Breaking my country's heart

Charmaine Green, Nharlba Barndi (Good Thief), mixed media on linen. Photo courtesy the artist 

In the last decade the flow of miners and size of the resource industry in the Western Australian Midwest region expanded at such a rapid rate it took many in my community by surprise. In this article I will explore the impact of mining on the Aboriginal arts industry in a Western Australia rural coastal community with particular emphasis on tensions created from a mining-initiated Aboriginal art exhibition held in Perth, Good Heart. These tensions are around protecting country versus financial gain, social licence to operate versus destroying country, traditional owners versus practising artists and the circumvention of local Aboriginal art centres. As a local Aboriginal artist who is living on the frontier of a mining boom and who briefly participated in this art exhibition, my purpose is to provide an alternative perspective to the increased mining activity in the region and its impact on the local Aboriginal arts industry.

Bimarra Law[1] once held my ancestral land or country and Yamaji[2] together in a strong way keeping our cultural customs and beliefs intact. Our world views are grounded in this Law which has been handed down from generation to generation over thousands of years. One of the strongest cultural values installed into my family is the importance of country to Yamaji. We were taught where we could walk, how the Bimarra[3](snake) created the waterways, and to respect cultural sites which were reserved for important ceremonial rites. It is because of this that I understand and value the importance of  country to our spiritual, emotional and social wellbeing.

I was taught that if country was hurt or unprotected there would be serious cultural and spiritual consequences. This became reality with the mining of Tallerang Peak north of Mullewa, when our people agreed to mining believing there would be economic benefits for the younger generation. The cultural, spiritual and economic results were devastating when cultural areas were mined; many deaths occurred and there was no real change in the economic status of Yamaji.

While some Yamaji spoke of protecting country others got on with forging relationships with miners to gain wealth through heritage site clearances and setting up businesses. There are some successes in these mining bids. Those of us who reject the destruction of country for financial gain are often told “don’t interfere with men’s business” or “mining is inevitable we might as well get something out of it.”

About six years ago the mining consortium Oakajee Port and Rail (OPR) introduced the Good Heart exhibition. At first many local Aboriginal artists were excited about a Perth-based exhibition because they saw this as an opportunity to sell their art to a bigger audience. After participating in two exhibitions I decided it was not in the best interests of Aboriginal culture or protecting country. I asked other artists how they felt and got mixed responses. Only a handful of artists talked about protecting country from being mined and struggled with the idea of being involved in the Good Heart exhibition. I have no doubt the art sales money pays some artists’ bills but exactly how it will create a self-sufficient business enterprise for the region’s artists when most only produce art for this one exhibition remains unclear.

Initially I repeatedly asked “Why is OPR offering an art exhibition?” The concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or a social licence to operate soon showed its sly strategic face. A social licence to operate would ensure ‘country’ was once again stolen, with minimal fuss from traditional owners and no costly delays to the resource sector. OPR has spent years building relationships with native title claim groups and mining-friendly Aboriginals in order to exploit our country. So what better way to show the world that they (OPR) have Aboriginal support than through the fanfare of an art exhibition, where state gallery directors, politicians, artists, native title claimants, and the resource sector could participate. This is hypocritical, because OPR gives artists the opportunity to paint about country but support the destruction of that same country.

OPR initiated Good Heart through connections with non-artist native title claimants rather than seeking guidance and real involvement from practising local artists who have detailed knowledge of the local Aboriginal Arts market. This action caused division within the Aboriginal community and ongoing tensions over the place of exhibitions such as this in the Aboriginal artworld.

The OPR circumvention of Aboriginal art centres such as Yamaji Art[4] has stunted the growth of the Mid-West Aboriginal Arts Industry. The Good Heart exhibition has destabilised the commission system causing unrealistic expectations among some local artists who now don’t want to pay for art materials. Several artists have misappropriated art centre materials in order to enter the annual exhibition as ‘independent artists’. OPR now supply ‘independent artists’ with art materials creating a welfare mentality where artists think they can receive art materials for free - which is not sustainable or ethical.

Art Centres invest in professional development for artists through art workshops, art awards, commissions, and building artists profiles. OPR creates an artificial arts environment with inflated prices and a captive audience of buyers not seen in the normal arts market and don’t support the wellbeing of local Aboriginal art centres.

The Good Heart exhibition is placed within the frameworks of a CSR strategy supported by native title claimants and artists smoothing the pathway for companies to mine and destroy country. The tensions created by this strategy have stunted the growth of the Mid West Aboriginal Arts Industry which may take many years to recover. This access to temporary monies will never compensate for the ongoing and future destruction of country and it is tragic to witness how they are breaking my country’s heart.

Footnotes

  1. ^ Bimarra Law is the traditional governing law for Yamaji in Midwest, Western Australia.
  2. ^ Yamaji is the cultural term used to describe Aboriginal people in Midwest and Murchison, Western Australia.
  3. ^ Bimarra means water snake in Wajarri and Badimaya cultural groups in Midwest, Western Australia.
  4. ^ Yamaji Art Centre is base in Geraldton, Western Australia.

Charmaine Green is an Indigenous (Yamaji) writer and painter based in Geraldton, Western Australia. She uses poetry and visual art as a form of therapy and protest. Candidly speaking out against mining operations in the Mid West, her art contains a strong message for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

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