Warlayirti and Mangkaja Exhibition Field Trip 2017

In late October DRS hit the road for four weeks of intensive field trips, calling in on Art Centres working on commissioned artworks destined for the February 2019 Desert River Sea exhibition. AGWA Curator of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art, Carly Lane, was on board for first hand insights into the conceptual background, direction and making of the new works as we observed, assisted and interviewed artists in Warmun, Kununurra, Balgo and Fitzroy Crossing.            

On the way from Broome to Halls Creek, we struck the first snag; our 700km drive was delayed in Fitzroy Crossing because the road crew had shut down traffic to do maintenance on the bridge. While waiting things out at the roadhouse we experienced one of those chance Kimberley encounters; there we struck up conversation and met artist Jack McCale who had just returned to Fitzroy Crossing, he was keen to show us photos of his artworks on his phone and to get involved with DRS. 

After an overnight pit-stop in Halls Creek we hit the dirt road, heading direction Great Sandy Desert. Arriving at Warlayirti Art Centre, we wasted no time in introducing ourselves to staff, artists and the glass workshop facilitator Bethany Wheeler, inspecting the progress of new works in the studio. Activity in the art centre studio was already frenetically underway as we arrived, with a Slim Dusty CD on high rotation in the background, senior artists Helicopter “Chopper” Tjungurrayi and Larry Gundora were side by side (as always), working away on new glass compositions. On the other side of the room the female artists including Christine Yukenbarri, Frances Nowee, Jane Gimme, Helen Nagomara and Miriam Baadjo were noisily discussing the concept for a collaborative artwork around the theme of bush tucker to which Larry Gundorra was all too happy to interject suggestions from across the room. With all the talk about bush tucker, it was agreed that the artists would take us out bush the following day.

The morning of the bush trip began with much driving around the community ensuring that everyone had hats, shoes and crowbars with Jane Gimme and Helen Nagomara directing which supermarket supplies were needed for the daytrip; naturally this included 3 x kangaroo tails, lamb chops, flour and water. A chance encounter with notable Kimberley character Giancarlo Mazzella of Boab Health resulted in the addition of his assistance and attendance on the trip. After everyone eventually settled themselves into the convoy of three vehicles, we set out with the women in the lead directing the way to the best bush potato hunting grounds. On first attempt missing the turn-off, we then ventured off-road down the barely discernible track, following the women’s directions towards a large tree – our basecamp for the day.

Energised by the hunt for bush potato, the women dispersed and scouted a remarkable distance in a short space of time before the engines had even been switched off. Groundcover and chairs were set-up, a fire was made and Giancarlo rigged-up a tarp for extra shade under which the men spent most of the day chatting and laughing while Helicopter painted a canvas and Bonnie James collected timber for artefact making.

Helen, Jane and Eva pointed out vines criss-crossing the ground and explained at which points they indicated the potential locations of bush potato. They didn’t waste any time and soon a frenzy of digging began, first loosening the earth with crowbars and then scooping the dirt out with cans. Immediately enlisted into assisting, Carly Lane, Geraldine Henrici, Warlayirti manager Helen Puckey and workshop facilitator Bethany Wheeler were soon excavating as far as their arms could reach, trying to keep up with the women digging. At one point the frail yet determined Eva had dug a hole so deep it completely hid her from view. In the end, only 3 bush potatoes were unearthed, accompanied by jubilation as each was revealed from its hole after what seemed like hours of digging.

After a worthy effort everyone convened back at the shady camp for a lunch of damper, roo tails, chops, billy tea and of course bush potato cooked over the coals.

The next day, before leaving Warlayirti we were present as Helicopter and Christine Tjungurrayi saw their new glass artworks for the first time freshly fired from the kiln. Despite the understated display of a single nod and mumbled “good” from Chopper it was clear that he was pleased with the outcome of the artwork.

After spending a week of worrying that the rain might potentially shut the road, effectively trapping us in Balgo, we had the all clear to head out. In addition, minor panic had been building as attempts in previous days to fuel up for the return journey up the Tanami Road had so far been foiled by the one Diesel pump in the community having been ‘too hot’ to function. The problem being that the computer inside the self-serve credit card operated pump station was overheating and thus not dispensing any fuel at all. In what was a true Kimberley moment, the issue was resolved by the enterprising young community store manager, himself frustrated by the problem that was surprisingly more common than not, he devised a way to cool down the computer. He disappeared briefly only to reappear with a leaf blower and proceeded to blow the jet of air at the bowser computer, after 10mins low and behold, to everyone’s great relief the computer fired-up and the Diesel was once again flowing. In true community style, the bush telegraph had spread the word that there was movement at the pump and a long line of cars, with smiling drivers, quickly formed behind us. We were back on the road.     

Arriving at Mangkaja Art Centre the first person we encountered walking in to the studio was the indomitable Tommy May, hard at work and on an exhibition deadline Tommy was still happy to chat and tell us all about the country he was depicting in his current artwork in progress. Jack Macale’s ears must have been burning because while we were chatting with temporary studio facilitator Emilia Galatis about his artworks, he coincidentally appeared at the Art Centre with a new artwork to show everyone.

In anticipation of our arrival, Mervyn Street had gathered together an entire bag full of photos, documents, and drawings for ‘show and tell’. Generously sharing his time with us he meticulously showed us each thing with clarification, lingering over photos from the old station where he grew up. Included in his bag were accurate botanical drawings by him depicting bush tucker and bush medicine plants as well as illustrated dreaming and historical stories told to him by elders long ago. Mervyn described how at an early age he felt compelled to draw and he talked about the time when his parents were transitioning from life in the bush to that on the station, recounting how as a child he tried new Kartiya foods for the first time.

Next day, while artists Jewess James, Penny K Lyons, Jeanie Rangi, Daisy Japulija, Lisa Uhl and Sonia Kurrara were all working away painting in the studio we chatted with father and son artists Illiam and Johnny Nargoodah, both talented leather workers. On the subject of station days, Johnny told of how he repaired saddles in the 70s, how he learnt leather working at school and from the “old fellas” and how he used to enjoy plaiting belts, making horse bridles and breast plates. Illiam who has recently found acclaim and recognition for his fresh approach to subject matter and unique style proudly showed us a newly finished knife and sheath.

Proving to be a very talented family in terms of art making, we next met with Bianca Nargoodah and Margaret Albert, members of the all-female ‘Rukaja’ textile group based on the Nargoodah property outside of Fitzroy Crossing. Bianca explained that it was Eva Nargoodah (her mother) who first learned natural bush dying techniques and then taught the others. Bianca and Joan were currently experimenting further with textiles and had begun lino printing, exploring different seasonal palettes.

Impressed as always with how talented, enthusiastic and experimental the artists of Mangkaja Arts are we were satisfied that the new artworks for the DRS exhibition were going to be outstanding and we could head home contented.

Before hitting the road back to Broome we quickly dropped by Marnin Studio, there the women had just finished an impressive collaborative textile work destined for the Revealed 2018 exhibition and were busy making new bush toys, cushion covers and decorations for an upcoming Christmas sale.

Aside from the natural wonders of this part of the country, the artistic talent in the Kimberley is truly a marvellous and worthy reward for those who travel here. As always, it was a great privilege and on behalf of the Art Gallery of Western Australia, we thank all the artists and staff who welcomed and hosted us and look forward to more field trips to come!