Ever present danger

Masterpieces of Australian art housed at the Djomi Museum in Maningrida are currently at great risk because of a lack of financial resources to keep the works safe.

“Someone asked me hopefully the other day, was my grandfather a bark painter? I knew her grandfather and I said, no, sorry, and she said, me too, I would love to be able to look at his work. A lot of artists are now talking about painting works for the collection so they will be there for their children and grandchildren, it’s really exciting, its reigniting pride and knowledge of the works and the artists”

If we think of our Australian heroes, they are also global art heroes of creativity and knowledge, then the starting point is always Arnhem Land and its artists, past and present. And one of those places is Maningrida, a place long lived in our hearts and minds. 

Mawurndjul is standing with his work from 1980, the museum also holds a small work by Mawurndjul and a large unusual work by him depicting a Thylacine

We jump to Canberra and the National Museum of Australia and a couple of weeks ago now. A friendly museum attendant speaks to us to tell us, and he is really enthusiastic and excited about what we are going to see, that he is going to open a keeping room where many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artifacts and works of art are stored. The lights are out as he opens the door, as the lights come on they remain dim so that the precious works are kept safe. So, in the low light we wander this wonderful space. Every possible safeguard is here in the very high quality keeping cabinets with their glass enclosure. In an almost whisper the attendant tells us we don't have long as he will turn the lights out soon. The items here are likely to be safe for a very long time.

In the tropical heat the wet season conditions in Arnhem Land are very different. We know from personal experience in Asia and the Pacific Region just how fast and devastating termite damage can be. Other ever present dangers are the wet and the high levels of humidity that accompanies this otherwise beautiful season of bounty.

In very remote locations the safe keeping of cultural objects can be tricky and dangers can come in a flash. Termites and water move fast. So circumstances in the Djomi Museum are very different from those in Canberra but the art is just as precious in both places.

It is of immense importance and significance that the histories of culture and art making also remain with community. Important for the elders, important for the children and important for everyone in between.

Above: Dorothy Galaledba, a very well known artist who was taught to paint by her husband Les Mirrikuriya (Les’s work is featuring in ‘Sung into Being’ exhibiting at the Queensland Art Gallery in July). Dorothy is holding a work by her father England Banggala, to her left a crocodile bark is also by her father

There are well laid plans by Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation the for future development of Maningrida’s Cultural infrastructure which include plans for a New Djomi Museum as part of the Maningrida Arts and Cultural Precinct. Designs for the new museum are being developed by Architects Without Frontiers. A coming stage and hopefully this will occur soon, is that the artists, using a model of the new facility, will begin to plan the design of their own art spaces.

Above: Paul Nabulumo, an exciting young artist in his own right, is the son of Mick Kubarrku. Paul is with one of his twin daughters, Penetha, and his son Kidron

The new museum will be part of a cultural precinct that includes the Art Center (already famous internationally) incorporating Babbarra Designs, the Culture Office and Wiwa Music and Media. The completion date for all this is estimated to be 2019.

Above: Ivan Namirrkki holds a small painting from very early in his career and next to Ivan are three paintings by his father Peter Maralwanga, a master bark painter

All very exciting but there is an immediate and dire problem. And this is the problem of how to keep safe the masterpieces of Australian art that are currently being stored in less than ideal conditions in the museum’s current facilities. Here there are the great bark paintings of the Liverpool River region, woven works, artefacts, cultural objects and functional items from the past such as canoes.

Part of the recent problems have occurred because equipment, humidifiers etc have broken down, unstable atmospheric conditions - heat, damp, dry - and attacks on the works themselves by boras and attacks on the fabric of the building by termites, the extension of which is the likelihood of major attacks on the artworks themselves.

So disaster too horrible to contemplate looms large. For example, bora attacks have been discovered in sculptures by Crusoe Kuningbal and England Banggala. And that is enough to make me feel faint. Bark paintings are of course particularly sensitive to less than ideal storage conditions.

While a lot is being done, and these things include building the capacity of the Maningrida community and Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation to cope with the kinds of curatorial problems remoteness and hotness and wetness throw at you, there is the immediate problem of safe storage to deal with and that requires funds.

Above: Lionel Bonson is holding a painting by his grandfather Jack Wunuwun. The photograph on the wall shows Lionel as a young child dancing with his father at a ceremony in Canberra.

Plans include creating a position for an Indigenous curator to mentor, train and support emerging museum workers and curators, securing emergency funding to overcome the immediate storage problems, raising funding for the new museum building by establishing Friends of the Museum and showcasing works through travelling exhibitions.

Developing cultural infrastructure as well as consistency in the capacity to manage arts facilities is absolutely core to the wellbeing and functioning of remote Indigenous communities. Given the global appetite for Indigenous works of art and a great range of possibilities for creative works in dance, music and the arts and we can now add multimedia to these things, there are also economic and employment opportunities that align with the cultural necessities of Indigenous lives.

About Maningrida

So where are we? About 300 kilometers north-east of Darwin, if you live here and choose to drive back from Darwin the journey takes you across Kakadu, across the East Alligator River crossing with its attendant Salt Water Crocs and past Gunbalanya along bush roads, past beautiful lily covered billabongs and through the stone country with its dramatic rock art, ancient walking tracks and knowledge. That is about 10 hours on the road in the dry if you are lucky. You won’t be lucky in the wet season.

Maningrida is surrounded by its outstations and here too ceremony is strong, language is strong and connection to and knowledge of the land is strong.

I won’t go into the histories of Maningrida and its cultural places here but I encourage each of you to find out about the artists, their work and their country. It may just change your lives.

If you can assist Michelle Culpitt, the General Manager for Arts and Culture in Maningrida, with any kind of funding solution or donation to help keep Australia’s Maningrida masterpieces safe please email Michelle, whose quote you see at the beginning of this blog, at michelle.culpitt@bawinanga.com

We arrange to meet up with Crusoe Kurddal in the Djomi Museum

Images strictly copyright the artists / Maningrida Djomi Museum. Photos Michelle Culpitt.

Landing image: Owen Yalandja and wife Lena Wood with a mimih sculpture from early in Owen’s career.