Vandalism, Hearsons Cove, 2007

Vandalism, Hearsons Cove, 2007

Puratha: the sad place

Dates: 5-29 September

Opening: Tuesday 4 September

Artist: Rowan Conroy

An exhibition of large format photographs that illustrate the immense divide that exists between the precarious position of the indigenous heritage of the Puratha region in north west Western Australia, and the economic imperatives that have seen this sacred land desecrated by commercial industry.

Puratha: the sad place is an exhibition of photographs of the Burrup Peninsula and the nearby town of Karratha in north west of Western Australia by MVA candidate Rowan Conroy. Puratha: the sad place presents images of the material culture of Karratha (the epitome of a contemporary frontier town) and the industrial architecture of the facilities on the Burrup Peninsula in juxtaposition to the sacred rock engravings that 'co-exist' there. In many cases theses ancient art works were so close to the industrial estates that a direct visual opposition existed between the two. Conroy was granted permission by a Senior Wong-goo-tt-oo elder to photograph many of the petroglyphs, which the uninitiated may look at, but whose true meaning remains hidden. Conroy attempts to illustrate the immense divide that exists between the precarious position of the indigenous heritage of Puratha, and the economic imperatives that have seen this sacred land desecrated by industry. Alongside this are the predicable yet gross forms of homogenised consumer culture that can be found less than 20km in the mining towns of Dampier and Karratha.

The Burrup peninsula, which is part of the Dampier Archipelago, is home to perhaps one of the oldest and largest concentrations of petroglyphs (rock art engravings) anywhere in the world. Estimates of the age of the rock art and archaeological features range from 10,000 - 60,000 years. Yet it is here, in this place of incredible spiritual significance to the local indigenous population, and global archaeological and heritage significance, that we find industry attempting to 'co-exist' within this ancient landscape. One of the most destructive of these has been the industrial giant Woodside Petroleum and its north west shelf venture which has seen one of the largest liquid natural gas processing plants in the southern hemisphere constructed on top of the greatest cultural monument in Australia. In the Woodside visitors centre video, the plant is described as 'a technological oasis in an ancient landscape'. At the moment Woodside with government backing is blasting a number of sacred sites to create to make way for its new 'Pluto' plant. Woodside is 'removing' the rock art and 'relocating' it, which has been described as relocating parts of Stonehenge to make way for a highway bypass. Engravings that are inscribed on rocks too large to be removed are cut off with diamond tooth saws.

It is this idea of co-existence that points to the underlying inability of non-indigenous Australia headed by industry and the government to understand the sacred significance of the region and its immense heritage value - the Wong-goo-ttoo people of the Western Ngaluma language group.

Puratha, which translates as the sad place, is the name that the Wong-goo-ttoo people of the Ngaluma language group use to describe the area known to non-indigenous Australia as the Burrup peninsula. In 1868 Puratha was the site of two massacres that effectively killed off the Yaburra people who were the traditional custodians of the 'Burrup' and surrounding islands known as the Dampier Archipelago. Puratha is an appropriate name, as it is here in this remote part of the pilbara that some of the most pressing issues in Australian society come to the fore: destruction of irreplaceable indigenous heritage, environmental degradation, a lack of understanding of indigenous issues.

Conroy's practice centers on the use of large format photography to record conjunctions of material culture and landscape. Particularly those landscapes, which have become seemingly 'normal' or 'mundane' to the local inhabitants, yet are in fact remarkable. There is an enormous disconnection between the landscape and ancient art of the region and the near by towns of Dampier and Karratha. Karratha is replete with the homogenous infrastructure of consumer society Kmart, McDonalds, Target, Woolworths. The seemingly unremarkable nature of the town of Karratha in itself is remarkable; for there is nothing in the town that reflects upon the regions past or the relatively recent and violent form of colonialism from which it was established.

For more information about these issues go to:


National Trust Western

This project was supported by an Australia Council for the Arts New Work Grant for Emerging Artists.