After two years of consultation, the Art Gallery of Western Australia with support from the Rio Tinto Community Investment Fund have announced the launch of a six year, $1.8million art initiative, Desert River Sea:Kimberley Art Then & Now.

Desert River Sea has grown from extensive community consultation and research undertaken by the Gallery with art centres, elders and community members across the region. This consultation phase was enabled by support from Rio Tinto who, took a leap of faith in supporting the Gallery’s vision, according to Joanne Farrell, Board member of the Rio Tinto Community Investment Fund.

The Gallery felt strongly that any major Indigenous arts initiative should develop from direct input and discussion with the arts centres best placed to understand the evolving creative practices of the Kimberley region. We were impressed with the Gallery’s conviction and belief in this collaborative approach and the launch of Desert River Sea validates the confidence we placed in this philosophy, she continued.

At the core of the Desert River Sea initiative is a commitment to bring together artists and art centres from across the Kimberley, providing more opportunities to connect with each other and with the Gallery, and to celebrate the diversity of Indigenous culture in the Kimberley. Desert River Sea will also develop an Emerging Leaders program designed to support emerging artists and foster continued opportunities for artists in the region.

What this means in real terms is nurturing the talents of both artists and art administrators to aid the sustainability and growth of established art centres. In return, the Gallery will strengthen its links in the region and work alongside the art centres to share the richness and diversity of their art and culture far beyond the Kimberley. We believe this model can establish best practice principles that can be replicated and applied to other art centres across the state and perhaps beyond, says AGWA Director, Stefano Carboni.

Stefano Carboni added that Desert River Sea is set to become one of the most significant Indigenous visual arts and cultural projects undertaken in Australia.

Through the Gallery’s Kimberley Indigenous Community Liaison and Project Officer, Chad Creighton, the AGWA will work side by side with art communities that already have an established arts practice. The focus will be on digitally documenting their work through film and photography, capturing the region’s current and emerging art practices, and helping develop communication networks.

An online portal will be established to create a central hub for the initiative. It’s anticipated this site will become a working resource for Kimberley community arts centres; a welcomed place for discussion and practice, as well as providing an evolving source of information about Kimberley Indigenous arts.

Joanne Farrell said, The Rio Tinto Community Investment Fund is proud to be investing in a project that celebrates Indigenous Kimberley art and culture, and strengthens the evolution and sustainability of Indigenous art centres in the region and supports emerging artists. It is ambitious in its vision and scope and Rio Tinto has committed significant visual arts funding to support such an important regional and state endeavour.

Minister for Culture and the Arts, John Day also expressed the Government’s strong support of corporate and arts philanthropic partnerships. We are delighted to see the results of a deeply collaborative partnership and feel that this arts initiative will see WA leading the way in developing Indigenous arts practice across Australia.

Although Desert River Sea has clear similarities with the recent, triumphant Yiwarra Kuju project involving Aboriginal communities and artists along and affected by the Canning Stock Route, AGWA Indigenous curator Glenn Iseger-Pilkington points out that they actually started 2 years ago with a tabula rasa. Then we spent almost 2 years listening to the concerns, aspirations and desires of 12 Indigenous art making communities before developing a model by which Indigenous communities from the region could engage with the Gallery. And there was no on-going relationship with a Gallery in the Canning project, which was lead by the Perth-based FORM group.

The AGWA title was also developed through consultation to reflect the relationship that Kimberley people have to the geography of their region and Country, involving freshwater, saltwater and desert topographies and peoples.