To exhibit their work in France, these women drove over stone country, deserts and 31 river crossings and that was just to get passports


When Ingrid Johanson decided to help organise a trip to France for five Aboriginal artists to exhibit their textile work, she didnt expect the process to take years.

Paris is the capital of the world: for art, for design, for fashion, says Johanson, manager of the Bbbarra Womens Centre, which will hold an exhibition at the Australian embassy in Paris this October. Why not Paris?

But it would be the first time most of the artists have ever left the Northern Territory, let alone Australia and arranging passports proved to be tricky.

First, the artists had to travel from West Arnhem Land to Darwin, the nearest town to their homes in the Aboriginal community of Maningrida and a punishing eight-hour drive away.

Susan Marawarr painting new Wak design at the Bbbarra Womens Centre. Photograph: Ingrid Johanson/Bbbarra Designs


While goods, including fresh fruit, arrive on a barge once a week from Darwin, the boat is reserved for freight. As such the journey to the city must be undertaken in a four-wheel drive, one able to navigate the stone country, floodplains, 31 river crossings and desert savannah.

To boot, the road is only open six months of the year: in the wet season Maningrida, which sits on Ndjbbana country on the edge of the Arafura sea, is cut off from the wider world.

Textile designs by the Bbbarra women. Photograph: Ingrid Johanson/Bbbarra Designs


Other issues that cropped up included obtaining valid residential addresses (there are no street names in Maningrida), plus inconsistencies over identification.

For cultural reasons people often change their names, which means there are often three types of IDs in different names [for the same person], says Johanson. Some artists did not have birth certificates. Meanwhile, even passport photographs could not be taken in the community to the standard required.

It shows the institutionalised complexity for Indigenous people, says Johanson, 29, who is originally from Bendigo but has lived in Maningrida for the past three years. Red tape, she adds, affects remote Indigenous people every day in different ways whether its registering a car, whether its booking transport.

To ease such logistics the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation has launched a crowdfunding campaign on Chuffed. Just over $17,000 has already been raised of the $25,000 target. (An Australia Council grant is also funding part of the trip.)

The exhibition, titled Jarracharra (meaning dry season wind in the local Burarra language), will feature 12 artists from the centre. Just under half will travel to Paris, alongside Johanson and her assistant manager, Burarra woman Jessica Phillips, who co-curated the exhibition.

One of them is artist Janet Marawarr, a Kunwinjku speaker from the Mumeka homeland. Im feeling so excited for Paris, she says. Were going to dance and sing for the French people our cultural songs from Maningrida. Ill sing when I go to Paris so those people a long way away can hear our culture and songs.

Jennifer Wurrkidj, Deborah Wurrkidj, Janet Marawarr at their, Karrang Kunred exhibition. They will be heading to Paris for their first overseas show. Photograph: Ingrid Johanson/Bbbarra Designs


Artist Jennifer Wurrkidj agrees: Every day we are busy busy here at Bbbarra. I print my dreaming, my djang. It is very important to me, my designs I paint bush tucker, country and dreaming places that the old people taught me about. The other artists travelling are Elizabeth Kala Kala, Deborah Wurrkidj and Jecinta Lami Lami.

Founded 35 years ago as a womens refuge, the Bbbarra Womens Centre operates today as an artist centre concentrating on hand-printed textile designs, some reaching up to 9m long. It also houses an op-shop and the local laundromat. Five small outstations on remote homelands engage female Indigenous artists in printing and weaving.

Above all, Bbbarra is run by women for women.

Its a space where women are in control, Johanson says. Women went there as a safe space to be. From that was born this incredibly creative space where women could engage. Its really about womens empowerment.

In Jarracharra which references the cool wind that brings in the dry season, and with it the regeneration of the bush screen designs will depict the artists country, cultural identity and history, as well as the flora and fauna of Arnhem Land.

The exhibition will be held during the United Nations Year of Indigenous Languages. Key to the crowdfunding campaign is raising money to fund a catalogue, which will have translations in English and French as well as in the local languages of the artists.

Bbbarra women from Maningrida . Photograph: Ingrid Johanson/Bbbarra Designs


Twelve different language groups encompass the area surrounding Bbbarra, with English for some a third or fourth language. Some of the Indigenous languages, however, are on the edge of extinction, often with just a few dozen speakers left. Many are not formally written down.

As such, Johanson hopes that the Jarracharra catalogue will perform an important social function beyond art. Each artists own language, too, will be weaved into the exhibition via a sound installation in the exhibition, as will sounds of country and ancestral songs.

For co-curator Jess Phillips, such preservation is critical.

When I grew up on our homelands, we learnt from being on country, she says. Our country gave us strength, walking, gathering, hunting, making our own tools. Nowadays, no one has the time for this, and I fear that knowledge is being lost.

The best thing we can do is print our stories, and keep the knowledge safe and strong there. By printing what weve grown up with, were able to continue and pass on our stories.

Getting to Paris may be a challenge. But Phillips hopes to show the world that our cultures are still alive, they are still strong.

If you wish to help the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation make it to Paris, you can donate to their crowdfunding campaign on Chuffed









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