Jilamara Arts and Craft From Strength to Strength

Timothy Cook, Raylene Miller, Pedro Wonaeamirri, Columbiere Tipungwuti and Raelene Kerinauia at Timrambu, Photograph courtesy of Jilamara Arts, photographer Will Heathcote.
Timothy Cook, Raylene Miller, Pedro Wonaeamirri, Columbiere Tipungwuti and Raelene Kerinauia at Timrambu, Photograph courtesy of Jilamara Arts, photographer Will Heathcote.

Will Heathcote is the Studio and Workshops Coordinator at Jilamara Arts and Craft at Milikapiti, Melville Island in Australia's Northern Territory. In this interview, Will talks about the impact of Covid and the achievement highlights of the artists in 2020.  

What do you enjoy about working with Jilamara Arts and Craft?

Hannah and I are non-Tiwi and have been living out here for two years. For us, it's an honour to work with an art centre with such a strong and vibrant history. The art centre incorporated in 1989. Before that, it was an adult education centre, which focused mainly on screen printing. Through the 1990s and 2000s, Jilamara Arts and Craft established itself as a fine art centre. Artists like Pedro Wonaeamirri, Raelene Kerinauia, and other people who have passed away like Kitty Kantilla, Freda Warlapinni, have created this rich narrative arc of successful, contemporary and fine art careers. As art centre workers, we have very recent parts in that story of innovative art-making over three decades. It is such a pleasure to be part of it all.

You are working with artists who have contributed over a long time, what is that like for you?

The art centre has benefitted from the consistent contribution of senior artists. Pedro's here in the studio working today. He has been working here for nearly 30 years. He has a strong voice in governance in his role on the executive committee. These long-standing senior artists play such an active part in the decision-making and direction of the art centre. They are wonderful to work with because of their experience and their wise and generous guidance.

You have several younger artists who are attracting a lot of attention. Can you tell me about them?

Younger artists have a powerful role to play here. We have a whole suite of new, exciting contemporary artists. Dino Wilson is one artist who immediately comes to mind. He has work in this current Japingka exhibition. Dino is an artist whose career is taking off very fast. Others like Nancy Kerinauia, Philip Puruntatameri, and other younger people are full of energy and contribute to the art centre by adding fresh perspectives.

What has been the impact of COVID on the community?

We're lucky enough to be on an island, so to a certain extent, we were protected. That said, our 2020 was very different to 2019. Jilamara has an active exhibition program, and usually, some of our artists travel for each of those exhibitions. 2019 was a big year of travel for us. Artists travelled to Broome, Melbourne and Queenscliff for exhibitions and cultural programs. We also took a large group of people to Tarnanthi at the Art Gallery of South Australia for a big tutini (poles) exhibition. Timothy travelled to Tasmania for the Hadley's Art Prize and arts workers travelled for projects with Melbourne university and programs like the Wesfarmers indigenous leadership program in Canberra. At the beginning of 2020, we had artists in the NIRIN, Biennale of Sydney. We were also planning shows in Wellington (NZ) and a major exhibition in LA. In 2019 we went to Los Angeles midyear and were planning artist travel for 2020, but that was all postponed. That was going to be a textile show at UCLA. So in 2020, the travel aspect of our activity had to shut down, but our art centre kept functioning.

The first lockdown was quite hard on remote communities because we went into a national bio-security lockdown. It was federal legislation involving indigenous communities across multiple states and territories. There was this big blanket, federal bio-security approach. Jilamara stayed open to a few key artists and staff. We just had to minimize the numbers on site to 10. We lost our mail service. We lost all public visits and local social visits. There was trouble ordering groceries. Like so many sectors, we were hit with all sorts of logistical issues that took a while to figure out.

The territory opened back up again, midyear, and logistically things got a bit easier after that. During this time, our online sales increased quite significantly, and our exhibition program kept going. We had artists selling out solo shows at various galleries because these online exhibitions were promoted through gallery mailing lists. In that way, things kept ticking along for us. The art centres that rely on tourists were very badly hit by the hard visitation rules. Luckily, Jilamara has a diverse business model that covers a broad range of projects, each with separate funding. This gave us an increased level of stability.

What's an average workday look like for you?

It is pretty dynamic. We are quite a large organization with a small staff. Activities can range from developing materials for exhibition publications to arranging the studio setup. In the morning I'm often in the studios helping some artists set up their canvases. We use all locally sourced, natural ochres here. We have Tiwi staff who collect and prepare colours and stretch canvases. We have Tiwi staff working in screen printing. They will be printing lengths of fabric, T-shirts, tote bags and other products we sell.

We also have a woodcarving workshop. Patrick Freddy Puruntatameri is the chief carver down there. He looks after that space. There's work to be done collecting ironwood and colours and barks for painting. Mostly this type of studio work happens in the mornings.

We tend to set aside the afternoons for administration. There's a whole range of paperwork, talking to curators, applying for funding, acquitting grants. You can be on the phone with somebody in New York about an acquisition for a hotel, and then ten minutes later you are digging the work vehicle out of the mud. The variety of challenges make this an engaging, exciting work environment.

What recent highlights have there been for artists over the last few years?

Tiwi art has been gaining a lot of national attention over the last couple of years. I think the art industry comes with peaks and troughs. Sometimes certain types of work become very popular in certain parts of the world. This might be Europe, North America, or here in Australia.

In terms of our own artists' highlights, I'm thinking about Pedro Wonaeamirri and Patrick Freddy's installation for the NIRIN, the Biennale of Sydney, earlier this year. That involved the installation of 20 Tutini at the MCA in Sydney. That was funded by the Australia Council for the Arts, and part of a First Nations Biennale program that was curated by the Biennale Artistic Director Brook Andrew. This was a significant career milestone for those two artists.

Dino Wilson had a couple of really exciting exhibitions last year. The current show at the NGV in Melbourne has a significant contribution from Jilamara artists in the more contemporary work categories. Johnathon Bush is another younger emerging artist featured in that exhibition. A few of our artists contributed essays to the exhibition publication, it is great to have strong Tiwi voices part of this.

This current Japingka exhibition is another highlight for our artists. There's work by Jonathan Bush, Pedro Wonaeamirri and Michelle Woody Minnapinni. Michelle Woody is a really exciting, young female artist. She won the King & Wood Mallesons Contemporary and Indigenous Art golden achievement award in 2020. Timothy Cook, also included in the Japingka exhibition, was a finalist in the 2020 Wynne Prize with his painting "Kulama".

We had a strong 2020 despite all of the adjustments and adaptations. This exhibition at Japingka Gallery is an exciting start to our 2021 exhibition calendar, and we are all looking forward to it.