Kalumburu Trip, July 2015

July 5th saw us flying to the East Kimberley in preparation for a week in Kalumburu filming senior artists in collaboration with FTI’s Indigenous Community Stories project. Desert River Sea first enjoyed this partnership last October with artists from Kununurra, Warmun and Halls Creek. That experience taught us to expect the unexpected in the most wonderful ways, and this trip certainly didn’t disappoint.

Located on the far north Kimberley coast, Kalumburu is accessible by dirt road during the dry season but the drive is arduous and arrival at the community on time and without incident is not guaranteed. We chose the one and a half hour trip on the weekly mail plane from Kununurra instead, an adventure in its own right. From the air the country is varied and spectacular and time passed quickly scanning for emergency landing sites and sick bags as the little aircraft bucked in the thermals. The trip out included a stop at Wyndham to pick up one of the Kalumburu artists, however she did not appear – the first ‘best laid plan’ to go awry – and we had to leave without her. The  return trip afforded a break at the Mitchell Plateau air strip, which is graced by a dirt-floored shade cloth shed ambitiously named, in laconic Kimberley style, the ‘Mitchell Plateau Airport Arrival and Departure Lounge’.

After arriving we dropped our minimal gear into our rooms at the Kalumburu Mission dongas then set off to the Kira Kiro art centre to see the artists and discuss plans for the week ahead. The infrastructure here is modest to say the least; painters happily work in conditions which many others would reject. The studio and gallery space, essentially a partitioned shed, is too small to accommodate the artists and their proliferation of work. The building is not protected from climate extremes, dust or insects, plumbing is not guaranteed to work and the essential tea supplies are erratic. The tenacity of the senior women ensures that artistic activity persists however. We were overwhelmed by a warm welcome and the proud explanation of the works displayed on every available surface. A jumble of brushes and take-way containers filled with dense hues of mixed ochre pigment cluttered work tables which, encrusted with six years’ accumulation of paint, are evidently also used as convenient canvases and palettes. In years to come an art historian could analyse a cross-section of the tops of these tables and come to some interesting conclusions!

Due to arrive the same day, the three-person film crew were driving in from Kununurra with all their equipment as well as the entertaining Mary Teresa Tailor, another Kalumburu artist unexpectedly caught in town. After blowing a tyre they had to overnight en route at Drysdale River Station however and didn’t arrive until the following morning. Scheduling began to unravel but Desert River Sea undertakings are nothing if not flexible, and everything seems to work out in the end. We commenced filming that afternoon.

Betty Bundamurra gamely agreed to be the first interviewee despite, like the other artists, being quite unfamiliar with the filming process. As well as being a prolific painter Betty is also the main arts worker at the centre, responsible for its administration when a coordinator is not present. She is quietly-spoken but extremely articulate, and once her nervousness passed she interviewed like she’d been doing it all her life, explaining her paintings and aspects of art practice at the community. After sitting on the sidelines observing, Mary Puntji Clement then agreed to sit in front of the camera while working on one of her large intricate canvases. Mary is the most senior of the art centre painters and while poor health sometimes precludes much physical activity, she occupies her place in the art studio nearly every day. She starts a new painting as soon as she finishes the last, never short of ideas and always encouraging the younger women who venture in when other responsibilities allow. She too spoke about her life and her painting until, just as she was starting to tire, the town ‘disco’ at a house nearby cranked up the volume for the rest of the afternoon and made further filming impossible.

The next day we were woken early; a tame (read: ‘quite assertive’) brolga named Lanky was growling outside our rooms hoping for cereal. An open door was as good as an invitation to the bird, which would stride in, inspect for hidden snacks and deliver a lightning peck if none were forthcoming. Once we’d learned to run when his gimlet eye fixed on us from close range, we became quite fond of him, especially after witnessing his hopelessly clumsy landing technique and his ability to impersonate a stork.

Mary T. Tailor’s star turn was next.  Once her reticence passed she too proved a wonderful interviewee. ‘Shy’ is not exactly Mary T’s middle name – she is a great character as will be evident in her edited film segments. We then took a break from recording to turn our attention to six large collaborative panels currently stored in the mechanical workshop behind the art centre. These are a product of a new employment program which is replacing previous Centrelink arrangements. The art centre has been included in this as a means of both increasing logistical and financial support to the under-resourced centre, as well as providing meaningful employment opportunities to younger people in the community. To this end Marion Shaw, the coordinator of the program, assists with the operation of the art centre two days a week. Guided by the older women, the painted panels jointly produced by the younger women were one exuberant result of this program.

The huge plywood sheets were manoeuvred out to the art shed to collective gasps. As a first attempt at collaborative work by largely inexperienced painters they are striking. As Mary Puntji explained, it is possible to see the progressive development between the first and last panels. Two participants, Cathy Bundamurra and Mary Undalghumen, were filmed explaining the content of the paintings, the process of producing them and the positive effect on the people involved. Their enthusiasm was infectious, which was probably why we somewhat rashly decided to load two of the panels into the back of a troopie and take them to nearby Malinjarr, the gorge area of the King Edward River, for further filming. Betty and the two Marys came too, always happy to take any chance to get out bush. They insisted we follow the convention for newcomers and splash ourselves in the river to introduce ourselves to the spirits of the place, (if not the crocodiles). The resulting photographs were worth the effort. We also obtained some moving footage of the women sitting on rocks above the paintings, silhouetted against a cloudy sky. The day was completed by an invitation to dinner with the Women’s Group at the new women’s centre; stew, home-made bread and rice pudding by the light of a fire, followed by traditional dancing to a scratchy 60-year old recording of Kalumburu songmen – the deceased relatives of those women present.

The next morning we had the great pleasure of chatting with Kalumburu matriarch and renowned artist Lily Karedada. Lily first came to prominence as a painter and craftswoman in the early 1980’s; images of works held by the State Gallery can be viewed in the State Art Collection section of this website. Along with husband Jack and in-laws Manila, Louis and Rosie Karedada, she helped establish a strong painting and crafting practice still maintained by their descendants today. We had hoped to film Lily, however she is now quite frail and as we were not convinced she would fully understand what was being asked of her, we decided against it.

Meanwhile, thanks to the efforts of a helpful DRS contact, the artist missed at Wyndham air strip had arrived in the community. We scooped Gwen Clarke up with the others and drove out to Marragarra, a beach some 15 kilometres out of town, where she was interviewed under an imposing boab tree by the shore. This was a challenging shoot for us all; there was some talk that taking the painted Wanjinas to the river the previous day had stirred up the wind and eventually we had to stop filming to avoid being blown away. Everyone piled into the vehicles with the unused fishing gear and we headed back to town to film at the new HACC (Home and Community Care) centre instead. The attraction here is the collaborative mural painted by senior artists, originally a series of works on paper now reproduced in enlarged form on aluminium panels. As Betty Bundamurra explained to camera, these figurative works weave local cosmological themes with depictions of landforms, flora and fauna of the Kalumburu area. Mounted on an external wall they mirror the floodplain and the distant hills to the south of the community and are source of great pleasure and pride for the artists involved.

The following day our attention shifted away from the art centre to the local rock art. Guided by Betty’s husband Dennis, one of the locals who can speak for country in the immediate vicinity of Kalumburu, we were taken to two sites of local importance. The significance of the imagery and the specific sites were enlivened for us by stories of the lived experience of them for the Bundamurra family. The imagery at these sites occasionally appears in the contemporary art at the art centre, as does much of the rock art of the region. The younger artists in particular replicate Kiro Kiro (Gwion) figures and Wanjina in their work while more experienced painters, who also reference rock art, have become much more experimental in their depictions.

That night we were lucky to watch the older women dancing with a group of excited younger girls to celebrate the end of NAIDOC week. A fire was lit next to the old basketball court in the centre of the community while everybody was painted up with ochre. As the music started an audience slowly drifted in from the shadows. Any residual tiredness left us as we watched the joy on the kids’ faces reflected in the expressions of the older women who, despite logistical difficulties, had managed to pull the event together.

The overwhelming impression remaining from this trip was of the resilience of many of the senior people at Kalumburu, and their hopes for forging a positive future for their families and their community. The role of art-making in this endeavour can’t be under-estimated; its adequate resourcing essential. People are literally calling up a future as well as a past in their painting.  We hope that the short films resulting from this week help to illustrate this for those further afield and go some small way to supporting change.

Our thanks to Marion Shaw for the loan of a vehicle and equipment during our visit, and Annie Irvine for assistance with artist liaison. Also to Indigenous Community Stories (Michelle Broun and Devina McPherson) and the enthusiastic film crew (Jub Clerc, Jason Thomas and Owen Hughes) for partnering with Desert River Sea to make this possible. We’ll keep you notified when the films are edited and uploaded to our website. Meanwhile, go to http://desertriversea.com.au/art-centres/kira-kiro-art-centre to see some of the artwork which originates from this feisty little art centre, in the middle of ‘nowhere’ but at the centre of everything!

And finally, our acknowledgement of the warm welcome and generosity of the people of Kalumburu, particularly Mary Puntji Clement, Mary Teresa Tailor, Betty Bundamurra, Gwen Clarke, Doreen Unghangho, Gertrude Waina, Cathy Bundamurra, Mary Undalghumen, Dennis Bundamurra and Kevin Waina.