The second stop on our tour of Kimberley art centres was in Turkey Creek, home of the Warmun Art Centre. We landed around noon, which meant that this was to be the shortest of stops on our tour, as we needed to be on the ground in Fitzroy Crossing a mere three hours later. But somehow, we managed to forget all that almost the moment we stepped out of the plane onto the roughest airstrip we seen in our travels.
For one things the surrounding countryside was among the most beautiful scenes we’d encountered. The blazing blue sky had only grown brighter as the sun climbed higher in the sky, and the air was full of the sharp smells of cattle, smoke, and dry grass. Pretty soon the familiar plume of dust announcing the arrival of the troopie to carry us back to the art centre appeared among the trees. A steel-haired cattleman jumped down from the vehicle and introduced himself to us: Patrick Mung Mung.
We piled into the truck and began our drive through high grass and deep glades of green trees. As we bounced along the rough red road, we passed what appeared to be a small, fenced garden on our left, filled with a riot of colorful flowers. The blossoms appeared to be piled on top of wire frame; we learned later that we had passed by the Turkey Creek cemetery where the graves of Rover and Queenie are honored still by the members of the community.
We bounced through Turkey Creek, still holding water, as the greenness all around suggested it might be, and soon pulled up at the art centre compound. We were enthusiastically and warmly greeting by Roger Taylor and Jackey Coyle-Taylor, the managers, who were smack in the middle of a two-week orientation to their new responsibilities, having arrived in Turkey Creek from Adelaide only a week before. Megan Buckley and Eamonn Scott had another week on site, and then the new managers would be on their own.
Someone suggested lunch, and since a table was spread with platters of baked goods and plenty of tea was to hand, we could hardly resist. A few of the old ladies, including Mabel Juli and Nancy Nodea, quietly joined us as we tucked into our airplane lunches…which quickly lost their appeal in the face of cakes and scones the like of which we hadn’t seen in all our travels. The hospitality was beguiling, the company charming, and I think we would have been content to sit there under the tall trees for a good long while.
From our seats we could see the lovely old building that had been the home of the art centre for many years, the as yet unfinished, very modern new exhibition space and museum, and the large storehouse where paintings destined for major exhibitions were stored. (The new, $1.3 million facility opened in August 2007, a little over two months after our visit.)
But being in close proximity to all that art was an irresistible pull, and we soon scattered, climbing the steps of the old art centre to admire hundreds of paintings hung on the walls and sorted into bins. In the office there were etchings and art cards to supplement the ochre canvases, and we heard about plans to introduce jewelry and hand-painted silk to the centre’s inventory. They had a good selection of books for sale as well, and I managed to secure a lovely, short monograph on the late Hector Jandany.
The new building was still quite clearly a construction site and although we were all eager to see what it would look like, caution prevailed, and we left the workmen to their business, undisturbed. I’m most grateful to Roger and Jackey for providing me with photographs of the new display areas. It’s a lovely, open space that many urban galleries would be jealous of. Designed by Monsoon Architects out of Kununurra, the new building was constructed largely with funds from the sale of artwork.
The large, air-conditioned storerooms were enough to make a collector weep. The painting tradition at Warmun goes back two decades now, making it one of the oldest centres in Australia, and the first to make a mark on the national consciousness in the medium of ochre on canvas in a modern idiom. The characteristic depictions of countries and stories of the Gija people, combining a traditional aesthetic with Western genres of landscape and history painting defined a third way in Aboriginal art, neither desert dot painting nor Top End clan designs.
Instead there was a visual tradition that hovered on the borders of representation, reflecting the metamorphosis of ancestral beings from what the Gija call Ngarrangakrni into landmarks and celestial orders. The boldness of the design, the large, balancing fields of color, find an equilibrium on the borders of representation and abstraction in a way that is unique to the Kimberley and has inspired artists across the region to develop new adaptations of their traditional designs.
With one last look around at the abundance of spectacular color inside the shed, we were led back out for the short trip back to the airstrip. I left feeling that of the many places we had visited in the preceding two weeks, we needed far more time, and much more traveling the vicinity to really grasp the special relationship between what we saw inside and outside the Warmun Art Centre.