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A privilege to witness

Perth Festival review: Art Gallery of WA, ‘Desert River Sea’ ·
Art Gallery of Western Australia ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·

Step into the world of “Desert River Sea”, at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, and the expansiveness of this Perth Festival exhibition is striking. Delve further and you will discover that this sense of breadth is about much more than installation  choices.

“Desert River Sea” is the culmination of an extensive six-year research and development project between the Art Gallery of WA (AGWA) and Aboriginal artists and art centres throughout the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Documenting, commissioning and exhibiting works expressing the cultural and artistic life of the area, the project bridges the distance between the Kimberley and Perth, and – in turn – between art centres and artists working throughout the Kimberley, who are often just as isolated from one another. The resulting exhibition provides a comprehensive overview of the art practices and important cultural narratives embedded in the Kimberley region and spanning the past half-century of Aboriginal art centre production and individual creative practice.

This spirit of collaboration and the establishment of networks between art centres, language groups and geographic locations permeates the exhibition itself. Whilst “Desert River Sea” is divided into separate galleries titled Commissions (works made especially for the exhibition), Legacy (works selected by Indigenous curators for their cultural and historical importance) and the State Collection (works drawn from AGWA’s existing collection as well as some private collectors), stories and images thread their way throughout the exhibition and between the galleries.

Mrs Taylor Aru 2018 ochre pigments on paper 57.5 x 76 cm Courtesy the artist’s family and Kira Kiro Art Centre
Mrs Taylor, ‘Aru’ 2018, ochre pigments on paper, 57.5 x 76 cm, courtesy the artist’s family and Kira Kiro Art Centre.

Passed from generation to generation, these stories often date back an untold number of years. The Wandjina (spirits) float through the skies in new works by the Kira Kiro Collective, a collaboration of works by artists Betty Bundamurra, Mary Punchi Clement, Mercy Fredericks, Mrs Taylor, and Valerie Mangolamara celebrating the seasons, animals and spiritual practices of the artists’ Country. In the State Art Collection, this Wandjina figure appears again, in Alec Mingelmanganu’s ochre on bark piece from c.1972-74. Wanjina images are present, too, in much of the ancient rock art of the area. As I traversed the exhibition, I saw that such conversations abound between the separate galleries, with stories, artists and locations arising multiple times, refusing to stay firmly in the past or present.

As the curator’s introduction reminds us, whilst art from the Kimberley does not conform to any one medium, subject or style, what unites all work from the area is the synthesis of artwork, story and Country – Kimberley art is what it is because it carries the essence of the Kimberley itself. It is no surprise, then, that many of the works are made through collaboration or by collectives, with the act of making or developing the work as much a part of sharing cultural knowledge as the presentation of the final works.

Central to the exhibition is the stunning installation by Waringarri Aboriginal Artists, which takes as a starting point the cultural practice of Wirnan, or exchange. Comprising video projection as well as an installation of important artefacts used in the ceremony, the work provides an insight into the particularities of the ceremony for viewers, whilst also successfully synthesising old and new materials – paperbark and stone, through to metal, wood, and film.

This use of traditional and new technology features strongly throughout the other commissioned pieces in “Desert River Sea”. Warmun Art Centre’s commissions are both paintings and new animations based on paintings, celebrating the multiple ways in which stories can be communicated and voices heard. This is also an inter-generational act of knowledge exchange. Many of the paintings are by senior artists, whose stories of living on stations and experiencing first-hand the effects of violent frontier colonialism – such as Kathy Ramsey’s emotional Mistake Creek Massacre (2018) – are passed on to the younger generation, not only through their paintings and stories but through experimentation with digital media. This combination of traditional and contemporary forms of art-making continues, from luminously bright and colourful acrylic paints on cow hide of the Mangkaja artists to the pool salt used in Daniel Walbidi’s installation Wirnpa (2016-19).

Daniel Walbidi, ‘Wirnpa’ 2016–2019 (detail), sand installation and digital video, dimensions variable, courtesy the artist and Short Street Gallery.

In a similar manner, the concerns and local issues presented throughout the exhibition traverse time, from massacres and slavery to life on colonial cattle stations, and into present concerns about the impact of environmental disaster, land grabs by mining corporations, and native title settlements. This responsiveness to the present as well as the ongoing impact of past trauma is, perhaps, typified by curator Lynley Nargoodah’s selection of works on paper by Mangkaja artists, all of which address the importance of water as a life-giving and life-saving resource that is increasingly threatened by the environmental impact of fracking, mining and agriculture. It is not just the recently commissioned works that look to the future of life in the Kimberley, but historical and legacy works as well.

The stories and art practices in “Desert River Sea” gesture towards not only the vibrancy of the region, but the strength of spirit and survival of Aboriginal artists and art centre workers seeking to ensure this living and responsive cultural legacy continues into the future in a generous and thoughtful exhibition that is an honour and a privilege to witness.

Pictured top: Helicopter Joey Tjungurrayi, “Wangkartu'” 2017, kiln fired glass, 31.2 x 21.7 cm, courtesy Warlayirti Artists.

“Desert River Sea” is on display at the Art Gallery of Western Australia until May 27.

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