Dr Pantjiti Mary McLean is a highly respected artist, speaker, teacher and senior Indigenous woman from the Gibson Desert.
Pantjiti was born around 1930 at Kaltukatjara (Docker River), and grew up in the spot on the map where the West Australian, Northern Territory and South Australian state lines meet. An Anangu woman of the Ngaatjatjarra people, as a child she lived on bush tucker and travelled from rockhole to rockhole to find water gathered from occasional rainfalls.
She lived in Papulankutja with her family until the 1950s, when food and resources became scarce. Pantjiti, her husband and their young son walked to Warburton Mission, and then 700 km to the small community of Cosmo Newberry in the Eastern Goldfields. In 1953, anthropologist Norman Tindale took Pantjiti’s photograph for his extensive documentation, recording the movements and tribes of Indigenous people. Pantjiti’s son was placed in Mount Margaret Mission, where he remained until he was a teenager.
Pantjiti was devastated by the removal of her son and stayed in the area to be near him. She began to work on stations nearby, eventually becoming a “gun horsewoman” mustering sheep in the Eastern Goldfields. She received rations and clothes, occasionally making money catching dingoes and collecting a bounty for their scalps. After spending around 10 years working at both Mt Weld and Gindalbie Stations, she moved to the Kalgoorlie Native Reserve, where she spent a decade working at the sandalwood camps. Groups of Indigenous women were stationed at the sandalwood camps, barking the trees for export. In 1980, she moved to the Ninga Mia community outside Kalgoorlie with her second husband.
It was then that Pantjiti first began woodcarving (warta) and making wooden animals to sell to tourists. A local gallery on the main street of Kalgoorlie encouraged Pantjiti to take up dot painting, which she delved into precisely, with a limited colour palette. Dot painting was a major contemporary art trend in the 1990s in Australia.
In 1992, she met Nalda Searles, a respected Perth artist. Searles was working on the Warta Kutju program, facilitating art activities for Indigenous people living in fringe camps in Kalgoorlie-Boulder. Searles encouraged Pantjiti to put more colour into her paintings and to tell her own stories. Pantjiti began to include people, animals and reptiles, and suggested an Arcadian view of her early life in her Country. Searles and Pantjiti became friends and collaborators, and worked on a number of projects together in the following decades.
Within a year of beginning to paint her stories, Pantjiti was invited to exhibit a collection of paintings at the Fremantle Arts Centre. Her Hunting Grounds exhibition sold out in November 1993, which encouraged Pantjiti. She painted stories of her childhood: family, goannas, rockholes and red earth. She painted The Tjukurrpa – dreaming stories – and hundreds of desert flowers. A Christian woman, Pantjiti painted Jesus into the land, melding Christianity with the deep history of her own culture, depicting a complex marriage between the two belief systems.
In 1999, a collection again exhibited at the Fremantle Arts Centre called Go Along Now showcased works telling the stories of Pantjiti’s life as a drover.In 2002, Pantjiti was awarded the Senior Indigenous Visual Arts Fellowship from the Australia Council. For the project, she agreed to produce a series of small paintings of her Country, to be presented as a mosaic. Pantjiti and Searles travelled to Blackstone, Pantjiti’s father’s Country, to develop the paintings. The same year, Pantjiti received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Curtin University of Technology for her contribution to visual arts and cultural reconciliation in Western Australia.
Pantjiti’s work has been displayed in prestigious galleries across Australia and she has won a number of awards and prizes, including the 1995 Telstra Aboriginal Art Award. She has encouraged many new artists in their practice and inspired endless students with her talks and workshops. Her generosity and knowledge of her culture is known throughout Australia.
Due to illness, Pantjiti is no longer able to paint and her final works were created and displayed through Warakurna Arts in 2013. Pantjiti now lives in her Country, in a spot between Kaltukatjara (Docker River) and Papulangkutju (Blackstone). She remains very connected with her son Walter and her grandchildren, who live in Kalgoorlie.
Pantjiti often speaks of her art to Searles: “Nobody showed me. I learned myself. It is happiness in my heart; art is happiness, all the stories in my heart, that’s my happiness.”