The exhibition is a collaboration between Nicholls’ employer, WA non-profit arts and culture organisation FORM;  the Art Gallery of Western Australia; Aboriginal art centres Cheeditha Art Group, Juluwarlu Art Group, Martumili Artists, Spinifex Hill Studio, and Yinjaa-Barni Art; and independent artists Katie West, Curtis Taylor, and Jill Churnside.

Image by Sundae Studio – courtesy of FORM.

Meanwhile, a lot of the planning and organisation for the exhibition has taken place against the backdrop of a global pandemic that at times limited access in and out of the artists’ communities.

“Logistically any exhibition of this scale is going to take a lot of work – and juggling,” Nicholls said.

“But the biggest challenge in the immediate past was COVID and having to deal with everything that went along with that – the fact that so many of these communities were locked down for long periods of time and then the supply chain issue of getting big canvases up there, getting them painted and then getting them back to Perth.”

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The coronavirus meant that artists were unable to travel to Perth for the opening of Tracks We Share: Contemporary Art of the Pilbara, as would usually be the case – and as organisers had planned until there was significant community spread of COVID-19 around WA.

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The hope is that many of them will be able to make the trip in weeks ahead to see the exhibition in full and meet attendees but even still it’s clear the wider Tracks We Share project and the collaboration aspect of it have been embraced by the artists and art centres.

“It’s a lot of people coming together, sharing. Different areas have different vibes about their artwork,” Barngyi (Pansy) Cheedy fromJuluwarlu Art Group said.

“So I’m from this area [Yindjibarndi Country], I paint different to someone from maybe the Western Desert. Coming together and putting all these artworks together is bringing us together and sharing the knowledge.

“You can yarn about the story in your artworks.  So for a place like the Pilbara, art is very vital, where everyone is there to share their stories. For that’s what art is, sharing your stories through your artwork.”

Image by Sundae Studio – courtesy of FORM.

Kimberley McKie, from the South Hedland-based Spinifex Hill Studio, said she hoped Tracks We Share not only helped Pilbara art reach a wider audience but helped inspire others to follow.

“It’s about the importance of what our art means to us, to show where we come from and to show our younger generation where we come from and what we do and the right way to do things to keep that culture going, to pass that culture on,” she said.

The exhibition’s sense of and links to country is also integral to the artists.

“That ngurra [home, Country] coming is strong. That each and every one of us have an individual language that represents art so we’ve gotta put that together,” Allery Sandy of Yinjaa-Barni Art said.

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“Ngurra is the most important one because it represents each and every one of us but each one got a different language about how I do my art and what art means to me.”

Those thoughts were echoed by Wendy Warrie from Cheeditha Art Group – “Country means a lot. That’s where you get the stories from really.” – while Heather Samson from Martumili Artists, a member of the Tracks We Share Cultural Advisory Committee, said the exhibition reflected journeys past and present.

“It’s the footstep that is passed down from history. As the Pilbara, we are all doing that. It’s a journey, that road, all as one. Cause that yiwarra [track] is for you and me,” she said.

Image by Sundae Studio – courtesy of FORM.

FORM has been working with Aboriginal artists in the Pilbara for more than 17 years and Tracks We Share has been supported by a variety of partners, including two of the region’s biggest employers in BHP and Woodside.

Nicholls said the exhibition had the potential for global reach.

“Some of the artists and art centres are very well known but this is the first time people will have the opportunity to see so much of the art of the Pilbara together in one building,” Nicholls said.

“Hopefully lots of future opportunities are going to flow for the artists and they will get to show their works in more places, sell more work and become collected and represented in major national and international collections of important contemporary art.”