Japingka Aboriginal Art fosters long-term connections with First Nations artists and works to elevate WA’s Indigenous culture.
There is a large waterhole in the Great Sandy Desert called Japingka, where locals gather to tell the spirits to care for the land and fill the waterhole.
It’s one of the few spots in the desert where water is available year-round.
In 1995, an arts organisation called Japingka Aboriginal Art was established to serve as the Japingka of Perth, a central place for Indigenous artists to come together and collaborate.
Japingka Aboriginal Art was created by the directors of textile and fashion business Desert Designs, which was among the first companies in Australia to promote Indigenous arts and culture, starting in the early 1980s.
A gallery space for Japingka Aboriginal Art was opened on Fremantle’s High Street and remains in operation today.
Over its 30-plus years, it has held more than 300 exhibitions, including its current showcase displaying the works of the Spinifex people from Tjuntjuntjara, a seven-hour drive from Kalgoorlie-Boulder.
Sun and Shadow: Art of the Spinifex People marks the 10th exhibition by the Fremantle gallery and the group of Indigenous artists and will run until October 31.
Japingka Aboriginal Art co-director Ian Plunkett said many Australians had a poor opinion of Indigenous arts when he became involved with Desert Designs.
“Most prejudice is based on ignorance,” Mr Plunkett told Business News.
“It was, and still is, our mission to get Aboriginal art into every home in Australia, so people [can] understand it, see it, and feel it.
“It breaks down those barriers.”
Spinifex artist Noli Rictor at work. Photo: Amanda Dent
Collaboration with the Spinifex people was part of Japingka Aboriginal Art’s journey to expand the outreach of Indigenous arts and contribute to greater cross-cultural understanding.
Mr Plunkett said Japingka Aboriginal Art approached the community in 2001 and they agreed to collaborate on an exhibition in Perth.
“Because the Spinifex people are so remote, most people have never heard of them,” he said.
“I had not heard of them or seen their art; and to be honest, they didn’t have a big artistic presence at all.
“Japingka Gallery was in Sydney for the 2000 Olympics, and we were showing art over there for the event when someone introduced me to the Spinifex art, showed me a few paintings.
“I had never seen anything like it before, in that it wasn’t painted for a market, it was purely to tell stories about connection to country.
“The work of the Spinifex people has a voice and authenticity about it that is unparalleled.”
With regard to the milestone 10th exhibition, Mr Plunkett said it had been a privilege to represent the Spinifex people in Perth and watch them grow over the years.
“They’ve always had great artists, but we’ve watched the styles evolve and change as new artists came on and new parts of the country were being painted that we hadn’t seen before,” he said.
“Art is a bridge between cultures. In this time of uncertainty – and now with the referendum and the division it has caused – I think people need to step back and look at who they’re dealing with.
“This is a very important culture that has worked out many of the issues in life, like with the environment; their knowledge comes from over 65,000 years … it may be even further back than that.
“They know this country more than anyone, and that’s what’s in their artwork, too, their knowledge of the land.”
Mr Plunkett described Japingka Aboriginal Art’s 3,500-painting inventory as “the manifestation of a very ancient culture in a two-dimensional format”.
“I’m biased, but to me [Indigenous art] is the only true art in the world,” Mr Plunkett said.
“I love and appreciate other forms of art, but this is the only art that really moves me.”
Ian Plunkett. Photo: Michael O'Brien
Japingka Aboriginal Art has achieved ongoing financial growth, particularly in recent years, perhaps as a reflection of increased public engagement with Indigenous art.
Revenue was almost $4 million for the recent financial year, hitting records year on year for the past six years.
“We’ve been around for 35 years. The first few years were hard, of course, even though we had a unique product we were proud of, but it was a struggle to get our mission out there and be heard,” Mr Plunkett told Business News.
“We’re always looking to grow.
“In the past, we explored the idea of opening other galleries in different markets over east as part of Japingka Gallery, but with the internet it’s less necessary.
“We’re based in one of the most remote cities in the world, but that hasn’t stopped us from growing or reaching markets everywhere.
"So our challenge remains to get into as many homes in the world as we can, so people can come to know about this culture.
“The exciting thing is, we probably haven’t even reached a tenth of the market that’s out there.
“Many people around the planet are still unaware of Indigenous Australian art and culture, so that’s a real area of growth we’d like to focus on.”
Japingka Aboriginal Art sells each art piece along with the story behind the work, the biography of the artist, and a certificate of prominence.
Mr Plunkett stressed the importance of purchasing Indigenous art from galleries and institutions that were voluntary signatories to the federal government’s Indigenous Art Code.
This guarantees the authenticity of Indigenous art, ensuring it is ethically sourced and the artists are paid promptly and fairly.