The first Aboriginal art centre, Ernabella Arts, was established in 1948; today close to 100 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art centres exist across Australia. At their core these centres function as central hubs for the production, documentation and sale of Aboriginal art. Beyond this, they are recognised as playing a vital role in the social, cultural, and economic well-being of Aboriginal artists and communities as a whole. So how do they get this HUGE range of work done? Well, key to the success of many art centres is the vital work performed by their Aboriginal artsworkers, community members who are very often practising artists, trained on site in fluid and wide-ranging roles.
At Martumili Artists, artsworkers like Tamisha Williams and Robina Clause cut, stretch and prime canvas, prepare and maintain art materials, and ensure artists have everything they need whilst they’re making. Crucially, possessing these skills also means that our artsworkers are able to keep our remote community art sheds running through the year, between field worker visits, and even when our Newman centre closes over the Christmas break.
Our artsworkers also play a key role in the next stage of a Martumili artworks’ ‘lifecycle’: documentation, sale and exhibition. Once an artwork is complete, artsworkers photograph them, record their stories, label, catalogue, and sell them. As artsworker and artist Corban Clause Williams describes, “I help sell the paintings at markets and in the galleries. Whitefellas come and say “Who’s is this painting, what's this story?” I talk up for the paintings. I can tell people "they [other artists] aren't here, but we're here for that person.” We talk about how they paint for their Country.”
Though both extensive and varied, these practical functions don’t encapsulate the less tangible work performed by our artsworkers, integral to the social and cultural function of art centres. “Artsworkers help with the oldies that don't understand properly. The artsworkers, the young ones help them understand. We explain to them, translate for them. When the oldies come we help with writing the stories for the painting and doing translating.” (Corban Clause Williams) In this sense, artsworkers are also directly involved in the transfer of cultural knowledge from the last of the pujiman (traditional, desert dwelling) generation.
In recognition of the value of the work carried out by our artsworker staff, Martumili Artists have recently substantially increased funding to support many of our 22 casual artsworkers to become permanent employees. Other peak body Aboriginal art organisations, such as Desart and AACHWA have also identified the value of artsworkers in Aboriginal art centres throughout Australia, and for more than a decade they have run successful artsworker training and professional development programs. In fact, Martumili artsworkers Corban Clause Williams and Robina Clause have just returned from a two week AACHWA training program focussed on art handling, installation, conservation and gallery protocol skills, working with AGWA, WA museum, FAC and the Fremantle Biennale. In recent years, coinciding with the completion of our amazing new gallery, the scope of work for our artsworkers has likewise extended to “help to curate, stretching, packing, and everything for exhibitions.” (Corban Clause Williams)
Of course, gaining knowledge and skills related to all facets of art centre operation, artwork production, sale and exhibition has positioned our artsworkers to actively guide the centre’s management. It is in this way that our artsworkers embody the very future of Martumili Artists; “We talk about the art centre, what they doing, we wanna know about exhibitions. Artists talk about what they do with their wanku (money), what Martumili do with the wanku. I want to work with my oldies, stay with them till they all leave me. We'll carry on Martumili for them.”