For a long time, Bugai Whyoulter wove baskets. She watched other women paint, but remained an observer. Later, she explained that she ‘had been uncertain how to begin’.
These days, Bugai is a master of colour, gesture and subtlety – an intuitive communicator of ancestral stories. She works through Martumili Artists, an Indigenous*-owned and operated art centre based in Newman (Parnpajinya), in the Pilbara region of northern Western Australia. Martumili Artists supports Martu artists living and working across thousands of square kilometres, and hailing from numerous language groups including: Manyjilyjarra, Kartujarra, Putijarra, Warnman and Martu Wangka.
Bugai was born c. 1940 at Pukayiyirna, now called Balfour Downs Station. For much of her life, she was of the pujiman (traditional, nomadic) generation. She grew up walking and hunting the areas of Jigalong, Nullagine, Punmu and Kunawarritji. As a girl, Bugai travelled the Canning Stock Route – an almost 2000-kilometre-long track that traverses the Great Sandy, the Little Sandy and the Gibson Deserts. She continued to live nomadically until the 1960s, when she settled at Jigalong Mission with her family.
Now living and working in Kunawarritji in the Great Sandy Desert, Bugai is based some 1500 kilometres from Newman and Martumili Artists’ HQ. Kunawarritji is a place where ancestral stories and colonial histories intersect, and it is also a key subject of Bugai’s work.
Bugai’s approach to painting is very intuitive. She starts with a limited palette and works incrementally across the canvas. Her works are layered and often delicate, with subtle colour changes representing landmarks, waterways, and desert flora. Her gestural style ‘is thought to stem from Martu practices of drawing in the sand to communicate ancestral stories,’ says Martumili Artists Coordinator, Amy Mukherjee. Bugai’s ability to transfer an intimate knowledge of her land onto the two-dimensional surface appears effortless, and has earned her a significant reputation – her work is held in the collections of the Queensland Art Gallery, the National Gallery of Victoria and the National Museum of Australia.
Beginning to paint in 2007, Bugai started out under the guidance of her relatives Nora Nungabar and Nora Wompi, ‘Nungabar and Wompi really know how to paint; I watched them and learned from them,’ she explains. These three women have created a number of stunning collaborative works together, including Kunawarritji Ngurra, pictured above and currently on show at Martumili Artists as part of an exhibition exploring the hunting practices of the Martu people: Yarrkalpinti Warrarnpa – Hunting Grounds.
Bugai Whyoulter has art in an exhibition opening tonight, and running until May 19th, at FORM in Perth entitled ‘Flight: Aboriginal perspectives from the sky’, and in ‘Women of Martu’ at Suzanne O’Connell Gallery in Brisbane from April 1st to 29th. Bugai’s work is also available through Paul Johnstone Gallery in Darwin, McCulloch and McCulloch in Melbourne, and Aboriginal Contemporary in Sydney.
*The authors acknowledge and recognise the diversity and distinctness of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. For brevity, however, the term ‘Indigenous’ will be used throughout this column when referring broadly to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and artists.