Feature story Jan/Feb edition 2019
kimberley desert river sea in perth
A much-anticipated exhibition of contemporary Aboriginal art from the Kimberley hits the Art Gallery of WA as part of this years Perth Festival.
♦ Carly Lane, Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the Art Gallery of WA, and Emilia Galatis, Desert River Sea Community Liaison & Project Coordinator. Photo Lyn DiCiero
The culmination of an extraordinary six-year project, Desert River Sea: Portraits of the Kimberley at the Art Gallery of WA is the most significant show of Kimberley art since Images of Power: Aboriginal Art of the Kimberley at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1993, which cemented the Kimberley as a national icon in Australian contemporary art. While the NGV took a typical approach to the show, of observing, collecting and exhibiting, for Desert River Sea AGWA curators and Kimberley artists have developed a new collaborative model where Aboriginal artists and art centres have not only taken part in the project, but have also shaped it.
AGWA Director Stefano Carboni says the three-way partnership between the Gallery, Rio Tinto, artists and art centres is the first of its kind. “Through consultation, and at the request of Kimberley artists and art centres, the Gallery designed a multi-pronged research project to support a diversified and complementary development of contemporary Aboriginal visual art in the region.”
Since 2012, the project has initiated changes to support this dynamic, including a Visual Art Leadership Program aimed at building leadership skills among local arts workers, and enabling curatorial control to stay in local hands. An expansive Desert River Sea website now links communities with each other as well as with the outside world, and an art trail map promotes art centre locations to visitors travelling through the region. In all, six art centres across the Kimberley are involved in the project, as well as two independent artists from Lombadina and one from Bidyadanga.
Carly Lane, Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at AGWA says the project is intended to have a legacy. “It’s a long term creative imagining of how to continue to build and reach out and explore new audiences, and how to work with institutions in new ways in the future.”
The exhibition is presented in three parts – Kimberley works from the state collection, as well as loans, works from Kimberley art centre collections, and eight new commissions. Fascinating in the exhibition is the exploration of new mediums to share the oldest of stories. Artists from Balgo, for instance have revisited glass as a medium. Lane says it was pioneered in the area around the 1990s. “They still had the kilns on site and decided to use the project as an opportunity to re-investigate the medium.”
Emilia Galatis, Indigenous Community Liaison & Project Coordinator at AGWA says other mediums include works on shaved cow and sheep hides and animation.
♦ Droving cattle in the summertime, 2018, (detail) shaved and etched cow hide, 195.5 x 217.5cm, by Mervyn Street. Courtesy Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency.
“Bidyadanga artist Daniel Walbidi, strictly known as a painter, has explored multi-media for the first time by producing a video work for the show. As a companion to this he’ll also recreate the work in the gallery space using salt and pigments, though his subject matter remains the same.”
Walbidi’s subject matter is a story of maintaining culture. Though born in coastal Bidyadanga, 250km south of Broome, his parents were enticed from the Great Sandy Desert to help build cattle stations. Walbidi grew up hearing the Dreaming stories associated with the vast desert, and of the waterholes filled with ‘living water’ created by his ancestors. Now Wirnpa – the jila (living water), is a central motif in his practice. Wirnpa is both a salt lake and a Serpent Man who is a powerful creation spirit. His sons accompany him in the creation story, the figures represented in Walbidi’s work as waterholes in a salt lake.
For Desert River Sea, Walbidi’s video records the recreation of Wirnpa on the coast using salt and pigments. Waves encroach on the emphemeral work, inferring a merging of his desert ancestry and coastal life, exploring the idea of permanence and flux of Country and culture. Walbidi was named among the Top 50 of Australia’s Most Collectable Artists in Australian Art Collector in 2011. He has exhibited around Australia and the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Galatis says there has been a push by older people to explore new mediums. “The savvy older people realise younger people aren’t going to sit and paint and they need a shift in mediums. They say, ‘we need to use new technologies so our stories remain intact. That’s what this exhibition is about – art centres remaining relevant within their community, and I think it’s great AGWA has been able to encourage that.”
In an area with ongoing debates about the land and its use by mining companies, agriculture and tourism, Galatis says there is so much happening that people are in a constant state of flux. “Old people say art was the only tool they had to fight with, and in a way art centres have been a tool to educate and fight for Country. It’s easy to forget the Kimberley has a long history of being very political through art.”
She says art centres remain a constant for artists in an otherwise uncertain world, but they are severely underfunded. “We are one of the most underfunded states in terms of remote art centre funding. Most people don’t know what an art centre does and the difficulties presented to them on a daily basis. I hope audiences leave knowing a bit more about the logistics of delivering artwork within these parameters.”
The project started with an AGWA outpost in Broome as a liaison point. In the last 12 months both Lane and Galatis have made several visits to the Kimberley to answer questions from artists. “Stopping an art centre to make a body of work for an exhibition is not something art centres do because they don’t have the staff and ability to support that, so AGWA was able to offer that support to make new experimental work. That could be from mixing paints through to making cups of tea – making sure the environment was right for people to experiment within blocks of time,” says Galatis.
As a result of the project she hopes other institutions will look to art centres and remote artists to participate in self-driven exhibitions. She says they have successfully approached experimental commissions, and have something to say which is not aligned to the usual dialogue arguably about culture and the Dreamtime, which has fueled a commercial market. I hope other institutions in Australia see the model as valid. It just costs more and takes more time and effort, and institutions have a lot less control. I think it’s quite difficult for people to enter into that framework of operating.”
Lane says the show aims to be something more than the aesthetic value of the work. “We wanted them to be personally meaningful to the people who participated in the show, including the curators. It has been an unknown landscape we’ve journeyed together. It’s not just an exhibition for Aboriginal artists, but with Aboriginal artists.”
She says excitement is building as the exhibition draws closer. “Everyone is very excited. There are about 60 artists coming to Perth for the show, many of whom will participate in the opening weekend cultural celebration.”
Participating artist Darrell Sibosado from Lombadina encourages visitors to the show: “A lot of people don’t know these art centres exist. People have some idea of what Aboriginal art is, but you have people working in the middle of nowhere with nothing, but creating really amazing work based on stories from thousands of years ago. That’s the awesome thing for me.”
“I hope people come away from this show with a clear understanding Aboriginal culture is alive, and it’s now.”
Desert River Sea: A Portrait of the Kimberley is on show at the Art Gallery of WA from 9 Feb – 27 May.
Opening Weekend Cultural Celebration: 10am-5pm, Saturday 9 February 2019 | FREE
A celebration of Kimberley art and culture with artist talks, art demonstrations, cultural performances, and family activities. Learn about the art of pearl shell carving with the Sibosado brothers – Darrell and Garry, and bush-dying with natural materials with Eva and Ivy Nargoodah.
Hear from Mowanjum Arts on ochre crushing and Wandjina Rock art education, or watch Mervyn Street of Mangkaja Arts carve and shave a cow hide. Waringarri Aboriginal Arts will demonstrate boab nut carving. AGWA and art centre curators, along with artists will talk about their experiences across the day. Listen to live music by David Pigram and browse handmade items including carved pearl shells, dyed silks, textiles, and jewellery at the AGWA Shop.
♦ Wirnpa, 2016–2019 (detail), sand installation and digital video, dimensions variable, by Daniel Walbidi. Image courtesy the artist and Short Street Gallery.