Volunteering and Meeting Aboriginal Artists at Waringarri Art Center in Kununurra, The East Kimberley.
A strong racial divide has existed for years in Kununurra similar to that in Alice Springs. The Indigenous population is housed separately on the outskirts of town, and poverty, alcoholism, and domestic violence are pervasive. Add to that the terrible distinction in 2014 when The World Health Organization found that suicide rates among Indigenous people in the Kimberley region were among the highest in the world.
Despite these troubling problems, there is a bright spot in the form of Waringarri Aboriginal Arts, an art center that houses both artists’ studios and galleries open to the public. Waringarri is the first wholly Indigenous owned art center established in the Kimberley region, and one of the oldest continuously operating Centers in Australia. Since studying art was one of my traveling goals, volunteering at the Center, a short drive from where I was staying, was paramount. I was given an introduction via email from a gallery owner in Perth who represents Waringarri artists back in April, but when I went to the center in June to introduce myself to the director, I was told that I had to first write a letter and be approved by the board before I could do any volunteering. Finally, after two weeks of cancelled board meetings, I was approved to work in the studio with the artists.
Waringarri Art Center supports over 100 artists who specialize in natural ocher painting on canvas and paper, limited edition prints, wood carvings and sculptures, and hand- printed fabrics. The Indigenous group represented in this area are the Miriwoong people who hold the land sacred and see themselves as custodians caring for the country and resting places of their spiritual ancestors. Artists typically paint a kind of aerial map of the land they grew up in which helps them maintain a connection to the sacred places of that country. I was lucky to have the chance to meet and speak with some of the artists while helping out in the studio for several days.
In the photo above, Phyllis Ningamara explained to me that she was painting a view of the river after the wet season where she grew up and the many colored river stones reflecting in the sunshine.
Bigger than life and very chatty is artist Ben Ward, who with his family, worked and lived at Argyle Downs station until he was ten. He later worked at Carlton Station, and his paintings focus on his memories of when he was a young man mustering cattle. Triangles of different colors representing the rivers, Boab trees, water, and mountains appear in his most recent work. I later saw that this piece (shown in the above photo) had been sold in the gallery. In the past, my experience with Aboriginal art brought to mind paintings consisting primarily of hundreds of dots. Different regions depict different styles, and the work here has a much more contemporary, abstract quality that I particularly like.
Peggy Griffiths, and her husband Alan Griffiths, are two well known artists from this region. Peggy was born in the Norther Territory but moved to Argyle Station when she was 15. At the age of 16, she was promised in marriage to Alan Griffiths. She started working at Waringarri in 1985, is now a senior artist, and teaches other artists. While helping to organize the studio, I noticed lots of Peggy’s notes explaining how to do color mixing. Peggy is a beautiful woman who though quiet, has a regal air about her. She and husband Alan are highly respected in the community, and their work is prominently displayed at the impressive, new court house in Kununurra. I’m told they often paint together.
Volunteering at the center was a great experience in many ways. One morning I got a call from the center to come in as soon as possible. The Western Australian Indigenous Tourism Operators Council (WAITOC) was doing a photo shoot for some new brochures, and they were looking for “tourists” to be in their photos.
Another local couple was drafted from town and we headed out with photographer Jack, business development manager Liz, and several members from the art center to a location just outside of town considered sacred by the Miriwoong. After a “blessings” ceremony at the Dunham River welcoming us to the land, we headed to another location featuring a mighty Boab tree thought to be thousands of years old.
At one point, I got a little annoyed, and even felt a little discriminated against when Liz asked me, the single person, to step aside in a few of the shots because they wanted “couple photos.” Although they didn’t want the photos to appear staged, they looked pretty staged to me. During my travels, I’ve met lots of single women, young and old, traveling alone. Tourism groups and businesses would be wise to cater to lone travelers; there is a need and a market in the industry!
Several weeks after the shoot, I followed up with Liz about the brochures and asked if I had made it into any of the photos. She said, indeed, I was included. I’m now waiting to get a copy!
Up until this point in my travels I hadn’t purchased any art or souvenirs, but at the art center, where I knew the money would go directly back to the artists, I splurged on two hand-carved didgeridoos for my son and his dad(women are not allowed to play the didgeridoo), and several hand-carved Boab nuts for other family members and friends. Each item came with a certificate of provenance and identified the artist who created it.
In the process of volunteering and meeting some of these Aboriginal artists, I’ve gained a greater respect for their culture and the deep love they have for the land of their ancestors. I’ve also come to realize that art illuminates (stealing a quote from Maya Angelou) that “… we are more alike than we are unalike,” and in this global society, we can all do with a little more understanding and less fear. In the words of author Andrew Solomon:
It is nearly impossible to hate anyone whose story you know.