In the 1980s, in the newly energised mood triggered by debates around the Bicentennial, art centres sprang up across remote Australia like city-states of the Italian Renaissance. Vital community hubs, they offered a way for Indigenous Australians to stay on their land and generate income, while dynamically preserving and disseminating their culture.
But these art centres also represent sites of collaboration and exchange. The managers, who are usually white, act as a bridge between the Indigenous artists and the commercial market. They have to balance the practical realities of running a business with the complex protocols of honouring Indigenous culture, all while balancing the books and negotiating the challenges of vestigial colonialism.
Only about a dozen of the 100 or so art centres in operation have shown growing profits: the series explores two of them. The desert community of Yuendemu, 300 kilometres North- West of Alice Springs, is home to Warlukurlangu Art Centre. Its mostly female Warlpiri artists paint in a range of over 200 electrifying colours; just as strikingly, it is managed by two Chilean women from wildly different social and political backgrounds. Up on Australia’s tropical north coast, Will Stubbs has run the Buku-Larrnggay Art Centre on behalf of the Yolngu people for over 20 years. The art produced here is both spiritual and political, the artists drawing on a history of outsider trade and exchange that goes back 400 years.
Other episodes examine the multifarious cohort that intersects with these art centre communities – advocates of Indigenous rights, backpackers and volunteers, wheelers and dealers, academics, critics, collectors, curators and white co-artists. Many are themselves transformed, spiritually and politically, in the process.
In contrast, the final episode explores an urban Aboriginal art centre, proppaNOW, in Brisbane, whose artists produce overtly political conceptual art, divorced from, and in defiant opposition to, romanticised white notions of remote Aboriginal Australia.
This series is devised and produced by Siobhán McHugh, Associate Professor in Journalism at the University of Wollongong, in association with art historian Ian McLean, Hugh Ramsay Chair of Contemporary Art at the University of Melbourne, and Margo Neale, Senior Indigenous Curator at the National Museum of Australia. The series derives from a University of Wollongong research project led by Professor McLean and funded by the Australian Research Council.
The documentary entitled The Conquistador, the Warlpiri and the Dog Whisperer, was produced for Earshot on ABC Radio National and first broadcast on 14 May 2018. Technical production was by Russell Stapleton and the Executive Producer was Claudia Taranto. Supervising technical producer for the associated podcast series is Guy Freer. Production assistance was by Grace Stranger, Chantelle Mayo and Claudia Popowski with interview transcripts by Quentin Sprague and Lucy Dean. Podcast signature theme and additional music composed by Nick Rheinberger.