In the 1980s, Pike’s innovative use of bold bright colours stood in contrast to the dominant forms of Aboriginal art of the time; the ochre toned bark and canvas paintings from Arnhem Land and Central Australia.
Pike was also a trailblazer in the promotion of his art internationally. His imagery licensed to Desert Designs, became a fashion sensation not only in Australia but also in Japan, America and Europe.
With his British born wife and collaborator, Pat Lowe, Pike co-authored and illustrated a number of publications including Yinti (1992), a fictionalised account of Pike’s life as child growing up in Great Sandy Desert. Pike’s family was one of the last groups to move out of the desert, settling at Cherrabun station in the Kimberley region in the mid-1950s. As a young man, Pike saw windmills, car tracks and other signs of European settlement for the very first time, on cattle station country. The collection includes drawings with recollections of this period.
Jimmy Pike was born near Jila Japingka a major waterhole around 400 kilometres south of Fitzroy Crossing in the Great Sandy Desert. Jila are desert soaks that never dry out. The word ‘jila’ is often translated by desert people as ‘living water’, indicating the importance of these sites.
Pike also created artworks depicting the spirit who lives at Japingka. Fellow Walmajarri artist Peter Pijaju Skipper has described Japingka as:
...a rain-man who was born at Jila Japingka in the Ngarrangkarni or Dreaming, also known as “Early Days”…When the time came for Japingka to finish, he lay down in the main spring soak and transformed into a big water snake called Kalpurtu. He is still living there. He has whiskers, big ears, a black belly and a back bone like a big rock.
Peter Skipper and Duncan Kentish, 1989
In the late 1980s, Pike and Pat Lowe collaborated with director John Tristram to create the documentary The Quest of Jimmy Pike (1990). Filmed at Kurlku, other locations in the Great Sandy Desert and Fitzroy Crossing the documentary captures Pike’s attempts to return to Jila Japingka with members of his family who had not visited this important site for decades. Unable to make the journey by car or on foot, Pike flew there by helicopter across the desert sand hills.
Jimmy Pike first explored felt-pen drawing and linocut printing in the early 1980s. As an inmate at Fremantle Prison, Pike attended art classes organised by Stephen Culley and David Wroth, who would later establish Desert Designs.
The Jimmy Pike collection includes more than 30 of Pike’s linocuts, offering a rare insight into some of his earliest artworks. Produced mainly in black and white, Pike’s early linocuts show an artist confidently experimenting with new media to represent his desert country.
Pike carved his lino with uneven zigzag lines a technique similar to carved boab nuts a practice common in the Kimberley region. The deep cutting of Pike's lino meant that they were often too fragile for subsequent editions; later copies were either produced as screen-prints or not at all, making many of these early linocuts very rare.
In 1986 Jimmy Pike was released on parole to a desert camp with members of his family at Kurlku on the edge of his country in the Great Sandy Desert. That same year Pat Lowe, a British born psychologist who had met Pike in Broome Prison in the late 1970s, joined the artist at Kurlku as his partner and collaborator.
Pat’s Story, Husband and wife and their dog and Rockhole Desert Country are some of the drawings that document Pike and Lowe’s life in the desert. Their co-written publication Jilji: Life in the Great Sandy Desert (1990), which was republished in 2012 as You Call It Desert – We Used to Live There, shares Pike’s desert knowledge and artworks along with Lowe’s experiences as a newcomer living at Kurlku. In their first year living in the desert Pat experienced uncomfortable spinifex sores on her legs, which Pike correctly informed her would not return after the desert got to know her.
From 1990, until Pike passed away in 2002, the couple were based in Broome, from where they could both visit the desert and travel internationally to attend exhibitions of Pike’s art.
In the mid-1980s, Jimmy Pike licenced many of his artworks to Desert Designs, a concept marketing company established by art teachers Stephen Culley and David Wroth. Culley and Wroth had met Pike through their art lessons in Fremantle and Canning Vale prisons. Their collaboration launched Pike as an international artist. Desert Designs produced prints, textiles, clothing and homewares featuring Pike’s bold artworks of his desert country, which embodied the colourful and expressive spirit of 1980s global fashion. Desert Designs was also a leader in the ethical marketing of Aboriginal art, promoting the artist’s name as well as labelling items with a copyright notice and information about the artwork and its meaning.
Desert Designs continues to use Pike's artwork in their products. Royalties support other artists through the Jimmy Pike Trust.
Pike’s brilliantly coloured artworks depict his desert home brimming with life, countering any notion of the desert as a barren or desolate place. Ngarrangkarnijangka (spirit beings) occupy many drawings in the Jimmy Pike collection and jilji (sandhills), partiri (flowers) and pamarr (rocks) are recurring subjects that highlight the diversity of the environment in the Great Sandy Desert.
Walmajarri country is vibrantly presented in acclaimed and prolific artist Jimmy Pike’s collection of drawings, prints, and paintings held at AIATSIS.
Donated in 2016 by Pat Lowe, the artist’s wife and long-time collaborator, the collection includes over 440 individual artworks, many adapted by Desert Designs in the 1980s and 1990s into internationally renowned fashion.
The Jimmy Pike collection offers insight into the life of an artist deeply connected to his country in the Great Sandy Desert.
AIATSIS would like to thank Pat Lowe and Peter Murray, CEO, Yanunijarra Aboriginal Corporation, for their support of this online presentation.