Martumili: preserving culture and knowledge through art

“For Martu people who live in this land, it’s the songline and the land around this area, it’s so special to them. We connect with the land – it’s our dreaming, our spirits, our culture. It’s my life. It’s all Martu people’s ancestors, our great grandmother’s and grandfather’s. What the old people told me – to try and look after our culture, law and the land. So we need to protect Martu culture and the land and the community that lives around it.” — Clifton Girgiba, Parnngurr ranger

In May 2017, Martumili Artists, a Newman-based Aboriginal Art Gallery in WA set off with over 30 Martu artists to spend a week in Parnngurr, a community approximately five hours drive from Newman in remote WA. These trips take place at regular intervals throughout the year. Artists are given the opportunity to travel to one of their communities across the Pilbara for a week to spend time with their families, paint at one of Martumili’s community art sheds, and reconnect to their country.

Martumili has been providing a safe space for Martu artists to create art since 2006 and is now considered to be one of Australia’s top-ten art centres. It is unique in that it provides Martu people with a culturally aligned source of income in communities where there are often very few economic opportunities. But for the Manager, Carly Day, and her team, Martumili is so much more than that. They also see first-hand the social and cultural impact that Martumili has on the lives of the Martu artists and their families who come to Martumili to paint and spend time together. And they want to make sure the importance and full value of the role Martumili plays in the lives of Martu people is captured.

To help them capture this impact, Martumili contracted Social Ventures Australia to undertake an independent evaluation of the social, cultural and economic impact of Martumili. This meant I had the privilege of joining the Martu artists and their families on their trip in May to see and hear first-hand the value they get from painting with Martumili.

It was an incredible trip.

I saw elders teaching young artists the stories of their culture as a way to build their cultural knowledge through painting. The artists explained to me how they connected to country through their artwork and felt a sense of pride in what it represents; and I experienced for the first time what it felt like to sleep in the bush, under an immense sky. I began to understand why this land is so important to its traditional owners.

One of the messages I heard continuously from the people I spoke with was how this ability to connect to country, preserve their culture and tell their stories all contributed to the health and wellbeing of Martu people. People openly recognised that without Martumili, a whole generation of knowledge would be lost.

There is a new senate enquiry taking place into the accessibility and quality of mental health services in rural and remote Australia. For me, my time at Martumili highlights that community wellbeing and mental health go hand in hand. We need to take a more holistic view of mental health support and recognise that for many communities the support they need does not necessarily have to come in the form of mainstream mental health service support. Support for mental health can take many forms and should be selected based on the unique needs of the community.