A Sorry Business in Wingellina

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned a new blog being written by Dianna Isgar out of Papulankutja, Remote Life. The latest entry (February 10) offers an insider’s report on the recent meetings held with Desart and members of the various communities in the region due to changes in the management of Irrunytju Arts. These changes have now led that body to “resign their artists” from participation in Desart. 

The Wingellina Governing Council last year asked John Ioannou, director of the Agathon Gallery in Sydney, to manage Irrunytju Arts. Apparently, the art centre has never been separately incorporated at Wingellina, and Ioannou’s appointment provides a measure of administrative relief to the Governing Council. Nicolas Rothwell, writing in the October 17 issue of The Australian, described this change in mangement as a “startling coup d’etat”:

At a stroke, the carefully maintained dividing lines between different categories in the Aboriginal art bazaar have been drastically eroded: the distinction between privately commissioned paintings and art from co-operative, indigenous-run workshops is blurring, while simple questions about the propriety of desert art sales are becoming harder to pose. Who is now a private dealer, who a carpetbagger and who a broker of community interests? This latest coup is part of a broader instability in the desert art world, as old certainties vanish, making the chances of effective market regulation more remote with each day.

Rothwell reported that Desart’s executive officer, John Oster has been under strong pressure from its members to “expel” Irrunytju Arts from the group, but that after a meeting with Ioannou in October, Oster agreed to send a consultant to Wingellina to examine operations there and to “satisfy ourselves that the management of the centre falls within our principles of Aboriginal empowerment and ethical representation.” Damian McLean, president of the shire of Ngaanyatjarraku, whose Council has given Ioannou permits to travel throughout the country, said that Ioannou “will devise a new version of the community arts centre.” Quoted in Rothwell’s article, Ioannou said that he could see how “in some way I can be viewed as a carpetbagger. But I know deep down what I’m doing is right, and the people who talk shit will have to eat their words.”

From my reading of Isgar’s blog entry, it seems that some degree of at least temporary accommodation has been reached, although concerns still remain. There is no denying that Ioannou is there at the community’s request; Rothwell had reported that Ioannou had also been approached earlier by the Spinifex Group from Tjuntjuntjura about representation. Isgar notes that Ioannou has “undertaken to restrict his activities to Wingellina, [and] that the Governing Council had requested he not go to other communities to gather artists. [Ioannou] said however, that any artist that wanted to work with him and that came to Wingellina, would be welcome.”

John Oster met with artists at Wingellina and at Blackstone last week, and at least at the latter location, did so without any of the art centre managers present, in order to allow the artists to speak freely. Oster and Desart have not yet reported the substance of those meetings, but Isgar remains concerned that some of the Wingellina artists “appear to be disenfranchised by the Wingellina Executive decision” including older painters and those “not in the top echelon.” Echoing sentiments that were expressed numerous times in submissions to the ongoing Senate Inquiry into Australia’s Indigenous Visual Arts and Crafts Sector in assessing of the role of arts centres in their communities, she notes that “community based and indigenous owned art centres are more than just centres to produce saleable product” and that they serve to support culture, learning, and the general well-being of the community. 

Whether that paradigm will flourish in the region remains the overarching question of the moment. These communities clustered near the WA-NT-SA border have been reeling in recent weeks, consumed with the business of sorry camps moving among them and devastated by the loss of, among others, Nyakul Dawson. A radical change in Wingellina with the new management of Irrunytju Arts is being counterbalanced–perhaps–by the formation of the Western Desert Mob coalition that consists of Maruku (Uluru), Tjanpi (Alice Springs), and Kayili (Gibson Desert), along with Warakurna and Papulankutja. And although she expresses hope that relations among the regional art centres will remain cordial, Isgar admits to great sadness as well after last week’s meetings.

For now, we must wait and see whether Ioannou’s “shock-front of change” (as Rothwell characterized it) brings blessings to Wingellina while it upsets the balance in the region. The existence and success of community-based art centres is so often tenuous that I, too, regard these developments with trepidation. I think Rothwell had it right in his final assessment: “Time, the judge of all revolutionary upheavals, will provide its answer. And exact its cost.”

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