Warmun Arts - Art Collector

Issue 54, October - December 2009

Rover Thomas, Queenie McKenzie and Jack Britten are just a few of the senior artists that Warmun Art Centre is famous for. But not content to rest on its laurels, the centre is now firmly focused on nurturing the next generation of talent reports Maurice O’Riordan.

The Aboriginal community of Warmun in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia began as a ration depot, then known as Turkey Creek, at the turn of the 20th century. It was initially set up as a buffer zone against the extreme violence of pastoral expansion in the region that had led to the widespread murder of Aboriginal people during a dark period referred to as The Killing Times.

The advent of painting in the East Kimberley is directly related to the impact of this devastation and, by turns both dramatic and mythopoeic, to the impact of Cyclone Tracy in 1974 which was seen as a wake-up call for cultural revival in the region. The Cyclone Tracy-inspired Kurrir-Kurrir ceremony at Warmun was part of a wider regional renaissance against the backdrop of the burgeoning land rights movement and fundamental shifts in federal and state government policy towards self-determination (evidenced in the arts by the formation of the Aboriginal Arts Board at the Australia Council and a dedicated Aboriginal arm of the Western Australian Department of the Arts, and by the establishment of Warmun itself in the 1970s as a predominantly Gija Aboriginal community). The creation of painted dance (or balga) boards for the Kurrir-Kurrir ceremonies eventually saw the transferral of this imagery onto more portable supports including canvas, and their ultimate presentation as fine art paintings in commercial Sydney and Melbourne galleries by the late 1980s.

The stellar careers of Warmun-based artists such as Rover Thomas, Paddy Jaminji, Queenie McKenzie and Jack Britten is so much a part of the broader post-1980s Aboriginal art resurgence that we tend to forget the Warmun Art Centre was established as late as 1998. The movement’s formative years were facilitated in an ad hoc way by the Catholic church, in particular its Warmun-based Mirrilingki Spirituality Centre, and more strategically by art centres in Katherine (Mimi Arts and Crafts) and nearby Kununurra (Waringarri), as well as by then independent dealer Mary Macha who brokered the National Gallery of Australia’s first acquisition of works by Thomas and Jaminji in 1984.

The Warmun Art Centre today is abuzz with old and new talent; the centre’s artists range in age from four to 90. Since 2007 the centre has boasted an impressive purpose-built gallery to display the artists’ work which generally conforms to the distinctive style of ochre-based, non-planar imagery forged by Thomas and his contemporaries. There is much variety, however, within this idiom and not just in extending the ochre palette’s range to pinks and greens. Warmun’s Lena Nyadbi, for example, has distinguished herself through her iconography based on spearheads. Shirley Purdie is one of the few to innovate through figurative wood sculpture, often with devout Christian themes. Patrick Mung Mung continues the legacy of his father (George) to express the dramatic geography and natural grandeur of the region, while the richly textural paintings of Mick Jawalji (represented in this year’s Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards) partly recall those of Thomas.

The challenge, as current Warmun Art Centre manager Maggie Fletcher explains, is in passing on the stories and skills from one generation to the next. To this end, Fletcher has coordinated family trips to country, enabling the first physical connection for some of the younger artists with the places of Narrangkarni (Dreaming) significance which their paintings depict. Veteran Warmun art dealer Neriba Gallasch recently exhibited The Next Generation of Warmun Artists at her Adelaide Hills Tineriba Gallery. Included in this exhibition were ochre works by some of the community’s schoolchildren along with paintings by Thomas’s daughter, Jane Yalunga, which also deal with key historical narratives. Also in this vein, Perth’s Seva Frangos Art gallery this month pairs mother and daughter artists Mabel and Marlene Juli, each with their own take on the distinctive and compelling East Kimberley tradition.

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