Among the mines and cattle of Western Australia’s tough north, a rich art scene is emerging that reflects both culture and landscape.

Story By John Dunn

The Pilbara may well mean mining to most – iron, and the massive machinery that extracts and processes it, the seemingly endless ore trains, and big bulk carriers lining up at the ports. To many it will also mean cattle – the mobs that graze across giant plains at stations such as “Mulga Downs”, “Coolawanyah”, “Hillside” and “Mount Brockman”.
The imagery of both these West Australian industries is tough and rough; it’s country where work is hard and the conditions are harsh. But the Pilbara has another side, perhaps an unlikely aspect, that is soft and creative and one that embraces paintbrushes and palettes, canvas and colour tubes, precious stones and fashionable designs. The tiny town of Cossack is the home of the Pilbara’s alter ego – its art scene.
Cossack is a long way from Australia’s cultural centres – for a start it’s 1570 kilometres from Perth – but in its own way, and from a very small base, it is emerging as a significant spot in the make-up of the nation’s cultural scene. The town’s annual art award – held in July and August each year – develops and expands from year to year and its art groups are also flourishing. From humble beginnings 15 years ago, the award is now recognised nationally and respected internationally as the world’s most isolated acquisitive art exhibition. Last year, the prize pool was $76,000 and the 263 entries (up from 113 in the award’s first year) were valued at $480,000.
Because of its history and the preservation of its buildings, Cossack is a splendid setting for a cultural centre. While it has a population of just two – the caretaker and his wife – its other numbers are large and impressive. They begin as far back as 1699 when William Dampier sailed here, coming ashore on nearby Enderby Island. More than a century and a half passed before Walter Padbury landed stock at the mouth of the Harding River. Cossack, named after the naval ship that brought Governor Weld on an official visit in 1871, was built by the river as the first port in the state’s north-west.

This story excerpt is from Issue #60

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sept 2008