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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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Desert River Sea Portraits of the Kimberley
April 19, Calendar, February 19, March 19, May 19, Visual arts

Visual Arts: Desert River Sea: Portraits of the Kimberley

9 Feb – 27 May @ Art Gallery of WA ·
Presented by Art Gallery of WA, various artists
and Kimberley art centres ·

Desert River Sea: Portraits of the Kimberley is the highly anticipated culmination of the Art Gallery of WA’s six-year Kimberley visual arts project, supported by Rio Tinto. This landmark exhibition showcasing the vibrant and contemporary creative talent of Kimberley artists opens with a cultural celebration on 9 February 2019.

New works from six Kimberley art centres and three independent artists will be presented alongside a selection of legacy works from art centre collections. Together with works from AGWA’s collection, the exhibition offers a rare experience of the land, artists and art of the Kimberley.

Artists and art centres represented in the Desert River Sea exhibition
include: Darrell & Garry Sibosado (Lombadina); Daniel Walbidi (Bidyadanga);
Kira Kiro Art Centre (Kalumburu) and artist collectives from Mangkaja
Arts Resource Agency (Fitzroy Crossing); Mowanjum Aboriginal Art & Culture
Centre (Mowanjum); Waringarri Aboriginal Arts (Kununurra); Warlayirti
Artists (Balgo); and Warmun Art Centre (Warmun).

The exhibition has been shaped by the people and the places of the Kimberley. Artists and art centres have embraced the opportunity to share their stories of country and lived experience through innovative contemporary art practice.

Opening Weekend Cultural Celebration | FREE
10am-5pm, 9 February 2019
Join AGWA for an unmissable celebration of Kimberley culture with artist talks and art demonstrations, cultural performances, and family activities.

On Sacred Ground Screening & Talk
6pm, Sunday 24 February | FREE
Perth Cultural Centre Screen and Northbridge Screen

Attend a special screening of the 1980 documentary On Sacred Ground with a keynote introduction by the film’s original narrator Ribnga Green Snr.

Q&A at 6pm
Film at 6.30pm
Concludes at 7.30pm

Politically censored by the Federal government for several years after its production, the film explores the importance of Country to Aboriginal people and investigates the well-publicised Aboriginal struggle to stop mining at Noonkanbah Station, an Aboriginal owned cattle station in the Kimberley, during the late 1970s. On Sacred Ground captures a particular moment in time for the Kimberley, however, echoes contemporary political negotiations.

On Sacred Ground is also screening at AGWA from 9 Feb – 20 May 2019, as part of the Desert River Sea exhibition.

More info
W: www.artgallery.wa.gov.au/exhibitions/desert-river-sea-exhibition-experience.asp
E:  admin@artgallery.wa.gov.au

Pictured:  Sonia Kurarra Noonkanbah Highway 2018 (detail). Synthetic polymer on cow hide, 140 x 268 cm. Courtesy Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency.

 

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