Mowanjum Daytrip, August 2015

Desert River Sea currently has a focus on the North West Kimberley. Having recently visited Kalumburu, Mowanjum Art and Culture Centre near Derby was next on our field trip itinerary. This visit was short, as it was made at an hour’s notice to catch the last day of a woodblock printing workshop - a rare spontaneity only possible because Derby is just two hours’ drive from our base in Broome. We look forward to returning soon, such was the warm welcome and generosity shown in sharing art centre activities with us.

Mowanjum has been placing increasing emphasis on studio development and has embarked on a 12 month plan for workshops using new media and techniques, as well as reviving traditional craft practices and materials. Earlier this year Basil Hall conducted a successful woodblock printing workshop, and now that a press has been purchased this has been followed up with this week’s ‘mark-making’ workshop with artist/master craftperson Terry Baker from NSW. People were busy finishing off pieces when we were there. Some had carved blocks for printing and the results were already rolling off the press. Others were experimenting with relief carving and painting pine panels to stand as pieces in their own right. Earlier that week some of the men had gone out bush to cut a particular native softwood tree for use in this way and the freshly cut panels were curing on the studio verandah awaiting future use.

Wood incising is not a new technique for Mowanjum people, for whom engraving boab nuts and wooden implements such as shields for their own use and for exchange and sale, has a long history. Wood-block printing is a logical choice for extension of pre-existing skills into a new medium. The success of these workshops has been borne out by the fact that while we were there prints were being sold as the ink was drying. We sat down with Marylou Divilli to discuss her involvement…

Marylou identifies as Nyikina and Ngarinyin, both from her mother’s side. She lives at Yurmulun (Pandanus Park) community located on the Fitzroy River fifty km south of Derby, and comes in to Mowanjum to work half each day at the media centre and archive. She has young children and does most of her own artwork at home on weekends. She says the main reason she paints is to learn more about culture and is inspired by the older people – she likes the way they tell stories and sing. Commercial gain is not a motivating factor; she wants people to know her work, and through it her identity.

Not limited to working in one media, a photograph Marylou took is currently hanging in the Shinju Art Prize exhibition and she also loves to paint. She prefers ochre to acrylic when working on canvas as she loves the colours of earth pigments and the effects they produce when mixed together. She paints mostly animals such as possum and her totem animal the saltwater barramundi, but also enjoys painting stories.

Marylou says she likes to work in a spontaneous style; “a little bit rougher like the rock art. I like to experiment in my art, to try to make it look different.”  We watched her apply different pigments to a carved panel depicting a Wanjina head and two snakes as she explained her intention to sand this back to reveal complex layers of colour. Her reference for this image was an old photograph of a Ngarinyin rock art site taken during the Frobenius Expedition of 1939, when German anthropologists visited the North West Kimberley for research into Aboriginal culture. She had also just completed engraving a wood block impression of a fish, another rock art motif from her mother’s country. She used a small craft drill for some of this but preferred the hand tools, as she said they gave her more control and are best for the detail she was seeking. This striking image had already been printed and she was really happy with the result of her first effort in this medium.

Leaving Marylou to continue her work, we then chatted to Petrina Bedford. Petrina is only seventeen and can claim two major Kimberley painters (now deceased) as grandparents – Nyunkuny Paddy Bedford on her father’s side and Jack Dale Mengenen on her mother’s, but already has established herself as a dedicated artist in her own right. Remarkably, she first exhibited paintings at a commercial gallery in Perth at age twelve, when three of her canvases were hung alongside the work of her maternal grandfather.

The oldest of seven girls, Petrina has Gija affiliations on her father’s side and Ngarinyin on her mother’s and lives at Imintji community 230 km east of Derby along the Gibb River Road. She was exceptionally close to her maternal grandfather, who passed away two years ago. He first encouraged her to paint as a young girl; “painting makes me sad because I think about him, I miss him a lot. But it also makes me feel close to him. I think he might be proud of me now”. She was clearly greatly influenced by her grandfather who, she says, took a special interest in her. At lunch, she managed to completely distract us from eating with her softly spoken yet highly expressive renditions of stories from Ngarinyin country.

Petrina uses her own style when painting, but the subjects she turns to are similar to her grandfather’s; Wanjina and classical stories relevant to her family. She loves to experiment with pattern, very evident in her boab nut carving, a technique at which she excels. Her painting style is looser than her carving in which her mark making, when using just a sharp pen knife, can be exceptionally detailed and precise. Her skills in wood engraving were immediately reflected in her first wood block print, a refined depiction of an Arawadi figure (see image above). 

Before returning to Broome we managed to spend time with staff member Maitland Ngerdu who demonstrated the use of the Storylines database. Developed in partnership with the State Library of Western Australia, this assists in ‘the digital return of photos and other materials directly to Aboriginal families, communities and people… The Ara Irititja software which the system is based on allows objects, people, places, stories, plant, animals and technology to be tagged and linked within the system to create vast knowledge profiles which reflect the many languages, stories and perspectives of Aboriginal Western Australia. Storylines is uniquely capable of adhering to cultural protocols, and supports media types including video and audio.’(SLWA website).  Maitland is clearly passionate about his work and thanks to him we gained a fascinating insight into the value of this database to the Mowanjum art centre and community. Several thousand historic photographs from a number of sources have been uploaded with their documentation an ongoing process. Not only have families been able to identify and reconnect with images of their own histories, but photographs of early cultural practices are a valuable resource for artists.

We look forward to returning to Mowanjum in the near future for further documentation of these and other new developments. Desert River Sea will keep you posted