Behind the scenes: Warlayirti: The Art of Balgo

jacky 2IMG_4962Warlayirti: The Art of Balgo which opens to the public at RMIT Gallery next week (16 September – 8 November),  brings together key examples of works from Warlayirti Artists sourced from public collections and clearly defines the beginnings of this important art movement.

Warlayirti Artists is one of the most successful art centres to emerge from remote area Australia located at Balgo, Western Australia in the midst of the Tanami desert. Balgo Hills (Wirrimanu) is the ceremonial hub for several indigenous clans from the Kimberley and Western Desert (Kutjungka) and is on the Luurnpa (kingfisher) Dreaming track.

The curator, Jacqueline Healy (pictured) has been visiting Warlayirti Artists annually for over a decade and has worked closely with the committee arts advisors and individual artists in devising the exhibition.

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The Pallottine Mission was established near Balgo in the late 1930s as a buffer for Indigenous people against the onslaught of pastoralism and mining. They offered an alternative dialogue with Kartiya (White people).The art movement began with the painting of church banners in 1981 for Father Peile’s jubilee lead by the senior men. These banners were painted on calico with poster paint in the Adult Education Centre at Balgo, utilising materials available in the community at the time. It was a most significant gesture to Father Piele, and in these collaborative works each senior man revealed his country.

The Wirrimanu (Balgo) community achieved self-determination and government in 1980s but chose to have an ongoing relationship with the Catholic Church within the community. The early banners exemplify the power of this relationship which continues today.

A group of old men, names and associations not given  Assembly banner 1981  Paint on calico 400.0 x 89.0 cm St Theresa Church, Balgo Collection ‘This banner was the first to be painted for the Balgo Hills Church and represents a number of different mythological sequences from the period of the Dreaming. Each of these was associated with persons living at the settlement. The banner is one of two which are hung behind the altar during Christian festivals.’  (Art from the Great Sandy Desert exhibition catalogue, 1986)
A group of old men, names and associations not given
Assembly banner 1981
Paint on calico
400.0 x 89.0 cm
St Theresa Church, Balgo Collection
‘This banner was the first to be painted for the Balgo Hills Church and represents a number of different mythological sequences from the period of the Dreaming. Each of these was associated with persons living at the settlement. The banner is one of two which are hung behind the altar during Christian festivals.’
(Art from the Great Sandy Desert exhibition catalogue, 1986)

The art movement began  with the painting of church banners in 1981 for Father Peile’s jubilee lead by the senior men. These banners were painted on calico with poster paint in the Adult Education Centre at Balgo. It was a most significant gesture to Father Piele, in these collaborative works each senior man revealed his country.  Through Mathew Gill ( Son of Susie Bootja Bootja and Mick Gill Tjakamara) the old men approached,  Sister Alice Dempsey to find out if they could  continue their painting at the St John’s Adult Education Centre, Balgo .

Seen for the first time for public display since they were painted in 1981, exhibition curator Dr Jacqueline Healy with the Assembly Banners at RMIT Gallery as part of the exhibition Warlayirti: The Art of Balgo (16 September - 8 November)
Seen for the first time for public display since they were painted in 1981, exhibition curator Dr Jacqueline Healy with the Assembly Banners at RMIT Gallery as part of the exhibition Warlayirti: The Art of Balgo (16 September – 8 November)

 In 1984 the women joined the painting group working alongside the men.   A selection of the works produced were exhibited at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in 1986, at a watershed exhibition, Art from the Great Sandy Desert  resulting in the art from Balgo being recognised as a distinct body of work distinguished by diversity of style and bold use of colour. The exhibition was the catalyst for the establishment of the art centre at Balgo funded by the Australia Council named   Warlayirti Artists by the senior men. Many of Australia’s most recognised Australian artists come from this region including Murityarru Sunfly Tjampitjin,Wimmitji Tjapangarti, Boxer Milner, Eubena Nampitjin, Elizabeth Nyumi, Lucy Yukenbarri and John Mosquito Tjapangarti.

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Key individuals who participated in the 1986 exhibition have been interviewed including; Gracie Greene, Bruce Njamme, Gary Njamme and  Eubena Nampitjin. Important primary research material has been located in the Warlayirti Artists archives including the original documentation for the artworks in the 1986 exhibtion.

This exhibition brings together key examples of these works from public collections and clearly defines the beginnings of this important art movement. But this exhibition is not just about the past . It reveals the continued flourishing of the art movement. The exhibition shows more recent work by the leadng artists that have emerged from Warlayirti Artists and the current generation of artists. It examines the aesthetic divergences and vibrancy that distinguishes the art of Balgo. This exhibition has been developed in collaboration with Warlayirti Artists Committee.

The Ursula Hoff Annual Public Lecture 2014

Aboriginal art centres – the good, the bad and the ugly

Date: Tuesday 16 September

Time: 6-7 pm, RMIT Storey Hall.

Bookings:  Free. (03) 9925 1717.

Speakers: Dr Jacqueline Healy, Professor Ian McLean, Sister Alice Dempsey

The Ursula Hoff Annual Public Lecture 2014 will explore the role of curators and business in Aboriginal art. Presented by RMIT Gallery to launch the major exhibition Warlayirti: The Art of Balgo (16 September – 8 November); in conjunction with The Ursula Hoff Institute.

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