Australian artist Jean Burke belongs to the Aboriginal Pitjantjatjara language and cultural group.
Born in the bush at Anumarapiti in the Western Desert of Western Australia in 1945, Jean’s parents walked her to the mission in Ernabella when she was a baby.
Shortly after their arrival her mother passed away and her father took her from Ernabella to Warburton, walking from rock-hole to rock-hole for 800 kilometres. Along the way many women took turns in breast-feeding Jean, who has said that, ‘I always thought I had no family. I was really sad because other girl’s mothers told them stories about country. I was lost. She wasn’t telling me stories about families and country. Ngaltutjara.’
Jean Burke went to school at Warburton Mission where she learnt to read and write, recite bible stories, prayers and hymns, and new art and craft skills such as sewing and drawing. During school holidays Jean used to go back to country.
Later as an adult Jean came to Irrunytju. ‘At Irrunytju they told me I had relatives in Tjuntjuntjara. I was happy to find my mother’s brother and families.’
Jean married and had two daughters. Jean was one of the founding members of Irrunytju Arts and a highly-regarded sculptor and weaver, who have worked closely with Ivy Laidlaw to teach others how to weave tjanpi baskets, make organic dyes and natural remedies.
Jean’s paintings reflect her relationship with country and culture, and her father’s country is Alpualpultjta, a rockhole near the creek at Pipalyatjara. At one point he travelled with his mother to Kalka, to another Rockhole.
Jean said, ‘This is good country near Irrunytju. We want to go our grandmother’s and grandfather’s country, the rock-holes where they went, where they used to go around, rock-hole to rock-hole to get feed. Hunt for kangaroos, emus, and goannas. Long time ago when piranpa wasn’t here. They’d live with no flour, no medicines, they were strong. They were the strongest people in the area. But now they’ve all got sick, all got diabetes. And we want to do the paintings so we can teach the younger ones the old stories. So they can learn. If we finish, it’s their turn to do dot paintings, to tell the dreamtime stories. Keep the stories strong. That’s why we do the dot paintings, so they can say “That’s my country, that’s my mother’s country.” Like that. So everybody’s getting learned. We’re all learned now.
Jean Burke’s linear designs and a softer palette show a deep relationship with the spirit of the land.
Today Jean lives in Warakurna with her uncle – well known Australian artist Tommy Watson – and paints for NganampaNgura Arts – Docker River Community Arts Centre. Her paintings are based on linear designs and a softer palette demonstrates a deep connection and spirituality to the land.
Jean’s first solo exhibition was held at Agathon Gallery in April 2006. She has been included in numerous group shows, including Desert Mob, Araluen Centre, 2006. Jean Bourkes’ work is also held in collections at National Gallery of Australia and Art Gallery of Western Australia.