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Small Aboriginal community incorporations on shifting ground: A perspective from Ltyentye Apurte Community, Santa Teresa

Judy Lovell, University of Canberra (paper co-authored by Camille Dobson and Veronica Dobson), 9 November 2009

JUDY LOVELL: Keringke Arts is an arts centre that’s just celebrated its twentieth birthday. My husband and I have been working there since 2003, and Belinda Hayes works at Keringke as one of the arts workers currently. So rather than writing a full paper and reading it, I was actually going to take us through some pictures, because the main part of the description for this conference that attracted me was the bit about ‘pictures are welcome.’

[shows images] The Arts Centre building on the left was built 20 years ago; the troop carrier is eight years old. It services 15 staff. The Arts Centre, the building on the right, was the original hospital – the Women’s Centre, the blue one, was built on top of the old hospital grounds, and the red building is the Men’s Arts Centre and that used to be the dining room for the old hospital, and Keringke inherited it some years ago. It had been standing derelict. It’s been a community store - first of all it was the meal centre for the hospital, then it was the community store. At some stage I think it was the social club and it had been used by the band. and for BRACS or RIBS (remote indigenous broadcasting service), for those people who are used to community lingo the local Aboriginal Broadcasting Service is down at the very back of that red building. It’s not being used very much at the moment.

So it’s an Aboriginal incorporation under the old Aboriginal Corporations Act which has now moved to the CATSI 2006 Act [Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006], which basically means there’s a membership who are people loosely connected or directly connected to the activities of arts and culture and crafts in the community. They’re Eastern Arrernte people; it’s an Eastern Arrernte community. From the membership we have a committee or a board,

Okay. We have a very unusual business structure. It’s kind of come from the outside, from the world of politics. There were three fairly influential changes that all rolled through in 2007. One of them was the Intervention, or as it’s properly called, the Northern Territory Emergency Response. The second was the local government councils being amalgamated into mega-shires, of which there are now 19 across the Northern Territory instead of the tens of local community councils. The third thing was that somewhere buried in the Senate inquiry into the Aboriginal arts industry were three little points about education.

Through those changes we have experienced a complete sort of restructure of our funding and our allocations. To start with, the Intervention came through, and for the first three months we were told that the activities in the Arts Centre were not essential and that people would be better spending their time collecting rubbish, because that would be a justifiable Work for the Dole type project, whereas actually working in their Arts Centre was not real work. We weren’t very keen to lie down on that one, so we worked with a number of other arts centres really hard and we got FaHCSIA [Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs] to eat their words eventually.

The result of that was that through a restructure of funding, the Keringke Arts Centre has been allocated direct amounts of money to pay part-time and full-time wages. We’ve actually got 13 arts workers on the books – three men and 10 women, and two of those women are allocated up to full-time. So that’s one half of the economy of the Arts Centre, if you like, and the other half is made up of the activity-generated income, which actually reflects the amount of money that on average comes through per annum. And of that 350,00 [dollars], the split is about 60/40.

So of the funding pool we receive what is actually to us a really large amount of money to suddenly start to administer. The way it’s broken down between administration, training oncosts, wages, is very prescribed. We don’t have a lot of flexibility within how that looks. So we’re continually drawing a long bow to make that prescription fit, because we’ve got people who have been in the Arts Centre since it started 20 years ago who are really responsible very much for the highly decorative and very fine style of Keringke, and who have absolutely no interest whatsoever in learning about computers or anything else. And those people have mentored and taught probably 10, 15, 20 of our other, younger, current arts makers or artists. Yes, we try and write their job as mentoring, basically, it’s all a matter of jumping the hoops on that stuff.

So the essential differences are that there is a very real expectation now that people will undertake some roles that are loosely related to what’s considered real work or jobs. Some people love that. Some people are really fantastic, and always have been, at the inter-cultural stuff, the selling; love talking to visitors to the Arts Centre, love selling their own work and self-promotion, very good. Possibly not quite so great on promotion of someone else.

Some people have a real flair for it, other people are a bit more even-handed. Some people love the computer systems and certainly have no problems with working out how to use those things. So we put quite a lot of effort into training and supporting and trying to grow those capacities where people actually do want to interact in those ways.

In terms of the whole of the Arts Centre bundle of work, there’s a lot more being done now by the local staff. For some reason one of the slides didn’t copy across, but the breakdown in staff is, the arts managers, there’s 1.5 positions, and that’s one particular funding bucket. And then there’s another funding bucket, which is for the arts workers. From the arts workers funding bucket, those 13 people are employed.

So now if the arts managers, the non-local staff, aren’t there, there’s absolutely no problem with the Arts Centre running. The arts workers are now completely able, between them, to cover any of the day-to-day running of the Arts Centre.

And we continually have people coming in and being completely amazed about that. Most recently a French couple who have travelled very widely and who had found their way out to Santa Teresa via Adelaide and Sydney and possibly even Canberra, and said that until they arrived at Keringke they hadn’t actually met an Aboriginal person in relation to the work. So they had been looking at Aboriginal work and going to art centres and galleries and museums, but no Aboriginal person had actually spoken to them at all. So they sat down and said, ‘Where do dots come from and where does the money go?’, which are two of the most popular questions.

We work over a range of projects. Projects are really valuable in the economy of this arts centre, and I guess for people unfamiliar with arts centres, it’s really important to understand that every arts centre is a hybrid. It is made up of elements that are really particularly local: local to the people, the language group, the culture, the geographical relationship of the arts centre to larger centres, and not to mention what’s happening with government policy. So all arts centres are really different.

Keringke has never been an arts centre that has had a huge following, like the Papunya Tula style or Yuendumu’s Warlukurlangu. We don’t have an artist base that’s very big, and the style of work is extremely painstaking. This is actually Josette working on a public art commission, which will be launched at the Alice Springs Airport early next year. So we have an interesting position in the market, certainly not a mainstream position.

This is Kathleen Wallace. Mrs Wallace is one of the founding arts members and probably one of our flagship artists at the Arts Centre. She works very hard across the inter-generational and knowledge-exchange aspects of cultural maintenance, and her paintings are very much a vehicle for those things as much as they are extraordinary paintings. Again, it’s a very acquired taste. It’s been dismissed as ethnographic art on some occasions. It doesn’t really matter; there’s a waiting list for the work anyway.

The other values around the economy of the Arts Centre is actually the relational aspects, the whole relational transactional system that’s so alive in communities. It’s so incredibly important. The Arts Centre is one of only two incorporations in the whole community, so it’s actually one of only two organisations that Aboriginal people govern and have ownership over. The Health Clinic is trying to incorporate, or has just reincorporated, I think, but will still sit under the auspice of a large health service.

So the Arts Centre and the Women’s Centre are actually the only two organisations in the community. That’s been a very interesting thing given the chaos that’s been rolling out through communities since 2007. The Arts Centre and its ability to be, controlled to a large degree by the people who come there to work, makes it a very positive place. So lots of people will come in there and jump on the computer, and we have lots of computers in the Arts Centre. Most of them are in the office, but the artists do have a computer and a telephone down their end of the studio, and a television now, too, I think. People really like being able to get access to a computer and spend time on it, so, that is no problem.

But our advocacy role has thankfully shifted a bit. We’re not doing so much in mental health and domestic violence as we were, because those services actually have started to come out onto the community a bit more and people are really understanding that the business side of the Arts Centre is the thing that the government’s going to either, you know, keep helping support us or not on.

There’s a broad stream, or there’s several different streams of income. The first is the high-quality, decorative ceramics, most of which go out wholesale to shops all over Australia. However, we don’t have anyone in Canberra representing us at the moment. Belinda was telling me too that neither she nor any of her family has ever visited Canberra before. Mind you, by the end of high school, most people have been to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Darwin, certainly Adelaide and possibly Perth. So there must be something in that.

Anyway, the decorative market, the wholesale market, it’s a high-end decorative product. It sells at a per-piece price unless it’s done as an amazing artwork and then it shifts into a different category of fine art. They go out either individually, people make contact with the Arts Centre through the web or they turn up out there, but by and large, that stock is to send out in boxes. So that goes out around Australia.

And that’s really bread-and-butter money. It splits down about a third, a third, a third. It’s about a third of the cost of producing it that is just on the materials and the freight to get the materials up there. A third of it goes to the artist who did the paintwork on it, and a third of it goes back to the Arts Centre to pay the bills.

One of the arguments that we had with FaHCSIA before we could actually accept that lump funding, which then replaced the CDEP [Community Development Employment Projects], was the notion that … There was always an argument about the CDEP and arts centres anyway, because there was the argument that whoever was paying the CDEP wage owned whatever it was that was produced through, or the service delivered through, that wage. Therefore the argument was, does that actually mean the CDEP owned all of the art produced if people were actually painting?

So we had lots of fun talking about all the ways that you would keep 13 people not painting 20 hours a week in an arts centre and said, ‘Keep the money thanks, we’re not interested,’ which upset them. So we then worked out a word which was palatable enough, which is ‘production’. People are allowed to be paid if they’re involved in production. So the wholesale market would be a production market.

The second income stream is the fine art. It operates like most arts centres – canvases, objects, furniture, guitars, musical instruments. We joke around the Arts Centre, ‘Don’t stand still too long.’ Eastern Arrernte artists have always seemed to prefer to paint objects and love painting on forms. So the shift to canvas was a long and slow process, but when the Arts Centre began 20 years ago it had come from a background where, through the missionary schooling in the ’50s and ’60s, when the community first moved onto the land, or the mission first moved onto that land, nuns taught people watercolours and the use of gouache, and even acrylic paint, and that was done usually with pictures of English cottages with, ‘Cottage, fence, flowers; copy. Make it look like this, that’s good.’

So that was in the ’60s. In the ’70s, the teaching fell right back and there wasn’t actually a lot of teaching of classic drawing or paint mixing or application. And then by the ’80s, when the women started to really work together and realised they wanted their arts centre, there were conversations going on about, ‘What if we actually use some of our own cultural material?’ Eastern Arrernte people have, across their lands, extraordinary rock art sites, ochre painting, petroglyphs. There’s a whole system of sand drawing and storytelling, decorative body paint and extraordinary dance and performance decorations. So there’s an incredible sort of cultural inheritance which was kind of completely damned, along with speaking language and anything else, for a while.

So when the Arts Centre, in the early 90s, had opened its doors, it didn’t take long for people to say, ‘Hey, you know what? We don’t want to paint landscapes on T-shirts anymore, and we don’t want to paint on canvas shoes and we don’t want to sew fabric. We actually just want to experiment with our own designs and start to see what we can do.’

And that was very difficult, too, because some old people didn’t actually give permission for any specific cultural material to be used and other old people did give. So hence we have a mix of artistic influences or backgrounds coming from culture and some of them are very broad and very generic.

So in the product line, the early silk and T-shirt[s] which Keringke was widely known for … And I think in fact one of our first exhibitions – Allison might actually know if this is correct, but I think one of Keringke’s first exhibitions was an arts and crafts fair in Canberra. Way back in the early ’90s or ‘89, ‘88, ‘89, I think it was one of the first Aboriginal arts centres to exhibit in a particular art and craft – anyway, it’s neither here nor there. But yes, that was ’90s, that was the early ’90s. Yes, it was just before that. Okay, thanks, Mike. So the early silk and so on has been left behind.

A third income stream is this experimentation with inter-cultural contact, basically; it’s a cultural exchange, is more the way we like to talk about it. People in the community don’t want to be objects of tourism, and they don’t particularly want their community to be a tourist object, either. However, they really recognise that having visitors out to the Arts Centre is incredibly valuable to the local economy. And we also realise that the informal exchanges that happen between the people visiting and their Aboriginal hosts or sellers or whatever you want to call them, is fabulous. And it is for some people, a reverse first contact. Sometimes people stay for hours.

So we’ve experimented with formalising some aspects of that. And we had a Tibetan group who came out to visit who we made bush tucker with and the women cooked kangaroo tails for, which was interesting.

On a more ambitious scale, this is one of the directions that we’ve kind of tried to experiment more recently with. We’ve tried to make friends, because we have no mining companies, we have no philanthropics out there. It’s a road to the Simpson Desert, it’s not a tourist drive. There is absolutely nothing to bring anyone’s goodwill, particularly, into this community.

So we’ve gone back to education, knowledge exchange, inter-cultural stuff. And we’ve put this program together with Whyte and Coaches who work with a large number of corporates on leadership training, and all sorts of other things. And we piloted the program and the NMA supported that by sending along their human resource manager, and we’re looking at a second program in May next year.

So we keep the basics pretty basic. People sleep in swags. This ordna, urtne, this old one, that was found by one of the whitefella participants, and he picked it up and brought it back to Bobby and Veronica and they both said, ‘Kele. That’s exactly the sort that we would have been carried in. That’s about our era. That’s about our generation.’ So that was a really lovely story for the program participants.

The fourth stream are the royalties. We try and keep up with a series of royalty products so that artists can get just some income that comes in regularly two, three, four times a year for a once-off piece of work. So apart from working on public art, commissions, we’re also interested in partnerships that are right-headed partnerships, if you like.

Oh look, there’s a fabulous book there! Now I don’t know if all of you have seen it come out of my bag today, but there it is - a new publication, Listen Deeply, Let These Stories In, Kathleen Wallace has put together. We worked on that book for a while and it’s a combination of her memories, her oral history essentially, because when we went out onto Country to record her cultural stories and photograph places, so that we could put together an art book, she started revealing this amazing life story.

So that put us in a bit of a spin because we had to work out then what the book was going to be. So it actually is a bi-cultural, a bilingual publication with some Arrernte text; it has her life story threaded through a whole lot of cultural stories and it’s illustrated with her artwork.

Projects are really, really important to us because there’s absolutely no point in … I think Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory are said to be the most over-educated people of anywhere. If you look at the training hours and the number of courses and VET [Vocational Education and Training] courses delivered to them, you’ll find that, you know, it’s way up. However, we have to keep the focus very much around core business; there actually has to be really tangible outcomes linked to training and the training has to support the Arts Centre in that way.

So projects are fantastic. The 20th birthday celebration and the book launch was a great one. We’ve got a few more coming up, and yet we were looking at bringing a NAIDOC [National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee] presentation of a whole living, cultural … The other thing I guess the Arts Centre is really concerned about is addressing the notion of art as separate from culture, whereas we would really like to bring back to the people, when they start to meet the Eastern Arrernte culture, the fact that it is very much a living culture and the medicines are still made, the plants are still grown, the dances are done, the songs are sung. The teaching still happens, their chiperture, tyepetye, their sand drawing – all of that is still very much alive, and so we would like to showcase more of that and teach non-Aboriginal people about the power of the interconnected nature of Aboriginal culture, because there’s such a lot for all of us to learn from it.

And that’s it. So if you want to help us, you’re welcome. Contact us. Buy from us. [applause]

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Judy, with your slides, I know you were talking about the Airport Commission and I noticed there was a slide of Belinda there and looked as though she was possibly working on that commission. It was the slide where she was wearing that grey and white shirt and I was wondering if maybe she could tell us a bit about what she was doing in that slide. If she wanted to; but if she doesn’t, she can tell me about it later, afterward.

JUDY LOVELL: [to Belinda] Did you want to talk? [to woman] I think that’s a ‘thank you but no thank you.’

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Okay, no worries, we can talk about it afterward.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: I just want to say I’ve seen the book and I think you’ve done, all of you, an absolutely wonderful job, it’s beautiful.

Date published: 29 July 2010