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20 Jan 2015 - 3:34 PM  UPDATED 29 Mar 2016 - 4:29 PM

Sandy and Alice are invited to the Elcho Island Art Centre by award-winning Aboriginal artist Margaret. She shows them her paintings and teaches them how to paint and make a ‘hair’ brush. Meanwhile, in the furniture-making store nearby, Marcus is learning that because of the employment problem, businesses are training local people the skills to be self-sufficient.

"We’ve run out of hair (paint) brushes…

But my hair is no good because it’s curly.

We use straight hair like yours. Can I cut your hair?" 

Margaret Gudumurrkuwuy, Artist, Elcho Island, East Arnhem Land, NT
Meet Margaret Gudumurrkuwuy

Margaret Gudumurrkuwuy is a talented and experienced artist from Galiwin’ku, the main community on Elcho Island. Margaret is known for her painting and carving skills and her past works include hollow logs, sculptures and paintings on bark and canvas, as well as more recently woven fibre works and jewellery. Margaret’s art has been exhibited around Australia and in Malaysia.

  • Elcho Island is situated in the Arafura Sea off the north-east coast of Arnhem Land NT.
  • Approximately 2200 people from several different Australian Indigenous tribal groups and dialects live on the island.
  • The island’s main centre, Galiwin’ku, is the largest Aboriginal settlement in north-east Arnhem Land.
  • Internationally acclaimed singer musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu was born on Elcho Island.


Sandy is in for a surprise. Her host doesn’t just battle with dire housing conditions.
Margaret has invited Sandy and Alice to the Elcho Island Arts Centre.

Margaret: “This painting from me.”

Alice: “This one is yours?”

Margaret: “Raindrops. Waterlily.”

Alice: “This is incredible.”

Sandy: “So, you sell the paintings?”

Margaret: “Yeah, here.”

Sandy: “Just here?”

Margaret: “I went to Melbourne for my exhibition.”

Alice: “Great.”

Margaret: “Ladies, I have ochre, blue and brushes.”

An award-winning artist, Margaret paints using natural materials. Even the brushes are made from human hair. But today, there is a bit of a problem.

Margaret: “We’ve run out of hair brush.”

Sandy: “Oh, ok.”

Margaret: “This hair, we cut this…”

Sandy: “From your hair?”

Margaret: “Hmmm, but my hair is no good because it’s curly. We use straight hair like yours. Can I cut your hair?”

Sandy: “Yeah, Yeah. (jokes) I’ll have to charge you if you cut too much Margaret! We’ll have to do bartering. You can do wherever you like Margaret. You can have blonde strands or black strands, brown strands, golden colour, whatever you like.”

Alice: “Gee, Sandy!”

The women paint.

Sandy: “This is my hair, Alice.”

Alice: “I know!”

Sandy: (holds up her painting) ”Let’s have a look.”

Margaret: “Very nice, very nice.”

For Sandy, the art class with Margaret has been a revelation.

Sandy: “I met Margaret last night and I had no idea that she was such an incredible artist and probably such a role model here, too, in the community. So you know, this is her home and obviously she’s happy to live the way she is living. Maybe not happy, but that is all she has got. Which is really extraordinary when that’s all she’s got and she can do such wonderful artwork and she has to live in like poverty out there.”

There are more than 600 unemployed welfare dependent people here on Elcho Island. But just 23 job vacancies. With so little work on offer, the community has set up businesses where locals can get training. They include a furniture-making store.

Marcus: “My technique is pretty shabby compared to this guy but ah, you know….it’s my first day on the job. Part of the reason they are making furniture here is keeping the labour on the island and not exporting that; training up Yolngu to be self-sufficient in that sense. To be able to be their own boss and empowering them to have their jobs and a sense of pride I guess.

Resources and related content

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