Artists answered pain with joy



Yarrenyty Arltere artists have always been frank about the origins of their art centre: it grew in direct response to social problems racking their community at the Yarrenyty Arltere town camp in Larapinta Valley.

Looking for answers they turned to what were strengths in their community: the desire among its families for change, the recognition that they had amongst themselves “our own experts, our leaders, our teachers, our apprentices” – as Sharon Forrester (left) put it – to make the foundation for this change.

In the process, they have tapped a wellspring of joy and delight, sending out into the world, in the form of soft sculpture, a host of characters, human-like, bird- and animal-like, ever more colourful and expressive.

A new generation of these endearing creatures join their forebears in an exhibition at Araluen that celebrates 21 years of what began as the Yarrenyty Arltere Learning Centre.

They lend themselves to story-telling, as the videos that form part of the exhibition attest. This work too, including the memorable Petrol been wasting our lives, has made a significant contribution to addressing social problems – by recognising them, understanding their ways, presenting the community perspective in a medium allowing the community to speak for themselves instead of being spoken about.

From left, Sheree Inkamala, Patricia Nelson, Nanette Sharpe and founding artist Dulcie Sharpe in front of new textile works.

The undertaking had its roots in community decisions from about 1998, explained Ms Forrester at Saturday’s exhibition opening. She was the Social Justice Programs manager with Tangentyere Council and a resident of the camp when the Learning Centre started.

She credited the leadership of Daniel Forrester, president of the Yarrenyty Arltere camp governance group at the time. That group had on it members from all the camp’s resident families, and what they set up was a multi-generational Learning Centre, providing schooling for children, training for youth and families, and wrap-around support services.

It gave the residents a place to which direct service providers, who were “willy nilly running round the camp knocking on people’s doors at unreasonable hours trying to get their so-called jobs done”, said Ms Forrester. This created a space where families dealing with problems would be treated with “respect and dignity”.

She described the impact on the community as “immeasurable”.

The art room in full swing: Rhonda Sharpe in the foreground, Dulcie Sharpe on the left, Marlene Rubuntja on the right. Dulcie Raggett by the window. Photo supplied. 

In this setting the art centre slowly emerged as a “core part of the strategy”, beginning with art and craft training delivered by Batchelor Institute: “What started as a two year course stretched over seven years” and the centre became a “place for everyone to get together, to sit quietly, laugh and share stories, a place without judgment, without scrutiny, a place of safety where there is respect and a sense of belonging.”

It has allowed people to remove themselves from stresses and, through the sale of their art, provides them with some economic independence.

Ms Forrester noted the milestone reached in 2008 when artist J9 Stanton moved from being a trainer, delivering the Batchelor course, to being an art centre worker for Yarrenyty Arltere Artists.

Another mainstay came on board at this time, Sophie Wallace, employed as the art centre manager.

It is a fine reflection on the artists, the community and the model that people employed at the centre have remained in their positions for many years. Leonie Sheedy (right), who also spoke on Saturday, was the Learning Centre coordinator from 2000 to 2012.

“Without Leonie we wouldn’t have been able to set up the foundation and weather the 2007 storm,”  said Ms Forrester in a reference to the whirlwind of the federal government’s Intervention (ongoing in a range of ways) in the lives of Aboriginal people on town camps and in remote communities.

Ms Sheedy acknowledged in turn “the vision, creative talent and massive energy” of Sophie Wallace, as well as the “extraordinary” commitment by her and J9 Stanton to the centre, and the significance of J9 Stanton introducing the artists to the textile medium.

Particularly fruitful was the introduction of dyed blankets, using natural dyes from materials gathered up around the camp, that became the base material for the soft sculptures. Or, I should say, the base material for the sewing. For it is really in the doing that the joyful essence of the Yarrenyty Arltere work emerged.

Even as they turn their hands to paint – there are fine works on paper in this show, landscapes by Marlene Rubuntja, inimitable figurative works by Trudy Inkamala – it is sewing that is the core medium of this art centre, its practice, creatively healing, as much is its product.

Left: Night Birds, 2021, by Rhonda Sharpe.

“Sewing makes us strong for our thinking and our bodies,” is how Marlene Rubuntja memorably put it, recalled Ms Sheedy.

“We love our sewing,” said Ms Rubuntja herself on Saturday, as she opened the show.

She and Dulcie Sharpe – “legends” said Ms Sheedy – had also been particularly thanked by Ms Forrester for making sure the centre “survived”.

It survived to become “a story of the whole community, a story of strength, resilience, talent and healing.”

Right: Landscape, 2021, by Marlene Rubuntja.

The wider community’s response has also played a part in the art centre’s enduring success, affirming its purpose, worth and appeal: people turned out in droves to support their film nights and Christmas parties – unusual opportunities for experiences of town camp life – and many have become collectors of their work.

On Saturday Araluen curator Stephen Williamson told of a touching story of the day he picked up the work for the show: the soft sculptures were arranged in the art centre much as they are in the gallery, and the artists had gathered, “waiting to bid the works farewell on their next journey out into the world”.

As he left with the precious cargo, Sophie Wallace told him to “Have fun, and drive carefully!”

Fun is a fundamental characteristic of the work, he said, alongside the creators’ “extraordinary innovation and artistic capacity” – telling audiences stories, offering insights into their lives and culture.

Below: Sheree Inkamala cuts the birthday cake, assisted by Sophie Wallace, while Marlene Rubuntja, on the microphone, invites everyone for a cup of tea – and to “buy some art!”

Related reading:

‘What we see in our Country’: Yarrenyty Arltere 20 years on

For the worlds she stitches together, Marlene Rubuntja wins the Lofty

Burst of desert art and life in Sydney CBD

Town camp artists do it their way

Last updated 11 May 2021, 2.59pm.


  1. The strengths, vitality and creativity of Yarrenyty Arltere artists, members and staff are again clear in this article.
    I look forward to seeing your exhibition and individual works shared so generously with visitors and others.
    Kieran’s writing reminds me, Mparntwe has good examples of how cooperative initiatives led by Arrernte/Arranta people work well and productively.
    What can be learnt and applied to improve other initiatives that benefit traditional owners and custodians?


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