Balgo is located on the northern edge of the Great Sandy Desert and the western edge of the Tanami Desert of Central and Western Australia. It is the home to acclaimed artists who established a famous desert art movement originating in a community centre in 1981.

Paintings created in the Balgo workshops during the eighties, unfortunately disappeared, (probably from 1986 when they were last exhibited) until they were miraculously discovered in a shipping container in 2019. The works on canvas are now housed in the collections of the South Australian Museum in Adelaide, South Australia.

Balgo Beginnings is a historically significant exhibition held at the South Australian Museum commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the Balgo Art Movement. For the first time, the unseen paintings are displayed alongside contemporary works created by Balgo artists, who were inspired after seeing the rediscovered artworks.

In 2019 the Balgo paintings were examined by Artlab at the Museum. The works on canvas boards had deteriorated over the years, stored inside in the shipping container which was located outdoors and subjected to occasional flooding. The combination of heat and humidity inside the container created conditions for mould to form. Conservation treatment was inevitable, as several of the paintings had various degrees of active mould damage and staining, and sections of the canvases were lifting from their backing boards.

Due to the world-wide pandemic in late 2019 the conservation work was halted for this project and it wasn’t until June 2021, the Balgo paintings were re-visited. The complexity and scope of the work presented a definite challenge for the Paintings team at Artlab as fifteen works had to be conserved and prepared for Balgo Beginnings exhibition due to open in October 2021.

The paintings steadily arrived at Artlab in batches of four and each painting was carefully assessed. Tests, carried out to determine cleaning protocols and the anticipated results, formulated the treatment approach to the damaged structure of each individual artwork.

The treatment commenced with cleaning, to remove the active mould damage, raising a health risk to those handling the paintings. Protective wear, such as masks and gloves, were worn until the cleaning process was completed and the mould was de-activated.

During the cleaning it became apparent mould had formed between the canvases and the backing supports. This meant the canvases had to be separated from their cardboards to ensure that the active spores were entirely removed from the backs of the artworks. The damaged card supports were discarded and replaced with a Di-bond panel cut to size, to fit each individual artwork. Di-bond is made from polyethylene sandwiched between two sheets of aluminium and is lightweight, rigid and water resistant. Each canvas painting was then re-mounted onto a new Di-bond support panel.

The removed cardboards had paper backings with important intrinsic information, such as handwritten notes by the artists and the printed trademarks of the canvas-board manufacturer. The decision was made to treat the backing papers as an integral part of each painting, which meant stabilising and repositioning the papers with their respective canvases.

The paper sheets were dry cleaned with chemical sponges and soft brushes inside a chemical fume hood and subsequently treated with UV-C germicidal irradiation. After testing the solubility of inks a second disinfection was done, while the mechanical stabilisation was done by washing, removing residues of the backing adhesive, lining on Japanese paper with starch paste and pressing with felts.

The method for displaying the artworks evolved in a discussion between the Paintings team and Professor John Carty, Head of Humanities from the South Australian Museum. Professor Carty had searched for the missing Balgo works for the past twenty years and his vision for the exhibition was not to frame the paintings, but to see the works “float off the wall”.

To achieve this desired effect, the Design Officer at the South Australia Museum custom designed and made metal brackets to mount the canvases to the wall. The conservators explored various display systems and decided on using rare earth magnets, commonly utilised in exhibition installation, to attach the backing boards to the brackets. Through experimentation and a few modifications, the conservators streamlined the fixing process and the team from SA Museum installed the striking paintings, floating off the wall.

Balgo Beginnings at South Australian Museum, Adelaide, South Australia exhibition dates: 15 October 2021 to 6 February 2022, part of Tarnanthi Festival 2021.

View a video of the Balgo conservation treatment in the studios at Artlab Australia, filmed and produced by the Department of the Premier and Cabinet, South Australia, in collaboration with the Artlab team.

Paintings conservators Paintings conservators examining a Balgo painting and test cleaning.

Close up of mould on paintingCleaning mould on the surface of painting.

Conservator cleaning a paintingDusting thick deposits of mould into a vacuum.

Conservator examining back of paintingLifting the backing cardboard to view mould between the canvas and board.

Conservator performing UV treatment of paperDry cleaning a backing paper in preparation for UV-C treatment in the Paper and Books laboratory at Artlab.

Removing mould residueRemoving mould residue from a backing paper.

Removing adhesive residue.Adhesive residue removed from a backing paper.

Conservators treating paper backingLaying original backing on to Japanese paper prepared with starch.

Paper conservator exhibition preparationOne of the backing papers is Interleaved with felts and bondina in preparation for pressing.

Conservators pressing paper itemPressing a backing paper interleaved between felts and bondina.

Conservator preparing and cutting paperTrimming the edges of the Japanese paper now adhered to the backing paper.

Conservators flattening canvasesBalgo canvases flattened on top of a vacuum hot table in the Paintings laboratory after deactivating mould residue from the canvases.

Conservator rolling a paintingRolling a remounted painting on to a Di-Bond panel backing board.

Conservator preparing back of paintingPreparing the back of a Di-bond panel before fixing the conserved backing papers.

Exhibition designer installing bracketsJeremy Green, Exhibition Designer at South Australian Museum fastening the custom-made brackets for Balgo Beginnings exhibition.

Museum manager installing paintingAlice Beale, Senior Collection Manager – Humanities and World Cultures at South Australian Museum installing conserved Balgo paintings.

Museum staff installing Balgo paintingsJeremy Green; Tim Gilchrist, Manager, Temporary Exhibitions & Special Projects at South Austrlian Museum and Alice Beale, installing Balgo paintings for Balgo Beginnings exhibition.