Alma Kalaju Webou Great Sandy Desert, 1928-2009

“I lost my mummy and sister here,” said Alma (Kalaju) Webou when speaking of Pinkalarta, her mother’s Country where she was born and grew up in the Great Sandy Desert. These arid planes span from Australia’s north-western coastline into the heart of the Northern Territory. A devastating seven-year drought in the 1970s exiled Webou’s people, the Yulparija, from this expanse and into the beckoning hands of the Bidyadanga Community south of Broome, at this time managed by a Catholic mission as a catchment zone for several displaced Aboriginal language and social groups. Webou returned to painting Pinkalarta time and time again, however, she divulged very little about the history of her Country, even as a Yulparija senior law woman. Bidyadanga’s environment, in which heterogeneous clan groups were integrated into one zone, precipitated elders to protect their cultural knowledge. But we can engage with Webou’s dense lattices of dot work not as mere topographies depicting her Country but as insistent recollections of her cultural memory, called up through landscape. 


In remembering Pinkalarta, Webou striates this particular canvas in fleshy, teal and marsh green pigments, effervescent colours corresponding to the saltwater landscape of Bidyadanga, transmitting her lived experience of migration on to the Country she was forced to abandon. A linear intersection across the painting’s top quadrant, reaching from the far left to the far right, red borders in the centre, entrapping a field of green hues, and the whole piece caught in a white frame may conjure for us an association with aerial views of pastoral land demarcated by fence lines. The history of cattle stations along the Canning Stock Route in the Great Sandy Desert of Webou’s naissance were incursions on Yulparija Country during her lifetime and perhaps in Pinkalarta we see these interactions disclosed visually. Otherwise, this painting is a tumbling together of red, pink and teal currents perhaps mimicking the rolling dunes of the desert. However compounded interpretations of Webou’s work have the potential to become, Pinkalarta arises from the artist’s personal context interweaving the concealed yet enduring histories of her Country, the trauma of losing family and leaving home, and the bond built with a new one.