DETAIL : Jimmy BAKER 'Katatjita' 2006 synthetic polymer paint on canvas, Courtesy of Marshall Arts Aboriginal Fine Art Gallery, � Jimmy Baker
Jan (Djan NANUNDIE) BILLYCAN | All that Jila

Australia 1928 /1932
All that Jila 2004
synthetic polymer paint on canvas
140.0 (h) x 100.0 (w) cm
Courtesy of Private Lender via William Mora Galleries
© Jan Billycan (Djan Nanundie)

Jan Billycan (Djan Nanundie) was born around 1930 and grew up in Ilyarra country in the Great Sandy Desert in the north of Western Australia, and this is the country depicted in her large eight panel painting All the jila 2006. It can be read as a choreographic or musical suite, taking the line for a dance, along with colours, shapes and forms. Of the extraordinary mixed hues of Bidyadanga art Emily Rohr said, ‘… [these are] discordant colours, which don’t belong together. For [the artists’] colours are vibrations … songs in vibrating, pulsating paint, with themes in colour counterbalanced by other answering colours.’[1] The panels of the big composite work may be read separately, but the conjunctions will not break up visually. It is a harmonised set of moments of élan.

Water, until the recent ominous drought, was something quite commonplace for city dwellers in Australia; now they feel acutely how its presence can bring joy to erstwhile desert dwellers. Billycan’s work, says Rohr, ‘is a story of survival in a harsh landscape; it is also the story of time and creation’.[2] Bidyadanga, where Billycan paints, is a small place of some 800 persons, 250 kilometres south of Broome. It is inhabited by five language groups who came out of the desert to estuarine land when their jila (waterholes) failed due to the disruption of the water table caused by whitefella mining operations. Many of the paintings are memory-maps made to show the younger generation their elders’ origins. Often works combine sea and desert on the one canvas. An important youngster Daniel Walbidi has said, ‘They old ones are desert mob, but now they live at Bidyadanga, saltwater country’. The paintings are the cartography of memory and of migration.

Most of Billycan’s works refer to jila. They are images of fecundity, with lush, highly coloured waterholes. A traditional healer, Billycan paints life, and her x-ray vision penetrates the forms that represent both the land and the human body, itself an extension of the land. All are one. Without immersion in the ancient culture from which the story derives, it can be no more than an emotional pointer to the picture. The picture may do the trick by itself, though: let us see beyond understanding.

The eye that collectors of Indigenous art bring to the pictures they buy is one which knows the work of Hans Arp, Paul Klee, Joan Miró, Jackson Pollock or any one of a number of abstract artists. Bidyadanga painters paint for themselves, to fix their own group stories, a local one, for future generations. Whitefellas are privileged onlookers who take as aesthetic what for Aboriginal people are real memories and real history. Aesthetic distance is fine, but one must remember that Bidyadanga life-work is our work of art only by the accident of Imperial history.

Patrick Hutchings


[1] Quoted in Nicolas Rothwell, Another country, Melbourne: Black Inc., 2007, p. 246.

[2] Emily Rohr, interview with Patrick Hutchings.