Maralinga Bomb

Place Oceania: Australia, South Australia, Maralinga
Accession Number AWM2016.581.1
Collection type Art
Measurement Framed: 105.9 cm x 126.8 cm x 6 cm; Unframed: 101.4 cm x 122.3 cm x 3 cm
Object type Painting
Physical description acrylic on canvas
Maker Karrika, Belle Davidson
Place made Australia
Date made 2016
Conflict Period 1950-1959
Period 2010-2019

Item copyright: AWM Licensed copyright


Following on from the Korean War, the British nuclear weapons testing program was the most significant military event in Australia during the Cold War. Twelve atomic weapons were detonated in Australia, three at the Monte Bello Islands off north Western Australia and the remainder in the desert regions of South Australia, at Emu Field and Maralinga. Two major tests were carried out in secrecy at Maralinga in October 1956 called Operation Buffalo and Operation Antler. Hundreds of minor trials, mostly involving components of nuclear weapons, also took place in South Australia between 1953 and 1963. Treatment of traditional owners was extremely poor, and as a result many Aboriginal communities living in the areas which surrounded the Emu Field and Maralinga test sites experienced severe health problems.

Karrika Belle Davidson, a Pitjantjatjara woman, was born around 1942 near Papulankutja (Blackstone). When she was a child her mother died and Karrika, her sister Tjawina Roberts and brother Tjurparu Watson were taken to Warburton Mission by family. Karrika learnt to read and write at the Mission and has fond memories of her time there. She frequently went back to the country where she was taught how to survive in the desert. When Karrika was sixteen, she went to live with family at Patinintjara, the first community established at Papulankutja, where she worked as a house maid for the manager of the established nickel mine.

Karrika recalls camping in the bush near Warburton with her first son and other Yanangu as a young mother when the atomic bombs were detonated at Maralinga. She and others became very ill and were picked up by a native patrol truck and driven to Warburton mission where sick Yanangu were lying in every building, including the school classrooms. Karrika says of Maralinga bomb, ‘they [Anangu] were all going down to the rock hole. I was a sick one. I had my first boy. It was a holiday. Smell went over when we got there. Big cloud. Wind come in from the south. Some people dying, some people got medicine. The kids were dying, girls, children, men women. This is the real story from the bomb. How we got sick.”

The Arts Centre manager for Papulankutja Artists wrote of Karrika’s work: The circular shapes outlined in green are windbreaks set up to protect from the wind that was coming over. Within these windbreaks are people - men and woman and children - some of them sick, some of them dying. The brown/red small dots are fires. The smaller blue circular shapes outlined in yellow are the many rockholes of Wilkurra (spelling to be confirmed), which was where they were going for a holiday and where they got sick.