A new project has found a unique approach to conserve some of the best examples of Western Desert art.
Jennifer Scherer

10 Jul 2019 - 3:26 PM  UPDATED 10 Jul 2019 - 3:27 PM

For a lucky few, reaching the largest Indigenous-owned art collection in Australia will take only a few keyboard strokes rather than driving more than 1000km through the desert.

The artworks are housed at a rarely visited gallery in Warburton, a township on the Great Central Road which links the WA mining town Kalgoorlie and the NT outback centre Alice Springs.

Thirty years ago, the Ngaanyatjarra people explicitly decided to retain the best works by its artists rather than selling them on the commercial market in an effort to keep their culture strong.

The collection now contains more than 1000 acrylic-on-canvas paintings, large textile pieces glassworks and a scholarly database detailing traditional stories and artists’ genealogies.

Community leader Angelica Mclean said the collection is "very special”.

"Not many people are able to see our gallery," Ms Mclean told NITV News.

"We have tourists come by Warburton on the Great Central Road but not many people see the art collection - and it's huge."

Over the last three years, the University of Sydney has worked with the community to build an “online portal” which captures their stories, culture, art and language.

Unveiled to coincide with NAIDOC Week, it features 185 artworks plus videos of Elders telling stories in the local language.

Access to the Warburton Arts and Knowledge Portal (WAKP) is currently limited to the university’s postgraduate museum studies students and the community.

The project’s curator, Panos Couros, said it would ensure local knowledge is passed on to future generations of the Ngaanyatjarra people.

"It such a huge and deep educational resource giving people who have no access to any form of Indigenous culture, some starting point to their inquiry," he said.

“They have kept their stories very intact and they've also kept their artwork to themselves so they have the largest collection of artwork owned by an Aboriginal community in Australia."

Elizabeth Holland, a Ngaanyatjara Elder and artist, was part of small contingent which travelled from Warburton to Sydney for the project launch.

"It's our Dreamtime story for the people, and for our grandchildren and for our great-great-grandchildren - so they can think about it - and keep it," Mrs Holland said.

"It's our culture from the heart and from the head."

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