Jimmy Pike and the Birth of Desert Designs

Meeting Jimmy Pike

Q: So was this when you met Jimmy Pike?

David: Yes. Probably 1982, I think I met Jimmy Pike. He struck me as significant because his strong connection to aboriginal culture was such a resource for him. Jimmy Pike seemed to disappear back into the culture he carried with him.

He emerged very quickly as an incredibly interesting artist. He hadn’t painted before. His early drawings were very basic. Then he started drawing and painting things that were of significance to him and they were extraordinary.

So many of the early things were quite realistic, in the sense they were landscapes that showed water holes in significant places in his traditional country. Some of them were quite mythological or quite other worldly in the way he painted the spirits and forces from aboriginal land and aboriginal culture. That was a fantastic experience, and there were a number of exhibitions created from prisoner artists in the early 1980s.

Jimmy Pike started printmaking with lino blocks. Because he already had this great skill at carving, his first carved lino block was a bit of a revelation - it was a masterpiece. It was just straight from nothing to fantastic in one to ten which was such an unusual experience in the art world.

It seems that more and more we’re seeing with aboriginal artists that they can start their art careers either very late or with seemingly no previous exposure to or use of western materials, but they simply apply what they’re very good at. There are graphic imaginations working on visual storytelling, and it makes for fantastic artworks.

I worked with Jimmy Pike for a number of years inside the prison system. Then when he was about to leave, he said that he liked his job of being an artist. He said that he was about to be paroled and go back to his country in the Great Sandy Desert. He asked me how to we could set up a structure that would allow him to keep on working as an artist.

Desert Designs Is Born

At that point, the partners figured how Desert Designs could be setup as a commercial operation to market Jimmy Pike’s designs on textiles, because he was such a great designer and often worked in textile colours, which was an unusual medium.

Mostly when we showed those to early gallery owners, they said, “Where does it fit? What is it? It’s not contemporary art. ” In those days there were no specialist aboriginal art galleries, they didn’t exist. The drawings on paper were going to fall through the cracks at that time.

We developed a project. First the limited edition prints, then we also had developed a project to recreate Pike’s artworks on textiles. From that early start, Desert Designs created small clothing items and went on to produce a complete lifestyle Australian project based on aboriginal designs and specifically Jimmy Pike’s work. That was a great era. It was very embracing. It setup the business structure that Japingka Gallery eventually used. We sold a combination of aboriginal designs on clothing and textiles, soft furnishings, fashion accessories and limited edition prints and some paintings.

Japingka Is Born

Desert Designs led on to opening a specialist aboriginal art gallery which was Japingka. We named that after the main waterhole in Jimmy Pike’s country that was big enough to contain all his clans when they came together once a year roundabout Christmas time when the cyclones were coming in over the Kimberley and rain would come out to the desert - the wet season. The waterhole could pull people in from those remote places and from smaller hunting bands, and they would all gather … It was a very significant site.

Japingka Gallery was opened and three men from that country came to our launch - Jimmy Pike and Peter Skipper and Huey Bent. We said this is the Japingka in Perth as it was the center for art for these artists at that time.