Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, many indigenous art centres have had to shut their doors to tourists in 2020, so please use this as a guide to plan your future trip. Please also support them this year by visiting their online stores or following their social media accounts.
Indigenous art in the Kimberley
With Ella Doonan
Ella Doonan was the General Manager at Mowanjum Aboriginal Art and Culture Centre and is now a freelance writer, project manager and business consultant within the creative industries sector.
From crystal coastlines to purple-hued ranges and sweeping savannah lands, the Kimberley has it all. But it’s not just the landscapes that keep you guessing; Aboriginal art across the Kimberley is unbelievably diverse.
While artists previously took to caves to preserve stories and culture, now Indigenous art centres are the creative hubs where modern incarnations of ancient artforms are continued today. Added to the mix are stories from the old station days and colourful abstracted influences from the nearby Tanami desert.
When I moved to the Kimberley to work at Mowanjum Aboriginal Art and Culture Centre, I was excited to work amongst some of Australia’s most recognised living artists. I was not expecting to be so blown away by the ‘side projects’ art centres do beyond making and selling art. From preserving language and culture for future generations, to providing economic independence for so many artists and offering local, culture-based employment for Traditional Owners in a place where job opportunities are limited.
Art centres are the beating heart of remote Aboriginal communities and they are industrious, inspiring places to be.
Art centres also offer a solution to the common dilemma many visitors have of how to buy Aboriginal art ethically. Sometimes it is difficult to know which dealers are ethical, or whether it is okay to buy directly from the artist. It is always best to buy from a dealer that is a member of the Indigenous Art Code. They will be able to provide provenance documentation and a certificate of authenticity to ensure transparency and accountability.
Nagula Jarndu Designs
Starting in Broome, the land of the saltwater woman, or “Nagula Jarndu” in the local Yawuru language. Nagula Jarndu Designs started in 1987 to preserve Yaruwu language and culture. Over the years it evolved to become a social enterprise specialising in high quality textiles that reflect the distinctive natural environment around Broome. Visit the centre to watch the textile artists at work, have a chat and browse the beautiful fabrics available.
Short St. Gallery
Short St. Gallery is a private gallery owned by Emily Rohr, a woman who has worked with Indigenous artists particularly in the Broome area for more than two decades. Short St. has two locations in Broome: the gallery on Short Street in a beautifully restored heritage building where regular exhibitions are held; and ‘The Bungalow’ on a backstreet near Town Beach where you can flick through incredible artwork from all over Australia. The friendly and professional staff really know their stuff, so ask them anything!
Mowanjum Arts is located 220 kilometres from Broome via sealed road. Mowanjum Arts is the centre of Wandjina art, so much so that if you are lucky enough to view the building from above, you will see that it is in the shape of a Wandjina head!
What is a Wandjina? It is a supreme creation spirit that is revered by the Ngarinyin, Worrorra and Wunambal people of the North West Kimberley. This mystical being is often misunderstood, but Mowanjum Arts does a great job of explaining the meaning and significance of the Wandjina through an engaging 20 minute video. It will come in handy if you plan to head out onto the Gibb River Road, where you will find Wandjina cave paintings scattered from Mt Barnett to Mitchell Falls.
And of course, don’t miss Mowanjum Festival, held around July each year.
Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency
Another 2.5 hours down the sealed highway takes you to Mangkaja Arts in Fitzroy Crossing, where you are greeted by fairy floss colours that reflect desert landscapes. Representing five language groups that were gathered together on the Fitzroy River during colonisation, Mangkaja Arts is renowned for its bright colour palette and unconventional materials including Perspex, tin and even cow hides!
Just five minutes down the road is Marnin Studio, which is the social enterprise arm of the Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource Centre. A healing space for women to create, relax and learn, Marnin Studio provides a pathway to financial independence for its incredible artists. Known for its pastel hues and contemporary designs, Marnin Studio produces beautiful hand painted boab nuts, naturally dyed silk scarves and block-printed textiles that speak to the local environment and culture.
Warmun Art Centre
Warmun Art Centre is a veritable who’s who of the contemporary arts world, with so many big names emerging from this community including Paddy Bedford, Mabel Juli, Patrick Mung Mung, Lena Nyadbi, Rusty Peters and Shirley Purdie. Warmun itself is little more than a roadhouse, but the surrounding landscape is jaw dropping as is the art. The Warmun style is instantly recognisable – think coarsely crushed ochre on large canvases, limited colour palettes and uncluttered compositions. Warmun is a collector’s paradise, with artists having strong representation in all major galleries and museums across the country.
Waringarri Aboriginal Arts
Located at the base of Kelly’s Knob in Kununurra, Waringarri Aboriginal Arts is the longest-running art centre in the Kimberley. As well as maintaining a beautiful gallery space, Waringarri Aboriginal Arts also offers a range of cultural tours encompassing art, music, bush tucker and even walks on country.
Kira Kiro Art Centre
Finally, if you make it as far as Kalumburu, be sure to stop by Kira Kiro Arts. Kira Kiro is the local word for ‘Bradshaw’ figures or gyorn gyorns, which dominate cave sites in the local region, and is the dominant iconography of contemporary art coming from Kalumburu. Artists such as Betty Bundamurra mainly use ochre pigment on either paper or canvas to capture the crowded compositions of the rock art of their ancestors.
Thanks for reading! Drop back from time-to-time and please – if any of the information has changed please leave a comment below 🙂