Maningrida Arts and Culture, Maningrida, NT

Maningrida Arts and Culture is a powerhouse warehouse of Indigenous art. Of all the art centres we visited across the Territory and adjacent WA, Maningrida had the most impressive array of work on offer, certainly in terms of sheer quantity. The marketing genius that Apolline Kohen has exhibited in the last five years means that it may be hard to find the work of the community’s international superstars–John Mawurndjul, Samuel Namunjdja Ivan Namirrkki, or Timothy Wulanjbirr–amidst the ranks of bark paintings, sculptures and fiber work on offer: the demand for these works is so great that they are almost out the door before they arrive. But there is an enormous variety of other work to be had, which in part reflects the centre’s operations as outlined in their mission statement:

Maningrida Arts & Culture (MAC), formally established in 1973, is one of the oldest Aboriginal Arts Centre in Australia. Based in Maningrida community (North Central Arnhem Land), MAC is currently servicing more than 700 artists from Maningrida and its surrounding 34 outstations, covering an area of more than 10,000 square kilometers.

MAC pays its artists up front when works are brought into the arts centre and has a total acquisition policy which means that MAC buys each and every artwork that is brought by an artist. This creates certainty and security for artists, insures that their work is treated with respect, encourages the career of young and emerging artists and provides an income to ageing artists who are no longer producing their best work.

In some of the art centres we visited during our trip, there was not an artist to be seen. In others, the art centre doubled as a community centre where people of all ages–though often with a preponderance of oldies–gathered. In others, sales, stockroom, and studio shared space. In Maningrida, most of the art production is carried on at people’s homes, whether that means bungalows within the township itself, or at one of the many outstations. But because of the liberal acquisitions policy, MAC itself seemed the most vibrant commercial enterprise we visited. A steady stream of artists of all ages brought work in during most of the time we were visiting and the staff worked diligently not simply to meet our needs as customers, but to accept, inventory, and record new work.

Beyond rack and racks of paintings and sculpture, the Centre boasts a large packing and shipping operation, a photography niche for the documentation of work (and here we had glimpse of some lovely masterworks), and a specially air-conditioned “treasure room” for materials destined for exhibitions down south and around the world.

Photographs of Maningrida art by Sherry Thompson

Treasures of a different sort are housed in the nearby Djomi Museum, which was established around 1980 by former arts advisor Peter Cooke, and is an official regional museum of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. Inside the unassuming structure are displays of the history of the settlement, along with astonishing displays of weavings, cultural regalia like dance belts and headdresses, and a room hung with bark paintings by an earlier generation of masters, men like England Banggala and Jack Kalakala. 

The day that we visited was a momentous one in terms of contemporary art history: James Iyuna and Melba Gunjarrwanga put the finished touches on a large copper-wire sculpture sculpture that was commissioned for the verandah of the newly renovated Darwin Entertainment Centre. Based on the designs of traditional fish traps, the piece totals 240 square meters. The work was the featured cover story in the June 2007 ANKAAA Arts Backbone, the newsletter of the Association of Northern, Kimberly, and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists.

Photograph of James Iyuna by Wolfgang Schlink

Later in the afternoon, a few of us took off for a stroll around the town. As you can see from the map below, there’s a well defined set of paved roads to follow. At the left edge of the map the dock where the barge bringing supplies to be unloaded sits at the edge of a short strip of tropical beach. (Maningrida lies on the estuary of the Liverpool River at the edge of the Arafura Sea.) About midway between the barge ramp and the oval, a large white building is bisecting by an ochre diagonal–I think that’s the art centre.

Empty petrol tanks and other shipping materials waiting for the barge’s return
The fringe of the Liverpool River near the dock

There’s quite a bit of Western style housing in the town, occupied by both balanda workers and Indigenous residents. Since school was out for the day, we encountered plenty of kids on the street, all of whom were eager to talk to us and to share a bit of their stories with the “tourists.” We were invited to stop by the oval for the afternoon football match by an outgoing teenage boy, and a group of girls, probably not quite teenagers, demanded to know exactly where in the world we were from. 

Maningrida street scene, with typical local housing

And finally, there were some famously impressive arboreal specimens to marvel at.

Although we were in Maningrida just weeks before the Howard government announced the intervention, and although the newspapers had been filled with stories of violence and predation in the town, our experience (much of it quite unchaperoned) gave the lie to the notion of a dysfunctional community. The whitefellas we spoke with grumbled only about the heat–intense even in winter–and the children we met were friendly, curious, and well-spoken. I was disappointed only to discover that Tupac seemed more popular than Nabarlek on the ghettoblasters, but I can hardly feel justified in complaining about American exports, can I?

To the contrary, we saw well maintained schools, and the newly opened swimming pool was doing big business. The sense of history, even in this tiny town that dates back only to 1957, was palpable, and the pride in the economy fostered through the arts centre well justified. 

A banner brought back from the exhibition of Maningrida art Crossing Country at the Art Gallery of New South Wales hangs from the balcony over the main office at MAC.

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