‘From little things, big things grow:
Gather round people, I’ll tell you a story.’

Introduction | gallery | works


image: Gabriel Banu, Kalaw Kawaw Ya people Gainau [Pigeon] headdress, 1996click to enlarge

Gabriel Banu
Kalaw Kawaw Ya people
Gainau [Pigeon] headdress, 1996

This is a Pigeon headdress from the Torres Strait Islands. The fabrication of headdresses is an important part of the continuation of Torres Strait Islander cultural practices. The tradition of making headdresses and dance masks for ceremonies in the Torres Strait goes back 1000s of years. While in the past only natural materials such as wood, turtle shell, fibre and natural pigment were used, nowadays plywood, nylon fishing line, chicken feathers and enamel paints are regularly used. This is the Torres Strait Pigeon, a migratory bird that travels between the Torres Strait and northern Australia. The headdress is operated by pulling the string to flap both wings, imitating the movements of a pigeon in flight.

Gabuiel Banu was born on Boigu Island in the Torres Strait Islands and spent his childhood fishing, gardening and learning about his family and culture. He was taught to make headdresses by his father and in turn he has passed on this skill to his family. His work observes the Torres Strait Islander tradition of making headdresses and serves as a role model for younger people to keep alive this important cultural practice.

Billy Benn Perrurle, Alyawarre people, Harts Range [Alice Range] pre 1997 click to enlarge

Billy Benn Perrurle
Anmatyerr people
Harts Range [Alice Range], pre 1997

This painting celebrates the land and the artist’s knowledge of it. The country he paints is very special to him, it is his birthplace. Billy Benn no longer lives there, so he paints it from memory. He dreams of returning there but, until he does, he keeps his home close to his heart by devotedly painting every part of it. He plans to paint every hill from his country and then he will stop, and return home.

Billy Benn Perrurle Alyawarre people
Billy Benn Perrurle
Alyawarre people

Central Australian artist Billy Benn was born in 1943 at Harts Range and when he was a teenager he was taught to paint on skin by his sisters. As a young man he worked as a miner and drover and later in life developed his talents as an artist. He began to collect old wood from a mill and liked to make only small paintings which saved money buying expensive paints.


Pantjiti Lionel, Untitled, 2003
 click to enlarge

Pantjiti Lionel
Ngaatjatjara people
Untitled, 2003

Mukata’s [beanies] have been made at Ernabella since 1948 when a craft room was set up for the women to spin and weave wool from Ernabella sheep. Mukatas have always been used in central Australia. Men traditionally wore a covering over their hair which was worn in a bun. Women didn’t cut their hair but would sometimes roll it over their foreheads. Before white people arrived the men and women of Ernabella used the Pitjantjatjara technique of hand-spinning human hair and animal fur to make a thread which was then woven into both ceremonial and practical items. Today dyed feathers and synthetic thread are also used.

Pantjiti Lionel
Pantjiti Lionel Photograph courtesy
Ernabella Arts Inc

In 2002, the artists of Ernabella participated in the annual Alice Springs Beanie Festival and invited one of its founders, Adi Dunlop, to visit and run a mukata [beanie] making workshop. Adi encouraged the use of traditional spinning skills to make thread for the mukata. The women loved working with these age-old techniques and the modest mukata, has led to exciting new work in all mediums which has given a new energy and direction to the ongoing creative development of Ernabella Arts Inc.

Information provided by Ernabella Arts Coordinator, Hilary Furlong.

Primus Ugle, Bibbulmun, Nyoongar people Two-up on the Native Reserve camp, 2002click to enlarge

Primus Ugle
Bibbulmun, Nyoongar people
Two-up on the Native Reserve camp, 2002

‘Two up’ is an old game played with a coin where players choose either heads or tails. The coin is thrown in the air and the winner is the person who guesses which way it lands. Many Aboriginal people were forced to live in second-rate native reserves as it was illegal for Aboriginal people to be on the streets inside the town limits after 6pm. Although life in tin shanties, tents and humpies was difficult, there is a strong sense of community evident in the enjoyment of a good game with friends.

Primus Ugle
Primus Ugle, Bibbulmun, Nyoongar people Photograph courtesy Artplace

Primus Ugle paints the specific history of the Nyoongar people in the southwest of Australia. He grew up in a mission and lived in fringe camps on the edge of townships and cities and has personally experienced the restrictive regulations and policies that ruled the lives of Aboriginal people. He and his family travelled widely to follow seasonal work like fruit picking and shearing. Through his paintings he is able to pass on his story to his family so that they know where he comes from and how life for his people has changed since the colonisation of Australia.

Joan Stokes, Warrmungu people The black riders are stuntsmen, 2002
click to enlarge

Joan Stokes
Warrmungu people
The black riders are stuntsmen
, 2002

This painting tells the story of a talented Aboriginal horse rider who is right in the middle of taming a horse for his boss on a cattle station. Aboriginal stockmen were not paid money for their work, they were only given rations. The white stockman gave his horses to the black riders to ride them until they were tame. You could see they were scared but they had no choice. Their eyes would almost pop out.

Joan Stokes artist’s statement courtesy of Karen Brown Gallery 2003.

Joan Stokes
Joan Stokes, Warrmungu people, Photograph courtesy Karen Brown Gallery

Joan Stokes tells the stories of her father and his friends who were stockmen in the Northern Territory. This was back breaking work which involved mustering cattle on horseback. After working hard all day the men would keep practicing horse riding so that they could compete in rodeos. Joan Stokes paintings show how Aboriginal people contributed much to Australia’s pastoral industry by working on properties which once belonged to their own people.


Butcher Joe Nangan, Nyikina people, Nanjkunangku Rai, c.1979click to enlarge

Butcher Joe Nangan
Nyikina people
Nanjkunangku Rai, c.1979

Papakana was fast asleep during the night when all of a sudden his boomerang and spear fell over with a loud crash and woke him up. He could hear little Rai spirits dancing nearby, but he could not see them because only very senior law men can see them. Nanjkunangku Rai spirit beings live in special areas around Broome in Western Australia. They can transform into plants and animals or parts of the landscape. When the Rai spirits adopt a human appearance they are small childlike creatures with pointed ears. Rai are generally kind spirits who protect and guide people through life but they can be very mischievous, just as they were with Papakana!

Ackerman, K. Kleinart, S. and Neale, M.(Eds) The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture Oxford Univeristy Press, 2000, pg 658

Butcher Joe Nangan
Butcher Joe Nangan, Nyikina people, © Photograph: Roger Garwood
Butcher Joe received his nickname in the 1930s when he was employed in the Beagle Bay Mission butcher shop near Broome in Western Australia. His exquisite drawings illustrate the complex stories of the Bugarigara [Dreaming] when beings walked the earth who had the power to transform from human to animal form. Aboriginal people believe that these spirits still inhabit these areas and interact with humans. These illustrations reveal Butcher Joe’s comprehensive knowledge of the area as well as his drawing skill which he perfected by engraving boab nuts and pearl shells with a pen knife.