Waringarri Aboriginal Arts Conservation Project
By Emma Rouse
Established in the 1980s, Waringarri Aboriginal Arts (WAA) was the first indigenous owned arts centre in the Kimberley region and remains a place for the community to create, share and celebrate their cultural heritage. In October 2014, I travelled to Kununurra to visit WAA, along with three other conservators, Sophie Lewincamp, Susie Collis and Jenny O’Connell. The aim of this trip was to work with arts centre employees to conserve the surface paint on a number of outdoor wooden poles that support the veranda of the arts centre and gallery that were painted by Waringarri artists.
Each of the forty-two wooden poles at WAA is unique and highly significant. The poles were painted or carved by Waringarri artists individually or collaboratively in preparation for the refurbishment of the arts centre in 2011. Since their installation, the poles had been varnished, however this did not prevent delamination and loss of the painted surfaces. One reason for the observed paint loss was exposure of the poles to extreme temperatures, and bursts of heavy rain during the wet season. The ochre-based preparation layers may have also contributed to a lack of cohesions between the painted surface and the wooden poles.
To address this conservation issue, we worked with arts centre employees to survey the poles, and assessed them in terms of their significance and the urgency of treatment. Conversations were had regarding the overall condition of the poles and about possible material choices for their treatment. Following this, a treatment methodology was developed that was designed to effectively stabilise the vulnerable painted surface of the poles, while retaining their cultural and aesthetic significance. An open dialogue was had with community members about possible treatments to ensure that an appropriate approach was taken to conserve these significant objects. Over five days, we worked with the arts centre employees to re-adhere flaking paint using adhesives, which stabilised the surface of the poles.
My time at WAA was a unique and valuable experience that provided me with an understanding of how, in practice, conservators must adapt their skill set to different cultural contexts. In this case, sharing knowledge with the artists and arts centre employees was essential when establishing a treatment methodology. Through open discussions, the community placed trust in us as conservators, which was required for work to be done with the WAA employees. These discussions helped inform our treatment plan for the conservation of the poles.
Additional conversations were had with the arts centre management about future conservation projects that could be undertaken at WAA. There are numerous ways that conservators can help to contribute to the arts centre, while also learning from Indigenous artists about material, techniques and the preservation process.
Visit Waringarri Aboriginal Arts to learn more about the Miriwoong people.