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Introducing Aanya Whitehead, Executive Director at Western Riverina Arts

This month we introduce Aanya Whitehead, Executive Director of Western Riverina Arts.

Commencing in the role only seven months ago, Aanya shares with us how she is navigating and learning in her new position. She emphasises the important role that Western Rivera Arts plays in supporting and advocating for the artists and organisations across the region to ensure that creativity and culture can continue to grow, even through the most challenging of times!


Tell us about your role at Western Riverina Arts.

I am from a film background and I am really loving this job.  I have only had the role for seven months, but it has been very much about connecting through to the creative community at all levels, and I am finding here in the Western Riverina area that arts and culture spans so many parts of it.  Arts are embedded into many community organisations, housing, health, wellbeing and education.

From the arts and culture perspective, I feel this role is a service and development job.  Artists are the highest priority and because I am new, I am perhaps supersensitive to this and want to listen. I want to hear their story or situation, and I want to be able to have them feel they are serviced in some way – be it informing them of funding and opportunities, or simply having another person’s point of view on what they are doing and how to work out ways to achieve their creative aims and dreams.  Even being part of an actual situation where they may be struggling to find a way for their art and how to fit that into their lives in cases where they are overrun by other life circumstances (such as a pandemic!!).  In my early stages of being in this position, I have made a point of being available and connected, and I realise this may settle down, but I am still working out how best to service the creative community here.

WRA has a very good Communications Officer, Camille Whitehead.  We both started at same time, so the office has literally changed its face.  In the early days most people contacting us assumed we are family, and it’s funny, if our names were Smith it wouldn’t matter, but Whitehead is unusual.  In the beginning, to be polite, we would advise people that we weren’t related; most people assumed she was my daughter!  That being said I would be proud if she were.  Camille is very talented, hardworking, good willing, and supports WRA terrifically.


Can you describe the arts and culture scene of the Western Riverina region?

The Local Government Areas that WRA cover are Narrandera, Griffith, Leeton and Murrumbidgee.  This covers a square area of 13,600 km with a combined population of 50,000 and is Murrumbidgee River country – flat, with incredible skyscapes, beautiful natural open bush areas, some very slight hill ranges, striking natural Cyprus pines, and many, many open roads.

Our biggest town is Griffith, and its Theatre, run by their Council, is on the map for performing regional tours which is significant.  Griffith is well resourced and has a vibrant arts scene. This community are doing a lot culturally. They have a town band, a music conservatorium, a performing arts group and a huge visual arts scene.

The Wiradjuri Community also display strong cultural presence in experimental arts, women’s arts, and many lively community events. We have a vibrant First Nations culture across the region, with active artists who are starting their own businesses and online sales points.  The LGA’s surrounding Griffith are smaller centres in quite remote areas but are prioritising the upscaling of cultural tourism.

The CAD Factory is here in Narrandera, with Sarah and Vic McEwan collaborating on and forging visionary projects. To me, they are the Prometheus of arts activity here. They are passionate about their projects and totally support all who collaborate with them.  Generally, the region values the arts, for example the library network and other institutions like museums and cultural centres make substantial efforts to engage and promote the arts.

WRA promote and highlight all cultural practitioners whenever possible.  With big distances between places there is focus on connecting. For instance, Narrandera makes efforts to connect through to Darlington Point and Coleambally, Leeton makes efforts to connect through to Barellan, even though they may not form part of the same LGA there is a natural connection made, and this has the result of resources being shared.  It is a wonderful spider’s web of arts and cultural activity.  There are many collaborative projects, such as poets working with painters, musicians recording soundtracks for visual exhibitions, filmmakers working with Wiradjuri cultural workers.

Our most southern town, Jerilderie naturally connects south, but I make a point of regular visits there to talk through what they are planning to develop and keep that connection in place with the rest of the region.  Jerilderie is very isolated and beautiful – its town, its atmosphere, its environment has an active and promoted arts community, significantly First Nations.


From droughts to floods, fires and now a global health pandemic, Regional Australia has faced many challenges over the past few years, and all have taken a toll on our communities. How has Western Riverina Arts responded to constant change and challenge; and how do you think the Arts and creative practices can support, inspire or relieve people in times of uncertainty?

The Western Riverina region has and continues to face many challenges.  We are still in a drought, and whilst we have been through winter and haven’t noticed it because there is condensation and cold, we have had barely any rain.  With Covid, there is trepidation economically across the region which is a real worry.  There is also a high concern for the natural environment and a number of artists are expressing this, working on projects that highlight the great centuries old river red gums that face dying in the drought.  The health of the river, the fragile environment, the precious koalas and birdlife; looking after the land and learning how to listen to Wiradjuri wisdom about the land seem to be a strong cultural theme at the moment.  There are also practical setbacks.  In some areas internet access is extremely limited, and there is inconsistent phone reception. Covid left many people with no discretionary income, and we’ve had a number of artists and organisations struggling to managing the basics, like purchasing phone credit, paying for fuel and even the cost of postage for their works. At the most basic level this leaves artists and organisations, at times, unable to put grants in; or they are being let down in other ways, like limited or no staffing to help keep things moving forward.  WRA really pays attention to this within the cultural community and we try to use our administrative resources to offer help so people don’t miss out.


WRA has recently release its 2019 Annual Report. Can you tell us about some of the projects that your team worked on, and provide some insight into what exciting projects we can expect to see from the region in 2020?

Derek Motion was the previous Executive Director and worked on a number of fantastic projects during the 2018-2019 period.  He also worked with Miriam Rystedt and Lillardia Briggs-Bouston, who were the Communications Officers at the time.  What really interests me is the work that Jason Richardson (aka bassling) does.  He collaborates with many very thought-provoking artists and has a fine and defined aesthetic. I think we are very lucky to have him as an artist in this area.

Last year he worked with Vic McEwan from the CAD Factory and Fiona Caldarevic to do some experimental recordings playing the Narrandera Guitar, the largest playable guitar in the world.  There were quite a number of visual arts exhibitions along with promotions by WRA featuring artists like:  Karly Sivewright, Linzie Ellis, Cory McKenzie Googar Art, Ann Rayment, Melanie Baulch, Treahna Hamm, Gabrielle Hegyes, Chris Kunko, Robert Moss, Jack Randell, Jo-Anne Southern, Kerri Weymouth and Lindee Russell.  Group exhibitions included the Penny Paniz Acquisitive Prize, Yield that was curated by Sarah and Vic McEwan, Murru, and Willandra Three Rivers.  The Griffith Regional Art Gallery has really got behind local artists, and they fully support established and emerging artists – it’s wonderful to see our institutions celebrating arts and providing so much opportunity.

We are halfway through 2020, and with Covid well, it’s self-explanatory. However, at the beginning of the year WRA played a big part of organising the Griffith Bushfire Benefit Concert, that was held in March. It was a fantastic family picnic event featuring all our local musicians and raised $6,000 for bushfire relief.

WRA also initiated this year’s The Riverina Lectures.  These are ongoing events where guest speakers talk on diverse subjects, and travel around the region to activate spaces and connect with regional audiences. Our first two were held by Vic McEwan in March, and Anthea da Silva in July, and were really successful! We already have enquiries for when the next ones will take place.  Another signature event for this year is the Yarruwala Wiradjuri Cultural Festival.  This has been organised by the Wiradjuri Community with a working partnership of many organisations including and among others Griffith Regional Theatre, Leeton and District Aboriginal Land Council, Clontarf, Griffith Aboriginal Medical Service, Deakin University and Western Riverina Arts.

Celebrating all things Wiradjuri is being programmed around the premiere play of Sunshine Super Girl, by Andrea James. This play is about Evonne Goolagong-Cawley who was born in Griffith and grew up in Barellan. The production is Artistically Directed by Dancer, Choreographer and Writer Kerry Johnson.  She runs Burrundi Theatre for Performing Arts and she is creating some of the most extraordinary content for the festival.  Kerry is a true visionary – she can work across all media platforms and really takes on the digital forms as a serious means of artistic expression. So, stay tuned for the premier of Sunshine Super Girl, it’s going to be great!