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Spirit of collaboration inspires ground-breaking Vivid LIVE sails artwork

This year, an intricate painting by eight Martu women has been animated, soundtracked, digitally mapped, and will be projected on the Opera House sails and seen by millions around the world as part of Vivid Sydney. Emily Nicol speaks to its creators: the Martumili Artists, musicians Electric Fields, and creative technologists Curiious.

Emily Nicol

“I think about Country when I am painting,” says Thelma Judson, one of the eight Martumili Artists who contributed to the original 5x3 metre acrylic work. “It’s important to look after the land for the kids, to pass on knowledge.”

Painted over ten days in an art shed in Parrngurr, “surrounded by dogs, pannikin mugs, dust, visitors and family who came each day to see what was unfolding across five metres of linen” – the piece vividly brings to life an intimate knowledge of the environment that sustains them,  and, perhaps the more crucial aspect of this practice, giving back to the land by documenting how to best take care of it.

As our society continues to collectively overcome a global pandemic, acts of collaboration and communication hold a particular pertinence. It is no surprise then, when looking at the oldest surviving culture, that collaboration is one of the foundations and pillars of longevity. The ability to cooperate and share knowledge are markers of success and ultimately survival. The works depict Country in all its intricacy, whereby the terrain, seasons, people and wildlife are mapped out.  Aboriginal art, particularly desert art such as the beautiful landscape paintings of the Martu, illustrates this aspect of Aboriginal culture eloquently, where collaboration through art is a natural extension of a way of life.

In May and June 2022, the iconic Sydney Opera House sails will be brought to life by Yarrkalpa - Hunting Ground, 2021  a detailed depiction of the Western Australian community of Parnngurr and its landscape. Based on the collaborative artwork Yarrkalpa - Hunting Ground, Parnngurr Area 2013, the work depicts traditional burning practices, land management, changing seasons, and hunting, and illustrates themes of environmental crisis felt around the world.

Filmmaker Lynette Wallworth documented the creation of the original piece and was struck by the unexpected visceral impact the painting had on her.

“The painting called everything around it into itself,” she describes.

“When we travel back across the country I feel as though I am moving across the painting, as though I am small and the expanse around me has become more distinct because of the painting. I look at the colours across the land and realise I am seeing definition in bushes and plants and sand that I missed before – because of the painting.”

There is knowledge embedded within the painting, but there’s also great beauty, thanks in part to the stunning use of colour which parallels the intelligence of nature itself. The benevolence within the art form, which passes on knowledge, medicine and food, is striking for its contrast to those parts of our artistic culture that tend toward the self-reflective and indulgent.

Creative technologists from Sydney design house Curiious have been in close consultation with the East Pilbara-based Martu Artists for many months to ensure a true and culturally appropriate rendering of their work is being showcased.

Creative lead for the project, Frederic Simard, says that the original painting by the Martumili artists – an artist collective that was established by Martu people living in the communities of Parnpajinya (Newman), Jigalong, Parnngurr, Punmu, Kunawarritji, Irrungadji and Warralong – was a hybrid of both modern and ancestral knowledge, which allowed a certain freedom in being able to interpret the work for a wider audience.

“(Our interpretation of the artworks) meant that we were able to be comfortable in exploring subjects without trying to go into Songlines that cannot be told by strangers,” Simard explains.

The animation team saw their work as a chance to bring to life the stories underneath the painting.

 “Bringing Yarrkalpa to life on the Opera House sails for us is the ultimate tribute to the Martu Artists. The surface of the Sydney Opera House sails will be used as a portal into the detail of the artwork, allowing us to give life to the narrative hidden within while offering a new perspective on their art for audiences to discover and feel the deep connections the Martu have with Country. It is a humbling reminder that we all have an essential role to play in preserving our ecosystems.”

The animation team were not only inspired by the themes of caring for Country explored in Yarrkalpa, but by the collaborative and inclusive nature of the Martu culture itself.

 “The Martu like to work with and involve a younger generation. So that was the same idea with our process. We were inspired by them and decided to bring on board some younger animators and an animator from the Aboriginal program at UTS. We had a team of about ten different animators, and then got their ideas and input into how we could bring the artwork to life,” Simard explains.

Next, electro-soul duo Electric Fields, Zaacharaiah Fielding and Michael Ross, were brought in to help bring the animation to life through music.

The Martu women recorded and shared a traditional song cycle with the artists to weave into the composition, with elements of traditional song that included themes of place, remembrance and wanting to return to Country. 

“Our music flows between a sonic depiction of the painting and an abstract expression of the community ecosystem,” says Fielding. “The harmony is sustained through a spiritual connection in balance with the natural elements.”

The duo also used vocal recordings of Natannia – Zaacharaiah's niece (Daughter in traditional ways).

Our music flows between a sonic depiction of the painting and an abstract expression of the community ecosystem.

 “Her voice represents Nyukyra – a season where flowers are abundant and colours transform the landscape. We also recorded lore women and lore men from Zaachariah's community. They shared traditional songs from the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands (APY Lands) and the sound and energy of these further paint the Yarrkalpa themes onto the Opera House sails through the texture of the music.” Ross explains.

“As musicians, working with visuals is always a wonderful opportunity. Visual artists express with colours and shape and we paint with sound.”

“To have First Nations culture front and centre in a top-level festival like Vivid LIVE is really important. Our modern world is often detached from nature and focused on the individual. This knowledge and these ideas are needed to help us return to an innate natural balance.”

Through its metamorphosis from canvas to the Opera House sails, the collaborative spirit imbued within the Yarrkalpa artwork achieves one of its foundational purposes: to bring people together, and ultimately closer to Country.

Find more about First Nations at the Opera House