Balgo Men's Artefact Camp


Over the past few years Kimberley Art Centres have worked collaboratively on a number of projects in an effort to promote and cultivate the unique art and culture of the region; in the spirit of sharing, these artist driven projects are popular with artists and typically result in flourishing outcomes. Most recently, this collaborative approach to sharing skills and knowledge with each other, and ultimately the next generation, was demonstrated at a 3-day traditional men’s artefact making camp during 29th -31st August hosted by Warlayirti Artists in Balgo. 

Fiona Lee, co-manager of Warlayirti Artists recounts, the concept for the artefact camp was first raised by Chairperson and artist, Bonney James, at a regional arts gathering in Perth where he made the suggestion that there should be a workshop in Balgo that involved outside participants, the notion was enthusiastically embraced by artists from Mangkaja Arts from Fitzroy Crossing and Waringarri artists from Kununurra. Funding was secured as part of a creative project funded by WA Department of Culture and the Arts Future Focus program, for the art centres to develop skills, performances and digital recordings associated with 'Wirnan' the traditional trade practice of giving and sharing culture.

Lee tells how the whole art centre was really honored to host the 3-day men's artefact making workshop, a humbling experience for those involved appreciating senior men working alongside young men from all 3 art centres and learning the ancient traditional skills. As Lee explains; ‘We organised it between Mangkaja and Waringarri and all the men came here and on the ground it was totally run and initiated by the old men.’ With over 20 attendees ranging in age from teenagers to octogenarians a number of the younger men had never made artefacts before while the majority of older men, accomplished artisans, had all made artefacts their whole lives long. Lee says; ‘Over the 3 days the chorus of hatchets chipping away on wood was heard from the bush to the art centre. A few bush trips and ‘roo tail cook ups were also in order with some beautiful artefacts being completed by the end.’ Warlayirti co-manager Aaron Crowe attended the workshop in a support role to the Balgo and Mulan men who hosted; ‘Bonny was in charge, between himself and the other old men it was decided where we would go and which wood we would collect, I just drove the troopy and sharpened the chainsaw.’

The first two days were spent out on Walmajarri country, sourcing timber, collecting and making. Chainsaws and hand tools were used to harvest wood around Paruku (Lake Gregory) and the third day was spent at the art centre finishing the artefacts, some participants choosing to utilize the power tools on site and others preferring not to. As Crowe describes; ‘All the old men just spent the whole time pretty much from dawn to dusk chipping away with hatchets.’

The participants travelled widely around the lake area for Desert Oak (Kukupiri), Mulga/Ironwood (Yapirliny) and a particular type of paperbark (Kurrumpa) which doesn’t grow near Balgo, according to Crowe; ‘The timber collected on the first day was a type of mulga not found around Balgo and we drove several hours to find it.’ Crowe stressed the importance of the difference between particular timbers sought, citing occasions of other bush trips spent sourcing timber for boomerangs where a similar variety of mulga/ironwood found near Balgo was avoided; ‘The wood is mildly poisonous and splinters can cause skin infections.’

A variety of artefacts were made during the workshop and finished in following days at the art centre, however many were even completed start to finish in the 3-day period, notably some by young 20 year old Illiam Nargoodah from Mangkaja Arts who made several Nulla Nulla’s (Mukurru) which were subsequently displayed a few weeks later at the Mangkaja Arts stall at the KALACC Jalalay festival in Lombadina. When questioned whether the finished pieces were being assembled by Warlayirti, Crowe explained that the Art Centre didn’t have possession of the artefacts and remarked on the truly collaborative nature of the knowledge sharing exercise, saying; ‘there was no sort of individual ownership on the artefacts by any means, so people could do whatever they wished with them.’

Nulla Nulla’s are large, heavy clubs used traditionally for hunting prey and in hand-to hand combat.  Shields and clap sticks along with a number of woomera or spear throwers (Ngapaliny) were also made during the workshop, these, designed for substantially increasing the power of launching spears at enemy or prey and could also be utilised in a number of other traditional functions around camp including making fire. A number of boomerangs were made including the ‘Number Seven’ boomerang made from Black Wattle Tree (Jarangkarr). It was made evident to the workshop participants, due to its distinct shape, that the ‘Number Seven’ boomerang required particular effort and knowledge to find, process and craft. The older men demonstrated how to expose and then utilise the base and root system of the tree to harvest the correct piece of wood, which begins as a large piece and is eventually worked down into the final, relatively smaller end product.    

The entire workshop was documented via photograph and video camera by Quinton Milner who captured significant footage of the whole process of the men sourcing the materials, collecting and working the timber and finally shaping and finishing the artefacts. Milner will be showcasing a video of the recording at the upcoming Remote Indigenous Media Festival in Irrunytju (Wingellina) with the final edit intended to appear on the Indigenous Community Television network (ICTV).

During the workshop there was reportedly a lot of excited discussion around the possibility of the group continuing the workshops in other locations and travelling to Fitzroy Crossing and Kununurra, however as yet there are no fixed plans in place. Nonetheless, it’s clear that there is popular interest in object and artefact making; Warlayirti Artists continue to regularly make and sell artefacts at their art centre, Waringarri Arts artists are focusing on material culture around 'Wirnan' the traditional trade practice of giving and sharing for an upcoming exhibition at AGWA and with talented young artists like Mangkaja’s Illiam Nargoodah being recognised as a finalist in this year’s Telstra NATSIAA for his knife/tools, the recognition of value and appreciation of these beautifully crafted objects may be seeing a reawakening near and far.  


Many thanks to Warlayirti Artists for providing images and to Jennifer Dickens for Walmajarri words.

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