Roebuck Bay to Ord River Field Trip, Sep/Oct 2015

Desert River Sea recently returned from another cross-Kimberley journey, following the Kimberley Aboriginal Art trail. The trip resulted in short visits to 6 art-making centres as well as many discussions with artists about current activities, their ambitions and concerns. Motivated by the gathering of multiple art centre representatives in Kununurra for the annual ANKAAA (Association of Northern Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists) Kimberley Regional meeting, we took advantage of this infrequent assembly of Kimberley artists and arts workers in the one place and set out in the early morning for the 1000km drive from Broome to Kununurra.      

This year the venue for the meeting was Waringarri Aboriginal Arts Centre. Artists Agnes Armstrong & Phyllis Ningarmara officially welcomed everyone and performed a water blessing on visitors. The excellent Dawang Gallery exhibition space was transformed into a meeting area as artworks by past senior Waringarri artists watched over the proceedings from the walls.

A highlight of this annual meeting is hearing the news updates from artists and staff representatives about each art centre achievements and programs. Any initial nerves about public speaking soon melted away with the distinct sense of pride and gratification conveyed by those reporting on the past year’s accomplishments. Highlights included accounts of travel for domestic and international exhibitions, artists winning nationally significant awards, professional development undertaken, painting and printing workshops, public art projects, cultural tourism initiatives and new publications. Waringarri Aboriginal Arts chose to add an audio visual component to their art centre update by screening the film that Desert River Sea produced with Indigenous Community Stories there in October last year. It was delightful hearing the ripples of laughter and watching the faces of the artists and families sitting in the audience who were featured in the film.  Desert River Sea had a chance to report on recent activities as well as AGWA’s 2018 Kimberley exhibition, upcoming film trips, the website and newsletter as well as direction for the 2016 visual arts leadership program.     

A persistent theme was the importance of teaching language and traditional knowledge to youth. Whether it be language classes at Warmun, artifact workshops with kids at Mangkaja, or bush tucker trips with young people at Warlayirti, almost every art centre conveyed that they either already prioritise, or aspire to exploring, upcoming programs to teach and engage youth, as well as record stories, song, dance and language for future generations. More challenging aspects of art centre operations such as struggling money story and staffing issues were also able to be openly aired and discussed. This is an important element of these meetings as the potential for problem solving is greatly increased by shared knowledge and experiences, not to mention the comfort of an empathetic ear. ANKAAA staff initiated workshop discussions on the subjects of art centre sustainability, and art/culture and homelands; this resulted in a consensus on the desirability of producing a map highlighting the important links between art-making and homelands. Then later that evening, with the full moon rising over Kelly’s Knob as backdrop, the Waringarri dancers treated everyone to a special Joonba dance and song performance followed by an outdoor screening of the award winning documentary “Putuparri and the Rainmakers”.

The following day there were group discussions on the topic of Digital & Other Archiving in art centres. This kicked off a fascinating dialogue where a number of art centres had quite a lot to say - for a more in depth article on this subject by Philippa Jahn click here. After the ANKAAA formalities were over artists and arts workers with ties to the Kimberley Artists Association (KAA) gathered to talk about the possibility of new collaborative projects. This was a true brainstorming session steered by artists and arts workers unimpeded by an agenda; participants spoke from the heart about what was most important to them. Chris Griffiths from Warmun Arts presided and the topics that clearly resonated with everyone were the sharing of cultural knowledge, Joonba performance and the importance of recognising song-lines and their connections across the country.

First thing Thursday morning we hit the road and headed on to Warmun Art Centre. Always a pleasure to visit, the Warmun gallery was looking spectacular, brimming with new works which proved a serious distraction from our mission to chat with staff about current activities. Warmun Art is presently going through a change of staff; we were pleased to meet the new manager Cherie McNeill and temporary gallery manager Cher Breeze.  During discussion with Project & Programs Coordinator Alana Hunt, the artist priorities raised at the KAA meeting in Kununurra were echoed here; Warmun artists are especially keen on carrying out projects which prioritise knowledge transmission, with so many ageing artists there’s a unified compulsion in community to teach the youngest generation of Gija people. In the stockroom, away from the eyes of customers, Alana showed us a steadily growing collection of paintings by Shirley Purdie. A truly ambitious project, Shirley is compiling an encyclopedic record of local plants, bush medicines and bush foods. The publication accompanying the paintings will be bi-lingual using both Gija and English. Another proposal close to the heart of artists is the Joonba project. This focuses on supporting the teaching and revival of Joonba performance not intended for broad public consumption. The advantages and outcomes of cultural programs such as these are plentiful, however the challenge Warmun Art faces (indeed, the same can be said for all art centres) is the difficult task of generating enough income so the art centre can continue to support them.

Heading further south, our next destination was Yarliyil Art Centre in the town of Halls Creek.  The town welcomes visitors with a sign prominently featuring four paintings by Art Centre artists. This, along with a number of other artworks displayed on shop fronts along the main street, indicated how the town shire esteems and supports their local artists (having also championed the building of a newly purpose built art centre.)

On our previous visit in May the building had only just opened; it had a great sense of potential but at that stage was untested and staff were still unsure how artists would react to the new space.  It was brilliant to see the studio being utilised as it had been intended however, with artists comfortably engrossed in their work. The new art centre has been busy; in the packing area we were shown collaborative paintings on plywood commissioned for a public art project at the Halls Creek school.  These artworks were to be scanned and reproduced on Vitrapanel for installation (similar to the mural at the Boab Health Centre in Kununurra, designed by the same architects.) Artists involved included; Thomas (Tee-jay) Worrigal, Barry Demi, Jeannette Swan, Deirdre Butters and Juanita Petrevski, all whom had attended the school when younger.

Our visit to Yarliyil coincided with a painting workshop being run by visiting consultant Edwina Circuitt while manager Jeannette Swan took a well-earned break. The workshop period was nearing its end and Edwina was reflecting on its success, the evidence of which was scattered around the studio and stacked against the walls in the form of paintings on ply and canvas. Edwina referred to her initial approach as a “delicate dance” explaining that it took time as participants needed to build up trust first. She revealed how she started by talking to an artist about what most interested them. This eventually led to refining subject matter and encouragement to map out a story compositionally and stylistically. Some artists clearly enjoyed experimenting in this regard. Janet Dreamer’s work was particularly exciting to see as the development of her distinctive style was exposed in a series of bold canvases. We were told of encouraging preliminary discussions regarding an exhibition of Janet’s work at a gallery in Sydney with a reputation for recognising emerging talent. For more information about Janet Dreamer click here.

Following on from her successful establishment of an art program at the Aged Care facility in Wanarn (in the Gibson Desert), Edwina has been trialing something similar at the Halls Creek Frail Aged Hostel, DRS Coordinator, Philippa Jahn accompanied Edwina to see the program in action. For more details click here.

After Halls Creek we were looking forward to heading down the Tanami road to visit Warlayirti Artists in Balgo. Unfortunately, due to extreme weather conditions and bushfires the road had been officially closed. We decided to wait a day but the road remained off-limits; hugely disappointed we had to forgo Balgo and continue west. The ABC Kimberley radio morning show did a call-out for talkback about how the closures affected people in the area and we spoke to Vanessa Mills about the Desert River Sea field trip and highlighted the effect the road closure would have on the art centre. We are planning to go back to Balgo for an extended visit as soon as possible but realistically this is likely to be next year as wet season rain will frequently make this remote dirt road impassable.

Our next stop was Ngumpan community to visit Ngurra Arts. We were looking forward to meeting arts worker Francine Steele for the first time. Francine works alongside Lillie Spinks at the art centre; between themselves and Corinthian Crowe they take care of art centre operations as there is currently no coordinator. Francine told us they had been receiving tourist visitors during the dry season and how community members were painting in the studio each Wednesday. She said that the bush seeds and gumnuts used for jewellery-making could be found in close walking distance from the building and also showed us some fascinating examples of grinding stones and other stone tools of indeterminate age found nearby. Francine herself also paints in her spare time and has previously exhibited paintings alongside her uncle Jimmy Pike. In the gallery we spotted some unusual, vibrant handbags sewn together from painted canvas. It was Francine’s idea to recycle paintings in this way and everyone had agreed they would be a fantastic addition to the gallery - it’s always inspiring to see innovative ideas like this in action.  

Moving on to Fitzroy Crossing our first stop was Mangkaja Arts. Within steps of the front gate, here we were able to chat with Sonia Kurrara and Nada Rawlins as they started on new paintings on the shady front verandah. Inside, Lisa Uhl was positioned in the centre of the studio engrossed in her latest artwork destined for exhibition, the art centre space as always functioning as a captivating fusion of studio and gallery. We caught up with manager Belinda Cook who is always keen to share news on upcoming projects about which her evident excitement is infectious. We were shown new prints, collaborative boards painted with school kids as part of a community program and artworks resulting from artist experimentation with new media. Perhaps the most inventive experimentation taking place in the studio was aimed at artists traditionally focused on carving (boab nuts for example). Studio coordinator Wes Maselli has been working with men who are turning their talents to engraving designs on metal sheets. Painted in a thin layer of acrylic, the metal is artfully worked by scraping away the surface layer and revealing the metal beneath. The sheet is then mounted on plywood for display. This new method offers carvers the chance to extend their practice beyond the constraints of the ‘craft’ tag to the fine art category, alongside their colleagues painting on canvas. We look forward to hearing about the audience response to the new works when they are first seen at exhibition.   

Our last visit on the trail before heading back to Broome was Marnin Studio. It was a hive of activity when we arrived, as the women worked to a deadline finishing an order for 300 painted boab nuts for The Ark Clothing Company in Melbourne. Coordinator Brooke Small showed us prototypes for multiple upcoming projects and explained how a seasonal colour palette had been developed by the artists, there was a definite sense of excitement and ‘buzz in the air’. For a more in depth report on what’s currently happening at Marnin Studio click here.

All the art centres we called in on during this trip welcome visitors and we encourage you to do so! For locations and contact details refer to http://desertriversea.com.au/art-centres#type=art-centres&start=0&limit=13&filter=all¶m= pick up the brochure or download the PDF of our Kimberley Aboriginal Art Trail map.