You wouldn’t expect to find world-renowned artists exhibiting here in Australia’s Red Centre, but for Koren Helbig, a pitstop at the Tjatu Gallery makes for a special discovery of land, culture and people.

On the long and wearisome 3000-kilometre drive between Adelaide and Darwin, certain monotonous stretches seemingly feature nothing more than a flat expanse of heat-hazed desert shimmering as far as the eye can see.

It’s an apparently endless tricolour world of red plains, grey-green saltbush and wide blue sky, broken only by a dead-straight grey line of bitumen, the relentless Stuart Highway.

The Marla Travellers’ Rest is a welcome relief rising from the monotony, a place to stop for fuel and a formidable burger with the lot, a brief break from the tedium before pressing on.

Located almost smack-bang in the middle of Australia’s Red Centre, just a couple of hours’ drive south of the Northern Territory border and about as far as possible from any major city, this is not the place you’d expect to find world-renowned artists exhibiting their work. And yet here they are.

These artists actually live just up the road, as their ancestors have done for centuries. But most travellers whizz by without even realising, because visitors must apply for a permit and pass a national police check before entering the remote Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands – a large aboriginal local government area stretching across South Australia’s isolated far north-west corner.

Even with a permit, the road in is not always easy going, and so for years it was more manageable to export art rather than import buyers.

Artists living here gained international fame by sending their astonishing acrylic-on-linen pieces to top galleries in Sydney, London, New York and beyond, where they often sold for thousands of dollars.

But in 2011, the two APY Lands art centres located nearest to the Stuart Highway – Iwantja Arts, eight kilometres off the highway atop the rocky Indulkana ridge, and Mimili Maku Arts, some 70 kilometres further west at Mimili – decided to join forces and create their own gallery closer to home.

They christened their Marla Travellers’ Rest gallery ‘Tjatu’, the Yankunytjatjara word for ‘together’.

“It’s a blessing that our communities are working together,” explains Robert Fielding, an artist and arts worker at Mimili Maku Arts, speaking down a faltering Skype line from the art centre.

“It’s about cultural awareness. We want to give tourists the feeling they’re driving through aboriginal land and that people live out here. It looks harsh and desolate but there’s so many of us out here and we produce all these artworks that people are overwhelmed by. It’s a way of showing that we are here, still painting and telling our stories through art.”

Robert is a descendant of the Stolen Generation; his father, aged just three, was forcibly removed from his aboriginal mother in 1931, taken some 900 kilometres south to a mission at Quorn and never reunited with his biological family. Robert himself grew up at Quorn, and only returned to his father’s Mimili homelands in 1998.

Here, little by little, Robert learned the stories of his people and land. And, little by little, he rediscovered his place in the culture he was robbed of as a child.

“I had nothing then, but I have something now. I’m one of the blessed ones that went back to culture,” he says. Robert began painting in 2005: intricate abstract works full of bold colours, swirling dots and layered symbolism, and went on to win the prestigious Telstra Art Award for his photography in 2015.

His works are now included in the National Gallery of Australia’s collection – and, of course, the tiny Tjatu Gallery.

“I paint the stories of Mimili, but also the stories of who I am as a person,” Robert says. “Now I know my story, my song, my dance. That has given me and my children and grandchildren the opportunity to move forward and stamp our authority on who we are as aboriginal people. This culture is who we are.”

That’s really what makes the modest Tjatu Gallery so special – it’s a chance to see these exceptional paintings as something far greater than mere brushstrokes across linen. It’s an opportunity to better understand that arid landscape whizzing by beyond the car window, to appreciate the people who live out here and their precious stories of a culture almost wiped out.

In fact, says Robert, the artworks play a crucial role in keeping indigenous culture alive.

“It’s about the men and women passing on this knowledge,” he says. “Through our art, we can show the world what this culture means and tell our stories, so that it never dies.”

Tjatu exhibits more than 100 artworks at a time, a regularly rotating collection hand-selected by the Iwantja and Mimili artists themselves. While abstract dot paintings depicting traditional imagery, symbols and narrative dominate the walls, there’s also often punu wood carvings, prints and, increasingly, photography.

Keen observers spot the Maku Tjukurpa (witchetty grub songline) repeatedly popping up in works from Mimili, while Iwatja artists are influenced by the creek near their community, where the Tjurki Tjukurpa (desert owl songline) takes place.

These are stories of land and country, of self, of seasons and changes, all wrought large in colours that evoke the desert landscape in which they were created.

Each piece is as different as the artists themselves, yet almost always, says Iwantja Arts chairwoman Vicki Cullinan, artworks touch on the connections and tensions between old culture and new.

“Many older artists have first contact stories about meeting white people in their youth and many young artists have stories about the hard times in communities,” she says.

Vicki herself paints regularly from the Iwantja studio and says that the art centre is not only a place for artistic expression, but also a vital support hub where “culture is expressed in visual language every single day”.

It’s also pretty much the only place where locals can earn their own living in a tiny remote community of little more than 300 people.

When artworks are sold at Tjatu or galleries further afield, 60 per cent goes directly to the artist (after a commissioning fee is paid to the gallery), with the remainder channelled back to the non-profit art centres to buy crucial art supplies, pay indigenous art workers, and develop new projects and exhibitions.

Says Robert: “It’s a way for tourists to directly contribute to the artists, to the art centre and to the community.”

Soon, when an upgrade’s complete, the Tjatu Gallery will launch artist talks and meet-the-maker markets, giving those of us who pass through a remarkably direct link to the aboriginal people living nearby.

And just like that, the absent-minded decision to stop briefly at a dusty roadhouse in the middle of nowhere becomes something far more meaningful.


Go on an unforgetable road trip…South Australian road trips: The Explorer’s Way

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