George Cooley paints the spectacular desert landscapes of the Kaṉku-Breakaways, an area in northern South Australia that figures prominently in the creation stories and sacred songlines of the Antakirinja Matu-Yankunytjatjara people. The word kaṉku describes shelter, reflecting its significance as a place of protection and sanctuary, and its distinctive features are believed to originate from the Rainbow Serpent’s activities when the world was formed, and ancestral beings shaped the land. This includes unique mesas and ridges, sloping escarpments and floodplains that formed part of an ancient inland sea and gave rise to the development of opals, making the region one of the richest repositories in the world.
Cooley paints these landscapes from memory and drawing from his experience prospecting for opals with his brother John Cooley, uses colour and brushwork to reveal a kaleidoscope beneath the earth’s surface. His monumental works are not only a way of mapping the region but also privilege First Nations ways of knowing, being and doing:
The story and journey in my artwork are about a time I remember when we lived on Country, where we went camping, hunting and gathering bush tucker and bush medicines for the families and at night, by the campfire, listening to stories being told by old people, passing down cultural knowledge in dance and song about Country and names of places where to find the water holes, the rock holes and where other tribal people can be found, using the desert landscapes, and the environment as a road map to the next destination.