Visual Arts Leadership Program Workshop, Kununurra 2016

The Visual Arts Leadership Program (VALP) was initially created as a means of both supporting Kimberley-wide art practice and forging sustainable links with individuals capable of being community contacts and conduits for engagement between the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) and remote artists. The aims of the annual workshops are to equip participants with skills which can be of direct use in their own arts practice and employment and, more broadly, their communities. This year the professional development event covered exhibition curation, the role of the curator and the basic steps and tools involved in the curating process. The workshop encompassed theoretical learning as well as practical hands on experience, culminating in a collaborative exhibition organised by the participants.

A select group drawn from across the Kimberley attended; independent artists as well as others working in art centres and arts organisations. This year’s group included:

  • Lillie Spinks (Ngurra Art Centre, Ngumpan)
  • Francine Steele (Ngurra Art Centre, Ngumpan)
  • Lynley Nargoodah (Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency, Fitzroy Crossing)
  • Anthea Nargoodah (Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency, Fitzroy Crossing)
  • Amanda Smith (Marnin Studio, Fitzroy Crossing)
  • Garry Sibosado (independent artist, Lombadina)
  • Michael Jalaru Torres (independent artist, Broome)
  • Cessa Bani (Mowanjum Art & Culture Centre, Mowanjum)
  • Kirsty Burgu (Mowanjum Art & Culture Centre, Mowanjum)
  • Lutisha Woolagoodja (Mowanjum Art & Culture Centre, Mowanjum)
  • Rowena Morgan (Nagula Jarndu, Broome)
  • Betty Bundamurra (Kira Kiro Art Centre, Kalumburu)
  • Nancy Daylight (Warmun Art, Warmun)
  • Marika Riley (Warmun Art, Warmun)

The workshop was held in Kununurra over three days from the 18th - 20th May. Timed to coincide with the annual Argyle Diamonds Ord Valley Muster festival, the VALP exhibition opening was promoted as an official event of the Muster Programme. The Dawang Gallery at Waringarri Aboriginal Arts Centre was the venue; this large purpose built display space usually showcases the Waringarri permanent community collection and with its high ceilings, picture rails, track lighting and close proximity to the art centre was an ideal location for the concluding exhibition.

Upon arrival at Waringarri the participants were warmly greeted by artists Agnes Armstrong & Dora Griffiths who officially welcomed everyone with a water blessing followed by a tour of the art centre and retail gallery. This was an effective approach to the start of the curatorial workshop as it introduced participants to the methods of presentation of the diverse selection of art and related products there.     

With the 2016 program officially underway, participants were keen to unpack the artworks they had brought along. In preparation for the workshop, each had selected works from their art centres or own art-making practices with the intention of showcasing strong, meaningful, and beautiful art from their individual regions. Under the guidance of Carly Lane, AGWA Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, participants learned best practice techniques for handling artworks and condition reporting.  

Once all the artworks were safely unpacked and positioned around the gallery for easy viewing the next group activity was the theoretical focus on art interpretation. Participants took turns enthusiastically sharing the artworks they had brought along and explaining why they had chosen them. There was much interest in each other’s selections and arts practice particularly in the wide variation in media, approach and expression of common themes. Artworks included hand dyed and printed textiles, acrylic and ochre paintings on canvas and bark, painted and engraved boab nuts, prints, carved pearl shell, woven baskets, hand-stitched dolls and bags, seed necklaces and photographs.       

Arguably one of the most challenging aspects of the exhibition design training involved the elimination of artworks and final selection for the exhibition. Participants were set the onerous task of democratically curating the final selection whilst showing respect and sensitivity for each other’s artworks. In the end they narrowed the selection down to 45 pieces.     

The second day of the workshop kicked off with exhibition planning as Carly Lane talked the group through the processes of layout and design of the gallery space. Sight lines, lighting, visual connections, hanging styles and flow were all covered and debated by participants with everyone getting the opportunity to speak up and give their own input and suggestions.

Due to the diversity of artwork selected, the installation phase of the workshop provided participants with an interesting insight into multiple install and display methods for a variety of unfamiliar artwork media. The cooperative nature of the workshop was underpinned by an atmosphere of support with participants skill sharing and encouraging each other throughout.  After a busy day of install there was excitement that evening as Waringarri Aboriginal Arts presented their annual Corroboree under the Stars event on the front lawns and dance ground of the art centre. Joining over 400 other visitors on the night the VALP participants were treated to the impressive Bali Bali Balga, Joonba and Wangka performances by the Waringarri dancers accompanied by an al fresco supper of ground-cooked beef and damper. Betty Bundamurra, VALP participant from Kalumburu who had been officially invited to join the dancing, was beautifully recorded by fellow VALP participant Broome photographer Michael Jalaru Torres.    

On the final day of the workshop the group hurried to complete the last of the physical installation, adjusting spotlighting, sticking labels, doing final checks on the list of artworks and cleaning up the space for the 5pm exhibition opening. AGWA Director Stefano Carboni and Director of Exhibitions and Collections Lynne Hargreaves,  who flew up from Perth especially to meet all the participants and attend the opening, chatted and shared a few nervous giggles with everyone in the atmosphere of mounting anticipation. Each participant showed Stefano and Lynne the works they had contributed and were presented by them with a certificate of completion.

With the exhibition hung and ready for the public, the group happily took selfies and snapped photos of the results of all their hard work; the sense of collective pride in the exhibition was evident. The doors opened and crowds of visitors packed the gallery space until there was standing room only. Alongside the participants Desert River Sea Indigenous Community Liaison and Project Coordinator Philippa Jahn welcomed everyone and congratulated the VALP participants on their hard work and achievements, and thanked the artists and staff of Waringarri Arts for the use of the venue. She then introduced Waringarri elder Alan Griffiths and his wife Peggy. Mr Griffiths gave a heartfelt welcome to visitors and in particular to the VALP participants, listing all the places across the Kimberley they had travelled from and adding his own anecdotes of those places he had visited in his youth. Stefano then spoke more about the Desert River Sea project in general, teasing everyone with the notion that the VALP exhibition was a small taste of things to come, with the project’s major exhibition scheduled to be at AGWA in Perth in October 2018.

The opening was a marked success with the receptive crowd very intrigued by the variety of artworks. Many pieces sold and the exhibition also opened the following day for those who had missed the previous evening. This also proved popular, with visitors including the Kimberley Moon headlining act Bernard Fanning and bandmates adding an unexpected element of celebrity spotting to the whole experience, with the band San Cisco already having attended the night before.

Before embarking on the long journeys home, participants and AGWA staff rounded off the week by celebrating some well-deserved R&R at the Ord Valley Muster Kimberley Moon concert where elderly Kalumburu artist Mary Teresa Taylor entertained everyone with her astonishingly energetic dance-offs with strangers in the mosh pit.  

Since returning home, several participants have mentioned intentions of putting their exhibition curating skills into practise, with Kirsty Burgu from Mowanjum Art & Culture even insistent on doing so immediately, wanting to work on the weekend after the workshop to re-hang their retail gallery display. Others have thrown themselves back into their own art practice; Garry Sibosado shared photos with the group of a brand new shell carving in process the day after returning home. After the success of the 2016 workshop it is hoped that participants will be prepared and enthusiastic for upcoming involvement with Desert River Sea and AGWA for the 2018 Kimberley exhibition and book publication. The Broome office would like to thank everyone involved in making this year’s event such a success, particularly the enthusiastic participants who delivered a fantastic exhibition.