Balgo, Mulan & Fitzroy Crossing Trip, July 2016

Balgo (Wirrimanu community) is still something of an under-utilised attraction for visitors to the Kimberley. Perhaps the reputation of the sometimes challenging Tanami Road is off-putting to some, however for those willing to go the extra mile the rewards are spectacular. All within a day’s drive of Halls Creek visitors can see the gigantic Wolfe Creek meteor crater, the impressive view of the desert from the Balgo Pound and of course be welcomed to the vibrant Warlayirti art centre. For those wishing to stay in the area, camping is possible with permission for those willing to leave nothing behind but friendship and footprints. Paruku (Lake Gregory) is within reach, bird watchers will never be disappointed and the night sky is one of the clearest in the country for star gazing.     

The Kimberley dry season (May – Sep) is the ideal time to travel off road in the Kimberley. The weather is generally predictable and the risk of dirt roads being flooded or washed out minimised. With this in mind Desert River Sea recently headed to Balgo on the edge of the Great Sandy and Tanami Deserts. The last time we tried to visit we were thwarted by road closures due to bushfire so this time when we hit the Tanami Road turnoff we were pleased to sail past the ‘road open’ sign and encounter a freshly graded track to boot.

Only three hours down the road we knew we were in the desert when a family of wild camels greeted us at the threshold of the community. Scattering a flock of green and yellow budgerigars we pulled up at the car park of our destination, the Warlayirti Artists Aboriginal Corporation art centre. Drawn inside by the dazzling artworks in the galleries at the entrance to the art centre, we met arts workers Geraldine Nowee and Jackie Williams as they prepared canvases and paints for upcoming NAIDOC week activities and Ribnga Green cataloguing new artworks. We’d scheduled our visit to take advantage of an exciting time for Warlayirti, after two successful exhibitions (a solo show for Helicopter Tjungurrayi in Broome and the other in Singapore, showcasing the work of Imelda Yukenbarri Gugaman and family) as well as the handover between new managers Fiona Lee & Aaron Crowe and their predecessor Sheryl Anderson.   

Sheryl toured us through the extensive building while offering her reflections on the centre’s achievements during her tenure as manager. She showed us a large collaborative canvas depicting the history of the art centre, which artists were painting in their spare time for permanent installation in the cultural wing of the building. Particularly impressive was the Warlayirti archive room, a small space filled with carefully wrapped and stacked artworks, as well as sliding shelves packed with organised folders of artwork documentation dating from the earliest days of the centre. This collection is of national significance and Sheryl has directed a lot of energy to marshalling it from its previous state of precarious storage and disarray to a condition in which it can be further preserved and worked on for future generations, both within and beyond the Balgo community.  Much of the material in the archive, including audio and video recordings and photographs, requires further sorting and digital archiving and Sheryl was pleased that a partnership with Melbourne University had been secured to digitally record the artwork stories on paper currently filling the shelves. The necessity for this to occur was the impetus behind the Warlayirti volunteer program which she instigated last year; it was participation in this program which originally drew Fiona and Aaron to the art centre.  Speaking with them about current and future art projects and practical approaches it was clear that their appointment, and the enthusiasm and energy they bring with them, was a positive step for Warlayirti. 

It’s always a pleasure and a privilege visiting and chatting with artists and documenting new activity. It was great to catch up with Helicopter Tjungurrayi again so soon after seeing him in Broome the previous week at his exhibition and no surprise that working alongside him on the veranda studio was Larry Gondora, his best mate. Gondora is known to experiment with paint application, his style is unique amongst Warlayirti artists and his paintings are instantly recognisable (visitors to the Revealed exhibition at Fremantle Art Centre earlier this year would be familiar with his swirling circular design canvases). It is evident how intently he focuses on the canvas he is currently working on as the end of his whiskers are blotted with paint.

We knew it was a busy time at the art centre, particularly with their preparations for attending the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair the following week,  so after we had finished meeting with artists we let ourselves be put to practical use in the workshop fitting frames and stretching canvases. Fortuitously, we were also in the right place at the right time to attend artist and author Kim Mahood’s local launch of ‘Desert Writing – Stories from Country’ edited by Terri-Ann White and published by UWA Press. Comprising contributions from the remote communities of Tennant Creek, Coober Pedy, Mulan & Balgo, the book is a cross-cultural compilation of authored and transcribed oral stories with Gracie Mosquito, Jane Gimme, Joan Nangamarra, Imelda Gugaman, Cathy Lee, Helicopter Tjungurrayi & Sheryl Anderson contributing locally.  

Having hoped to visit the recently resurrected Warruyanta Art Centre in Mulan the next day we were fortunate that Kim was currently working there and happy to introduce us, as well as facilitate a viewing of the large scale collaborative canvas maps that local artists had made of the Paruku area. After dodging brumbies along the 40km drive from Balgo, the community came suddenly into view from the crest of a small rise, with the art centre cheerfully signposted by that resourceful outback tradition of up-cycling an old car bonnet.     

The Warruyanta Art Centre, now serviced by Warlayirti Artists, is housed in an old community building adequate for the needs of the group of local women who keep it running. We knew we’d see acrylic paintings there, but also really enjoyed the other more experimental forms that the women were producing using materials easily available. Unconventional woven sculptures made with scrap metal such as bicycle wheels hung in unexpected corners, and the array of hand painted canvas shoes proved irresistible. Artist Shirley Yoomarie showed us her work on a seasonal calendar for the local school. A bi-lingual painted document incorporating both the western calendar and Aboriginal perceptions of seasonal change, it indicates the times when different kinds of bush tucker are ripe, plentiful, fat and good to harvest.

With senior artist Veronica Lulu’s permission Kim showed us the much anticipated collection of collaborative painted maps combining scientific and cultural information of the region, which she had been facilitating with the artists over some years. One depicted the changing annual burning patterns of bushfires, others showed the changing water levels of Paruku, the links between family groups and places, sites of local significance and archaeological activity. As each map was unfurled from storage with a flourish and placed on top of the last we were fascinated by the multiple layers of information being presented. They are still works in progress, except for the largest which was completed as part of the Canning Stock Route project and is destined for the National Museum in Canberra. These maps stand as valuable resources not only for environmental and heritage management, but also for deepening cross-cultural understanding of place, and we appreciated being able to see them in situ.

Our last stop on this trip was Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency in Fitzroy Crossing, where our visit was timed to coincide with a directors meeting in order to meet with as many senior Mangkaja artists and directors as possible.  Whilst waiting for their official business to be over, we able to not only have a thorough look through recent artwork, but also spend a few relaxed hours with elderly artists Jean Rangi, Tarku Rosie Tarco King and Penny K Lyons as they painted in the studio.

Now back in Broome we’re already planning our return to Balgo and Fitzroy Crossing to implement plans hatched with artists over the trip – stay tuned!