The Warlpiri Drawings are a powerful collection of 169 anthropological Aboriginal crayon drawings that depict the turbulent times the artists experienced between 1953 and 1954.
This period was marked by significant upheaval in the lives of the Warlpiri people, as they were forcibly relocated from their ancestral lands to a new government settlement at Hooker Creek, which is now known as Lajamanu, in 1948.
The genesis of these drawings can be attributed to the renowned anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt. Meggitt, recognising the intrinsic value of visual storytelling, encouraged the Warlpiri men and women to create crayon drawings as a method of collecting invaluable research material. His primary objective was to delve deep into the social organisation of the Warlpiri group while unravelling the mysteries of the totemic designs intricately linked to the Warlpiri Dreaming. These designs held profound significance in the realm of ceremonial and spiritual practices.
Initially regarded as research materials rather than conventional artwork, these drawings were seen as a means for the Warlpiri people to navigate and comprehend the complex emotions stirred by their relocation. The drawings depict a wide array of subjects, ranging from the stark beauty of desert landscapes and the daily life of the settlement to the intricate tapestry of ceremonial and cosmological knowledge. Evident in these images is a poignant sense of longing for the land from which they were uprooted, interwoven with a palpable effort to forge connections with the unfamiliar countryside that now enveloped them.
The Warlpiri Drawings are of profound historical significance as they chronicle the arduous journey undertaken by the Warlpiri people from their cherished ancestral home to their newfound settlement in Lajamanu. These artworks provide intricate insights into the artists' profound obligations and relationships with their traditional lands, a journey that carried them across the vast expanse of the Tanami Desert. It is a poignant reminder of their unwavering dedication to tribal ancestry and sacred ceremony, even in the face of displacement and change.
What sets the Warlpiri Drawings apart from other indigenous art forms is their distinctive use of vivid and vibrant colours. Unlike the traditional earthy ochres typically associated with Aboriginal art, these crayon drawings employ a rich and striking palette. Remarkably, these drawings predate the iconic Papunya acrylic paintings by two decades, making them some of the earliest examples of Western medium Aboriginal artworks.
The significance of these works was brought to the forefront once again in 1980 when researcher Stephen Wild revisited them in consultation with elder Warlpiri men. During this reevaluation, it was established that 50 of the drawings contained themes intended exclusively for male audiences and, as such, were to be safeguarded from public view. Initially created for research purposes, these drawings were not subject to restrictions or censorship. However, once their classification shifted to that of artwork, sensitive and sacred Warlpiri designs were carefully removed from the collection.
When juxtaposed with indigenous art intended for commercial sale, the Warlpiri Drawings reveal a unique form of expression characterised by a sense of innocence, openness, and a deep desire to impart intimate knowledge. Today, this remarkable collection serves as a poignant reminder of the profound impact of forced relocation on Aboriginal communities and their enduring ability to maintain connections with ancestral lands, even as they forged new ties in the context of settlement life. The Warlpiri Drawings, therefore, stand as a testament to resilience, adaptation, and the enduring spirit of the Warlpiri people.