Desert River Sea: Portraits of the Kimberly is an exhibition currently on display at the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA), purposed with showcasing contemporary Indigenous artwork from the Kimberly and surrounding region. The co-curators, Carly Lane and Emilia Galatis, sat down with Arts Editor Stirling Kain for an interview regarding their motivations and experiences surrounding the show.
Stirling Kain: All of the artists featured in this exhibition are from the Kimberly. Why did you choose to focus your exhibition on this area? What makes it special and important to you?
Emilia Galatis: The first thing I will say about this exhibition is that it was very important to us, particularly over the past 12 months, that we engaged with the regional artistic dialogue happening in the Kimberly. The natural end to this was the Desert River Sea exhibition, which we have been working on intensively over the past 12 months. The show consists of a series of projects that have been funded by the State Gallery [AGWA]. We have been working on these projects over the past 6 years and letting artists pitch projects to us in that time. This exhibition was really artist-led, allowing the artists to tell the stories they wanted to tell, and allowing different mediums to be used by them.
Carly Lane: The Kimberly art centres have a strong network of relationships, and the Kimberly was the most obvious region to engage with. This area was one of the earliest regions in Western Australia to be a part of the conversations surrounding cultural narratives. That’s not to say that there weren’t others before and after, such as Carrolup, but in terms of the Australian contemporary art scene, the Kimberly was really at the forefront.
S.K: My understanding of the way most exhibitions are curated is that they involve co-ordinating with one organisation or a small number of artists. What kind of challenges and benefits came with working with six art centres, AGWA’s collection, as well as independent artists?
E.G: There were many challenges for everybody involved.
C.L: Sometimes, there were up to thirty artists working on one project, so we termed them ‘pile-up projects.’ All of the projects were very intense. None of the organisations we worked with have worked in this way before, and there were many challenges that we just had to mediate as they came along. It was certainly challenging trying to meet the needs of the artists and the associated problems with curating an exhibition in this way. We didn’t always want to dictate what was featured in the exhibition and what was excluded, and it was important to us that we made sure everyone’s stories were shared.
E.G: I should add that the commissioned works were funded by the State Gallery, and then we also worked with the state art collection. We couldn’t have an exhibition showcasing the Kimberly’s art collection without showing the State Gallery’s Kimberly art. We also included the Legacy works, which I will leave to Carly to talk about further.
C.L: The Legacy section was one of the most important parts of the exhibition that we have been working on over the last 12 months. We gave art centres the opportunity to curate bodies of work from their own cultural collections that relate to their own legacy and heritage, giving them the opportunity to share their social narratives and the narratives of their elders.
S.K: The Desert River Sea exhibition was 6 years in the making. Why did so much time go into preparing this exhibition, and how do you think it has influenced it?
C.L: 6 years is actually quite a short amount of time to dedicate to organising an exhibition. Over those 6 years, we have been helping artists and workers develop their art projects, and corresponding with the relevant art groups. Our focus prior to the exhibition was showcasing the Desert River Sea collection portal. The portal is a huge cache of information about individual artists and the project itself, and is intended to be an archive for future generations of Kimberly artists.
S.K: Being named Desert River Sea, we can surmise that the thematic focus of this exhibition is on the landscape of the Kimberly. Are their differences and continuities in the way these Indigenous artists view the land compared to non-Indigenous artists, and how do you think these render themselves in the art they produce?
E.G: I can tell you a story that serves as a great anecdote in response to this question. On one trip to Government House, I was with Cathy Cummins, who is the manager at Waringarri Aboriginal Arts, and we were looking at all of these portraits of kings and queens. She observed that you can really tell the difference between what is important to Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists – that, for non-Indigenous artists, the ego is the central focus of their work, but for Indigenous artists, it’s the landscape.
C.L: Whilst that’s certainly not true for all cases, it does seem to be a continuing theme.
E.G: Indigenous artists also have a greater desire to collaborate. There are some artists who collaborate over the space of a decade, resulting in group shows and collaborative paintings. These collaborations are seamless – you can’t tell the difference between multiple artists’ work within the painting. The idea of the communal is emphasised, and the ego is not central to Indigenous artists’ individual practices. It’s really important that this comes to fruition, and it’s really exciting to see it happen.
S.K: AGWA itself is located geographically within the highly urbanised city-scape of Perth. What do you think the value of showcasing regional and Indigenous art to a widely urban and city-dwelling audience is?
C.L: I don’t think that was really a consideration in this exhibition in what we set out to do. We just really wanted to showcase Aboriginal art from a region that is incredibly rich and diverse.
E.G: The exhibition is about people and place, about individual cultures’ history and shared narratives. The Kimberly is, arguably, like Europe – it has multiple language groups and multiple lineages of people.
C.L: We were quite happy for it to be displayed in the Kimberly, but it just happens to be that the state institution is in Perth.
S.K: Is there anything else you would like to add?
C.L: Personally, I really enjoyed working with Emilia. This wasn’t a collaboration just at the artistic level, but at the curatorial level, too. The fact that our skill sets complemented each other really well was incredibly rewarding.
E.G: We made it to the end!
C.L: We are getting really good feedback, with people telling us that this is the best Indigenous art show they have ever seen, the best that the State Gallery has put on for a very long time. It’s been a long, hard slog, but it’s been incredibly rewarding.
Desert River Sea is free, and is on display at AGWA until May 27, 2019. You can find more information about the show here (1). You can also view the Desert River Sea portal, mentioned throughout the interview, here (2).
Agnes Armstrong, Chris Griffiths, Dora Griffiths, Jan Griffiths, Peggy Griffiths, Brenda Ningarmaraand and Phyllis Ningarmara
Multi – channel digital video
7 minutes 12 seconds
Interview by Stirling Kain | Arts Editor