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Thread of Funding Weaves a New Artistic Language for Aboriginal Artists in NSW

MCA partners with RANSW to provide professional development to ambitious Aboriginal art curators



In 2012, Weaving Across the Outback, (funded by CASP) took place in the Outback Arts region – Bourke, Cobar, Coonamble, Walgett and Warren – where Aboriginal community members were shown the ancient techniques of fibre weaving by tour artists from Boolarng Nangamai Aboriginal Art and Cultural Studio. In these workshops, participants learned traditional and contemporary weaving techniques and those who underwent the training could act as community leaders who could continue to share their hands-on skills in the traditions of weaving.

The ripple-effect of this successful program was clear to the Outback Arts team, and beyond. Finally, NSW Aboriginal artists were connecting with an identity that was distinctly theirs, and departed from the dot paintings of the Western desert artists. The art world both here in Australia and across the globe, has been in the grip of a dot painting rage for the last three decades, creating an demand that Aboriginal artists elsewhere felt they had to meet in order to economically competitive.

Our Regional Arts NSW Aboriginal arts officer network has been determined to redefine the perception of traditional and contemporary Aboriginal art (both at large and within NSW communities) by sharing skills – such as those taught by the artists from the Boolarng Nangamai Aboriginal Art and Culture Studio – which are helping the artists in the NSW regions cultivate a new artistic language that they can own.

Following on from the success of Weaving Across the Outback, Outback Arts and Boolarng Nangamai partnered once again, delivering Masterclass Weaving Workshops across the far west region which offered the opportunity for those taking part to extend their skills in traditional weaving of NSW and South East Coast. Following the tour everyone who participated in the workshops had the option to exhibit their weaving in Museum of Contemporary Art ‘String Theory’ Exhibition with Boolarng Nangamai.

Boolarng Nangamai Arts and Culture Studio CEO Kelli Ryan says, “What we have created is innovative and our ability to capture authentically the ‘old ways in new times’ is what makes us unique.”

Coinciding with the excitement of the String Theory exhibit at the MCA, Regional Arts NSW, developed a program specifically for the Regional Arts NSW Aboriginal arts officer network, meeting their request for further professional development. The Regional Arts NSW Curatorial Professional Development Program came out of many discussions where RANSW was exploring how best to address this need from the regions for artistic identity-building skills. Working closely with Keith Munro, MCA Curator of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Programs, the program was developed in-line with Regional Arts Australia’s (RAA) National Strategic Projects, which is funded by the Regional Arts Fund. This program’s purpose is to build capacity for regional and remote Aboriginal artists through connecting communities on a national level to encourage cross-border collaboration, national perspectives, skill development and networking.

There was a strongly emphasis on the importance of a two-way learning process which would allow the Aboriginal Arts Development Officer to share their creative and cultural insights with MCA staff to enrich their understanding of artistic influences coming out of communities and art hubs, as well as appreciate the dynamic diversity of contemporary Aboriginal art practice. The group visited the Macleay Museum to view the NSW artifacts exhibition, Gadigal Information Services, the Australia Museum and met with many artists invited from across Australia to exhibit in String Theory, to discuss the work and process.

Anthony Walker, Aboriginal Arts Development Officer for Arts Northern Rivers, said of the experience “I gained skills and knowledge which I will take back to my region and share with our local Aboriginal artists. The networking opportunities enabled me to foster relationships between Arts Northern Rivers and industry contacts, and made me aware of other avenues through which we can promote the arts of our region.”

The experience offered them everything from the practical: “I liked seeing how the artworks are stored and prepared for exhibition,” said Melissa Ryan, from Orana Arts, “how they use innovative and creative ideas to provide storage solutions”; through to the educational possibilities of integrating digital technology for galleries and keeping spaces: “We had a very comprehensive guide to the MCA’s strategies for interacting with the different audiences. Seeing how social media can play a role, or how the development of an app can help create an interactive experience for visitors was really exciting.”

Kim Goldsmith has written an excellent overview of the changing landscape of Aboriginal arts in NSW for The Dubbo Weekender, here.

Image: Courtesy of Michael Geia, Arts NSW. Aboriginal Development Officers Network: (l-r) Anthony Walker, Jamie-Lea Hodges, Aleshia Lonsdale, Karin Thurston, Susan Lawrence, Melissa Ryan, Sam Turnbull, Lorrayne Riggs.