'4 Wandjinas' by Alison Burgu from the NW Kimberley where these rain gods hold sway

Posted by Jeremy Eccles | 20.11.14

Gallery: Art Gallery of WA

Desert River Sea: Kimberley Art Then & Now has gone live online at last after a mighty development saga. It's been developed in two phases over 6 years by the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) with $1.8m. support from Rio Tinto to create a unique visual arts project. The first phase, carried out in 2012, involved consultation with Indigenous artists in the Kimberley to gain their perspective and ideas on what the project should encompass. The second phase, which commenced in 2013, was the implementation.

The statements below summarise the most common views expressed by the artists, and were therefore used to shape the project:

  • Keep culture strong

  • Painting on country trips

  • Young people encouraged to create artwork

  • Need for professional development, to include training and mentorship opportunities

  • Support and promotion for artists

  • Need for communication and exchange with other communities

  • Recording of stories and knowledge

  • Interest in developing more multi-media projects

  • Desire for an exhibition

Following the consultation phase during 2012, AGWA shaped a project which would be inclusive of many artists and highlight the many distinctive styles and different needs across the region.

Elders were concerned with knowledge transfer and transmission in order to keep knowledge and culture strong within their communities. Since the late 1970s, the practice of making art has been a significant means of maintaining culture in the Kimberley region. The Ngurrara Canvas II 1997 is an example of this, created by artists who are the traditional owners of the Great Sandy Desert area near Fitzroy Crossing. This enormous collaborative canvas was painted to communicate the Walmajarri, Mangala, Juwaliny, Wangkajunga and Manjilarra peoples’ authority and knowledge of their country. This canvas has become more than a picture of country; it is country. Nyilpirr Spider Snell, one of the leading artists and elders from this area, danced on the canvas in Canberra in 1997 where it was unfurled outside Parliament House.

The importance of this work and the knowledge held by it assisted in the Ngurrara Native Title consent determination being handed down by the Federal Court in 2007.

AGWA’s consultation with younger artists revealed that they too held views about the need to keep culture strong. Younger artists play a significant role in continuing the creation of art, maintaining cultural practices and supporting their elders, community and art centre. They also made the point that in order to fulfil their responsibilities (within the art centres) to record stories for their elders, they required more support, need multi-media training and experience, and professional development opportunities. They also commented on the need for better communication links with other Indigenous people working in art centres as a means of creating networks and support mechanisms.

Desert River Sea: Kimberley Art Then & Now
is the culmination of this consultation process. It is a project which is representative of the Kimberley region’s diverse Indigenous peoples, who identify as desert people, river people or saltwater people. Desert River Sea is a multi-faceted project with several key outcomes that it's hoped will:

  • promote Indigenous artists in the Kimberley,

  • bring AGWA closer to this region of Western Australia,

  • develop new research and knowledge about art forms currently being produced, and

  • support Indigenous people currently working in the arts sector with professional development opportunities.

The first outcome has been to create and manage a website dedicated to promoting the art and culture of the Kimberley region, a site accessible across the world, increasing people’s knowledge and appreciation of Aboriginal art.

The second aspect of the project will encourage emerging Indigenous leaders working in the arts with support and professional development in an Emerging Leaders Program. This program will increase Indigenous arts workers' and artist’s access and interaction with the Gallery, create a network across the Kimberley for arts workers and artists to discuss their aspirations and assist the Gallery in working within cultural protocols specific to each community.

The third outcome is to develop an exhibition that surveys the current art practices in the Kimberley, the first show of its kind since the National Gallery of Victoria produced the 1993 exhibition Images of Power. That benchmark show by the only curator with continuity since that time – Judith Ryan – will be a hard act to match. No date has yet been set for this show – which ought to travel the country when it's ready. Oddly, it seems that the curator - Glenn Iseger-Pilkington - in the development team of Glenn, Geraldine Henrici and Chad Creighton has laready moved on from the project.

All this splendid effort comes at a fraught time for remote art centres in The Kimberley because the Federal Government has handed over responsibility for remote Indigenous communities to the States, and the WA Liberal government has immediately declared that it can't afford to maintain them all, and will enforce closures. This will undoubtedly threaten the essential relationship between people and land, one of the pre-requisites for the creation of great art. Balgo, home to the oldest art centre in The Kimberley, has been specifically named for closure. Great art will not emerge from townships like Broome or Kununurra.


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Contact Details

Gallery: Art Gallery of WA
Telephone: +61 8 9492 6600
Address: Perth Cultural Centre Perth Perth 6000 WA

Gallery: Art Gallery of WA
Telephone: +61 8 9492 6600
Address: Perth Cultural Centre Perth Perth 6000 WA



'Pinkalarta' 2006 by one of the stars of the far western Kimberley, Alma Webou from Bidyadanga - a desert woman by the sea.


Alan Griffiths 'Bali Bali Balga, Moonga Moonga Joonba' a ceremonial painting from the East Kimberley


Where is the exhibition?
Further Research