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HomeIssue 27Art spearheads water rights movement

Art spearheads water rights movement


The Vincent Lingiari Art Award, announced Wednesday night, has an urgent message for government: the fight is on, with water rights “shaping up as the new frontier”.

The works of art –  including the winning work by Grace Kemarre Robinya – are, for the most part, eloquent statements of the fundamental: that water is life.

In Raining at Laramba, 2021 (left), Robinya, who paints with Tangentyere Artists, celebrates the moment when the skies open and veils of rain descend into thirsty country, its valleys cupped, waiting for the life-giving flows.

Kathleen Rambler, from Artists of Ampilatwatja, paints her father’s country (see at bottom), when the flow is on, with water gushing forth from the hills and valleys and spreading out across the plains, joyful with grasses, flowers and trees.

In contrast, Imelda Yukenbarri Gugaman, of Warlayirti Artists, shows the desert at Winpurpurla in the dry times – which is most of the time – a last small waterhole holding on amongst sand dunes as far as the eye can see.

This was always the way of things, and this country’s First Peoples knew how to live with it, as Leah Leaman, of Karungkarni Arts, records in her Following the Waterways, 2021, which won the Central Land Council delegates’ choice award (pictured at top).

But new pressures on the country are being brought to bear now, as Selma Coulthard, of Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands, warns with her Window of Time, 2021 (left). This diptych shows on one side the classic grace of the Namatjira-style landscape, and on the other, what happens when it is ravaged by water shortage – the kind of dystopia none of us want to see.

One of the pressures menacing water is from fracking, as Coulthard makes clear in her artist’s statement, while the work by Jospeh Williams, of Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre, is explicit on the subject. In Speaking to Country, 2021, he takes an anti-fracking GetUp poster, showing a map of the NT with a threatening fissure spreading out and down from Darwin, and writes a message on it to Country in his language, Warumungu. This is the translation:

“I will tell you, they are coming to ruin our land, our country, our water, the people. We, the people feel sorry for the land, for the future we should hold the country strong. The water for us is resourceful. Water, water, water. Water is for the people, for the animals, for the country. Forever.”

Mervyn Rubuntja, another prominent Iltja Ntjarra artist, also uses the GetUp image, in his large work on metal, Rock Wallaby Dreaming, 2021 – a sacred landscape with a prohibition sign in the foreground. We’re used to these peppering the landscape with all sorts of directives from governments to the people. This one turns it around, a message from the people to governments,  “Don’t Frack the NT”. 

The threat to water supply from fracking is not the only pressure though, as the CLC’s director of policy Dr Josie Douglas high-lighted in her speech at the award presentation, even if the root cause is the same – “greed and short-term thinking, shady deals and abject policy failure”.

This is particularly the case right now in the Territory Government’s dealings with the Singleton Station water licence, “the biggest water licence the Territory have ever given away – for free”.

The CLC has drawn attention to the sacred water sites, dozens of them, that are in peril as a result – “and for what?” asked Dr Douglas.

“To grow thirsty export crops like avocados in the desert?

“Those avocados won’t feed our growing communities.

“Communities that are fast running out of water.

“Communities that are drinking water with unacceptably high levels of uranium.

Grace Robinya with her daughter after hearing of her win. At Laramaba, on Napperby Station, the country she depicts, drinking water contains three times the level of uranium considered safe.

“Communities that can’t build new houses to relieve overcrowding, because there just isn’t enough drinking water.

“Communities that are suffering the most as our planet keeps heating up.”

She quoted CLC chairman Sammy Wilson, declaring that “water rights are the new land rights”.

And just as the land rights movement and the Aboriginal art movements “have challenged and transformed this country”, so, she hopes, will the nascent water rights movement.

“Please stand with us,” she asked the audience, “we need you all.”

Dr Douglas, left, with Timothea Palmer, accepting the delegates’ choice award on behalf of her mother, Leah Leaman. On the right, Rosie Smiler, a granddaughter of Vincent Lingiari. 

To the artists she said: “Your art lifts us up and inspires us, as we keep fighting for you and your families.

“We hope it will reach those in power, who might otherwise be out of reach, and touch them in unexpected ways.”

Curator Hetti Kemarre Perkins, who judged the award, was equally blunt (as she was in lockdown in Sydney, her speech was read by Desart’s CEO Philip Watkins): “The water underground and overhead, in soaks, rockholes and creeks is our lifeblood, an essential part of the ancient ecology that we are part of.

“This delicate balance cannot be tampered with, and the NT and Australian governments need to sit up and take notice of the truth our people are telling them, and nowhere more clearly than in our art.”

One politician was there to receive this message, NT Arts Minister Chansey Paech (at right in photo above). Also Minister for Indigenous Essential Services, he later told the Alice Springs News that he has a good working relationship with the CLC in developing infrastructure responses to the water shortages impacting remote communities.

He also appreciated the focus and message on show, saying “art is supposed to be provocative and controversial”, welcoming the fact that every art work in the water-themed exhibition “will continue to tell that story”.

Will governments hear though, and not only look and listen? And if they hear, will they act?


Note: This third Vincent Lingiari Art Award was presented in partnership by Desart, the Aboriginal art centres’ advocacy body, and the Central Land Council. The exhibition is one of several opening this week, including the annual Desert Mob and the 50th anniversary show of Papunya Tula Artists, affirming the ongoing vitality and brilliance of the Aboriginal art movement.

The exhibition is showing at Tangentyere Artists gallery until 13 October.

Below, in descending order, My Father’s Country, 2021, by Kathleen Rambler; Winpurpurla, 2020, by Imelda Yukenbarri Gugaman; Rock Wallaby Dreaming, 2021, by Mervyn Rubuntja. 


Last updated 13 September 2021, 8.41am (details added).


  1. Comments by Minister Paech are extremely disappointing and remind us how out of touch the NT Government is on issues of paramount importance to the ecology of the inland, the cradle of sacred sites and our society at large.
    Responding to their brilliant efforts, Hetti Perkins clearly understood this but the “art is supposed to be controversial and provocative” retort by the most senior Government Minister in Central Australia was shameful.
    These artists give voice to all our concerns, revealing threats that are hugely tangible, a subject of dismay and growing anger within the mainstream.


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