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Jimmy Pike and Desert Designs in Ningbo

'Desert Psychedelic': Jimmy Pike is a flamboyant exhibition of textiles and prints on paper celebrating the creative genius of Jimmy Pike. Curated by Gallery artisan in Brisbane, the exhibition, to be shown at the Ningbo Museum of Art, China, features works produced for Desert Designs which was launched in 1985 to showcase Jimmy's work. Jimmy Pike had an ability to capture the essence of the Australian desert and landscape through a particularly bold and striking use of colour that gained Pike worldwide recognition through the application of his art to textiles.

Kathryn Wells

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Jimmy Pike designs: effortlessly Australian and flamboyantly brilliant

'Desert Psychedelic': Jimmy Pike is an exhibition which celebrates the achievements of Jimmy Pike (1940-2002) – one of Australia's great Indigenous artists and one of the greatest Australian textile designers this century.  The exhibition of works produced for Desert Designs is the single craft entry in the exposition of visual arts and design works in China for 2011 as part of the year long Imagining Australia.

Jimmy Pike had a profound

ability to capture the essence of aspects of Australia, of the Australian desert and landscape and to present a unique - and distinctive - perspective of the land through a particularly bold and striking use of colour...

Although it is now a well-established approach, when his work first captured attention, in the 1980's, he was a fore-runner (if not the fore-runner) in the use of ‘non-traditional' colours.  He was simply a brilliant colourist-although as you see from some of the black and white works and designs featured in this exhibition, his work in those forms was also striking.  He was also one of the first to present the desert as a visually and culturally rich environment.
The Governor of Queensland, Her Excellency Ms Penelope Wensley AC, Opening of the Exhibition 'Desert Psychedelic': Jimmy Pike at Gallery Artisan, 8 April 2009, speech

Japingka and Old Charrabun Station

The exhibition also reflects on the remarkable story of Jimmy Pike's life.  Pike was born at Japingka in the Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia.  His name was Kurnti Kujarri and he belonged to the Walmajarri people, and he lived a largely traditional way of life until his teenage years.  With his family he travelled his sand hill country on foot, learning the name of every waterhole and of every animal and plant, learning to provide for all his needs. 

Jimmy Pike, like other members of his family, joined the drift north to the sheep and cattle stations of the river valleys in the Kimberley, where life was said to be much easier than in the sand hills and food more plentiful. Pike did not meet his first white man until he was thirteen years old when he joined his relations on Old Cherrabun Station, where he worked as a stockman. (Pat Lowe, ‘Jimmy Pike: Aboriginal artist from the Desert' in  Desert Psychedelic: Jimmy Pike, Gallery artisan and Ningbo Museum of Art, catalogue, 2011)

The white manager have him the name Jimmy Pike, after the champion jockey that rode the famous Australian horse Phar Lap, in the 1930s, although Pike the Jockey was unknown to the young Walmajarri man.  Curiously, the signature of Jimmy Pike the artist is the same as that of Jimmy Pike the jockey although the artist Jimmy never saw the other's signature – a bold striking angular rendition of the name. 1.

Later in his life Pike painted 'an exuberantly coloured painting of the horse, placed in a Kimberley setting, which hangs today in Museum Victoria, Melbourne, home of both the jockey Pike memorabilia and of the famous horse - so things have gone full circle'. (The Governor of Queensland, Her Excellency Ms Penelope Wensley AC, Opening of the Exhibition 'Desert Psychedelic': Jimmy Pike at Gallery Artisan, 8 April 2009, speech)

From Fremantle prison art class to national collections

Like many of his peers in the Kimberley, Jimmy Pike also learnt to drink. He got into trouble with the law in Fitzroy Crossing and spent a number of years in prison. It was in the Fremantle prison art class in the 1980s, with teachers Steve Culleu and David Wroth, where Jimmy discovered Western art materials and techniques as well as a talent for painting. 

Within a comparatively short time was producing powerful drawings, paintings and prints which are now housed in major national and international collections. Born out of his intimate knowledge of some of the hardest country in the world, they offered a revelatory insight into the desert.

Pike's talent was exceptional. As his art teacher Culley recalls, after an early print-making class with Wroth, Pike took some lino blocks back to his cell and, using his pre-existing carving skills, returned with a set of lino-cuts that 'Matisse would have been proud of'(Steve Culley )2.

Pike proved to be a master of line, and black and white design, but also a brilliant colourist. Preferring to work with felt-tip markers, as they had a frequency and luminosity not found in paint, he captured the essence of the desert in highly abstracted landscapes that shimmered with an often fluorescent intensity. Pike was a forerunner in the use of what, at the time, was considered to be ‘non-traditional' colours.
(Kirsten Fitzpatrick, Curator, Desert Psychedelic: Jimmy Pike, Gallery artisan and Ningbo Museum of Art, catalogue, 2011)

Pike developed his own distinctive style and soon became well known. So extraordinary was his talent and sophisticated his output that his painting Kilji Country was hung in the Australian National Gallery in Canberra before he was released from jail in 1986. 

Parole and a return to country

Pike was transferred from Fremantle to the low-security prison in Broome. Released on parole, Jimmy spent three years living back in his country. On his invitation, he was joined by Pat Lowe, a psychologist he met in prison, who became his wife and long-term partner. Their camp, on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert, was two and a half hours drive from Fitzroy Crossing in dry weather and inaccessible in wet weather.  It was a self imposed artistic exile coupled with social isolation. When he had completed his parole, Jimmy moved to Broome with Pat Lowe, but returned to the desert from time to time.

During this time, Pat collected the stories of Jimmy's life living off the country and these were published as Jilji, life in the Great Sandy Desert (Magabala Books, Broome).  3.

Jimmy Pike was also a cheeky man with a great sense of humour as well as great depth of sincerity and boldness.  Jimmy's first print on paper was of a man with two wives who was running away from them because he was in trouble.  The man creature pictured in the print is grinning wickedly.  On a more serious note, Jimmy was annoyed that so much land was denied to native title.

Following an exhibition in London at the Rebecca Hossack gallery in 1998, Pike and Lowe had gone to Buckingham Palace, where they glimpsed the Queen across cucumber sandwiches and cups of tea. Subsequently, Lowe wrote - and Pike illustrated - Jimmy and Pat Meet the Queen. Her Majesty comes with her corgis to the Kimberley, sleeps in a swag and has trouble finding waterholes and bush tucker. Kilu, the hunting dog, seduces a royal corgi and the Queen finally concedes that Walmajarri country isn't really hers. The book was adapted as a play for the Perth Festival in 2000.
(Pat Lowe in Tony Stephens, Jimmy Pike, Artist, Obituary, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 November 2002)

In 1999, Pike also worked collaboratively with other artsits from the country around Fitzroy Crossing on print  projects.  Pike joined fellow artists including Peter Skipper, also born at Japingka,and Daisy Napaltjarri from the Hass Bluff women's art community in workshops to access and learn print techniques not normally available to them in remote areas.  This was offered by the Open Bite Print Workshop known as the OBAPW.The OBAPW was established in 1998 as an extension to the printmaking program at the West Australian School of Visual Art at Edith Cowan University in Perth.

The print program included one week introducing the Indigenous artists to both traditional processes and also contemporary print technology to reproduce their work. Traditional processes included lino blocks, steel and zinc etching, stone lithography, relief printing and a day working in clay.  Contemporary technology included the use of equipment such as photographic or digital processes as well as utilising presses to print the work. 'The first week also concentrated on the monochromatic and graphic elements of both artists' work so that these could be extended at a later date into either designs for fabric, or prints on paper'. (Clive Barstow, The Jimmy Pike expereince, Object Magazine, 1999 )

The second week of the program was spent at Leewana bush camp, without any print equipment.  This was an opportunity for the students to work all day on plates and blocks in a space that also stimulated their love of the desert country.  This resulted an enormous body of work.

The work ethic and commitment to the process was intense, Jimmy and Peter would produce an image swiftly and with a directness and beauty that had to be seen to be believed. It soon became apparent that for both artists that the similarities between the processes would act as a link rather than a barrier for their work, whether the technology was high or low.

The return to the studio saw the artists laying down a series of textures to be used at a later date within the screen print process. The artists were quite happy for me to run a series of proofs with the raw material, and as an experienced printer make both aesthetic and technical decisions about how the print might develop. It is refreshing to see that artists of this standing are excited about the idea of collaboration at all stages of the process.
(Clive Barstow, The Jimmy Pike expereince, Object Magazine, 1999)

The Open Bite studio entered into an agreement with Desert Designs to act as the printer and publisher for the work.

Desert Designs

Pike's art was so extraordinary that it inspired his teachers from Fremantle Prison, Stephen Culley and David Wroth, to launch Desert Designs, in 1985 to showcase Pike's work.  Desert Designs was a company that would gain Pike worldwide recognition through the application of his art to textiles.  The company was established both to maintain the cultural integrity and also provide economic returns for Pike's creative work.

The printing of textiles was new to both Steve Culley and David Wroth.   The fact that Pike's work was to be printed on fabric and applied to accessories and garments, had no impact on what Pike chose to depict or what he chose as the subject matter for his paintings.

Rather than beginning by designing a repeat pattern for printing, Pike's existing paintings, drawings or prints were painstakingly adapted into repeats, enabling them to be printed on textile lengths. This created a highly distinctive range of dynamic and often intricately patterned fabrics.
(Kirsten Fitzpatrick, Curator, Desert Psychedelic: Jimmy Pike, Gallery artisan and Ningbo Museum of Art, catalogue, 2011)

Pike's way of life, his deep knowledge of the land was reflected in his textile works. Pike depicted both delicate desert flowers as well as the vast expanses of desart sand hills. Pike's work reflected his deep physical and spiritual connection with his land, and a desire to record places or events, either from his past or from the mythological past, that had a specific meaning for him.

For Pike, the desert was no empty wasteland, but a visually and culturally rich environment. The minimal line work of Rakarrarla-Kumanta, depicts an early morning sunrise over the desert: the moment the rays colour the sandhills. Jila Japingka, which became one of the signature Desert Designs prints, depicts Japingka, the main waterhole for his country and people.
(Kirsten Fitzpatrick, Curator, Desert Psychedelic: Jimmy Pike, Gallery artisan and Ningbo Museum of Art, catalogue, 2011)

The printing of the textiles was as new for Jimmy Pike as it was for Desert Designs.  Linear designs, were initially screen-printed on cotton.  This could be done in Australia, using one or two colors.   The multi-coloured prints such as Jila Japingka were more complicated.   This demanded many separations and needed to be printed in Japan.   The samples were each returned to Broome where Pike and Pat Lowe were based.  Samples were colour matched and scrutinised, repeat patterns analysed and returned to Desert Designs for adjustment or production. 4.

Desert Designs established licensing agreements with accessory and textile manufacturers, Oroton and Sheridan allowing them access to a national and international market. Pike's distinctive prints appeared on rugs, bed linen, accessories and garments ranging from fashion to active-wear. Flagship stores opened in Sydney, Surfers Paradise and Fremantle, and later in France, and the most exclusive department stores in the world carried the label.

Produced at the height of the Indigenous cultural renaissance, Jimmy Pike's designs were vivid, dynamic and groundbreaking in their use of non-traditional colours. Due to his collaboration with the company, Desert Designs, they exploded onto an international stage via high-fashion garments, textiles and furnishings, and represented one of the most successful forays into the intersecting territories of Indigenous art, craft and commercial design to date.
(Gallery artisan, Desert Psychedelic: Jimmy Pike, catalogue, 2009)

Desert Designs was an international phenomenon, and it was Pike's textiles that made it so. However, following global changes in finances and fashion, when there was an international trend influenced by Japanese designers for wearing black, as well as issues with the company producing the fashion label, Desert Designs stores eventually closed in 1995. The skiwear, swim-wear and other products kept selling internationally.

Jimmy Pike's prints appeared on everything from bed linen, to accessories as well as garments ranging from high-fashion to sportswear. Startling against the ski-slopes of Europe and glowing against the sands of tropical beaches, Pike's dynamic prints were internationally recognised and loved. ...[Jimmy Pike's designs] were a powerful and highly accessible medium for increasing awareness of Australian Indigenous culture and art nationally and internationally
'Desert Psychedelic': Jimmy Pike in  Imagine Australia. Year of Australian Culture in China

Jimmy Pike died suddenly and unexpectedly in November 2002. Pike's funeral was held at Fitzroy Crossing.

In 2003, Jimmy Pike designs were re-established  in a new form through a licence to Megan Salmon Pty Ltd, a designer fashion label based in Perth, Western Australia, with a new label: DD by Megan Salmon Pty Ltd.  Megan Salmon reinterpreted Jimmy Pike's work in texture and textiles rather than surface prints.  In 2003, the DD by Megan Salmon spring/summer 03/04 collection was shown at the Ready to wear Mercedes Australian Fashion Week. 

In 2004, this allowed brand the Desert Designs to re-position itself with a retail outlet in Fremantle and to establish retail concept stores - DD by Megan Salmon at Sydney International Airport and at Queen St, Woollahra, Sydney.  (Megan Salmon, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Dusseldorf, Perth, December 2005). In 2005, the DD by Megan Salmon collection was invited to show at the L'Oreal Melbourne Fashion Festival in 2005.

Desert Psychedelic

The garments and lengths of textiles produced by Desert Designs were characterised by bright brilliant hues as Jimmy Pike depicted the extraordinary rich life of the Great Sandy Desert.  The works were printed on a wide range of materials: cottons, linens, silks, chiffons and stretch ski fabrics.  His imagery 

 pulsated with movement through his use of oscillating, ragged white lines on a black ground, or the juxtaposition of colours that sang against each other... Whether emblematic against ski-fabrics, glowing jewel-like on silk or drifting weightlessly on chiffons, the textiles vibrated with energy.
(Kirsten Fitzpatrick, Curator, Desert Psychedelic: Jimmy Pike, Gallery artisan and Ningbo Museum of Art, catalogue, 2011)

The oscillating lines of his work and the juxtaposition of colours created an illusion of flowing energy. The lines of colour he used created a shimmer as only the desert sun can create.  The patterns also reflected a movement across country of knowing the country, travelling in it and through it - on both a physical and spiritual level.  It was this quality – visibly apparent in the fabrics - that differentiated Pike's work from other textile artists of the period who were also experimenting with psychedelic patterns.

Jimmy Pike designs were 'effortlessly Australian and flamboyantly brilliant'. Yet, on all the designs, the meaning behind the stories was explained on sewn in labels; maintaining the integrity of each piece.

Jimmy Pike's ... work highlights a new dimension to our understanding of connections of place and identity. Through his themes of desert landscapes, the artist captures the specific dimensions of Aboriginal spirituality and allows us to experience the sacredness and beauty of his land. Kevin Rudd MP, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, 2011, Forward to Desert Psychedelic: Jimmy Pike, Gallery artisan and Ningbo Museum of Art


Kathryn Wells, Communications Manager, Craft Australia, March 2011

Coda: Celebration and memory, the Jimmy Pike Trust

Under the terms of Jimmy Pike's Will, his Executor Pat Lowe was charged with the task of establishing a trust for the purpose of promoting Aboriginal art and culture. Pat established the Jimmy Pike Trust on 18 August 2008 in fulfilment of this obligation. The Trust is funded from sales and royalties from Jimmy Pike's artistic works and from donations from the public. The Trust has been endorsed as a Deductible Gift Recipient by the ATO under the provisions of Section 30-100 Item 12.1.1 following its acceptance on the Register of Cultural Organisations.

Exhibition details: Desert Psychedelic: Jimmy Pike, Gallery artisan, 2009 at Ningbo Museum of Art, 2011

  • The Desert Psychedelic: Jimmy Pike exhibition in 2009 at Gallery artisan, featuring Pike's original prints, textile lengths and the garments produced from his fabric designs, offered the Australian art public a chance to celebrate Jimmy Pike's unique talent and to revisit some spectacular fashion from the eighties and nineties.
  • The exhibition at Ningbo Museum of Art, in April 2011, along with the bi-lingual catalogue, wall texts and multi-media on show will allow new audiences to share in the significance of his art. Desert Psychedelic is part of ‘Imagine Australia', the largest cultural program Australia has ever presented in China..

Australian national tour details

  • The Desert Psychedelic: Jimmy Pike exhibition will return to Australia to tour in 2011-12 to:
    • Tableland and Mundubbera Regional Galleries, Queensland
    • Horsham and Wodonga, Victoria;
    • Tandanya, South Australia;
    • Fremantle Prison gallery; Western Australia and
    • Cowra, New South Wales.

Related Links

Look, listen and play

DD by Megan Salmon collection, L'Oreal Melbourne Fashion Festival, 2005, slideshow.


1. Author, meeting with Jimmy Pike, Broome, 2000.  The signature of Jimmy Pike the jockey appears on the stable wall at Killarney station near Tantanoola, South Australia where the jockey did his apprenticeship.

2. Stephen Culley, interview with Kirsten Fitzpatrick, 24 February 2009 in Desert Psychedelic: Jimmy Pike, Gallery artisan and Ningbo Museum of Art, catalogue, 2011

3. Other titles about life in the Great Sandy Desert include: Pat Lowe, Hunters and trackers of the Australian desert ; Pat Lowe with Jimmy Pike, You call it desert : we used to live there; Jimmy Pike, The art of fire

4. Author, personal observation




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Updated: 6 February 2016