Appreciating Indigenous art and culture

Warmun Art Centre is one of Australia’s most significant cultural institutions and an important source of artworks for the RACV Art Collection.

In the tiny West Australian town of Warmun, on the Great Northern Highway between Broome and Kununurra, you’ll find one of Australia’s most significant cultural institutions.

The community owned and controlled Warmun Art Centre supports some of the nation’s leading Aboriginal contemporary practitioners and the Kimberley’s ancient beauty, with its palette of reds, ochres and charcoals, underpins their work.

Warmun Art Centre program manager Dominic Kavanagh says the significance of landscape to the artwork of such artists as Patrick Mung Mung, Shirley Purdie and Mark Nodea, whose work is included in the RACV Art Collection, can’t be overstated.

Mr R Peters, Gija, Wirrindiny-bawu-ngarri-wanema, 2002, natural ochre on canvas, 122 x 135cm. Courtesy the artists’ estate and Warmun Art Centre. Photographer Christian Capurro, RACV Art Collection.

Mark Nodea, Gija, My Mother’s Country, 2019, natural ochre and pigments on canvas, 90 x 120cm. Courtesy the artist and Warmun Art Centre. Photographer Christian Capurro, RACV Art Collection.

“In the Kimberley and East Kimberley, and specifically in Warmun, one of the defining characteristics is the use of natural ochres,” Dominic says. “Our artists are painting images of their country, on country and literally painting with the country. They are finding this ochre, mining it, crushing it up, mixing it and applying it directly to the canvas.”

The RACV Art Collection includes more than 15 artworks from Warmun Art Centre, which is owned and governed by Kimberley’s Gija people, with 100 per cent of income returning to the community. 

The centre is a signatory of the Indigenous Art Code, a system introduced in 2010 to ensure artists and those around them are paid fairly.

“A model like this is so important not just in terms of artistic sales revenue but also in terms of the enrichment and custodianship of culture through language, dance, song and painting,” Dominic says.

In 2011, a devastating flood destroyed much of the art centre and almost 90 per cent of the art stock, as well as objects held in the nationally significant Community Collection.

“We had these amazing volunteers from Melbourne University’s Grimwade Centre and also workers from the Art Centre, literally walk down Turkey Creek and pick paintings out of the creek bed,” Dominic says. “They were covered in mud and there was this huge restoration project. And lots of safeguards for the future to make sure we can protect the amazing artworks that are here now.”

Warmun Art Centre, with the assistance of the Grimwade Centre, has developed the Warmun Community Collection.

“That’s all of Gija art and culture being protected through many, many generations. This is very important place in that regard,” Dominic says.

The RACV Art Collection includes the work of renowned Aboriginal artist Mr R. Peters, who died aged 85 in July. His paintings also hang in Parliament House in Canberra and other major art collections around the nation.

“Mr Peters was beyond an amazing draftsman and amazing artist, he was an incredibly deep thinker in his work,” Dominic says. “One of the astounding components of his work is the conceptual work that goes into each of his paintings. His work extended to teaching at Ngalangangpum bicultural school in Warmun.

“His big idea was that in order to teach the next generation of artists you needed to teach Gija culture and gardiya or white culture. He put that learning and practice into his work, looking at how these two different cultures interact and how important it is to have a balance of both.”

Club Members interested in buying Indigenous artwork can purchase works directly through the Warmun Art Centre’s online portal.

“It is possible to buy our works all over the country, but we always recommend going directly to arts centres, particularly at a time like this when art centres are doing it so tough,” Dominic says.

He says people buy Indigenous art for “millions of different reasons”.

“Seeing work that you engage with and connect with on a personal level is incredibly important and lots of people do have strong connections, personal emotional connections to those works,” he says.

He says online research about Indigenous art and culture is a great way to educate yourself.

“When you are able to travel around, there are these amazing Aboriginal art fairs throughout the year, including the Tarnanthi Art Fair in Adelaide, Revealed WA Aboriginal Art Market in Fremantle and the National Indigenous Art Fair in Sydney,” he says.

“They have a fantastic energy about them, but they also give you a huge opportunity to talk to a number of art centre workers and also the artists themselves. That is definitely the best and most enjoyable way (to learn about Indigenous art).” 

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