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Guest ArticlesThe New Generation of Kimberley Artists


Emerging from the Kimberley is an exciting new generation of Aboriginal artists nurtured by outback community art centres, writes Susan McCulloch-Uehlin

The earth and rocks vibrate in tones of orange and red, and the sage spinifex turns violet as the sun sets on a typical dry-season day in the Kimberley. From a light aircraft en route from the desert-edge Aboriginal community of Balgo Hills to the town of Kununurra, the glow of dozens of small bushfires illuminates the gathering dusk like so many glow-worms weaving their way through the scrub.

McCulloch Map

Like these slow-moving fires, the Aboriginal art movement of this vast and stunningly beautiful land is spreading with a life and form of its own. Art from the east Kimberley community of Warmun, the birthplace of modern Kimberley painting, is unique for its artists' use of natural ochres on canvas. Other Kimberley communities, such as the southern community of Balgo Hills and the central community of Fitzroy Crossing, use acrylic on canvas and watercolour on paper respectively, while painters from some coastal areas maintain the tradition of painting Wandjina figures on both bark and canvas.

Kimberley art has always been collected privately and by public institutions, yet, with a few exceptions, the region's art has a lower profile than the acrylic works of Central Desert artists, who create Australia's most famous contemporary Aboriginal art.

The Kimberley's best-known artists include Warmun's Rover Thomas, Queenie McKenzie, George Mung Mung, Jack Britten and Hector Jandany; Balgo Hills' Donkeyman Lee Tjupurrula, Sunfly Tjampitjin, Eubena Nampitjin; the Sandy Desert's Jimmy Pike and Jarinyanu David Downs; Fitzroy Crossing's Daisy Andrews; Derby painter David Mowaljarlai and the Kalumburu Karedada family. Their work has become highly sought after, leaving others somewhat in the shadows and without the support or marketing push necessary for success in the art stakes.

With the passing of several of the most famous artists in the past year or so, there is a perception that art in the Kimberley is on the decline. The reverse, however, is the case. Nowhere is this more evident than among the ochre painters of the east Kimberley.

Art at Warmun evolved in the late 1970s from the painted boards used in the Gija people's Krill Krill song-dance cycle; the paintings of Thomas, McKenzie, Mung Mung, Britten and others made this distinctive art well known throughout the 1980s. Yet the first community-owned and controlled arts centre has only just been established; artists were previously represented by the Aboriginal arts centre Waringarri at Kununurra and through private dealers. Now the art of a new generation of Warmun artists is flowering, offering a powerful means of expression and hope to counteract what is often a demoralising future for much of today's indigenous youth.

The former 1950s post office elevated on three metre concrete stumps has proved remarkably suitable as a painting house. At ground level there is regular shade in which to paint; on "cooler'' days - 28C to 37C in the dry season - artists prefer to sit on the ground in the dappled shade of a huge boab tree. Upstairs is the office, gallery and accommodation for the arts centre co-ordinators.

Over an outdoor lunch, artists such as Shirley Purdie and her husband Gordon Barney, the Warmun Art Centre's chairman Patrick Mung Mung and his wife Betty Carrington, Lena Nyadbi, Madigan Thomas and their families talk of life in the "old days'' - stories of their parents and the land they lived on as children, of their youth as stockmen and women, cooks and station hands, and of the contrast with the more enclosed life today. They talk of the way ochre is collected or traded and the process of its grinding and mixing.

On that day, most of the artists are taking a break from a daylong meeting to deal with drug and alcohol problems in the community. At lunch they discuss openly these problems and others: violence, depression among teenagers, access to their land.

"Of course, if we could go out to our lands more and teach our kids about the old ways - hunting, fishing and what the lands mean - then maybe alcohol and drugs wouldn't be such a problem,'' says Patrick Mung Mung.

The right of Aboriginal people to access land throughout the Kimberley is ill-defined. Indigenous people have a statutory right of access under the relevant West Australian Act to "unfenced or unimproved lands'' (the definition of which is open to interpretation) and anyone can visit properties for a "reasonable purpose''. In practice, however, the ability of Aborigines to visit their lands subject to pastoral lease is largely determined by the individual pastoralist. Some require only minimal formality; others refuse access completely or put people off with repeated explanations as to why it is inconvenient.

For the Warmun's Gija people, access has proved a particular problem. Much of the Gija's tribal country is part of a pastoral lease owned by businessman E.G. Green, including the stations of Mabel and Texas Downs, and the one-time Durack property of Lissadell. During the past few years, permission for Warmun people to visit the properties has only been sporadically granted.. The unresolved issue of access to land makes the explosion of Warmun's vibrant painting movement more significant and more poignant.

Now about 40 artists regularly paint for the centre, with numbers - especially among those in their 20s and 30s - increasing rapidly. Stylistically, too, there has been something of a revolution. Warmun artists have always preferred to use ochre paints, typified by Rover Thomas's uncompromising palette of browns, black and white. Now the range of colours is broadening rapidly, the artists experimenting with ochre mixes of blue greys, charcoal greys, yellows, greens and pinks. Different shadings of textures, from pale washes to heavy opaques, are also appearing. The Warmun artists are really proud of using bush paints, not the gardiya [white people's] colours.

Balgo Hills Art and Artists

A community that has chosen to use gardiya acrylics since the evolution of its modern art movement in the mid-1980s is Balgo Hills, about 800km south-east of Kununurra. Dozens of brightly hued acrylics hang on the equally strongly coloured blue, yellow and white walls of the community's Warlayirti Arts Centre.

Opened in March 1999 to replace an older centre in use since the late 80s, the new $500,000 single-storey building has an open, welcoming feel, with a large gallery, central open-sided office, preparation and storage rooms. The centre mirrors the sense of spaciousness of the surrounding land, bordered on three sides by wide, shaded verandas on which artists can work surrounded by children, friends, relatives and the inevitable dogs.

Comprising largely Kukatja, Walmatjarri, Warlpiri and Pintupi people, Balgo was established in 1939 as a Catholic mission, then came under Aboriginal control in 1981. Unlike the Warmun community's attachment to the ochre tradition, Balgo's art evolved from familial links with the Pintupi, whose Central Desert Papunya community started painting with acrylics in the early 70s. Papunya painters initially preferred to limit their colour range to the desert colours of brown, black, yellow and white, but Balgo artists have always preferred extremely bright, strong and numerous colours.

Unlike the Warmun's Gija dwellers, Balgo's 400-plus community owns about 420 ha of surrounding countryside and has access to other tracts. With several hundred artists on its books, the Warlayirti Arts Centre also doubles as a focal point for cultural aspects of Aboriginal life. It organises and funds trips, for example, for ceremonial and hunting purposes and to teach youngsters the stories of their country.

With many of Balgo's "first wave'' of artists either dead or no longer painting due to old age, illness or poor eyesight, the challenge, says joint arts co-ordinator Erica Izett, is to promote the work of the mid-career and younger artists. Izett and her partner Tim Acher are enthusiastic thirtysomethings with experience in the arts and Aboriginal communities.

"There is such a demand for the work of older artists such as Eubena [Nampitjin, who last year won the painting prize of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award] that it is hard to balance expectations of younger artists sometimes,'' says Izett.

"Exhibitions in major city-based galleries are important, but we have the same problem as every centre; it's hard to collect enough good works without them being sold to collectors or dealers, so people can see them in exhibition.''

Ochre has to be found, then dug out, often from remote locations; and the canvas must be stretched before painting rather than after, as with acrylic works. This, along with the highly individualistic styles of the artists, means the painting process is far slower than in the Central Desert, where artists may be under pressure to produce quick works of lesser standard.

The emergence of a new generation of Aboriginal artists is far from being confined to the Kimberley region. There may be a perception that with the passing of many important "first generation'' modern artists, the golden era of Aboriginal art is gone -- but more than a quarter of the Aboriginal population is involved in the making of art and craft in regions throughout Australia.

Susan McCulloch-Uehlin is Visual Arts Writer for The Australian newspaper. This article is an edited and shortened version for this Website of an article that first appeared in the Review section of the Weekend Australian on 18 September 1999.

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