Desert River Sea: Kimberley Art Then & Now has been developed by the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) with support from Rio Tinto, to create a unique visual arts project which has been developed in two phases. The first phase, carried out in 2012, involved consultation with Indigenous artists in the Kimberley to gain their perspective and ideas on what the project should encompass. The second phase, which commenced in 2013, involves implementation – based on the findings of the consultative phase.
The statements below summarise the most common views expressed by the artists, and were therefore used to shape the project:
Keep culture strong
Painting on country trips
Young people encouraged to create artwork
Need for professional development, to include training and mentorship opportunities
Support and promotion for artists
Need for communication and exchange with other communities
Recording of stories and knowledge
Interest in developing more multi-media projects
Desire for an exhibition
Following the consultation phase during 2012, AGWA shaped a project which would be inclusive of many artists and highlight the vast distinctive styles and needs across the region. Also identified were the specific requirements of those in in the differing age groups represented by those making art in the Kimberley.
Elders were concerned with knowledge transfer and transmission in order to keep knowledge and culture strong within their communities. Since the 1970s the practice of making art has been a significant means of maintaining culture in the Kimberley region. The Ngurrara canvas II 1997 is an example of this, created by artists who are the traditional owners of the Great Sandy Desert area near Fitzroy Crossing. This enormous collaborative canvas was painted to communicate the Walmajarri, Mangala, Juwaliny, Wangkajunga and Manjilarra peoples’ authority and knowledge of their country. This canvas has become more than a picture of country; it is country. Nyilpirr Spider Snell, one of the leading artists and elders from this area, danced on the canvas in Canberra in 1997 where it was unfurled outside Parliament House. The importance of this work and the knowledge held by it assisted in Ngurrara Native Title consent determination being handed down by the Federal Court in 2007.
AGWA’s consultation with younger artists revealed that they too held the views of their elders about the need to keep culture strong. Younger artists play a significant role in continuing the creation of art, maintaining cultural practices and supporting their elders, community and art centre. They also made the point that in order to fulfil their responsibilities (within the art centres) to record stories for their elders, they required more support, as well as multi-media training and experience, and professional development opportunities. They also commented on the need for wider communication links with other Indigenous people working in art centres as a means of creating valuable networks and support mechanisms.
Desert River Sea: Kimberley Art Then & Now is the culmination of this consultation process. It is a project which is inclusive and representative of the Kimberley region’s diverse Indigenous peoples, who identify as desert people, river people or saltwater people. Desert River Sea is a multi-faceted project with several key outcomes that will:
- promote Indigenous artists in the Kimberley,
- bring AGWA closer to this region of Western Australia,
- develop new research and knowledge about art forms currently being produced, and
- support Indigenous people currently working in the arts sector with professional development opportunities.
The first outcome is to create and manage a website dedicated to promoting the art and culture of the Kimberley region, a site accessible to millions increasing people’s knowledge and appreciation of Aboriginal art.
The second aspect of the project will encourage Indigenous emerging leaders working in the arts with support and professional development in an Emerging Leaders Program. This program will increase Indigenous arts workers and artist’s access and interaction with the Gallery, create a network across the Kimberley for arts workers and artists to discuss their aspirations and assist the Gallery in working within cultural protocols specific to each community.
The third outcome is to develop an exhibition that surveys the current art practices in the Kimberley, the first show of its kind since the National Gallery of Victoria produced the 1993 exhibition Images of Power.
 Dayman, K., One Sun One Moon: Aboriginal Art in Australia, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2007, p 252