The history of one of the most influential schools of Western Desert painting


Sunfly Tjamptitjin, untitled, 1982, South Australian Museum Collection

Forty years ago, in a tiny community called Balgo on the fringe of the Kimberley and the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia, one of Australia’s brightest art movements was born.

The history of the Balgo art movement, one of the most vibrant and influential schools of Western Desert painting, has now been told in a new book, Balgo: Creating Country, by Professor John Carty, Head of Humanities at the South Australian Museum and Director of the University of Adelaide’s National Centre for Aboriginal Language and Music Studies (NCALMS).

Professor Carty, who has spent the last 20 years living and working in Balgo, said, “Along with the story of the art movement, the book is also the story of Balgo itself, a tiny community on the fringes of the desert, created by missionaries, and now governed by Aboriginal people.”

The Balgo artists themselves have, in the decades since, gone on to national and international fame as some of the boldest and most influential painters in the Aboriginal art world. But as Professor Carty explains, those first works, painted back in 1982, faded into obscurity – or rather, they faded into a shipping container in the Kimberley; only to be discovered again in 2019.    

“The boards had been bundled up for the first Balgo exhibition in 1982, but things got confused and lost and they ended up sitting in a shipping container in the Kimberley for the next 40 years.

“Nobody knew they were there. I’d been looking for them for 20 years! We had a photo of them being painted – all the men sitting in the spinifex grass painting – but the paintings themselves were presumed lost. I burst into tears when I saw them.”

The find is not just an important discovery for Balgo, or for Aboriginal art. It is very rare to find such a rich collection of paintings from the beginnings of an art movement.

Professor Carty describes it as one of the most significant discoveries of Australian art in recent times.

The works are now on display in an exhibition presented as part of Tarnanthi 2021, and held at the South Australian Museum, from 15 October – 6 February. Balgo Beginnings, features these never-before-seen artworks from the origins of one of Australia’s greatest painting movements.

Both the book and exhibition were launched by Premier Steven Marshall at the South Australian Museum.

The book is available for pre-purchase online: Balgo: Creating Country – UWA Publishing .

Balgo Beginnings (15 October – 6 February) is FREE of charge. For more information visit: 

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