WA’s first Aboriginal arts center celebrates 35 years of supporting Kimberley artists
A cultural and artistic achievement has emerged from the clumps of golden spinifex and the stony red landscape that is the Great Sand Desert.
- The Warlayirti Arts Center was the first of its kind in Western Australia
- The Balgo center celebrated its 35th anniversary
- Four hundred artists from eight language groups contribute art to the center for national and international markets
Warlayirti Arts was Western Australia’s first Indigenous arts center when it formed 35 years ago in Balgo, 260 kilometers south of Halls Creek in the Kimberleys.
The centre’s sense of purpose has been rekindled by an anniversary exhibition created over the past two years through expeditions deep into the traditional homelands of its 400 artists.
Many artists and families have visited for the first time places they had only heard about in stories and songs.
The large collection of new works was unveiled to visitors, who until recently had been barred from Balgo as two and a half years of pandemic laws barred access to Indigenous communities.
The three-day anniversary celebration, which included surrounding desert communities and Sydney art dealers, was a milestone that artist Angie Tchooga was proud to witness.
Woman Kukatja Djaru was one of Warlayirti’s first artists in 1987, learning to paint in a classroom at the adult education centre.
“It’s been a long time – I’m really proud of this arts center,” Ms. Tchooga said.
“I do my painting of Sturt Creek… water lilies. We used to go there when we were little and I feel happy painting my country.”
The centre’s president, Matthew West, a Kukatja Ngaanyatjarra man, feels he is carrying on his father’s cultural and artistic legacy.
In the early 1980s, his father was part of a group of pioneering men who started painting their stories on wooden boards – which then disappeared.
“The older people passed on their knowledge to the younger generation. This celebration of the art center is amazing,” he said.
Mr West said recent trips to the central bushland, up to 1,000 kilometers south of Balgo, have educated younger generations.
“Our people used to live together, gather for ceremonies and pass on knowledge, the Dreaming Tjukurrpa,” he said.
“Now we have to manage.”
Warlayirti director Poppy Leaver said the exhibit, Ngurra Kutjuwarra (On Country Together), was more than just brightly colored artwork on a wall.
“It’s completely part of who they are, it’s part of their family, part of their history,” Ms Leaver said.
“Everything is so interconnected and you feel when you go out into the country people are crying and crying and laughing.
“You have old ladies in the studio who are crippled and walking around, and you take them out into the countryside and all of a sudden they’re running on the sand dunes.
“It’s just amazing for people’s minds and spirits.”
John Carty of the South Australian Museum has a 20-year relationship with Balgo and surrounding communities.
“You can’t underestimate the power of place and the importance of place that underpins the whole art world,” Professor Carty said.
“It’s a great signal for all arts organizations across the country to not lose sight of why you exist and who you exist for.”
Warlayirti’s artwork, including glass and jewelry, is highly collectible, and paintings are displayed in galleries around the world.
Operating a business in such a remote area is not without its challenges, such as intermittent telecommunications, access roads cut off for months by rain, and a population facing poverty.
The center, built on the site where the elders painted these boards, was at its lowest in 2016 before a slow revitalization began both at the level of the management and its artists.
Pandemic isolation allowed Warlayirti to reconsider his priorities to focus on regular cultural and pictorial expeditions.
“Aboriginal arts centers are the cornerstone of cultural economies and cultural continuity and creativity in many parts of Australia,” said Professor Carty.
“As the heart of this community, it provides a truly creative, happy, safe and thriving place to work for the people of Balgo.”
Ms Leaver said the art was ‘two-way sharing’ where the paintings kept the country alive and passed on knowledge, while showing ‘white men’ a bit of First Nations life and history .
“Painting is the only kind of culturally appropriate economic form in many communities, where the vast majority of people live on welfare,” she said.
The UK-born creative director is making a move towards the Ngurra Kutjuwarra collection, many of which already have red dots sold alongside them.
“They’re so special and beautiful and they mean amazing things – they sing,” she said.