Lajamanu Banner and Mural Project 1989



April to June 1989 was part of an artists team involved in a community theatre residency program in the Aboriginal community of Lajamanu (formerly known as Hooker Creek). Subsequent to that project, Tim Newth was invited to stay on to work with the community on visual arts projects, and in particular on some murals and the creation of large banners.

Following are extracts from much longer letters Tim wrote weekly during the project. The letters (and the extracts chosen here) are an expression of that project, and of his developing relationship with the community.

Notes from Artist Letters - Tim Newth

Week one has come to a sudden stop, it’s pretty scary, the whole community seems to be howling. I gather someone has died. This has been going on for the past hour and I can now see some women painted up. It’s the middle of the day but may be the end as far as work…

…getting the right design has got me around a lot of people, everybody wanting something different but finally I found, or was pointed to, a dreaming which belongs here. Stop. All the painted up women are now walking across the oval, the rest of the community seems to be following or looking. The sound is amazing. A young man has been killed in a car crash. Myself, Martin, and Michael drew up the mural and a group of women who just appeared as we finished drawing up are the core mural team. Teddy, the owner of the design came down and made sure a few of the finer points were right. Last night he sung me the design.

Old men wander through. They all know the dreaming as soon as they see it.

The banner project on the weekend in my house - there were six women, one baby, a dog, a cat and I don’t know how many kids but the result was two banners finished and two more on the go. People seem really excited about the results and are already talking about exhibitions … We use the designs without all the dots, which seems to be getting back to the guts of it all. Wonderful learning times.

The council has been really good support …

Most of the senior boys have found at least one pair of pants - they have come to mend them or to play on the machines (of which three are on the kitchen table).

Liddy takes me into her room which she locks behind us to keep out the dogs and kids to show me her latest painting.

More than any project I have wanted to do before, a large part of my time here is for my development as an artist working in Australia. It is this Warlpiri culture that I wish to understand how art is part of their life in all its forms and at what stage does it become important. I’m really interested in people my age here because it seems to be them when there is some shift from living life for cars and drink to beginning to paint and live for their culture. The timing of being here is important too because this has not been Warlpiri land but there is a shift here because young people have been born here and their dreaming comes from here now. In asking why there has been no public art eg. Murals etc. The comment was that this was not Warlpiri land but it is the land of the young people here …

One man a bit older than me has said that it is important what I am doing here lining young people back to their culture (in a small way). The kids now come into my place and copy the dreamings off the wall, kids at mural all ask what it means, is it my dreaming? Doug has asked me to go to the next men’s business camp: I would give anything to go, this is when all the men’s information is passed on as very little of this happens in the community as it does with the women …

It is now very late at night and my further commitment to this place - the head lice in my hair - are driving me crazy, so I had best have a shower and get some sleep. Hopefully I will get the time before the mail plane takes off to reread this …

Week Two
… I’ve started to talk to people about art co-ops, it is something that comes up more and more …

Through the sewing machine being set up and kids coming through the house there are now five senior kids who come, thread up, and use the machine well. One is going to make a banner but has to learn her dreaming yet …

I will use that fabric sent to put banners in the literacy centre and pre-school …

Week Three
… mural two begins with talking to Liddy, an older woman … Next morning she is there with another woman and two old men; they talk for a long time deciding what dreamings should be used as this mural is more a story board, for the area is for young kids. I am told that all the painting so far belongs to Jampijinpa and Nampijinpa which allows me to also paint. [Tim was given the skin name of Jampijinpa] … These women are much older and from the top camp. They spend much time drawing things in the sand and explaining things before we begin …

Jen, who I mentioned before, is also working on this. She is documenting each image, the dreaming, its story and who it belongs to …

The mural women took me hunting on the weekend.

Week Four
… One teacher, Colin, was wanting to make these large creatures with the kids, so have been working with him on how to split the bamboo and construct things with it. Have also been giving support to the senior girls’ teacher who is working with sewing. So far I have kept clear of the school as far as implanting anything but have said to the teachers to please give a yell if they need me.

Mural two is finished … a delight to work on. The women worked hard and were great at hassling each other if they thought someone was being lazy or sloppy. It is not the Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck that I was asked to paint, but the community, especially the old, seem really pleased.

Mural three on the small water tank beside the Wulaign out-station resource centre, came out of the old men standing around watching the women paint, making sure they got it right. One man, Freddy, gave me dreamings to paint with the women on their wall but also asked “what about the men?” So on the Wednesday morning there was much talk followed by me being asked if I had a car. One man took me that morning to see trees, tracks, water holes; it is to here that the young people who are being born belong, their dreaming places. On our return, later that day there was some heated discussion on who should paint … The old men wanted me to only paint but both I and Billy, a young Yapa (Aboriginal) man, did not see this as right. Everyone slowly cleared out and that was that for the day.

The next day Roger, a Yapa man from Wulaign and two others about my age got around to undercoating the tank which is not the most wonderful surface to paint. I was continually being taken away to be shown paintings and photos in Wulaign which the old men wanted to show me. In the end, the old ‘Jangala’ decided he and I should paint and so that is what is happening, and although I don’t know what it means in the context of the world for me to be painting, the experience is one of the most rewarding so far, with each brush-stroke containing layers of meaning. The men, as the women did, stand around hassling about colour or what bit can’t go next to this. I don’t often know what is going on or being said, but if I live by the golden rule ‘that when the time is right you will be told” then everything seems to be OK. By Friday afternoon a second man begins to paint. As with the women, they don’t paint on the weekend.

Banners now seem to happen on the weekends and evenings, are still slowly moving along. The four larger ones went up in the school this week. My first male started sewing this week and two new women began this weekend. The part I most enjoy is going with the women to their families to OK the design with their father or grandfather and making sure with them that it is fine for it to go on a banner. I love when the designs are sung as the men draw.

I spent some time talking to people about my return … To continue developing this fabric work and painting in pubic places … Also this thing of there not being an artistic adviser … Suggested that I should continue on, but also give time to getting this arts co-op, or whatever it will be, off the ground. Council has applied for funding to do up the old YMCA also funding for the staff … he felt important as others have expressed that a Yapa should be working with me as a trainee … When I ask people who I should work with the common response was the women or the old people. When I ask why they thought what I was doing was important they said that it was important for the young people.

Week Five
Tuesday morning and I feel completely stuffed after driving all night from the sports weekend in the neighbouring community of Yuendumu (about 500km). But I would be back to painting this morning …

Banners in the school have created a lot of interest, in particular from the older women, one has started her own while I was away. …

All the banners that I wish to complete this time around have been started with seven completed and six to do. There are three directions this part of the project can go, with interest in all. One is to try and market them for sale and set up interest in an exhibition; or the other which is to keep filling Lajamanu windows; or to simply develop sewing skills. The need to make and repair clothes is great.

Mural three is still just the two of us which is wonderful. Equal time is spent out in the bush looking at Dreamtime sites. The old Jangala has brought in two other people, not to paint, but to instruct how to paint two of the dreamings, as all the dreamings on the tank belong to this area. There is still much talk by the larger group of men before a new dreaming is painted.

Did you happen to get those photos developed?

PS If you still have a copy of the letter I sent for week five could you keep that as I was unable to make a copy of it for myself as the community did not have power that day. Not having power some days I find gives problem to using sewing machines.

Week Six
Two older women started this week … it was the first time they had seen a sewing machine work, let alone use one.

The Wulaign mural is still moving on, often we will work solidly for a day on one section or dreaming to be asked by Jangala a few days later to paint it out. The most recent one to paint out was done not because the dreaming was wrong but because of its relationship to the one next to it. I don’t believe had used a brush much before … he now paints those things free-hand and with much confidence … It’s interesting that I was told that the Yuendumu doors lasted six weeks before the graffiti started to build.

Week Seven
The thing of community arts here seems such a white concept sometimes …

Strong winds all week, much dust, only one day’s mural painting.  Painted the Parma dreaming, Parma being the flying ant of which we have made the puppet. So mural three continues. Banners have been with the now three older women … They have much more knowing than the young. They have all started a second banner.

Week Eight
The wind has stopped blowing for one day so the mural is now complete … Two of the older women showed me their drawings from bible study using traditional designs. They thought they would make a good mural so I have been following this up with the church. The leaders from the church had to meet before a decision could be made and are interested in following it up on my return …

I work at the school each morning with Colin whose class is putting together a play making large-scale creatures out of bamboo and paper …

19 banners ended up being made. Sewing classes start next week by nine women making skirts, shirts, bags etc …

I feel for me to work further in Lajamanu it is time I need to commit. My last weekend was spent giving time to people who had given me time. This meant things like a morning at an out station watching the old man, who had worked on the last mural, paint his canvas; taking up a pair of pants; finishing off some Aboriginal flag pillow cases with a woman … I am now a better card player, can spit better, and swear with much more confidence.


Dance Development Office: Sarah Calver

[Under Brown’s Mart Community Arts – Executive Officer Ken Conway]


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that the following pages, photographs and videos may contain images, voices, and names of deceased persons.

Further Reading

A short history of the long-term relationship between Lajamanu and Tracks Dance Company

Artist Response

"mural two begins with talking to Liddy, an older woman … Next morning she is there with another woman and two old men; they talk for a long time deciding what dreamings should be used as this mural is more a story board, for the area is for young kids. I am told that all the painting so far belongs to Jampijinpa and Nampijinpa which allows me to also paint. [I was given the skin name of Jampijinpa] … These women are much older and from the top camp. They spend much time drawing things in the sand and explaining things before we begin …"  Tim Newth

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