Perth already has a museum of Indigenous art and culture. With proper funding, it could be our national centre – The Conversation AU

In the race to build an iconic national centre celebrating Australian Aboriginal art and culture there are now three contenders.

The Northern Territory and South Australian governments have had plans in place for one for some time. And the Western Australian government recently announced $2 million towards planning a new cultural centre.

The most suitable place for such a centre has been hotly debated for well over a decade. Yet it is still unresolved. While the debate has predominantly been about location, too often, institutions with existing collections are excluded from the dialogue.

Rather than an entirely new cultural centre, we argue that funding to the Berndt Museum of Anthropology, housed at the University of Western Australia, should be expanded.

The museum’s collection is of national and international significance. It holds cultural material from the South-West, Gascoyne, Pilbara, across the Kimberley and beyond state and territory borders nationally, as well as reaching out into Asia.

By fully supporting the Berndt Museum, Perth could become home to Australia’s leading Indigenous museum.

Another painting from the artists of Balgo. AP Photo/Jens Meyer

A national race

Three years ago, a Northern Territory Government report outlined plans for a National Aboriginal Art Gallery to be located in Alice Springs. This facility is yet to be built. Debates within the territory’s Aboriginal community have slowed progress as the location has shifted from Alice Springs to Katherine, and back.

Important questions remain about the central emphasis of “art” or “culture”, and if the gallery’s focus should be national, regional or local.

In Adelaide, meanwhile, the Liberal Party promised a National Indigenous Art and Culture Gallery during the 2018 election. A$150 million in state and federal funding has been allocated towards the gallery, which would draw on the collections of the South Australian Museum.

The proposed new building in Adelaide would draw on the collections of the South Australian Museum. Shutterstock

However, earlier this year, the SA government dropped “National” from the proposed museum’s title, acknowledging the desire for more than one such gallery in Australia.

In Perth, the Berndt Museum of Anthropology is one of the nation’s most significant collections of Aboriginal cultural heritage: home to over 12,000 artworks and 35,000 photographs, audio-visual recordings and other archival materials.

We have both worked with the collection, and believe this centre could be a national leader in sharing Indigenous art and culture. We believe discussions about a new centre in Perth must carefully consider how to support and utilise this existing museum and its research collections.

Understanding colonisation

The founders of the Berndt museum, anthropologists Ronald Berndt (1916-90) and Catherine Berndt (1918-94), were not simply interested in Australian Aboriginal people as objects of study. They conducted fieldwork across Australia, gathering information and objects from Aboriginal people in remote, regional and urban areas.

Attuned to the impacts of colonisation in general, they also extended research into Asia for comparison.

Their frank observations about the exploitation and mistreatment of people on cattle stations in the 1940s, their experience in reserves established to relocate Aboriginal people out of the reach of the Japanese in world war two, and their determination to ensure the government understood the consequences of nuclear testing on Aboriginal people reveal their empathy.

Nonetheless, accessing parts of the collection has not always been easy. While grieving her husband’s death, Catherine placed the Berndts’ fieldwork notebooks under embargo, restricting access until 2024.

Read more: Friday essay: who owns a family’s story? Why it’s time to lift the Berndt field notes embargo

During their lifetime, the Berndts published extensively on these notebooks. Since their deaths, debate over which parts of their collections are accessible became muddied – an embargo exists on the fieldwork notebooks, but not on the objects, artworks or photographs.

Still, with low levels of resourcing at the museum, the ability of the overstretched staff to respond to access requests in relation to the notebooks will be a challenge even after 2024.

Connecting knowledge

Too often in conversations about cultural centres, the incredible resources already available are neglected.

The Berndt Museum contains masterpieces such as the Carrolup drawings produced in the 1940s by students at the Carrolup Native School and Settlement; the UNESCO listed Yirrkala drawings, works on brown paper depicting the cultural legacy of that region; and some of the earliest examples of contemporary art from Birrundudu in the Northern Territory, and Balgo on the edge of the Great Sandy and Tanami Deserts.

The Berdnt Museum includes work from Yirrkala, a small community in East Arnhem Land. AAP Image/AFP Pool, Saeed Khan

Read more: Review: Yirrkala Drawings bring luminous revelations

The museum is funded by the University of Western Australia, and its staff of four maintain this collection with expertise in the handling of complex cultural archives.

However, the current museum site is simply a storage facility and a small 10 by 10 metre exhibition space in the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery. Such a small space, and small staff, is inadequate for such a large collection.

One of the benefits of an anthropological collection is the in-depth nature of the information gathered. If the Berndt Museum was adequately housed and funded, its collection could deliver an almost complete experience of Aboriginal living art, culture and history from the Berndts’ time up until today.

With more funding, the museum could truly develop a plan for community access to the field notebooks and research, and share its collection with the nation.

Existing museums and collections need to be at the centre of any conversation about a new arts centre. By drawing on our past, we can fully imagine our future.

Important exhibitions of Indigenous art at Lismore – Echonetdaily – Echonetdaily

Two important exhibitions of Indigenous art are have been launched at the Lismore Gallery and will both run until November

Penny Evans: Language of the Wounded and Body Language: a major touring exhibition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art from National Gallery of Australia.

In a first for the area, Lismore Regional Gallery will present a touring exhibition from the prestigious National Gallery of Australia. Body Language explores the cultural identity of Australia’s diverse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities and features works by more than thirty artists.

Director of Lismore Regional Gallery, Brett Adlington says that the National Gallery of Australia has almost 160,000 works of art in its care and holds the world’s largest collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander material.

‘It’s really exciting for Lismore Regional Gallery to be sharing this collection with local audiences for the very first time. This is an incredibly rich exhibition, depicting the diversity of contemporary First Nations practice.

Kelli Cole, Curator Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, National Gallery of Australia says that for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people identity is a source of strength and resilience. ‘There are many ways in which we identify, what we believe in, how we look, how we feel and how we see ourselves in society and language is fundamental to the expression of our cultural identity. Before the arrival of the British colonisers in 1788 there were over 250 Indigenous Australian languages, including 800 dialects, but today those numbers have dramatically declined to under 50 spoken languages.’

‘Aboriginal people traditionally painted on rock surfaces, barks, on the body and engraved symbols in scar trees to tell the stories of ancestors and creation. We drew symbols in the sand representing maps, waterholes and food to teach about hunting and cultural knowledge. Symbols are an essential part of a long artistic tradition in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and remains the visual form to retain and record significant information.

‘As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people we did not have a written language but our oral stories were shared throughout generations keeping our culture alive. Body Language explores the iconography of language as expressed through symbols and patterns and includes works that explore themes such as identity or representation, mark making, spiritual beings and Ceremony with song and dance.’

PENNY EVANS: Language of the Wounded

Language of the Wounded is an exhibition of powerful new work by Penny Evans, a Northern Rivers NSW based artist of Gomeroi descent. Referencing bones or keloid scars, Evans’ ceramic wall installation explores a system of signs, an hieroglyphics-like language strewn across the gallery wall.

Each piece is striated and scarred exploring the widespread traditional Aboriginal practices of body scarification like a history inscribed on the body, where each deliberately placed scar tells a story of pain, endurance, identity, status, beauty, courage, sorrow and grief.

‘These new works reference dispossessed ancestors fallen during frontier conflicts, the billions of our native animals who perished as a consequence of multiple environmental disasters in recent years, and intergenerationally traumatised peoples from everywhere,’ says Evans.

‘The work also creates a rhythm of cultural forms that evokes cultural connectedness, a cadence that lies at the very heart of our country.’

Language of the Wounded has evolved from the designs and patterns Evans has explored for many years in her ceramics practice. The simplest of symbols reverberate with references that are both deeply personal and broadly evocative.

An exciting suite of exhibitions

Brett Adlington says this a really exciting suite of exhibitions for the gallery. ‘Firstly, to have the first touring exhibition from the National Gallery of Australia in Lismore is really a great coup for us. This never would have been possible in our old facility – so illustrates the level of exhibitions we can now bring to audiences.

Body Language also offers a countrywide overview of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait practice, while also getting to know works more intimately in the national collection. Perhaps more importantly though, is seeing this new body of work by Lismore-based artist Penny Evans. Penny has shown with us a few times, and this new body of work is incredibly powerful, and the result of years of research, and growth and maturity in her practice.

A duty and an honour

Brett says the gallery, on the whole, feel it is their duty and an honour the work and voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. ‘I feel that as a white person living on Aboriginal land, we need to be constantly reminded of our place within this rich heritage.

‘The visual and performing arts of First Nation culture is an incredibly accessible way to deepen this knowledge. Artists such as the late Digby Moran offered so much in sharing this knowledge, that I think people in our region do have a much better understanding of Bundjalung culture through individual artists.

Brett says there is a strain of thinking that connects the two exhibitions, importantly about how the body is an integral part of culture. ‘Penny’s work references body scarification and markings, which is writ large on the gallery wall, while Body Language speaks to the notion of language being expressed in visual ways, including on the body.

‘More coincidentally though is the fact that Penny has recently been named in the National Gallery of Australia’s National Indigenous Art Triennial, being held late 2021. This is a wonderful recognition of Penny’s practice.’

Penny Evans: Language of the Wounded
22 August – 1 November
Lismore Regional Gallery
Online Artist in Conversation: Penny Evans in conversation with Pat Hoffie (date to be announced)

Body Language: A major touring exhibition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art from the National Gallery of Australia, featuring the work of Brook Andrew, Lyndsay Bird Mpetyane, Mavis Bolton, Jeremiah Bonson, Robert Campbell Jnr, Robert Ambrose Cole, Rose Graham, Josephine Grant Nappangarti, Philip Gudthaykudthay, Queenie Kemarre, Mary Kemarre, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Arone Raymond Meeks, Butcher Joe Nangan, Arthur Koo’ekka Pambegan Jnr, Wally Petyarr, Prince of Wales, Angelina Pwerle, Reko Rennie, Phyllis Ricky, Elizabeth Riley, Jean Riley, Damien Shen, Joan Nancy Stokes, Jimmy Thaiday, Warwick Thornton, Aubrey Tigan, Alick Tipoti, Evonne Tompson, David Wallace, Judy Watson and Nawurapu Wunungmurra.

29 August – 8 November, Lismore Regional Gallery

For more information, visit the gallery website:

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