Jirrawun Wirnan – the coming together of Warmun Art Centre and Jirrawun Arts


This article was contributed by Warmun Art Centre:

Jirrawun Arts was an Aboriginal owned business and social enterprise that operated from 1998 to 2010 firstly in Kununurra and then Wyndham. Jirrawun Arts was established by Chairman and Artist Freddie Timms and Gija elders with experienced gallerist, Tony Oliver.  

In early 2016 Warmun Art Centre became the legal custodian of Jirrawun artworks and intellectual property. Recently on the evening of Tuesday 18th April the Gija community and special guests celebrated the coming together of Warmun Art Centre and Jirrawun Arts. Founding members of Jirrawun arts including; Rusty Peters, Phyllis Thomas, Freddie Timms, Peggy Patrick, and Rammey Ramsey who have worked with Warmun Art Centre since 2010 alongside their fellow Gija artists. 

Long-term friend of Jirrawun artists, and MC for the evening, Giancarlo Mazzella, reminded us of the meaning of the name Jirrawun – working together as one. The name of Tuesday night’s event Jirrawun Wirnan added the Gija concept of Wirnan – sharing or trade. Jirrawun Wirnan began with a tribute to senior Jirrawun artists that have passed away - these include the highly regarded Paddy Bedford and the recently deceased Chairperson Freddie Timms.

Jirrawun artists and their families, including Phyllis Thomas (Jirrawun Vice Chairperson and senior artist), Rusty Peters (senior artist), Betty Carrington (sister of Hector Jandany - artist), Kathy Ramsey (daughter of Rammey and Mona Ramsey, and recently announced finalist in the John Fries Award), Mona Ramsey (artist) and Beryline Mung (artist and wife of the late Chairperson Freddie Timms) gave speeches on the night - many expressed the sadness and confusion that they felt in their liyan (deep feeling in gut or chest) when their strong art centre, Jirrawun Arts, closed its doors. As Phyllis Thomas stated, 'we had a really strong thing - I don't know why it finished.'  Phyllis continued, emphasising her overwhelming gratitude and joy at now having the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and supporters of Jirrawun Arts.

Jirrawun artists reconnected with artist Peter Adsett and long-term Jirrawun friend Dallas Gold. Gold is the director of Raft Artspace, a gallery (previously based in Darwin now in Alice Springs) that exhibited many ground-breaking Jirrawun exhibitions including Phyllis Thomas’ solo exhibition The EscapeThe Escape is an eight-panel work (in the WA State Art Collection) that reveals the story of the artist's uncle who narrowly escaped death at the hands of white cattle station workers. In 2000 Rusty Peters and Peter Adsett created a significant body of work together, Two Laws: One Big Spirit.  This collaboration was a conversation between two artists. Each painted symbolic forms on individual canvases. The conversation between the two artists combined ideas of modernism, Gija knowledge systems, language and territory.  

Jirrawun Wirnan culminated in a performance of Joonba (Gija song and dance). Rover Thomas' Guirr Guirr was performed followed by sections of Marnem, Marnem Dililib Benuwarrnji (Fire, Fire Burning Bright) a Joonba that was ‘woken up’ by Timmy Timms and Paddy Bedford in 2000. Prior to being 'woken up'Fire, Fire Burning Bright had not been performed in nearly 50 years and had never been seen by Europeans. Fire, Fire Burning Bright made headlines when it was performed at the opening of the 2002 Melbourne Festival as a stage production. This performance was created by Jirrawun Arts performance troupe Neminuwarlin Performance Group directed by Peggy Patrick. On Tuesday evening Peggy Patrick was joined by fellow Gija artists and cultural leaders Rammey Ramsey and Mona Ramsey as they lead dancers from Warmun and Bow River Community with their song Marnem, Marnem Dililib Benuwarrnji.

Jirrawun Arts was a dynamic corporation that challenged the contemporary art world with its culturally driven performance and sophisticated artistic production. Jirrawun quickly became well known for its ambitious exhibitions; among these was the 2002 collective exhibition Blood on the Spinifex which shared mostly previously untold histories of frontier massacres in the Kimberley region of Western Australia through extraordinary paintings and scholarly writing. 

Jirrawun Arts also created and funded significant community based social programs that extended to health and youth."Two way" a Gija kriol expression meaning a collaboration and exchange of knowledge between two cultures was from the beginning the underlying principle for Jirrawun Arts. This concept was reflected in the original Jirrawun board – a unique model that saw both Gardiya (whitefellas) and Gija working together as directors. Geoffrey Webster (former Jirrawun Treasurer) attended Tuesday’s event and spoke of the great accomplishments that were achieved by the artists not only artistically but socially and politically.

The performance Fire, Fire Burning Bright and exhibitions including The Escape and Blood on the Spinifex continue to be significant accomplishments in contemporary art as well as defined points of healing for white and black Australia. Jirrawun Wirnan was another significant point in the Jirrawun legacy that offered healing to the Jirrawun members and all who attended. As it is written in the original Fire, Fire Burning Bright catalogue 'Only when the truth about Australia's past is recognised by non-indigenous people can there be real peace and friendship between black and white.' 

In an effort to continue the healing process Warmun Art Centre directors are now requesting that all intellectual property generated by Jirrawun Arts held by institutions and individuals be repatriated to Warmun Art Centre. Repatriated material may include copies of photos, artist’s stories and any other such intellectual property that has been lost over time due to hard drive failure. All information that is being gathered will be added to Warmun Art Centre's extensive archival materials and used by the art centre to continue to create strong artistic and educational programs for Gija people as well as the art centres national and international audience.

The Jirrawun artworks acquired by Warmun Art Centre include a Community Collection, which will be integrated with the Warmun Art Centre Community Collection of historical artworks.  

Warmun Art Centre staff and directors are now working on an exhibition program for the Jirrawun artworks and will be beginning to release paintings for sale shortly.

For more information contact:  Rosita Holmes, Jirrawun Coordinator jirrawun@warmunart.com.au 0428 198 409


Kofod, Frances, Jirrawun History, Jirrawun Arts, 2005 

Kofod, Frances, The Escape, Raft Artspace online archive, 2002  http://members.ii.net/~raftspace/previous2.html 


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