Ngarrindjeri Soldier Kerry Giles Kurwingie 1959 - 1997

Known amongst her own people as 'Kurwingi', Kerry Giles, who died suddenly on 21 July, was as well known as a fighter for Indigenous rights as she was as an artist.
Born at Waikerie, Kerry was, as she used teasingly to answer those who asked her about her identity, of Irish-Aboriginal-Australian stock, her father, Stan, being one of the outstanding Indigenous footballers of the late '40s and '50s. Her closest affinities remained with the Riverland and her Indigenous ancestors' territory at the mouth of the Murray. Having completed three years at Mitcham Girls High School, the sixteen-year-old Kerry worked her way up to Darwin. She spent some time at Glen Helen near Hermannsburg where, not content with being a chambermaid, she started drawing the captivating images of Namatjira country, images which found a ready market amongst the guests. Once in Darwin, for some time she maintained an interest in basket weaving and associated crafts but motherhood and a wish to continue her studies drew her southwards again. In 1984 she returned to Adelaide where an arsonist not only destroyed most of Kerry's art works but also her desire to complete the third and final year of study for a TAFE Associate Diploma in Fabric Design. However, by 1986, the South Australian Sesquicentennial Year, her work was beginning a slow renaissance and she received the SA Aboriginal Artist of The Year award.
In 1988, the year when for Indigenous Australians 'there was nothing to celebrate', Kerry began literally to rebuild her life and to establish herself as an artist. For Kerry 1988 was indeed a year of discovery. Following a period as a trainee graphic artist with Co-Media, her talent was soon recognised not only for learning new techniques but her ability to explore for herself the potential of the media for artistic expression and the propagation of key social issues. In the same bi-centenary year Kerry was invited with Mitch Dunnett Jnr to join Brian Callen in the Visual Arts Studio at Flinders University as Aboriginal Artist-in-Residence. Callen's sympathetic and supportive supervision had been acknowledged during several previous residencies and for Kerry it provided the essential impetus. To those who might have heard of Kerry's diffidence and periods of depression, this was a different Kerry indeed  the Kerry who assisted in teaching screen-printing to non-Indigenous students, the Kerry who produced at Flinders her first limited editions of works on paper, the Kerry who curated her first exhibition 'The Cutting edge: new art from the Third and Fourth Worlds'. 1988 was also the year of the New York showing at the Asia Society of Dreamings, the major survey curated by the South Australian Museum. Visiting the States as one of a group of Indigenous artists, Kerry was struck by the battles which she saw being fought by Native Americans for native land rights.
In the same way as her early graphic work absorbed the issues which came to the fore in Australia during 1988  deaths in custody, exploitation and pollution of the environment, the need for Indigenous artists to be recognised in their own right  during the following years other commissions offered further scope for her public art; in 1989 she worked on a major mural project at the Port Lincoln Aboriginal Organisation. Kerry continued to express other features of what she saw as the clash between urban-based society and that of her native Coorong. These were themes which Kerry developed at Tandanya under the tutelage of John Kean, surely most inspirational of all non-Indigenous curators of Indigenous art, when, between 1989-92 she was Trainee Exhibitions Officer. Amongst the various shows put on during these years Kerry was particularly involved with the selection and realisation of East to West: Land in Papunya Tula painting the 1990 Adelaide Festival show. There as often in past and future projects Kerry's natural eye as a photographer was remarkable while in 1991 she returned to old skills and ancestral connections when she curated Two countries one weave' an exhibition devoted to the work of Maningrida and Ngarrindjeri weavers. Her work continued to be both political and lyrical; her images of the fish and birds of the Coorong became a kind of trademark. Ever ready to stand up for her own people and her own particular vision which she regarded as just as 'Aboriginal' as that of 'traditional' artists, Kerry was often heard in public debates on Indigenous arts, most famously when she countered a defence by the curator of Dreamings of the omission of urban Indigenous art from the exhibition with: "So you think my art's ratshit?"
1992 brought a break with Tandanya though Kerry continued for a while to use studio space for experiments in marbling on fabrics, yet another new departure which she continued during a second residency at Flinders. It was during this period  'one of the best times in my life'  that Kerry, for the first time had, in the Flinders Union Gallery, a solo exhibition of her own works followed by other marketing opportunities; the name she gave her show, oooooh! I feel Good . . . says it all. So at Flinders it was natural that Kerry, ever the teacher, should set up a public studio in the Art Museum so that people could meet her and talk to her about her work. As always Kerry made no distinction between art as a form of expression and, even more important, education, and art as a cash-crop; 'I have to look after my kids' as she frequently said. 1992 saw a range of linocuts, screenprints, etchings and silk paintings as never before. Kerry's work was also finding its way into all the major State and National institutions. It was also in 1992 that she joined up again with John Kean as one of three contributors to a Contemporary Arts Centre exhibition, Murrundi: three River Murray stories' Here in a large multi-media piece are themes which Kerry borrowed both from the traditions of her children's father's country around Roper River as well as her own particular vision of the Murray, as it should be and as it is after its pollution by industry and narrow-minded developers of tourism; as always, Kerry saw her role as an educator, teaching school kids "so they can get along and understand us better" and teaching us all to refrain from "talking about Aboriginal people in the past tense'"
Another solo exhibition in 1993, fab ART , was held during the first Australian Indigenous Arts Festival and commissions followed in connection with the Pacific Arts Association's meeting in Adelaide, commissions which included Pages of history', an exhibition once more in company with Mitch Dunnett based on their photographs taken on the 'Black March' of 1988. Nonetheless, Kerry found the life of a free-lance artist difficult. A visit with other South Australian Indigenous artists to Berlin was not a success since Kerry was faced with what she regarded as unacceptable racism, not on the part of the European general public but rather from the administration responsible for the tour. Kerry's last institutional association was in 1995 when in the company of two other local Indigenous artists whom she knew well, Ian Abdulla and another former Flinders Artist-in-Residence, Kunyi June McInerney, she inaugurated Another look the Flinders University Art Museum's first local travelling show designed for the Southern region.
Recently, Kerry had been on a journey of re-discovery, moving back to the region around Katherine, the homeland of her children's father. She had always been concerned that Valda and Leslie should retain the traditions to which their father gave them a right and they in turn had never completely fitted into the straight-jacket of whitefella life Down South. But the plan was not a success. Having given up her Housing Trust house in Plympton, Kerry took up residence at 'Luprina', an Aboriginal Hostel at Dudley Park in Adelaide's North. But she no longer turned to her art; when encouraged to start again she said "I can't ; I'm not ready  it's all got out of my head".
One of the first screenprints Kerry produced during her 1988 residency at Flinders commemorated those Ngarrindjeri Anzacs from the Murray, now memorialised at the little church at Raukkan (Point Mcleay). As one stands by the church looking over the Coorong and watches the wildlife which still brings a living beauty to the place, one looks over the place where now Kerry lies at peace. The words which Kerry wrote to accompany that image could almost have been written as her own epitaph:

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