Ngumpan, Yiyili, Halls Creek & Fitzroy Crossing Trip, May 2015

Desert River Sea; Kimberley Art Then & Now  hit the road in May to touch base with art centres and other art making communities along the trail between Broome and Halls Creek.

First stop was Ngurra Arts in Ngumpan community where we caught up with DRS Visual Arts Leadership Program participant and Ngurra Arts Coordinator, Lillie Spinks. It was great to see Lillie again so soon after the VALP workshop in Broome. She told us about her plans to use the practical recording and editing skills she had picked up during the workshop and showed us how she wanted to implement them in the gallery space by creating and screening short films for visitors. Lillie gave us a tour of the art centre and explained their plans for additional hanging spaces where new works could be displayed, as well as a dedicated ‘hall of fame’ area upstairs earmarked for an exhibition of historical items and works focusing on the early station days.

In addition to the stunningly vivid acrylic paintings on canvas displayed in the gallery, it was evident that artists here were keen to diversify with all manner of other products available for sale including seed jewellery, traditional coolamons, grass baskets, soaps, dyed scarves, tote bags and very cleverly hand sewed painted canvas purses/bags.

Ngurra Arts Centre and the artists who live in the nearby communities have close links to people in Fitzroy Crossing; it was great to hear how supportive the Marninwarntikura Fitzroy Crossing Women’s Centre and Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency are of Ngurra Arts, sharing knowledge through practical workshops and assistance with projects. Lillie showed us a roll of canvas artworks painted by Ngurra artists in the Mangkaja studio during extended visits to Fitzroy Crossing that had recently been sent to Ngurra from Mangkaja. The strong sense of community and positive energy at Ngurra Arts was very uplifting and a great indication of the strength of art and culture in the South Central art making region.        

Continuing east from Ngurra Arts past the stunning Ngumpan cliffs we next visited Yiyili community to take a look at the Laarri Gallery. Nick Try, the principal of Yiyili community school who also facilitates the gallery, was keen to invite us to look around the large and impressively well-stocked gallery space. The artists here, mostly working with acrylic paints on canvas, had also diversified to include brightly painted boab nuts, earrings, necklaces, clap sticks and coolamons as well as collaborating with a merchandising company to incorporate artist’s designs on to clothing and homewares. The gallery is well suited to bus tours which incorporate a visit to the gallery into their Kimberley itineraries. This strategy of bringing in regular visitors and potential buyers via tour groups has been key to Laarri Gallery’s market positioning.

Next up we travelled another 100km or so east to Halls Creek to explore the new building that’s just been completed for the Yarliyil Art Centre. We arrived a week before the official opening and Art Centre coordinator Jeannette Swan treated us to a lengthy tour of the purpose built gallery space, storage areas and artists’ indoor and outdoor studio. Jeannette and newly appointed gallery assistant, Juanita Petrevski, had only just finished moving everything over from the previous premises and setting up the new space.  A smoking ceremony had been scheduled for the following day and we were privileged to be there when artists Biddy Timbinah, Lulu Trancollino and Maggie Long arrived and saw the interior of the building for the first time. Biddy in particular expressed how touched she felt by the inclusion of a special temporary display of artworks by the art centres most prominent male artist, who had passed away the previous year.  Jeannette tells us what the new building means for the artists and the community in an interview we conducted with her - to watch the video click here.

The next stop on our way back towards Broome was Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency in Fitzroy Crossing. A trip to the Mangkaja Art Centre is always a rewarding experience for visitors. A hub of activity, one is immediately drawn in to the creative energy of the place as the gallery and studio spaces are combined and there are always a few artists present and busily working. On arrival we were immediately waved over by artist Rosie Goodjie and her friend working outdoors under the shade of a tree - they were keen to tell us about the recent women’s bush trip they had made and wanted to show us the digging sticks they were finishing . Inside the studio Tommy May was working with a new medium in the form of paint pens on ply board.  Destined for exhibition in Melbourne the completed works were stacked around Tommy as he worked and we felt fortunate to have an exclusive preview of what was bound to be a very exciting show. An intriguing collection of small works on ply board and recycled metal cans were grouped to one side; we learned that these were recently made by Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards Finalist, John Prince Siddon (who prefers to go by the name ‘Prince’.) As Mangkaja manager Belinda Cook enthusiastically told us about the rising trajectory of this artist’s career, she showed us more of his distinctive artworks in the stockroom and also filled us in on other upcoming projects at the art centre. Belinda mentioned bush trips, an upcoming feature film screening in Melbourne and Broome and Terry Murray’s work on the ‘100 Shields’ project. She also showed us a collaborative public artwork in progress which would soon be on display at the Fitzroy Crossing courthouse. As is commonly the case when visiting art centres, there is a definite sense of excitement and potential about the many significant artistic, social and cultural projects being undertaken, as well as the impression that they are sometimes not being widely recognised outside of their own communities.

Finally, still in Fitzroy Crossing, we visited the Marnin Studio at the Marninwarntikura Fitzroy Women’s Centre. Here we found artist Cherry Smiler in the studio space experimenting with mixing paint colours for a new fabric print. She showed us examples of her finished designs and proudly told us how one had been used in the new Marnin Studio logo. Marnin Studio Social Enterprise general manager, Brooke Small further informed us about the finalising of all the designs for the Marnin Studio branding, their progressive targeted marketing and future plans with dedicated stockists. In addition to this Marnin Studio are determined to use their products to raise awareness of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and of the work of the Resource centre’s Marulu Unit in tackling FASD. The painted boab nuts and textile products looked fantastic even displayed in the small space outside the studio area. Direction, product and presentation-wise this social enterprise program is looking more encouraging than ever. Unfortunately, it’s facing potentially dramatic cuts to funding which could dampen future viability just as the momentum for growth is at its best.

Back in Broome, the Desert River Sea office maintains active links with all the staff and art making centres visited, we will be monitoring their activities closely and reporting on projects frequently to promote awareness of the great work being done in these remote Kimberley hubs of art and culture.