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Mina Mina and the Tanami Desert

Mina Mina is a highly significant sacred site for Aboriginal people in one of the most remote areas of Australia, the Tanami Desert. The Tanami, once considered to be the Northern Territory's final frontier, was not fully explored by Australians of European descent until well into the twentieth century.

'Mina Mina' by Judy Watson Napangardi
'Mina Mina' by Judy Watson Napangardi

Of course, these lands have been inhabited and looked after by Indigenous Australians for thousands of years, the Tanami Desert is Loritja and Warlpiri country. Despite migration to cities, there are still many Aborigines from these two distinct tribes living in small settlements scattered through their traditional lands.

At 184,500 km2 the Tanami is Australia's third-largest desert. The name is thought to be an anglicisation of the Warlpiri name for the area, Chanamee, meaning never die. This name refers to certain rock holes in the desert, which were said never to run dry.

It is remote, even by Australia's standards, but not entirely inaccessible. The Tanami Road crosses the desert, but travellers need to be well prepared, the longest stretch on the road without fuel supplies is 597km.

The Tanami is the northernmost desert in Australia and the further north you travel in Australia, the more tropical the climate. In the "summer", the wet season in the tropical regions, it rains so much that desert lakes appear and the Tanami Track is often impassable due to flooding.

Untitled by Mitjili Napanangka Gibson, who paints aerial views of the desert around Mina Minaa
Untitled by Mitjili Napanangka Gibson, who paints aerial views of the desert around Mina Minaa

The Loritja or Luritja people are known as Kukatja. The root of the word Kukatja is derived from words for 'meat-eaters' and the Loritja were successful hunters. However, unlike other lands where natural resources are abundant, due to the careful management of the country by Aborigines over the generations, there is still thriving wildlife in the Tamani.

Today, the desert is considered a stronghold and a refuge for many rare or declining animal species. In July 2012, 25,000,000 acres of the desert area was declared an indigenous protected area or conservation zone. The region supports threatened or vulnerable plant and animal species, including the Greater bilby, Great Desert Skink, Princess parrot and Australian bustard.

Alongside the Loritja, the Warlpiri have also been successful custodians of this land. They call themselves Yapa, from the Warlpiri word for "person" and are renowned for their tribal dances and creativity. Warlpiri dancers have toured England, Japan, and Russia, to perform and many indigenous artists, particularly from Papunya Tula, are of Warlpiri descent.

One of the most respected Aboriginal artists was Warlpiri, the great Dorothy Napangardi, who grew up in this country. Mina Mina is a sacred site for Aboriginal women with skin names of Napanangka and Napangardi, and Dorothy was a custodian of the Dreamings that tell of the creation of this area.

'Salt at Mina Mina' by Dorothy Napangardi Robinson
'Salt at Mina Mina' by Dorothy Napangardi Robinson

The Dreaming describes the journey of a group of selected women who travelled east gathering bush food, collecting Ngalyipi (snake vine), dancing and performing ceremonies as they went. The women began their journey at Mina Mina where Karlangu (Digging sticks) emerged from the salt pans. They travelled east across the spinifex and sandhills creating sites as they went.

These sites, now sacred, are found throughout the Tamani's varied landscape. They are waterholes on sandy plains covered in spinifex grass, rockholes in the low southern ranges and great rocks in the mountainous Kimberly. The salt-pans of the Mina Mina site -the inspiration for Dorothy's most famous works - appear after the rain filled lakes evaporate in the heat. The flooded desert now a myth like the tales of the Dreamings and Aboriginal Ancestors.

'Mina Mina' by Judy Watson Napangardi and 'Salt at Mina Mina' by Dorothy Napangardi Robinson will be on display at our next exhibition 'Dreamtime: Australian Aboriginal Art' at the Riverhouse Arts Centre, Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, 5th February – 1st March 2020. Please click here for further details.

We hope you come and see these extraordinary paintings for yourself!

'Salt at Mina Mina' by Dorothy Napangardi Robinson,120 cm x 200 cm. Acrylic on linen canvas. Provenance: Certificate of authenticity from gallery.

'Mina Mina' by Judy Watson Napangardi. 140 cm x 90 cm, Acrylic on linen canvas. Provenance: Certificate of authenticity from auction house.

For further details and enquiries, please contact Nadia Phillips


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