Australia

Five Aboriginal women artists from a remote NT community will exhibit their work in Paris

L-R: Elizabeth Kala Kala, Bridget Sampson, Jennifer Wurrkidj and Jesinta Lami Lami at the Darwin Passport Office. Source: Ingrid Johanson

A women's arts centre in Arnhem Land is sending five women to Paris for an exhibition and series of workshops - but getting passports for everyone proved a challenge.

Art runs in Elizabeth Kala Kala’s family.

The 49-year-old's father was a bark painter, as are her older sisters. A few years ago, they showed her how to draw dillybags, a traditional Aboriginal bag woven from vines and grasses.

That led the Mayali, Kriol and Rembarrnga speaker, who hails from the Bolkjam region of Arnhem Land, to develop her own dillybag designs, which she now designs and screen prints.

“I love my designing,” she told SBS News. “I feel proud of myself because of my dillybags.”

Elizabeth Kala Kala
Elizabeth Kala Kala
Babbarra Women's Centre

Ms Kala Kala is among five artists from the Babbarra Women's Centre, a design studio in the Arnhem Land community of Maningrida, heading to Paris in October.

There, the group will exhibit their work, which evokes cultural and ancestral stories, at the Australian embassy.

L-R: Jessica Phillips, Deborah Wurrkidj, Jocelyn Koyote, Raylene Bonson, Ingrid Johanson, Jennifer Wurrkidj, Elizabeth Kala Kala
L-R: Jessica Phillips, Deborah Wurrkidj, Jocelyn Koyote, Raylene Bonson, Ingrid Johanson, Jennifer Wurrkidj, Elizabeth Kala Kala
Babbarra Women's Centre

Ingrid Johanson, the manager of the centre, pitched the exhibition to the embassy last year knowing 2019 marked the United Nations Year of Indigenous Languages.

“Maningrida is one of the world's most linguistically diverse places per capita. There are 12 languages here for around 2,500 people,” she said.

“This is not just an art exhibition; it’s also really about embracing the diversity of languages from Maningrida and celebrating that in an international realm.”

A grant awarded to the centre by the Australia Council for the Arts has provided funds for the women’s accommodation and flights.

To supplement the grant money, the centre has started a crowdfunding project for smaller expenses, such as public transport, food, fuel, clothing and medication.

The Babbarra Women’s Centre artists and team at Maningrida barge landing
The Babbarra Women’s Centre artists and team at Maningrida barge landing
Babbarra Women's Centre

The centre works with dozens of local women in Maningrida, many of whom count English as their third or fourth language.

'Very proud'

The exhibition, named Jarracharra after the cold wind which signals the beginning of the dry season in Arnhem Land, aims to celebrate the women’s role as story keepers and the mixture of cultures at the centre.

Its assistant manager, Burarra woman Jess Phillips co-curated Jarracharra with Ms Johanson. She said the languages at the women’s centre come from many different areas.

“We’ve got artists here that are from the east, west and south of Arnhem Land. Jarracharra’s just one of the winds that blows from those directions,” she said.

“Like the designs of our artists, Jarracharra also crosses various language groups.”

Jess Phillips, Babbarra's assistant manager
Jess Phillips, Babbarra's assistant manager
Ingrid Johanson

The exhibition will also include dance and aural components, Ms Phillips said.

“We want the audience to hear the voices of languages chatting and the sounds of wind when walking through the exhibition."

The travelling artists, who have not been overseas before, will run workshops and panels for Parisian artists.

“We'll show the workshop how to print in the Aboriginal way. We'll show the white people in Paris in our way, the way we do our designs and bark paintings,” Ms Kala Kala said.

Deborah Wurrkidj at Bábbarra Women’s Centre with her Man-djarduk design, depicting the bush apples which grow on her Kuninjku co
Deborah Wurrkidj at Bábbarra Women’s Centre with her Man-djarduk design, depicting the bush apples which grow on her Kuninjku country
Babbarra Womens Centre

Senior artist and Kuninjku woman Deborah Wurrkidj said she is feeling “very proud”.

She has been with Babbarra since 1991, alongside her sister, Jennifer, and her mother, Helen Lanyinwanga.

“I’ve been doing art since I was little,” she said. “But this is the first time I’m going to Paris, me and the older woman mob.”

Passport troubles

It was hoped more Babbarra artists would travel to France, but some were unable to gather enough information or identification to have passports approved.

Several of those unsuccessful in applying for passports will still have their work displayed in Paris.

It is not uncommon for some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders not to have birth certificates. Some mothers may give birth on country, while many births of people from older generations were not registered to defend them against removal policies.

Ms Johanson said the centre worked to collect documentation for applications over a two year period.

“It was really challenging, for a multitude of reasons,” she said. “People didn’t have birth certificates, parents with birth certificates or drivers licences.”

“There are also a lot of cultural reasons why people might have multiple names, change their names, or have multiple spellings of names.”

A collection of artists from the Babbarra Women's Centre in the Arnehm Land community of Maningrida are heading to to Paris in October.
A collection of artists from the Babbarra Women's Centre in the Arnehm Land community of Maningrida are heading to France in October.
Ingrid Johanson

Additionally, Maningrida has no street names - something Ms Johanson said provided additional difficulties.

“You could imagine it’s very difficult for people to prove their residential address when the whole community doesn’t have street names.”

Work over that two-year period, plus a nearly eight-hour drive from Maningrida to Darwin to lodge off the applications, yielded five passports.

“I didn’t have a Medicare card or birth certificate [but] the ladies helped me get my passport. It is the first passport that I’ve ever had,” Ms Kala Kala said.

Ms Phillips said the Paris exhibition travel will be a “proud moment” for the artists’ families, language, clan and country.

“The women love talking about their stories of their prints,” she said.

“This trip will excite them to continue what they do and come back with a story to tell their families who still live on remote homelands.” 

Jarracharra runs at the Australian embassy in Paris from 10 October 2019 until January 2020.

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