Desert River Sea: Portraits of the Kimberley

It’s been a long time coming. Thirty-three years ago the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) pioneered with its early exhibition ‘Art from the Great Sandy Desert’ – a show from the Balgo community including such masters as Wimmitji Tjapangarti, Eubena Nampitjin and Sunfly Tjampitjin. Despite that show’s title, Balgo is included in the Kimberley community because it was one of the townships right across the Kimberley where desert people took refuge from drought, mining and the pastoral industry which were forcing them from traditional Country.

But the Kimberley art baton was then taken up by the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne with its 1993 exhibition, ‘Images of Power’; the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra with a Rover Thomas solo in 1994; the Art Gallery of New South Wales with the East Kimberley’s ‘True Stories’ in 2003; and the Desert/Kimberley interface featured at the National Museum in 2006 in its wonderful ‘Yiwarra Kuju’ assembly.

Now AGWA is catching up in spades.

Daniel Walbidi, Wirnpa, (detail), 2016–2019, sand installation and digital video, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist, Short Street Gallery, Western Australia and Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth

‘Desert River Sea’ (DRS) is not just an exhibition. It’s a six-year-long project to reconnect the Gallery with the art and art centres of the Kimberley – where 200, often tiny communities and 30 different language groups operate. Such dedicated ‘patriotism’ reflects the separatist thinking of the West – so, I fear we’re unlikely to see ‘DRS’ transfer Over East (as they call the rest of us). But there are undoubtedly lessons for the Northern Territory and Queensland in the innovative ways AGWA has worked with remote art centres to both train up staff there in a range of curatorial skills, which has empowered them to choose what to contribute to the Perth show.

Central to the project are the commissions from six different art centres and three independent artists – all proposed by the artists and nutted out with a string of AGWA curators over the six years. Most adventurous and elegant was Daniel Walbidi – the desert artist whose family migrated to the coast south of Broome. He has progressed from canvas to an installation of saltpan and ochres, and a film of a similar sand painting being steadily eroded by the advancing tide. Surely this is a reference to the threatened transience of his Martu culture in its new saltwater setting.

Garry Sibosado, Aalingoon (Rainbow Serpent) (detail), 2018, ochre pigment on engraved pearl shell, thirty-four parts, 182 x 28cm (overall). Courtesy the artist

The other solo artists are the Sibisado brothers from Lombardina, north of Broome. Both tell of Aalingoon, the Bard Rainbow Serpent – Garry using incised pearl shells to create its sinuous shape, and Darren employing his skills as the community engineer to give his serpent a steely abstraction.

Then it’s on to what was once known as Bradshaw Country – the Mowanjum and Kira Kiro Art Centres. Mowanjum resisted images of Gwion Gwion and Wandjinas in favour of a film involving their youngsters. For their appreciation of the importance of the local tribes’ two skin groups needed improving via the collection of the proper plant materials and ochres, learning the right way to paint up for ceremony, to clap to wake up the Wandjina, to dance to wake up the earth, and to sing to guide the dancers. As Leah Umbugai from Moanjum – one of the interns given the confidence to talk about her community’s work explained, ‘It’s all about embracing connections.’

Mervyn Street, Droving cattle in the summertime, 2018, shaved and etched cow hide, 195.5 x 217.5cm. Courtesy the artist, Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency, Western Australia and Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth

Kira Kiro is what Betty Bundamurra calls the formerly-Bradshaw figures. And she, along with the late Mary Punchi Clements and Mrs Taylor are the stars at incorporating them into their art today. Given their art centre’s formation only in 2009, it’s amazing how quickly they’ve adopted these once-contentious, sinuous figures from ancient rock walls and made them definitively their own.

Meanwhile older Mangkaja artists from Fitzroy Crossing wanted to celebrate their pastoral days with artworks carved into or painted on cow hides. Oddly, while Mervyn Street insists he ‘really loved working there’ (on Udlun Station), white interpreters in the catalogue use words like ‘slavery’ and ‘forced labour’ about that era.

At Waringarri Art Centre in Kununurra, Mirrawong artists have attempted something conceptual. It’s an installation explaining their Wirnan system of exchange – a boomerang for rare ochre, for instance. I was reminded of the Melanesian Kula transactional scheme around the islands north of Papua New Guinea. Fascinating, and obviously more important than art per se. Though, down the road at Warrmun, senior artists chose to paint their most important stories, then get youngsters like Lindsay Malay to animate them so that they spoke to their kids.

Sadly, that first cab off the exhibiting rank, Balgo Art Centre seemed to achieve the least politic or aesthetic commission – a series of glass slabs containing the centre’s trademark bright colours to represent bush foods.

Cleverly, all this new work was placed in context by great artworks from the past by these art centres’ pioneers – two lovely George Mung Mung sculptures from Warrmun, a beautifully resolved Jan Billycan from Bidyadanga, a conceptual Peter Skipper from Mangkaja, and trademark owls from Rover Thomas.

Given that much of the ‘Desert River Sea’ project was about engaging Kimberley youth, the Gallery work Tickets (2002) shouldn’t have come as a shock. For it’s a collaborative piece of graffiti made by Kununurra youngsters like Remika Nocketta, flowering so briefly under the Jirrawun group’s aegis before collapsing and suiciding, as, sadly, Remika’s sister Tenielle did.

Tickets, though, refers to a major concern of an older generation – the signs that marked the men to die in the 1921 Bedford Downs Massacre. As Wally Caruana’s essay in the ‘DRS’ catalogue says, ‘The history of The Kimberley is marked by human and cultural genocide. But it’s also a story of great resilience, cultural retrieval and the flourishing of distinct artistic traditions, now part of the modern canon of Indigenous Australian art.’

Jeremy Eccles is a specialist arts commentator who has been writing, broadcasting and filmmaking in Australia since 1983, with a special interest in Indigenous culture.

Art Gallery of Western Australia
Until 27 May, 2019
Western Australia