Student Lily Bennion Reflects on Ngarrangarrni Gija Art and Culture in Warmun

By Lily Bennion

Lily Bennion is a current Master of Cultural Materials Conservation student. In her own words, she reflects on her experience undertaking both an internship and the intensive subject ‘Ngarranggarni: Gija Art and Country’ in the remote WA region of East Kimberley.

On our first day, in keeping with the risk assessment of the off-campus insurance policy, myself and the other students lathered ourselves in sunscreen. One of the students asked Gabriel Nodea, Cultural Officer and Chairman of the Art Centre who would be supervising our time in Warmun, if he would also need some sunscreen. He responded, “the sun doesn’t burn my skin, but that will”. On our final day in Warmun, my own skin had broken out in a stinging red scaly rash, which the community nurse diagnosed as a reaction to sunscreen.

I was in the Kimberley doing an internship at Waringarri Aboriginal Art Centre in Kununurra, and then took the 'On Country' subject Ngarrangarrni Gija Art and Culture in Warmun. Both opportunities came from the research partnerships between the Grimwade Centre of Cultural Materials Conservation and the respective art centres. Waringarri is owned and operated by the senior Miriwoong peoples of the Kununurra region. It was established in the late 1970s as the result of community advocacy for an Aboriginal-owned and operated art centre. The partnership between the Grimwade Centre and Waringarri has transformed the Community Collection storeroom from a corrugated shed to an insulated room with storage racks, shelving, draws and an attached gallery space.

The collections were cramped due to the influx of works from a once-prolific, deceased artist. It was my job to help reorganise the storage space to accommodate the new inventory and enable culturally appropriate access to the collection for artists, art centre workers and community. Due to the mourning protocols prohibiting discussion of the deceased, we did not speak the artist’s name or leave the collection storeroom open while their works were visible. After two weeks at the centre we manoeuvred the collection to accommodate all the paintings, wrapping them in neutral plastic and indirectly annotating them with accession numbers as we went.

Many of the paintings were cracked. At the request of the management I gave a presentation to the art centre workers on the why and how paintings crack, providing recommendations to prevent this from occurring in preparation, storage and transport. This required applying material science and conservation knowledge to complex situations specific to the art centre environment, community and history of practice. During my time at Waringarri, I was able to prepare a canvas for Kittey Malarvie and go for a 4WD trip with Ben Ward, enjoying the awe-inspiring country of the Mirriwoong and Gadjerong peoples.

I rejoined my peers in Warmun for the 'On Country' subject established jointly by the Grimwade Centre and Warmun Art Centre. Throughout this subject we learnt from Gija senior knowledge holders Shirley Purdie and Gabriel Nodea about the Warmun community and the Country surrounding it. We camped and learned on the Country, or Gilban, where Shirley Purdie's family had lived for generations.

Shirley's tour of Mabel Downs station, where her father and mother met and she was born, revealed the nostalgic memories associated with the place of her ancestors. As we arrived on Gilban, she called out in Gija language to her paternal grandmother, who is buried there, to let her know that all the people were invited to be there, and that we are family to be protected while on Country. Shirley showed us the old housing for the Aboriginal station workers, the hill where she would hide her favourite dogs from the trigger-happy policemen, and we walked through the ruins of the station house, kitchen and laundry where she would prepare and serve meals and do washing. Shirley showed us the shacks where the Gija lived and told us told us how they would get rations and a lolly on Wednesdays and Sundays, as well as source their own bush food. Shirley's station day memories are positive, and she says the manager was a 'nice gardiya'. She emphasised the importance of being raised on ancestral country. Access to Country meant the Gija people were able to use their knowledge of flora, fauna and the environment as well as perform their ceremonial and custodial duties. However, the granting of the award wage to pastoral workers resulted in the expulsion of Aboriginal people from the stations, despite their contribution to the industry.

Learning from Shirley on Gilban placed us in a position to address the conservation of Gija cultural heritage in a Gija authorised way, and that night we were given our Skin-names, incorporating us into the system and the Country. I am Nambin, the same skin as Shirley's paternal grandmother, who was buried on Mabel Downs. Incorporating us into the Skin-name system secured our part in the family and established our responsibility and accountability to the continuation of Gija knowledge and Country. This experience developed a relationship that enabled us to gain the cultural competency required to engage with Gija people and culture in a productive way, and to develop the foundations for further cross-cultural learning.

Visit the Grimwade Centre website to learn more about Indigenous communities and programs.