Today Martumili Artists is regarded as one of Australia’s most renowned Aboriginal art centres, with a national reputation for innovative art practice, and representation in countless national and international exhibitions. The centre itself encompasses impressive gallery, retail, studio, and office spaces that service six remote Aboriginal communities and more than 500 artists. These achievements are all the more remarkable in consideration of the fact that the group has been established for less than twenty years.
Chatting with Gabrielle Sullivan (current CEO of Indigenous Art Code), who led Martumili Artists from its formation in 2006 through to 2015, she reflects on how the initial Christmas sale events were pivotal in the group’s rise.
Can you tell us about the original Martumili Christmas Sale events?
At that time there was just a tiny office in the Shire of East Pilbara buildings, and before that just a desk in the Council Chambers. Artists were painting on the lawn, and there was no public facing space. The more recognized artists were exhibiting at commercial galleries and selling works in exhibitions, but other artists obviously wanted to sell their work too. The idea of having a Christmas sale, in the beginning, was to make that possible. So, we installed a hanging system in the Shire of East Pilbara council chambers and had a party!
It always happened over a weekend. The Shire Council Chambers were basically taken over by Martu artwork for three days. All the floor in there was carpeted with paintings and the Council Chamber table was covered in artwork. But it wasn’t just about selling works- people really enjoyed showcasing what they did and feeling proud of that. Most important was the ownership of the event by Martu; it’s a special thing hosted for the Martu and wider community together.
How did the event grow in the early years?
It became a thing that people would know about- they’d travel to Newman for it. There was always a lot of people would come down from [Port] Hedland, other parts of the Pilbara, and other people [from further afield] would schedule their trips around when the Christmas sale would be on.
When we moved into a space with two dongers, there was more of a sense of ownership because it was a designated space for the artists… but there was still no gallery space. So, while it was nice to be in Martumili’s own space for the Christmas sale, it was challenging because it always seemed to rain! It was really makeshift, with artworks hanging up on fences and racks and marquees put up to protect everything. We couldn’t pack all the work up each night because it would take too long, so some staff would stay at the office 24/7 to ensure the work was safe. And even though it was always really crazy and hard work, everyone wanted to be there, even volunteers, because it was such a fun thing to be a part of.
What was your favourite memory from the Martumili Christmas Sale?
The thing I liked the most was that people… would come in and they’d have this preconceived idea in their head of what Aboriginal art was, they’d say they wanted something in natural ochre colours with dots and then they’d walk out with a Bugai [Whyoulter] painting, which was so far from that initial idea. It also gave people an opportunity to come in and meet artists and engage with them. I think for a lot of people that live or work in the Pilbara…, they hadn’t always had that sort of interaction with Aboriginal people. And I think that’s one of the nicest things about the Christmas sale, that people get to have that experience both ways.
For me looking on the new building now, it’s actually had that original desired outcome from the Christmas sale events. Everybody can come in and see the works, all the time… and it’s also resulted in increased sales for artists because the work can be displayed publicly. The Christmas sale events helped form the business case for why it was viable to build the [current] art centre and gallery in town. It proved that there was interest and a market and the need for something like that to happen for more than over a couple of days a year. People probably now look at Martumili and think… they’re really well resourced. But it was all quite incremental and I think the annual Christmas sale been a big part of that.
How do you feel when you see images and hear news of the Martumili Christmas sale these days?
I mean I think it’s great, but I’m always a little bit jealous that they don’t have to worry about the weather anymore and having to pack all the artwork up! [Laughs]. So maybe a little bit of “Oh, wouldn’t that have been good?”, but it was still wonderful to do it the way we did it all those years.