Artful escapes in outback NSW
As I amble through Mutawintji National Park in outback NSW I’m amazed by the treasures spread out before me. Hulking walls of red-ochre gorges and crystalline water holes provide safe haven for the native wildlife – roos, reptiles and raptors – and rock overhangs hold the stories of the region’s first peoples.
The traditional home of the Malyankapa and Pandjikali people, Mutawintji NP, 130km north-east of Broken Hill, has been a meeting place of great significance for thousands of years. Communities of up to 1000 people performed initiations, rainmaking and other ceremonies here and the rocky overhang Thaaklatjika (Wright’s Cave) has paintings, stencils and engravings that depict pre- and post-colonial Aboriginal history, as well as the animals that live in the area, including kangaroos and emus.
You can wander many of the walking tracks through Mutawintji on your own or you can join a tour hosted by local Indigenous guides. Some tours include displays of traditional painting techniques.
To discover the ancient wonders of Mutawintji Historic Site, which boasts one of the best collections of Aboriginal art in NSW, it’s necessary to join a tour.
You’ll learn all about the site’s history and culture on the guided 2-4 hour walk that wends through the ancient landscape. At every turn, the wonders of Mutawintji reveal themselves. You’ll see Aboriginal rock engravings and ochre stencils, and on the flat plains, the remains of fireplaces, stone flakes and grinding stones. The guides also share their Dreamtime stories.
The site continues to be a place of living culture, with Aboriginal people from around the region gathering here for cultural purposes and to hold meetings.
As well as admiring the Indigenous art of the place, be sure to pause for a moment in the shade of the river red gums that line the creek at Mutawintji and look for little flourishes of living art – the distinctive orange beaks and cheeks of zebra finches, and the chattering chorus of green, gold and black budgerigars.
Living Desert sculptures
Art abounds around the iconic western NSW town of Broken Hill, and within the Living Desert State Park, about 12km north of the town, are two must-sees – the Living Desert sculptures and the flora and fauna sanctuary.
The 12 sandstone artworks are located on a hilltop within the centre of the park. Completed in 1993 by artists from around the world, each one has a story to tell. There’s a 900m walking track to the sculptures that glow golden in the late afternoon light. Arrive well before sunset and you’ll be treated to the sculptures shape-shifting shadows too.
Here, too, you’ll discover the park’s Flora and Fauna Sanctuary, 180 hectares encircled by an electric, predator-proof fence. Carefully planned and designed to provide visitors with a unique insight into the plants, animals and Aboriginal culture of western NSW, it includes a 1.5km cultural trail that takes you on a journey through a stunning Sturt’s desert pea wildflower display – distinctive blood-red flowers with a bulbous black centre – and a contemporary Aboriginal story pole artwork (above).
Queens Head Hotel, Wilcannia
When Andrew Stacey renovated and reopened the Queens Head Hotel at Wilcannia in 2017, he hoped it would provide inspiration for Indigenous youth in the town, and be a meeting point for the community and its elders.
The former veggie farmer and artist from Victoria bought the derelict hotel after visiting the town a year earlier.
“I didn’t just buy the building willy-nilly, it was to turn it into a useful public asset,” Andrew said.
“As I talked with the community it emerged that some kind of community arts facility would be a good front, if you like, for all of the different types of things that are useful in a community like Wilcannia, like advocacy and assistance and mentoring and education.
“But art’s a great front for all of those things because it embraces them all.”
Today, the hotel is like a gathering place, and according to Barkindji elder Cyril Hunter it’s a “fantastic idea, it’s good for my people”.
Andrew said the ultimate goal was to inspire the town’s youth.
“[The hope is] that it’ll provide for them some type of meaning for the education that they’re trying to go through,” he said.
“It’ll give to them a sense of why it’s worth going to school, and it’ll give to them a kind of shopfront to visitors where they can display the artworks and the things that they do in school and see also their parents and their elders doing the same thing.
“This was a great public house of drinking, and it’s a matter of great pride to see it converted to a public house of healing.”
If you’re on the road to Wilcannia don’t drive past the Queens Head Hotel – you’ll be treated to a wealth of original Indigenous art and, if you’re keen, a conversation with people of the Barkindji, like Cyril.
Heart of art
From the red dirt roads that wind through rugged gorges to the saltbush and mulga plains that stretch to the horizon, outback NSW’s heart overflows with art. It’s a painter’s bold brushstrokes swept to the very edges of the canvas.
If you can’t get enough art in your life, be sure to visit these galleries and art houses when you head out west:
Silverton Art Galleries: John Dynon Gallery, The Horizon Gallery, Cowz Art Gallery.
To plan your trip to visit an incredible community of traditional and emerging artists in this gloriously bold landscape, head to Visit NSW today.