Jan Billycan (aka Djan Nanundie) depicts the country of her birthplace, Kirriwirri and other sites in Ilyarra country. This is a land of spreading mud flats, gleaming salt lakes and a life-giving network of freshwater springs with their source deep underground. It was the home of the Yulparija people, deep in the Great Sandy Desert, before drought and mining caused the environmental catastrophe that drove them to the coastal refuge of Bidyadanga south of Broome. That was a time of grief and exile that lay dormant in the memories of the survivors. Recently the stirrings of a new art movement has reawakened these memories, breathing new life into an ancient land and its story.
Emily Rohr of Broome’s Short Street Gallery brought art materials to the aged care home in after being alerted to the elderly residents' desire (or ‘need’ as Daniel Walbidi suggested to her) to paint. The profusion of colour and untutored vitality that erupted took the eventual results to southern cities before the year was out. Sell-out group and solo shows followed, with Judith Ryan featuring them at the NGV in the exhibition 'Colour Power' (2004). Among them, the distinctive works of Jan Billycan emerged as the expressions of a unique and startling talent. In 2011 she won the West Australian Indigenous Art Award at AGWA in Perth.
Jan is a respected Marpan, or medicine woman, and as such has the ability of x-ray vision. This capacity feeds into her cell-like compositions that jangle and vibrate, similar to, as Emily Rohr says, a musical composition. It is a different manner of perception, and when applied to the geography of place and memory carries with it the emotion of lived experience. Jan’s discordant greens, oranges, greys and purples have generated much discussion. The desert and the coast becomes the site of a disrupted continuity, but the desert iconography remains unmistakable.
There is Jila (living water) in this country including Karrparti, Kawarr, Jurntiwa, and Wirrguj. Other places include Dodo, Kartal, Kiriwirri and Yukarri. When Jan was young she walked all around these places with her parents. Jan says "In living water there is a quiet snake. Sometimes he rises up, but we sing him down sometimes he can travel and bring rain. Ilyarra is my country Ilyarra, where I grew up. Lots of tali (sand dunes) and jila in this country. This big dog country." Her grainy textures instil her works with the weight or gravitas of ‘an imaginary repossession’ (Nicholas Rothwell). Jan mixes her colours on the canvas, tracing over networks of sketched underpainting. She builds her layers toward a colour and density that pushes all our boundaries, psychological as well as physical.
Jan’s close working proximity to the other painters of the Yulparija group means that singing and discussion are ever-present as they bring back to life their lost relatives, precious ancestors and beloved sacred sites. These artists have re-drawn the perimeters of Western Desert art, though their links are still apparent. The scarcity of water that drove the flight from their homeland reverberates with an insistent call. It remains one of the most remote and rugged regions of the world and the homeland of a diverse and dynamic indigenous culture. Such precious memories are held in these works, for future generations of Yulparija and for all of us to contemplate.
Profile author: Sophie Baka
Aboriginal Art Museum, The Netherlands.
Canning Stock Route Project Collection, National Museum of Australia, Canberra.
Dr Ian Bernhardt Collection
Dr Ian Constable Collection
Harvey Wagner Collection, USA
National Gallery of Australia
National Gallery of Victoria
Newcastle Regional Art Gallery
Sam Barry Collection
William Mora Collection
2009 - Jan Billycan Solo, William Mora Galleries, Melbourne.
2008 - Kirriwirri, Short Street Gallery, Broome, WA.
2007 - Jan Billycan, William Mora Galleries, Melbourne; Kirriwirri, Short St Gallery at Mary Place, Sydney.
2013 - 'The Bright The Bold and The Beautiful', Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery, NSW
2011 - Western Australian Indigenous Art Award – finalists, featuring Jan Billycan, Michael Cook, Timothy Cook, Angkaliya Curtis, Gunybi Ganambarr, Angelina George, Gary Lee, Danie Mellor, Patrick Mung Mung, Trevor Nickolls, Lena Nyadbi, Tiger Palpatja, Kuruwarriyingathi Bijarrb Paula Paul, Reko Gwaybilla Rennie, Nyilyari Tjapangati, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth. 2011 - Summer Haze, JGM Galleries, London, UK 2011 - Pearls, Paint and Ilma, Aratong Galleries, Australian High Commission, Singapore 2011 - Yulparija 2011, Aboriginal and Pacific Art, Sydney, NSW 2011 - Green, Outstation Gallery, Darwin, NT 2011 - Bidyadanga Recent Paintings, Chapman Gallery, Canberra ACT
2010 - Hedland Art Awards, Port Hedland Courthouse Gallery, WA
2010 - 27th Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award, Darwin, NT
2010 - Yiwarra Kuju, Canning Stock Route exhibition, National Museum of Australia, Canberra ACT
2010 - Melbourne Art Fair, Royal Exhibition Building, Short St Gallery & William Mora Galleries present the Yulparija artists
2010 - White, Short St Gallery, Broome WA
2009 - Short on Size, Short St Gallery, Broome ,WA
2009 - Shalom Gamarada Aboringinal Art Exhibtion, University of NSW, Sydney
2009 - From Desert to Saltwater Country, Redot Gallery, Singapore
2008 - Olympic IOC Expo Centre, Canning Stock Route Project, Beijing, China
2008 - From the Desert to Saltwater, Booker, -Lowe Gallery, Houston, Texas
2008 - Bidyadanga Artists 2008, AP Bond Art Dealer, Adelaide, SA
2008 - Paintings from remote communities: Indigenous Australian art from the Laverty collection, Newcastle Regional Gallery, Newcastle, NSW.
2007 - National Indigenous Art Triennial 07, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
2007 - 24th Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin.
2006 - Northern Journey, The Priory at Bingie, Bingie, NSW
2006 - Bidyadanga Painters - Jan Billycan & Weaver Jack, William Mora Galleries, Melbourne.
2005 - 22nd Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Awards, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin; The return of our land, Gallery Gondwana, Alice Springs, NT; Mummy and daughter, William Mora Galleries, Melbourne; Bidyadanga 2005, Short St . Gallery, Broome WA
2004 - Divas of the Desert, Gallery Gondwana, Alice Springs; Desert to Saltwater, Short Street. Gallery, Mary Place Gallery, Sydney; Desert Ocean, Short Street Gallery, Kidogo Gallery, Fremantle, WA; Bidyadanga Artists, William Mora Gallery, Melbourne; Bidyadanga Artists, Raft Art Space, Darwin; Bidyadanga Art, Art House Gallery, Sydney.
2003 - Manjyiljara, Short Street Gallery, Broome, WA.
2011 - WA winner of Western Australian Indigenous Art Award, AGWA, Perth.
2010 - Most Outstanding Work, Hedland Art Awards
The Age Newspaper, Yulparija show their colours, April 19 2004.
The Australian Newspaper, West Coast's Late Bloomers, April 2004.
The Australian Financial Review Magazine, Art Direction, June 2004.
Painting Country - A West to East Journey, World Expo Aichi, Catalogue. July 2005.
The Australian, Look Whose Been Framed Now, 17 March, 2006.