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.

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.

Warlayirti artists have put the finishing touches on a canvas depicting the country around the Canning Stock Route(ABC Kimberley: Vanessa Mills)

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.

balgo gallery exhibition
Visitors browse the new works inside the art center.(ABC Kimberley: Vanessa Mills)

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.

Young dancers dressed in yellow during a traditional show.
Young performers perform a traditional dance in front of onlookers. (ABC Kimberley: Jessica Hayes)

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.”

A woman smiles at the camera next to a child looking away
Angie Tchooga has been painting with Warlayirti since her debut in 1987(ABC Kimberley: Vanessa Mills)

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.

A man stands next to a painting with elaborate and colorful patterns
Matthew West is proud to continue his father’s artistic and cultural legacy (ABC Kimberley: Vanessa Mills)

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.”

Meaningful Art

A Balgo child painted by elders, August 2022.
Elders paint a child yellow and gold in preparation for a traditional dance and song celebration. (ABC Kimberley: Jessica Hayes)

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.”

A group of seniors drinking from cups on a bench in Balgo, August 2022.
The elders enjoy a cup of tea at the arts center while the final piece is completed. (ABC Kimberley: Jessica Hayes)

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.

A woman sits on a blue tarp doing a shock absorber in Balgo, August 2022.
Damper is made to feed the hundreds of people who celebrated the birthday. (ABC Kimberley: Jessica Hayes)

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.”

a woman smiles in front of a patterned artwork
Poppy Leaver says the paintings are a way to share knowledge.(ABC Kimberley: Vanessa Mills)

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.

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