Peter Farmer, Noongar artist, was born in Gnowangerup in 1971. Gnowangerup is a small town in the great southern region in Western Australia, just east of the town of Katanning. Farmer’s family descend from a number of Noongar groups, including the Whadjuk, Minang, Wilman and Wardandi peoples. He describes his childhood as semi-traditional: his family lived off the land and did not move into a house until the mid 1970s. Farmer lived at Marribank Mission, 30km from Katanning, between the age of eight and seventeen. Marribank was previously the Carrolup Native Settlement, which was established in 1915 to house and train Aboriginal children who had been removed from their families in order to be assimilated into non-Indigenous society.
Carrolup was where the renowned 'Carrulop children’ artists had created their work under the guidance of Noel and Lily White, a humanitarian couple who managed the settlement in the 1940s and encouraged the young inmates (aged between ten and fourteen) to draw and paint the bush around the settlement. Their paintings were exhibited to wide acclaim, to the extent that they were toured in selling exhibitions in many parts of Australia, New Zealand and Europe. A large collection of Carrolup paintings was unearthed at the Colgate University in New York in 2004, and a selection of these was returned to Katanning temporarily for the Perth International Arts Festival in 2006.
In 1952 the Carrolup Settlement was transferred to the control of the Baptist Church and became known as Marribank Mission, or simply Marribank. Members of Farmer’s family were residents at Marribank in the 1970s and 80s. Farmer’s mother, Fay Farmer, and many of her relatives were part of a generation of Marribank residents who received government funding to create ceramics, batiks and other forms of textile work as part of the Marribank Artists Cooperative, which operated in the 1980s. The Art Gallery of Western Australia acquired a number of objects and fabrics they created. Farmer, who cites his mother as his primary artistic influence, recalls watching these members of his family making their work when he was a child and regards this experience as being to some degree formative of his artistic inclinations and skills. In 1999 he enrolled in an Associate Degree in Contemporary Aboriginal Art at Curtin University, and went on to complete a Bachelor of Arts (Visual Arts) in 2001. In correspondence with the author, Farmer described a transition that took place over the course of his studies from creating paintings in a 'traditional’ style, dominated by ochres and an earthy palette, to exploring more contemporary modes of expression. Since graduating, Farmer has participated in a number of group exhibitions, including the 'Moorjditch Mar-Daa Art Award’ for the Armadale Redevelopment Authority’s NAIDOC week celebrations in 2006, and the 'Spring in the Valley Art Exhibition’ at the La Salle College in Middle Swan in 2008. In 2007 he exhibited alongside fellow Noongar artists Chris Pease and Ben Pushman in the exhibition '3Nyoongar Painters’ at Goddard de Fidde Gallery in Perth, and in 2009 Goddard de Fidde Gallery hosted his solo exhibition, 'Peter Farmer’ . This exhibition consisted of acrylic paintings that depict the Blue Wren (Chirriger), Farmer’s totem. In these works, the wren is delicately rendered standing or in flight against an expansive, saturated blue field of slightly varied tone and hue. The blue wren can be traced as a family totem back to Farmer’s great-grandmother on his father’s side. In future works Farmer intends to explore the Fire (Churlinj/Kaarl) element of traditional Noongar culture, and find ways of representing the various Dreaming stories of his mother’s and father’s ancestral lands. These stories, and his connection to country, are the primary source of inspiration for his work. Farmer states that he is grateful that his childhood on the land, though difficult, assured him an enduring sense of spiritual connection with, and reverence for, his country (pers. comm. 2009).
Besides painting, Farmer has worked with wood, steel, glass and clay. He has also created public art works, such as Noorn (Snake), a 5 metre high steel sculpture which was created for the Swarbrick Interpretation Site at the Walpole Wilderness Discovery Centre in 2006. The site was awarded the 2006 Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) Western Australia Excellence Award for Public Art in Landscape Architecture. Other commissions include a Noongar Language Calendar and Early Learning Kit for the Noongar Language & Cultural Centre in Perth (2000) and a wall mural for the Aboriginal Studies Unit at Joondalup TAFE (2006). In 2006 he was commissioned by Curtin University, along with fellow Noongar artists Athol Farmer (Peter’s Uncle) and Leonard (Jack) Williams, to create a wooden doak. A doak is a traditional Noongar hunting and digging tool that was preserved for use across several generations of a Noongar family, and this one was designed to serve a similar purpose as a ceremonial mace on formal occasions that take place at the University.
In 2008 Farmer was named Visual Artist of the Year at the Perth NAIDOC Awards. His works are in the collection of the Australian Institute For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Edith Cowan University, Government House in Perth, and the Department of Conservation and Land Management, Western Australian Government.