Waringarri Aboriginal Artists, Kununurra, WA

The final leg of our tour of Aboriginal art centres took us to the Kimberley in a whirlwind couple of days, even by the fast-paced standards of the trip overall. Among the complicating factors to touring this part of the country are the enormous distances between settlements, the paucity of places for an airplane to refuel, and the strength of the prevailing winds, which multiply the effect of miles on fuel. And just to make things more interesting, on the second day, when we were scheduled to return to Darwin, the military was conducting air exercises and we needed to be back on the ground before air space was closed to small commercial flights like ours.

As we took off from Darwin, though, a cool, clear autumn day promised great adventure, and some relief after the dense humidity of Arnhem Land. We were joined for this leg of the journey by Michelle Culpitt from ANKAAA. The chance to meet many people, like Michelle, with whom I’ve corresponded for years was one of the real bonuses of this tour. We flew in over the lush landscape, altered forever by the creation of Lake Argyle and the Ord River project in the 1950s. After landing at Kununurra Airport, we were quickly loaded into the Waringarri Artists troopie and whisked off to the art centre.

According to the Wikipedia, Kununurra is a name derived from the Mirriwong language and means “big water.” 

Thanks to the time change from Darwin into WA, we arrived early on a crisp morning, but the chill in the air hadn’t stopped the artists of Waringarri from turning out to meet us in full force. Indeed, I don’t believe we ever got a welcome quite as expansive as the one that we received from the Waringarri Artists. When manager Cathy Cummins and her right-hand woman, Louise Mengil, presented each of us with a carved boab nut, I was delighted to find that mine had been made by Alan Griffiths, now the senior law man at Waringarri. 

The building shown above is the “storefront” for the art centre, with lovely open display space. It also contains a special side gallery that features the work of both emerging artists from the community as well as schoolchildren who are beginning to learn the fundamentals of painting their country from the old folks. A second large building nearby functions as a painting studio, social center, and storehouse for works awaiting dispersal to galleries around the world. 

Cathy told us the story of the origins of Waringarri, when old man Carlton from Bullo River walked in and asked for a place where his people could start to paint the stories of their country. He sat down for a few weeks and decided that the experiment would work, and gradually the other old people joined him. Today, Waringarri Aboriginal Artists is a prime example of how a community can come together and build a successful place for themselves. Both Louise and Griffth’s grandson Kim represent the industrious entrepreneurship of the younger generation. Their skills, from accountancy to carpentry and marketing to auto mechanics, help to make the enterprise thrive and complement the traditional knowledge that the old people bring to painting. Kim, who is learning to paint from his grandfather, was among those whose gave testimony to the Senate Inquiry when it sat in Kununurra in February 2007. 

A veritable who’s who of Waringarri talent: from the left, Judy Mengil, Phyllis Ningamara, Agnes Armstrong, Mignonette Jamin, Peter Newry, Minnie Lumai, Daisy Bitting, and Peggy and Alan Griffiths with one of their younger grandchildren.

As it was quite early in the chilly morning, most of the artists had gathered for tea on the sunny side of the studio building. Phyllis Ningamara, however, was already hard at work on a body of work that was to be submitted to the Xstrata Award in Brisbane later in the year. Daisy Bitting was keeping her company as she worked on a vast portrait of Gerran, the Stone Country, 300 cm long, that would be the masterpiece of her contribution to the exhibition.

Phyllis Ningamara at work on Gerran

Some of the boab trees that cluster around the painting studio bear ochre signs.

The boab trees around the art centre are marked with lustrous yellow ochre discs. In the photo on the left, a future footy star awaiting the kick, is half hidden behind one of the trees. Photos by Margo Smith and Sherry Thompson.
A younger generation of Waringarri artists is engaged in some interesting experiments in painting and modeling with ochres. They are not simply tracing the outlines of rivers and hills in their country, but bullding up the surfaces of the canvases in a sort of three-dimensional mapping project. Carol Hapke and Rebecca Bray are among the practitioners of this new style, adding to the diversity of artistic expression coming out of Waringarri today. Bray’s Mulawun Dreaming tells the story of how the eagle and the white crane passed the knowledge of crushing the leaves of the mulawun bush and tossing them in the river to stun the fish for capture.

Detail of Rebecca Bray, Mulawun Dreaming, 2007.

An even younger generation is clearly enjoying what the community has to offer, and under the supervision of their artistic grandparents, were having a great time racing around the grounds of the art centre practicing their football moves. As the time came for us to gather our things together and leave, and the cameras came out to record our visit in group photos, the kids had no hesitation at all in lining up for their share of the limelight.

Having done our duty to immortalize the youngsters, we visitors lined up in front of the Waringarri troopie for the only opportunity on the trip to catch artists and visitors arrayed together.

The Waringarri mob pose with the US mob. Manger Cathy Cummins is on the left; Kim Griffiths is the young man kneeling, in the bright blue shirt, at the right.

Then it was off into the air once again, this time flying southwest over the unmodified Dreaming landscape toward Turkey Creek.


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