DAAFF Yarns… with Spinifex Hill Artists

Today we’re in Kariyarra Country, home to Spinifex Hill Studio, presenting art in a dynamic breadth of styles from Aboriginal artists from numerous cultural backgrounds and language groups.

Our DAAFF Yarns series continues here, speaking with Sophia Constantine, Manager at Spinifex Hill Studio and artists Sheila Gardiner, Nyangulya Katie Nalgood and Willarra Barker.

Words | Camilla Wagstaff in conversation with Spinifex Hill Artists

A safe and welcoming space.

“The role of an Art Centre it to offer a safe and welcoming space for Aboriginal artists to come together to create art, share stories and culture, and be supported in their artistic practice,” says Sophia Constantine, Manager at Spinifex Hill Studio, a young and exciting Art Centre nestled in South Hedland in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. “Art Centres also offer opportunities for artists to receive support in refining their paintings for exhibitions, awards, markets and other professional opportunities [and] create important income streams for artists and their families.”

Spinifex Hill Studio does just this. Standing on Kariyarra Country, it is home to one of the youngest Aboriginal art collectives in the north-west of Australia, the Spinifex Hill Artists. Spinifex Hill Studio presents art in a dynamic breadth of styles from Aboriginal artists from numerous cultural backgrounds and language groups – a firm nod to the diversity of Indigenous experience. “There is no specific house style, however our artists predominantly focus on contemporary acrylic painting,” says Sophia. 

Artists Nyangulya Katie Nalgood and Mulyatingki Marney painting at Spinifex Hill Studio, 2020. Photograph by Bobbi Lockyer, courtesy of FORM. 

Untitled, Gloria, 61 x 61 cm, Acrylic on Canvas. 

Untitled, Gloria, 101.5 x 101.5 cm, Acrylic on Linen.

Connecting through shared values of family, culture, and art.

“It’s a really special place, where people can come together and connect through shared values of family, culture, and art, whilst also allowing artists to build self-esteem and pride through their art making and create income streams for themselves and their families.”

“Spinifex is important to me and my family because it gives us something to do, as well as being part of Hedland,” says artist Sheila Gardiner. “Other artists come from other towns and communities, but we’re all one family by being connected by other families. Even with the workers there, we’re all in a sense family. The painters that used to be there that passed away, have brought us all back together again.”

Fellow artist Nyangulya Katie Nalgood agrees. “Spinifex is home to me. It’s a good place to work in. We meet a lot of families from far and wide. We encourage some family to come too.”

Profile of artist Nyangulya Katie Nalgood, 2020, courtesy of FORM. 

Having a Yarn, Nyangulya Katie Nalgood, 76 x 76 cm, Acrylic on Canvas.

Wins amidst the chaos.

Although 2020 didn’t go exactly to plan for most in the arts and beyond, remote Art Centre communities were particularly vulnerable, with the cancellation of a number of key annual Aboriginal arts initiatives representing critical income streams. But Sophia notes that there were some wins amidst the chaos. 

“Many art fairs took place online in lieu of the physical event, and Spinifex Hill Artists achieved some fantastic sales, which allowed artists to continue to earn an income, despite having to close the Art Centre for more than 8 weeks. When the Studio was finally able to re-open, many artists chose to stay in their communities, which presented a time of uncertainty for employees and the centre. Confidence grew in the safety of returning to town, and approximately six weeks later we were a full-house and were back to business as usual. Our catalogued artworks for the year exceeded 1000, and it was one of the best years yet for artwork sales. This also reflects the resilience and determination of the centre’s artists.”

Despite the 2020 Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair (DAAF) not being able to go ahead in its original face-face format, the 2020 online art fair proved hugely successful for Spinifex Hill Artists. “We recorded the highest sales figures in four years over the online period,” says Sophia, going on to note that DAAF has “generated hundreds of thousands of dollars for Aboriginal artists. Not only has it been a huge platform for Spinifex Hill Artists to showcase their work, but it has also presented networking and travel opportunities for arts workers who have accompanied staff and artists to represent the Art Centre and attend key events.” As artist Willarra Barker puts it: “Without it we wouldn’t have all the art going around Australia and around the world. It’s also good for non-Aboriginal people, who are able to share the culture.”

Profile of artist Mulyatingki Marney, 2020. Photograph by Bobbi Lockyer, courtesy of FORM.

Profile of artist Maggie Green, 2020. Photograph by Bobbi Lockyer, courtesy of FORM.

Kunmunya, Myroodah Station, Maggie Green, 61 x 71 cm, Acrylic on Canvas.

2021 is shaping up to be an even bigger year than 2020 for this young and energetic Art Centre. 

The prestigious Revealed 2021 show at the Fremantle Arts Centre in Perth sees two emerging Spinifex artists – Sharlene Phillips, Narlene Waddaman – presenting work in an exciting range of mediums including painting, photography, and fibre art. 

Meanwhile in Darwin, the amazing Nyangulya Katie Nalgood stages her second solo at Paul Johnstone Gallery. The exhibition is set to open in March and will document Nalgood’s strong affiliation with Australia’s native birds in joyful colour palettes. “I like painting about birds, it makes me feel good, you know,” says the artist. “I like doing paintings of birds. Familiar birds that I paint, they make me think of my home.”

Sophia and the whole Spinifex team are also eagerly anticipating the completion of a new multi-purpose building, which is currently under construction at the Spinifex Hill Studio and should be ready to welcome artists by July this year. “The building will accommodate the continuing growth of the artists, and connect visitors with local culture, heritage, and traditions,” says Sophia. “The building will be a huge asset for the wider South Hedland community.”

Untitled, Doreen Chapman, 71 x 51 cm, Acrylic on Canvas.

Purnu – Bush, Nyanglpayi Nancy Chapman, 45.5 x 40.5 cm, Acrylic on Canvas.

More To Come

Thank you to Spinifex Hill Studio’s Sophia Constantine, and artists Sheila Gardiner, Nyangulya Katie Nalgood and Willarra Barkera for sharing their stories as part of the ‘DAAFF Yarns’ series.  

You can see more from Spinifex Hill Studio here: www.spinifexhillstudio.com.au

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