Supporting First Nations Artists in the Pilbara Region

  • Media
June 01,2022
In April 2022, Brendan Maier, partner in our property and development team took part in the Arts Law Centre's (ALC), Artists in the Black Pilbara Trip in Western Australia.

In the report below, Brendan shares his journey to the Pilbara and the work he undertook with the Artists in the Black program.

"It was a fantastic, rewarding week. I met some amazing people at the Art Centres and established good working relationships with them", Brendan said. "We made artists aware of the resources available online at ALC and some of the issues that they should consider when selling their work and "looking after their stuff" when they are gone. We worked with artists preparing their wills, often advising on issues specific to Indigenous artists."

About the Arts Law Centre and Art Centres

Since 2017, the Colin Biggers & Paisley Foundation has worked in collaboration with the ALC to assist in protecting the cultural and artistic rights of Indigenous artists by providing pro bono support to their Artists in the Black program. Artists in the Black is a dedicated service of the Arts Law Centre for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and communities.
Art Centres are not-for-profit Aboriginal-owned enterprises which sell and distribute art. They are also: museums or keeping places; art studios and workshops; repositories for Indigenous cultural knowledge; meeting places for diverse cultural and language groups; and contemporary art schools where elders educate new generations of artists. In Western Australia alone there are over 25 Art Centres.


Arts Law - Artists in the Black Pilbara Trip
By Brendan Maier

The purpose of the ALC trip to the Pilbara in April was to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists to preserve their legacy and ensure that they are in control of whom their art, copyright, money and other assets go to when they pass away. If artists pass away without having made a will, it often creates tension amongst family members and the community.

When I arrived in Perth, I was greeted by ALC lawyers, Donna Robinson and Rob Bitmead. Donna is an experienced ALC solicitor, formerly with the Attorney General's Department. Rob is an experienced Native Title lawyer who after only three weeks in the job was on his first trip with ALC. For both of them it was also their first trip to the Art Centres and communities that we visited.

We flew north together from Perth to Karratha. From there we drove to the Art Centres in Roebourne. Whilst in Roebourne, we worked with two of the many art centres in the area; the Juluwarlu Arts Centre and the Yinjaa-Barni Arts Centre.

Roebourne is a small town in the Pilbara region with a population of less than a thousand people. There is a church, high school, swimming pool, community centre, Art Centres, post office and prison. The ALC team and I stayed at Samson Point, about 15 minutes' drive from Roebourne, in little beach shacks, which also happened to be across the road from the tavern. That was handy because there were no other shops, restaurants or caf├ęs around. The shacks were also only a short walk away from Honeymoon Cove, a beautiful little beach where I liked to go for yoga in the morning, except for all of the sand flies.

Juluwarlu Arts Centre

We spent the Tuesday and Wednesday at the Juluwarlu Arts Centre. The Centre was very difficult to find as there are no signs at all, and the building is back from the road. We needed to go off road and our little rental Corolla didn't like it much. On approach it was a lot of red dust, rusted cars, worn gates and sunshine.

On arrival we were given a tour by the Art Centre Manager, Kate, and introduced to a number of the local artists, all women painters. Some of the artists that we met, whose profiles are on the website, include Mary Watson, Lorraine Coppin and Ashleigh Hicks.

The Juluwarlu artists were sitting down outside having a cup of tea when we arrived, and they jumped up to welcome us. We got to watch the artist's work. The air was filled with the smell of paint as they worked away. We also got to look after their dogs and children! It was a lot of fun. We were well cared for and had plenty of cups of tea with the artists.

The Art Centre building was a big open space for the artists to work, as well as a few offices to the side. Everything was air-conditioned…thankfully. There were also some outdoor shaded areas for the artists to work under.

The ALC lawyers and I presented a seminar to the artists on their legal rights as artists and their obligations and rights in relation to the Arts Centre. We also completed wills for the Artists.

During our time at Juluwarlu we also met with Nicky who was there working to preserve Indigenous languages. Nicky was working on a children's language book, which contained images prepared by an illustrator. We advised Nicky on copyright and licensing issues and the agreement between the Art Centre and the illustrator.

A few of the Juluwarlu artists during our time at the centre were away in Perth for a few weeks for the 2022 Revealed Exhibition for new and emerging WA Aboriginal artists. We were able to meet with them by video conference and prepared their wills from their online instructions.

We were also able to visit the gallery at the Ganalili Centre that displays Juluwarlu artworks. It is a great place to learn about Yindjibarndi country, culture and language.


Thursday and Friday was spent at the Yinjaa-Barni Arts Centre. We were greeted by the Chairperson, Allery Sandy, and worked with a number of the artists, including Aileen Sandy, Dawn Sandy, Joanne Willis and Justina Willis.

The Yinjaa-Barni Centre was much easier to find. We had phoned ahead months prior and again before arrival to make an appointment, but were told just to arrive whenever it suited us. When we did, the entrance to the Arts Centre was locked. We went around the back through a gate and straight into the artists' workshop. This space was much smaller, but there were bright colours, kids running around, women talking and people eating. It really felt in motion. There were part completed artworks all over the Art Centre. We walked around and took in some of the process and progression of how the artists work. I felt thrilled by the colours and composition, and the heartiness of the artists.

I had many interesting conversations with the artists, but I will always remember my conversations with Aileen Sandy. Growing up Aileen's parents lived on Mt Florence Station. Aileen was sent to the boarding house in Roebourne "cause my parents couldn't look after me" where she lived with lots of other local children. Aileen told me stories about the men fighting over kangaroo tails and her work as a housecleaner in Roebourne, before taking up art in 2007. Like many of the other women artists I met, Aileen was looking after a relative's child who was only two months old.

While I sat with Aileen, we also got to play with a couple of the other young kids at the Art Centre, Ava and Janna. I took a few heavy hits from paintbrushes.

I learnt that it is possible to commission the artists to do a work that fits the specific space/size that you are looking for. Definitely something to start thinking about if you're looking for a special Christmas present for somebody. All you need to do is ring the Art Centre's manager to arrange it. There is a huge range of art available at Yinyaa-Barni. Many of the current works are able to be viewed on the website.

Will drafting in the Pilbara

I learnt several things about will drafting while in the Pilbara working with Indigenous artists.
The artists are often from big families with many children and lots of grandchildren. The artist's assets were generally only the paintings remaining to be sold, and the copyright/licensing fees and resale royalties that may continue to be paid to the artist after his or her death. A few of the artists wanted to give specific paintings to specific people, but this was unusual. Many of the artists had no land or other assets.

All artists that I spoke to wanted the Arts Centre that they work with to continue to be able to sell their work after their death. In one case, the artist left the estate to the Art Centre.

The artists were also curious about superannuation, but no one I spoke to believed that they had any.

For cultural reasons, artists are given the opportunity to direct that the Art Centre, after the artist's death, remove the artist's artwork from display and avoid the use of their name and image. Generally all artists made such a direction and left it to the Art Centre to determine the appropriate period that the direction apply (even though the artist could choose the period if he or she wanted).

ABC Radio National

Sitting at the cafe at Roebourne one morning, we stopped a bloke for a chat as he had an ABC lanyard around his neck. He turned out to be one of the local journalists, Geoff Vivian at Ngaarda Media. After asking us what we were doing in Roebourne, Geoff invited us to be on his show. All we needed to do was drop into the studio, no appointment necessary.

We came in the following morning. It was a great opportunity to talk about the work of ALC and the Artists in the Black program. Geoff told us that the interview would be played on local radio as well as ABC National.
During the interview I commented about how accessible the Art Centres actually are. Even though there are galleries in the towns and in cities, I encouraged everyone to visit the Art Centres themselves. You get to chat with the artists, see the artists at work and look over their abundant and beautiful art before it goes to the galleries or anywhere else. Also, if you buy directly from the Art Centre you know that you are benefiting the artist and the Arts Centre directly, as there is no gallery commission.