Wilcannia Central School may be located 200km east of Broken Hill, but geographical barriers haven’t stopped its students becoming some of the state’s most dedicated young art viewers and makers.
Supported by an amazing community and selfless school staff, the students have attended the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair and visited numerous art centres across the Northern Territory over the last few years. With opportunities to travel, students frequently journey to the Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery (BHRAG) to participate in workshops and have even made the 15-hour train ride to Sydney to visit the Art Gallery of NSW. Last year they collaborated with artists Badger Bates and Justine Muller to produce a large-scale public mural in Wilcannia as part of the Kaldor Public Art Projects initiative Your public art project.
Since 2017, the Gallery has been fortunate enough to work with the Wilcannia community to deliver the Djamu Regional Program for Indigenous Art Education. In that year Blake Griffiths, Programs Officer at BHRAG, completed a two-week professional placement at the Gallery. Looking back, we can see what a key moment that was – the catalyst for an exciting new relationship between the Gallery, BHRAG and Wilcannia Central School. For me, in my role as Indigenous Educator at the time, the moment afforded the space to envisage the future expansion of the Gallery’s engagement with young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists into regional communities.
Taking the lead from BHRAG’s existing relationships with communities across Far West New South Wales, the Gallery piloted the Djamu Regional Program in Broken Hill, Menindee and Wilcannia in 2018. ‘Djamu’ is a word from the Gadigal language, meaning ‘here I am’ or ‘here I come’, and the inaugural Program, facilitated by Kaurna artist James Tylor, Waanyi artist Judy Watson, the Gallery’s Indigenous educators and BHRAG staff, was very much about being there with the students. I remember especially the students dodging reed spears and playing energetically with a kangaroo pelt ball as part of James Tylor’s visit. Though the sessions seemed relatively fleeting at the time, such moments have stuck with me.
Last year, the Gallery’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff returned to Wilcannia to deliver a markedly different program. Gunditjmara artist Hayley Millar-Baker and Birri-Gubba/Jura artist Kirra Weingarth facilitated a three-day intensive photographic and ceramics program for students at Wilcannia Central School. Generously supported by Wilcannia Central School staff and local community, the program also featured an overnight camp and ceramic pit firing at nearby Yeoval Station.
Having worked tirelessly to prepare the pit fire and hone the skill of making fire with firesticks, there was a surreal moment of stillness amongst the students as the burning eucalypt leaves and kurrajong seeds pods crackled and the fire engulfed the ceramics. Treated with pigments collected along the banks of the Baaka (Darling River), the unearthed ceramics, scorched with the remnant marks of mussel shells and feathers, were later entered into the Maari Ma Indigenous Art Award, where they received the Student Prize.
Despite the pandemic, students and staff at Wilcannia Central School have been actively devising creative strategies to overcome social distancing restrictions. The Gallery hopes to return to Wilcannia this year to deliver a third iteration, but the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily postponed those plans. In the interim, we hope you enjoy the visual journey into last year’s program and insights into the life of students at Wilcannia Central School.