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'Kulyayi' by Milkujung Jewess James, 2007


'Kulyayi' by Milkujung Jewess James, 2007

Object information


Kulyayi is a site that became well 42 on the Canning Stock Route. The painting shows three windbreaks with campfires on the outer arms. The artist explains, "these are mangkaja (bush shelter, made predominantly from branches). People would make a camp here and have a warlu (campfire) at both the edges of the shelter. There would be a big mob of kids here too."

"This is my mother's and grandfather's country, Kulyayi. This is how they slept in the cold weather. They made windbreaks out of spinifex and trees, and fire in the middle. This is in cold season. Kulyayi is my mother's, grandfather's and grandmother's home. My grandmother died a long time ago. I never saw her but my mother told me about her. I went there recently to Kulyayi. Good country. It's a long way from here. This is my mother's mother's, mother's father's and my mother's country. I don't know my other families from there; they all died a long time ago." [Milkujung Jewess James, Ngumpan, 2007]

This painting is an important inclusion in the Canning Stock Route collection, because it depicts a place where the Aboriginal world view came into tangible conflict with that of the colonial agenda. To Canning and his men, Kulyayi was a resource (water) to be exploited for well 42; but for the people who belonged to that Country the water represented considerably more. Of the 200 permanent springs in the jila Country of the northern Great Sandy Desert, only about 30 are inhabited by the powerful ancestral beings known as jila or kalpurtu (rainbow serpents). Two of these springs, Kulyayi (well 42) and Kaningarra (well 48), became Canning Stock Route wells. Before they became snakes, however, these ancestral beings were men who made rain, shaped the features of the land and introduced practices of law into the jila Country. Many of the jila men were also companions who travelled the desert visiting one another, and creating the ceremonies and singing the songs still performed here today. One by one, the jila men ended their journeys at the springs that bear their names; as they entered them, they transformed into kalpurtu (rainbow serpents).

At Kulyayi history and the Jukurrpa collided. During the excavation of well 42 the great rainbow serpent Kulyayi is siad to have been killed, either by Alfred Canning's original party or his reconditioning team. "They were looking for water at Kulyayi. They dug down and found that snake. Kartiya shot it. They killed him, poor thing.... That's why today you don't see big mobs of water there. Before they used to dig it, clean it out, and leave big water for people and animals to drink. We went there recently and I saw that there was hardly any water. Only little bit, enough for birds to drink. Before it was big. Water was full. People came and had a drink and went to [visit] that water Kulyayi. We all come from that country, big mobs of families. Nyamu (Finished). They killed him, poor thing." [Milkujung Jewess James, Ngumpan, 2007]

Some accounts say Kulyayi was killed by explosives, while others suggest he rose up in anger and was shot dead. Recent accounts also stress the intimate and ecological impact of the cultural clash.

"It's like an icon, like Sydney Harbour Bridge. If someone came and bombed that, blew it away, people would be devastated, empty. That place would be changed. Well, people felt empty when he [Kulyayi] was gone. They felt something not there anymore, they can't come back. They moved away. Animals moved away. People, animals, they're connected. Something valuable was lost, you can't replace it." [Lloyd Kwilla, Wangkatjungka, 2009 ]

The white men who built or rebuilt the Canning Stock Route wells had no knowledge of beings such as Kulyayi, or of the complex desert world they inhabited. Kulyayi's death reveals the profound impact the Canning Stock Route wells had on the life of the jila Country.

Physical description

A dot painting made with acrylic paint on canvas. The painting has a dark blue background with three central oval shapes in green. Around each of these green oval shapes is an outline of white dots. Around that outline is a red semi circle with sun shapes at either end. Dots fill the rest of the painting. One side has white dots and the other side has a section of green dots and a smaller section of red dots in the corner. The different coloured dots meet in the centre creating a wavy line.The back and bare canvas edges of the picture are mould affected.

Statement of significance

The Jewess James collection consists of one acrylic painting titled 'Kulyayi' painted by Milkujung Jewess James in 2007. The painting shows mangkaja, wet weather shelters, with three windbreaks and campfires depicted at the edges of each shelter.

Kulyayi or Well 42, is located along the Canning Stock Route in North Western Australia. As this painting is within the artists' country, it provides a perspective on the Canning Stock Route and its impact on Indigenous peoples and their country.

Object information

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