Outback artists hope to share their creations with the world

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Indigenous artists from Coober Pedy present a vision of hope for the community


The APY Art Center Collective is an indigenous-owned business group with art centers scattered throughout the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands in the remote northwest of South Australia.

Lennon says the Umoona Art Center collective eventually wants to run their own gallery.

“To be honest, that would probably bring everyone together,” she told SBS News during a paint shop to prepare for a second exhibit.

“I think all the kids would probably step out of their comfort zone and start painting.”

A first sold-out exhibition at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art event Tarnanthi in October sparked excitement from critics upon seeing for the first time the caliber and style of the painted desert country artists.

“We were surprised, my team was surprised, our friends in the industry were surprised,” says Skye O’Meara, Managing Director of the APY Art Center Collective.

Artist George Cooley is working on a piece of art inspired by the Painted Desert Country in the Umoona Council office.

Source: Peta Doherty / SBS News


But that came as no surprise to the community, which has been asking for help establishing a center for decades.

“For nearly 50 years, people have wanted some form of center or to engage in tourism,” says George Cooley, interim president of the Umoona Art Center.

Cooley, an artist and opal miner whose paintings are inspired by the colors of the desert, has been trying to start the center for 25 of those years.

“We are bypassed because we are not far enough north to be in the remoteness of the country and not far enough south to be outside this area,” he said.

He observed the international success of artists working in Commonwealth-supported arts centers further north.

We are bypassed because we are not far enough north to be out of the country and not far enough south to be out of this region.

– George Cooley, Umoona Art Center

Just two hours north of the community of Indulkana, Iwantja Arts is one of the country’s most successful art centers.

O’Meara believes the Umoona artists will follow a similar trajectory if they are given the support they need.

“I think we envision an art center that will be one of Australia’s most successful art centers today over the next five years,” she says.

“We have a bunch of artists here, some on their very early works of art, who have waiting lists in our little gallery in Adelaide.”

But there is still a long way to go. The newly formed collective needs a place to come together and paint.

Christine Lennon says the Umoona Art Center would create job opportunities for women in Coober Pedy.

Source: Peta Doherty / SBS News


Umoona’s council provides space for artists for the studio. Desert-colored paint cans and splashed tarps cover the office furniture of the small collapsible, and there is still not enough space for more important jobs.

Outdoors, it’s a constant battle to keep the canvases dust-free, and with temperatures now starting to soar into the 40s, they’re hoping to secure funding for a permanent art space.

Seed funding of $ 150.00 for two years would unlock a Commonwealth Building Grant.

The federal government recently announced additional funding of $ 5 million for Indigenous arts centers as part of the National Indigenous Visual Arts Action Plan.

A review by the Productivity Commission also examines opportunities in the Aboriginal art sector and Torres Strait Island.

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O’Meara is determined that these artists will no longer be left behind.

“It’s a very rich time of opportunity, so things have to move now,” she said.

“We have to find a way to make a studio work so that these artists can be supported with the incredible opportunities that exist on the world stage.”

Looking at the 20 or so artists engrossed in their canvases, Cooley says the excitement of the first exhibition filled the community with hope.

“To this generation I think it means a lot because it exposes them, identifies them and gives them a job opportunity – one of the most important things is self-employment.”

Artists from the Umoona Art Center collective in Coober Pedy.

Source: Collective of the APY Art Center


Art centers provide the infrastructure and connections that allow many artists to create and market their work in art fairs, galleries and online stores.

In addition to the pathways to self-employment, the operation of a remote art center creates a large number of jobs. These are particularly suitable for women, who sometimes find it difficult to find work in remote areas.

Women’s group coordinator Christine Lennon says this is especially true for the Indigenous women of Coober Pedy.

“You have to have a permit and you have to have a lot of permits [such as] working with children and vulnerable people and not everyone has the money to pay for all of these things.

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Lennon says the new opportunity is creating excitement.

“The ladies beat me here, and I don’t have to go get them in the morning”

“They like to do something they like and they know they are going to get something back… They will do the same. [paintings] as they can. “

Artist Pearl Austen says the colors of Coober Pedy's landscape, especially the opals and sunsets, inspire his work.

Source: Peta Doherty / SBS News


Artist Pearl Austen says the workshops also bring women together.

“We’ve always been so isolated, not just in Coober Pedy but also in our homes, so this has been a great opportunity for our women.

“A lot of our mothers and wives don’t have a chance to work here, so it’s something that brings them out and makes them feel better about themselves. “

Lennon hopes their business will reach the Australian Prime Minister’s ear.

“I just hope he accepts our dreams,” she said.

“So we could make our own gallery and have choices and opportunities for you to know what we want to do in the future. “

A second Umoona Art Center exhibition, “Opal Country”, opens at the APY Art Center Collective in Adelaide on January 27, 2022.


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