Warlayirti Artists, Balgo (Wirrimanu), WA

The very last art centre we visited on the 2007 Austrade American tour was Warlayirti Artists in Balgo, WA. For me, there was an undeniable tinge of melancholy that this fact brought to what might otherwise have been among the most thrilling destinations on the tour. As we flew over the township, memories of years of admiring and collecting the works of the famous, forgotten, and fresh new talent from Warlayirti mingled with anticipation of meeting on their home turf artists I had been introduced to on earlier trips to Darwin and Sydney. And beneath it all was the growing knowledge that this extraordinary two weeks’ adventure was drawing to a close.

An aerial view of part of Balgo; note the location of the airstrip beyond the town.

Our first view of the local art practice was an unexpected one, discovered as we entered the small “terminal” beside the airstrip. 

The mural in the airport lounge at Balgo. Photo by Khadija Carroll.

This mural had clearly been around for a while, and showed signs of weathering, despite being indoors. It was also obviously being repaired, and I couldn’t help but think of the repainting of sacred designs on the walls of desert caves.

Detail of water damage, restoration, and overpainting of the mural.

This surprise encounter with local art spread a buzz of excitement through the group that was heightened a few minutes later when we spotted the art centre troopie’s dust rising in the air and Annette Cock spun up in front of us to speed us on the short ride to the Warlayirti Art and Cultural Centre. Annette warned us that it was “money day” at the centre, a fact that had two-fold implications. Many of the artists, along with family members, we would like to meet would be there to collect their paychecks. We were warned to be prepared for a hullaballoo.

As we stepped through the door of the art centre, though, the first and overwhelming impression was that of an enormous, marvelous kaleidoscope, miraculously frozen in an instant of time. Display cases immediately to the left glistened with fractals of fired glass coolamons, racks of unstretched canvases crowded the entry, and the walls were hung to the height of eight feet with a mosaic of stretched works. The effect was a cross between an apparition of enormous stained glass windows and one of those paintings of a nineteenth-century exhibition where human figures are dwarfed by ranks of framed salon entries.

A coolamon of fused glass. Photo by Khadija Carroll.

It was only after the initial stunned moment of superabundance passed that the activity in the rest of the room sank in. There were indeed dozens of people waiting for money day to commence. The oldies were seated in rows of chairs, children were erupting with the excitement of seeing visitors, and young men were circulating in and amongst the crowd with business of their own to attend to. Annette gave us a quick introduction to the layout and to what we might find, went over some business rules with us, and then turned us loose. Within minutes the beautiful mosaic walls were being disassembled as the members of our group started collecting the stunners off the walls.

For a while the two groups–artists and art collectors–tended to their business separately and with equal enthusiasm. But as the checks were passed out and the members of the community started to scatter, the artists themselves began to engage in their own aggressive marketing to the whitefellas in the room. First among these was Eubena Nampitjin, whose tiny size and lack of English should deceive no one who meets her. The moment she spied one of our group inspecting one of her canvases, she was instantly in play, making sure that we knew it was her work, giving us a thumbs-up, telling us it was “number one,” and bringing her daughter Stella along, introducing her to us and pointing out examples of Stella’s work as well. 

Bai Bai Napangarti was another equally driven marketer of her art. Reunited with Kerry after an absence of several years, she grinned and launched into a torrent of Kukatja before abruptly disappearing out the door. In a moment she was back, dragging a canvas almost as large as she herself, presenting it to Kerry in a gesture that was equal parts bestowal and bargaining. Or so it looked from my amused position on the sidelines. 

Annette, having finished with the majority of the money business, was able to once again turn her attention to her guests, and began circulating, helping us locate works by particular artists, noting our interests, and making more introductions. Elizabeth Gordon Napaltjarri, quiet and shy, was introduced as many of her new canvases were being circulated and examined. Marie Mudgedell, in the midst of all the excitement, quietly and with great determination, laid down a half-finished canvas on the floor of the room and began to work assiduously at it. 

When I remarked to Annette that the iconography in Marie’s work reminded me of an early painting by Patrick Smith Tjapaltjarri that I had purchased several years ago, Annette said, “Oh he’s around here somewhere; let me see if I can find him and introduce you.” A few minutes later the introductions were achieved. At the time that I first learned of his work, Patrick was described to me as one of the “younger artists” working for Warlayirti, and I was once again surprised (although I am always surprised at myself most of all in these circumstances) to be introduced to a man who appeared to be about my own age (which he is). Unlike many artists I met on this trip who were excited to learn that I owned one their paintings, and that the painting had traveled all the way to the United States, Patrick seemed much more interested in finding out if I knew any American cowboys and was eager to tell me about his own status as a “cowboy,” or stockman as they’re more commonly referred to in WA. His pride in that work was clearly as significant to him as his prowess as a painter was to me.

Eventually the moment of financial reckoning began to approach for our group, as we were under pressure to be on our way back to Darwin before military exrecises closed the airspace we had to fly through that day. (The situation was compounded by strong headwinds that would require us to fly south to Hall’s Creek for refueling before turning northeast to Darwin.) While the other members of the delegation finished up, I took the opportunity to wander across to the adjacent Cultural Centre.

The exterior of the Warlayirti Cultural Centre

The Warlayirti Cultural Center was one of the first major casualties of funding cuts to ATSIC in 2001, closing just three weeks after its opening (See “Arts Centre: open and shut case” in the Alice Springs News of August 22, 2001 for details.) Since that time, it has served primarily as a meeting space for the community, and has thus met an important need. But the hopes for housing a permanent collection of paintings, artifacts, photographs, and documentation relating to Wirrimanu have foundered for lack of staff, and although there were some stunning examples of early work by masters like Sunfly and old man Tjapanangka that evoked memories of days gone by from Michelle Culpitt, the space was sadly bereft. 

As we gathered to leave, a few artists were coaxed outdoors for photographs (photography is not permitted inside the Art or Culture Centres). Well, truth be told, Helicopter didn’t need much coaxing, although his daughter, Christine Yukenbarri, did take some paternal encouragement to join her father for this shot.

Helicopter Tjunugrarry and Christine Yukenbarri Nakamarra. Photo by Wolfgang Schlink.

The next thing I knew we were airborne, still buzzing with the excitement of the morning’s activities. As a sort of farewell to the country, I took several photos as we lifted off and circled around. In the first of these, below, you can see the very end of the airstrip approaching the dropoff at the edge of the escarpment the town sits on. Have a look back at the first photo above to get a sense of the situation of Balgo in the desert landscape.


In the first days of our journey as we flew over the landscape of the APY lands farther south in WA, I was constantly in awe of the geology unfolding beneath us and impressed repeatedly with a sense of how the people of this country saw the ancestral power embodied in it. That sense of wonderment had subsided a bit during our time in the north, but as we headed for Hall’s Creek that afternoon, it returned in full force. 

***

And so, with this story, I’m forced to conclude my narrative of my own journey through Dreaming countries. When I left the USA, on May 21, 2007, laptop in my backpack, I was determined to record my adventures as they happened, and was excitied about the opportunity to report live, from the road, on my experiences in the Outback on the trail of Indigenous Art Centres. Now I’ve finally finished that reporting, ten days shy of a year from my official departure date, and a couple of weeks before the second American delegation starts its journey along a similar path. (If you haven’t been with me for the whole journey so far, you can click on the “Communities” link in the sidebar to the right to follow it back in time.)

I’ve already written of our final night in Darwin, reflections composed and posted from the Darwin airport the day after we were in Balgo as I was started my journey home alone. I was lucky to get three posts up during the two weeks of our travels: there was just so much that I was unprepared for on the trip. We flew over 6,700 kilometers in thirteen days, logging more than twenty hours in the air. We visited twenty-four art centres, meeting dozens of artists and the dedicated people who help mediate between Indigenous and Western cultures to bring that art to market and to those of us who cherish it and draw inspiration from it. In the evenings, when I thought I might relax with a bit of blogging, the camaraderie of my traveling companions became indispensable; there were invitations from generous new friends to be honored, campfire nights and sunset cruises. Strangely enough, I never seemed to be exhausted by the adventures until the moment I fell into bed without having written a word.

The US Art Mob sporting hats emblazoned with “The Territory,” a farewell gift to us from the NT Government.

That last night in Darwin I found it impossible to believe that the trip was coming to an end, despite a bit of sadness that I couldn’t shake off. Maybe I couldn’t believe it because I didn’t want to, and maybe because I knew that in other ways new adventures were beginning. I remain to this day deeply grateful to my traveling companions from the US for the insights their own perspectives and experience brought not simply to the days of our travel, but to my appreciation of the art and the communities that we saw. Joel, Wayne, and Bernie, our guides and gurus from Austrade and the NT Government, have helped to keep alive a sense of community and connectedness in the months that have passed since we parted company on the Darwin Esplanade, and I’m eagerly looking forward to reunions to come.

Before this trip, I’d had only limited opportunities to visit a few communities, despite the urgings of everyone I spoke with to get out and experience life on the ground with the artists. I will be grateful to our sponsors to the end of my days for giving me this extraordinary opportunity. It became all the more precious to me a week after I returned to the US and heard John Howard and Mal Brough announce their plans to intervene in the lives of the people I so lately met for the first time, a story that is still unfolding under the Rudd Government, and still full of uncertainty and confusion. The news of the Intervention was doubly shocking coming as it did immediately on the heels of the release of the final report of the Senate Inquiry into the Indigenous Visual Arts and Crafts Industry, Indigenous Art–Securing the Future .

The Intervention effectively buried that report. Its key recommendations remain unimplemented, although it is uncertain how many of them might have come to fruition anyway. (Of course, the key recommendations of Little Children are Sacred remain largely unimplemented as well, but that is another story.) While the Senate Report recognized repeatedly the importance of art centres to an Indigenous economy, the Intervention initially put those operations at great risk through the threat to abolish CDEP (for starters).

And so I feel doubly blessed to have been able to visit all these amazing communities before the threats burst, at a moment in time when there was real hope that the government might recognize the fullness of the gifts that come out of Yuendumu and Yirrkala, of the sustenance that art means to the old men and women of Patjarr and Warmun. I saw the coexistence of the Dreaming with Christian traditions in Nguiu and bought Ngaanyatjarra rock ‘n roll recordings in Warburton, met movie stars in Ramingining, and played ball with a young girl in Kintore.

At stops along the way, from Sydney to Alice Springs to Darwin to Brisbane, I was able once more to immerse myself in the other end of the cultural continuum, visiting galleries and museums, meeting scholars and journalists. Perhaps another reason that it has taken me a full year to write up these reports is the need to come to terms with the fullness, the richness of the whole experience. I’m not quite sure I’ve achieved that even now. I expect that when I next return to Australia to immerse myself again, in different ways to be sure, I will discover things I learned a year ago and still don’t fully appreciate.

Writing in the Darwin airport on that final day, I noted how Wayne had promised at the start of the tour that the next two weeks would be a life-changing experience, and how I foolishly disbelieved him. I knew that day in Darwin and know better today how right he was. 

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