Looking Good in Two Worlds

Feature

Straight Outta Wilurarra is a dynamic exhibition bringing work by Ngaanyatjarra young people from the Central Desert to Fremantle Arts Centre (FAC). The exhibition re-creates projects and workshops run by Wilurarra Creative, including a hair salon and selfie booth, as well as digital collages and photography.

Based in Warburton (Mirlirrtjarra), and serving a dozen surrounding Ngaanyatjarra communities, Wilurarra Creative includes a library, internet café, hair salon, music studios and a creative workshop, all aimed at 16-30 year olds. In this very remote town more than 1500 kilometres inland from Perth, and 1000 kilometres from Alice Springs, the arts organisation is much more than just a creative hub: it’s a place for community, where people can connect, learn and share ideas without leaving Country.

“People are very focused on the lands and strong language and culture that exist out here,” explains Wilurarra creative director Silvano Giordano. “We create self-directed learning and there are no requirements for people to be part of it seriously.”

Through educational activities and employment outcomes—such as the social enterprise hair salon—Wilurarra Creative provides opportunities for Ngaanyatjarra youth without rupturing cultural and family links. With many people preferring to speak in Ngaanyatjarra, staying on Country is essential and allows young people to maintain cultural practices, spending time with family and elders while developing new skills. This framework moves away from creative development and polished outcomes as the primary goal, instead focusing on building strength and confidence within the community.

Angelica McLean, ‘’KUNKGA KUTJU’’ (ONE GIRL)

Giordano says that the program also fills a void left by a lack of other programming for young adults. “There’s no TAFE or higher education here,” he says. “There’s nothing really, so the activities that we do are about people getting involved in things like salon services or photography.”

This vision and the range of activities available are successfully woven into Straight Outta Wilurarra. Alongside artworks such as self-portraits taken by young Ngaanyatjarra men, the gallery becomes an active space, inviting audiences in to re-creations of the Wilurarra hair salon and selfie booth.

First presented as part of Adelaide’s Tarnanthi Festival in 2017, the selfie booth includes vibrant digital collages of desert landscapes, created by Ngaanyatjarra youth, that merge contemporary motifs with the natural environment. Audiences can choose different backgrounds and dress up using clothes from the styling station. The accompanying salon, with hairdressers ready to ‘style people up’, ensures that you are selfie-ready. The booth provides a fun and lively introduction to the unique modes of culture occurring amongst Central Desert communities where new talents connect with ongoing cultural practices.

A key component of the exhibition is the launch of Alanya magazine’s second issue. ‘Alanya’ is Ngaanyatjarra slang for ‘looking good’, and the publication is an eclectic showcase of this, drawing boldly from both contemporary and cultural experiences—including fashion shoots, hairstyling, sport, and bush trips with elders. Through young people’s personal stories, the magazine powerfully shifts the stereotypes and prejudices towards remote Aboriginal people that often saturate the media—successfully challenging reductive images of poverty, hardship and incarceration by showing another view. This reckoning parallels the striking photographic self-portraits featured in the exhibition, where strong images of young men reflect who Ngaanyatjarra youth actually are.

“My name is Clarabell Kenda Ward,” one young woman shares in Alanya. “I live in Patjarr Community all my life. I was living there before there was any houses. We were playing around and listening to the birds singing. I used to stay home and look at the sunset and all the camels coming in.”

Ward describes hearing her Grandmother’s stories about Patjarr, and her love of “going out bush seeing the rock holes and digging for honey ants and goanna.”

“Now they made a uniform for us to play softball and football like the other communities,” she says. “We are very small and far away so this is the first time we have had a softball team and we are proud to represent Patjarr.”

Similar stories are featured throughout the magazine, highlighting how the community moves between two worlds, maintaining cultural ties and engaging with contemporary life. “We [Ngaanyatjarra people] live in a society, within a society. Cultural bloc within the Western world,” Derek Harris, chair of the Ngaanyatjarra Council, explains in Alanya. “The old people showing the traditional way of living, hunting for tirnka, marlu, nganurti but in this present day.”

An overarching theme of both the exhibition and magazine is the involvement and leadership of participants: choosing images and helping to organise the event empowers them to share their ideas and gain skills. “Telling their own stories is something that they are really proud of,” Giordano says. The unique participatory exhibition invites audiences to experience the thriving culture, creativity and language of Ngaanyatjarra young people. Audiences will be inspired and Ngaanyatjarra youth will grow stronger from it.

Straight Outta Wilurarra
Fremantle Arts Centre
25 March—23 May

This article was originally published in the May/June 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Timmah Ball