‘I was born in the Great Sandy Desert. My mother never put me in a blanket. I never saw my father. We walked from the desert along the Canning Stock Route. We walked because we had no motorcar. We carried our swags on our heads,’ tells artist Tjigila Nada Rawlins in her artist statement for the Mangkaja Arts website.
To provide some context for this incredible account, the Canning Stock Route is almost 2,000 kilometres in length and traverses three deserts — the Great Sandy, the Little Sandy and the Gibson, in northern Western Australia. Tjigila Nada Rawlins is one of a generation of Indigenous people whose livelihoods have centred around understanding the elusive yet bountiful offerings of these hot, harsh, desert climates.
A highly sought-after and idiosyncratic painter, Nada works through Indigenous-owned and operated Mangkaja Arts in Fitzroy Crossing. Her paintings are distinctive, robust and highly saturated interpretations of her country.
Nada was born about 1936 near Kirriwirri, in the southern stretches of Wangkatjungka country. Nada’s family, traditional owners of this part of the desert, are expert at sourcing fresh water from the Percival lakes, a chain of warla (salt lakes) spanning hundreds of kilometres. Nada paints the warla, the jilas (living freshwater holes) and the jilji (sandhills). In conversation with her daughter, Nita, and Mangkaja Arts Director Jennifer Dickens, Nada explains that the stripes and long lines in her work represent ‘the places she walked with her family as a young girl’.
Nada’s career is long and varied. She began painting in the 1980s at Fitzroy Crossing’s Karrayili Adult Education Centre. When the Mangkaja Arts centre was built, she began working there, largely teaching herself through observation of other artists.
Recently Nada has begun experimenting with acrylic paint and paint pens on Perspex, with very exciting results. She won the Shinju Art Prize in Broome for her first piece on Perspex in 2016, and this year has another Perspex piece in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, currently on show at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.
Nada is now quite elderly, but her output belies this fact – she creates work with incredible energy and pulse. This dynamism seems borne out of her intimate knowledge of her country’s wealth and abundance. Speaking of one of her homeland’s key waterholes, as Nada explains on the Japingka Aboriginal Art website: ‘This is Kirriwirri Jila… The water never dries up in this jila – this is living water’.
Nada Rawlins’ work is available through Mangkaja Arts, as well as a number of commercial galleries including Vivien Anderson Gallery (Melbourne), McCulloch & McCulloch (Victoria), ReDot Gallery (Singapore) and Outstation Gallery (Darwin).
Thanks to Nada’s daughter Nita Williams and Mangkaja Arts Director Jennifer Dickens, who sat down together to talk through these questions with Nada. Thanks also to Belinda Cook for her assistance with this piece.