Cultural collaboration between remote Kimberley art centres

Through collaboration and shared resources, remote Kimberley art centres strengthen cultural practice and promote a unique identity.
‘Wirnan’. Photo: Glenn Iseger-Pilkington 2018.

WARNING: This story features the names of Aboriginal people who have died.

Among the north-western region’s red escarpments, deep gorges and winding river systems, where heat shimmers across the windswept desert jila, marshlands and spinifex plains, a group of art centres align with a shared purpose through the guidance of cultural practice. 

In speaking to the uniqueness of the Kimberley art centre collaborative model, senior Miriwoong artist Ben Ward reminds us, ‘This [working together] is not something new. It has always been part of who we are – it’s how we do things. That’s our culture. That’s Wirnan.’ 

Having worked as an art centre manager for over 20 years, this writer was acutely aware of how easy it is to lose clarity in the constant demands of art centre operations, the heady mix of applying for grants, courting the art market and managing supply and demand.

Ward was always there, reminding and reiterating that the critical role of the art centre is to deliver outcomes for the community. Community aspirations consistently emphasise the continuity of cultural practice. 

It may seem counterintuitive in a Western model, but aligning business operations with cultural practice is proving a beneficial approach for Kimberley Aboriginal Artists, recently renamed as the Kimberley Aboriginal Art and Culture Alliance. The partnership consists of Mangkaja Arts from Fitzroy Crossing, Mowanjum Art and Culture located in Derby, Waringarri Aboriginal Arts in Kununurra and Warmun Art at Warmun – Turkey Creek community.

Since 2009 with the West Australian touring exhibition Sharing Difference on Common Ground, these Kimberley art centres have established a way of working together. 

An exhibition of performance artefacts and videos Joonba, Junba, Juju followed with showings at the 2013 Darwin Festival and the University of Technology Sydney. Then, after a three-year partnership project with ABC Open, the alliance presented a national touring exhibition, In the Saddle – On the Wall. The exhibition showcased digital stories and artworks by artists who had worked in the Kimberley cattle industry, stories of proud First Nations stockmen alongside stories of tragedy and colonial violence. 

Each exhibition project was a slowly evolving collaboration of creativity and curatorial selection. 

The cultural concept of Wirnan plays a pivotal role

The Kimberley Aboriginal Art and Culture Alliance, however, is not confined to exhibition programming. With continuous participation from the four art centres, the alliance increasingly focuses on creating opportunities to strengthen cultural practice and build community and enterprise capacity guided by the cultural concept of Wirnan.

Wirnan is a Kimberley practice linking diverse cultural groups through trade and obligation. Often misunderstood as an economic trading system, Wirnan is more complex. It is a multifaceted and layered system that identifies the intrinsic and respectful responsibilities of connection to Country and each other. Within it exists the value systems that are maintained and passed on in an intergenerational cultural continuum. 

On the surface, Wirnan is about the gifting and sharing of objects, knowledge, stories and performances connected through mutual obligation. Below the surface, Wirnan resonates with more profound exchanges. A senior Miriwoong leader once explained Wirnan as berlebga-yileng translating as ‘never let each other slip’. The word describes the mutual care and respect associated with the Wirnan framework. 

The Kimberley Aboriginal Art and Culture Alliance provides much mutual support. We learn from each other through two-way learning to balance both cultural and enterprise development needs. 

From the beginning of the alliance, the concept of Wirnan has played a pivotal role. In 2010, a senior Mowanjum artist named an initiative to reinvigorate performance practice: Give them Wirnan – Listen Carefully. I can still hear her voice quietly reverberating around the meeting room. At the time, I was unaware of the more profound implications of her proposal.

The performance project, led by Mowanjum Art and Culture, focused on listening to archival recordings and waking up stories that had not been performed for many years. Over three years, the project contributed to a revival of traditional song and dance across the region and ensured the passing on of cultural practice to the next generations. This reinvigorated ongoing community performances and assured the major annual events of the Mowanjum Festival and Waringarri’s Corroboree Under the Stars.

A decade later, with an encouraging allocation of funding from the health sector, Kimberley Aboriginal Art and Culture Alliance collaborated and shared resources to deliver an intergenerational cultural knowledge project. 

Brokered by the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre and funded by the WA Primary Health Alliance (WAPHA) under the Kimberley Suicide Prevention Scheme, the project aimed to address high regional levels of intergenerational trauma and youth dysfunction. The project facilitated activities and gathered data to demonstrate the health and well-being benefits of strengthening cultural practice. While data collection added another layer of administrative challenge, the project demonstrated evidence-based benefits captured in a report by Curtin University.

More than 3500 Kimberley people engaged in over 200 activities during the project’s lifespan. Activities included intergenerational knowledge sharing with community and school groups, knowledge sharing between art centres, regional cultural skills revival, performances and trips to reconnect with Country. 

For those living in Balgo Hills, Warlayirti Artists plays an essential role in reconnecting artists with their homelands. Its annual cultural camps program, supported by the alliance’s shared funds, regenerates culture, promotes well-being and inspires arts practice. 

Warlayirti Artists and the Kira Kiro Artists joined the alliance to participate in the project. Both art centres connect with the alliance through strong family ties. Warlayirti connects with Mangkaja Arts, and Kira Kiro Artists connects with both Mowanjum and Waringarri Art centres. 

The alliance is not constrained by strict structures; it is a fluid connection based on Wirnan cultural protocols and project relevance, guided by Elders and next-generation leaders.

Art and culture are essential co-contributors

In the most recent project, Kimberley Aboriginal Art and Culture Alliance is working with Kevin Wilson, a Wongi man, graphic artist, and Creative Director of Nani Creative, to develop a branding strategy.

At a regional face-to-face meeting in mid-2023, Kimberley Aboriginal Art and Culture Alliance directors, artists, arts workers and managers developed a guiding statement to capture the essence of the collaboration.

The alliance is ‘…continuing connections from the old people to keep the Dreaming alive by telling the story of kinship through art; acknowledging the legacy of significant binding relationships and mutual understanding across vast landscapes, language and skin groups, and that sharing, connection and culture are everywhere and forever, grounded in respect, generosity and survival,’ says the statement.

In one of several follow-up online meetings to discuss brand logo options, Mowanjum artist Leah Umbagai excitedly confirms her preferred choice and contributes her vision for the Kimberley Aboriginal Art and Culture Alliance. She represents the next generation of community leaders who must navigate the future of her community and its art centre. With the recent death of senior Worrorra cultural leader and artist D Woolagoodja in October 2022, she now has a broad obligation of responsibilities.

Umbagai is happy the word “culture” is now acknowledged in the brand. She hopes the Kimberley Aboriginal Art and Culture Alliance will continue the regional sharing of skills and knowledge with more regular celebrations.

‘We learn from seeing what our other art centres are doing. We must keep sharing our art and culture,’ she says.

Arts workers from each art centre actioned this idea in 2021 with a road trip. Led by emerging curator Lynley Nargoodah from Mangkaja Arts, arts workers completed a 2000-kilometre fly-drive regional round trip. With a welcome by Elders, each art centre hosted the group to experience its different arts practices and operations. The trip culminated in a booth at Sydney Contemporary in September 2022. Led by Mangkaja Arts, emerging curators and arts workers collaborated to achieve a Kimberley Aboriginal Art and Culture Alliance curatorial statement. 

The many questions raised at the Art Fair prompted the idea of a branding project. Already a strong tourism brand with established art industry acclaim, the Kimberley alliance realised the next step was a statement to reflect its unique collaborative and cultural approach.

The Kimberley Aboriginal Art and Culture Alliance brand places art and culture as essential co-contributors.

Read: The “helping” hand of allyship: Indigenous art, authenticity and politics

Having participated in the Kimberley Aboriginal Art and Culture Alliance collaboration for many years listening to senior artists, I understand only a little of the depths of their expectations for a collaborative approach. However, I do know it is generating benefits. Increased economic outcomes, deeper regional connections and beneficial learning are apparent. 

Because the group is small, there has been an ability to hear and learn from every voice at the table. It is much easier to be agile in responding to ideas and opportunities. Funding has been more accessible as we are no longer in competition. The shared learning benefits artists, arts workers and managers. It is a solution-focused way of supporting each other through challenges. 

Gooniyandi Elder and artist Mervyn Street, who has attended all the face-to-face Kimberley Aboriginal Art and Culture Alliance’s meetings since 2010, explains the connection between art centres and their language groups. 

Remembering his words, I imagine the spirits of the Country joining into a single energy flow. Their journeys extend across a changing landscape as Miriwoong Country shifts into Gija, then Jaru Country. The Walmajarri and Wangkatjungka spirits travel towards Gooniyandi and Bunuba lands. Before the iconic boab trees meet the intense aqua coastal country of the Yawuru and Bardi peoples, the circle swings northward toward the Ngarinyin, Worrorra and Wunambal tribes; along the northern Kimberley coast and Gibb River Road, they meet with Kwini and Balanggarra peoples before completing a circle back into Miriwoong Country.

It is a continuum.

I hear the echo of a senior artist, her face framed by white hair, her eyes clear, repeating the phrase – ‘Give them Wirnan’ – the deep flows of knowledge exchange, guiding us to connect, assuring us that this is the right way.

In light of recent referendum results, Wirnan and berlebga-yileng are two words that resonate. Share and never let each other slip. Together and hold strong. 

This article is published under the Amplify Collective, an initiative supported by The Walkley Foundation and made possible through funding from the Meta Australian News Fund.

Cathy Cummins is an arts-worker, consultant and emerging writer. She has worked in remote Western Australia supporting community arts and cultural enterprise developments for more than 25 years.