TEXT CAMP is Next Wave’s flagship arts writing mentorship program. The latest post in our Text Camp Typewriter series is from Shankar Kasynathan who is mentored by Alison Croggon of ABC Arts.
“In Conversation with Agnes Armstrong”
Agnes Armstrong lives with her mother in a remote community in the Northern Territory. On occasion, the Kimberley-based artist has travelled as far as Rome (2010) and Shanghai (2013). An exhibition in China, where her work as well as that of other artists from the East Kimberley was showcased, would be a sell out. Despite the distances that she and her work have travelled, despite the global success that work has achieved, for Armstrong the most important part of her journey as an Indigenous Australian artist is the very process of being able to tell her story, her narrative.
One can often find Armstrong at Waringarri Arts Centre, either engaged in conversation with fellow artists, or busy at work. A few visits to the space and after some familiarity has developed, it is not be uncommon for the silver haired artist to discuss the work that she is in the process of completing. She gently sways as she stands and talks (a sign that she is comfortable with you). She chooses her words carefully and using her slender fingers to identify elements in her work she explains, softly…
“Those are the hills we would cross, and this is the river we would walk along.”
Armstrong’s grandfather introduced her to art as young girl. For many Indigenous artists it is not uncommon for artists to be the teachers and mentors to their family members.
“He would teach me to carve Boab nuts…and now today, I show my grandson my paintings,” comments Armstrong.
Family involvement has been a part of the art process for Armstrong, on one level as well as others. At the Waringarri Arts Centre where Armstrong has been at since 1982, she can be found sitting next to her daughter, Philomena, whose work is also exhibited in the gallery. Her family also features in her art, as her work often depicts their history.
Some of her paintings for instance, speak about a childhood and youth spent at Ivanhoe Station as well as her family’s travels to other stations.
“We used to walk, between stations… long walks,” she recounts.
According to Armstrong the life they led was much healthier than that which her community is living through today.
“We were healthier…we ate healthier. We didn’t know about alcohol. There was no alcohol.”
Armstrong’s memories discuss family life on the stations. As a young girl, watching her mother bake several loaves of bread on mornings. Some of these recollections are bitter sweet memories, because the days on the stations were long, and filled with hard work. Station life meant hard work for everyone.
The Kimberley artist has gone back to see the lands on which she spent her youth. “It is all changed now” – and yet she continues to carry all the memories with her. “It’s all still here,” Armstrong says, gesturing to her head.
Calling on those memories is a process in itself. When Armstrong starts creating a piece of work, she finds herself needing to continue her work until its completion.
“Because I am telling my story… I need to keep going. I will start one day, and finish it the next.”
There is a strong sense of community in what Armstrong does. At the arts centre where she is a director, she works alongside other artists, watching them work and gently urging them on.
“They have stories too.”
TEXT CAMP is Next Wave’s flagship arts writing mentorship program. It aims to support the next generation of arts writers in Australia by providing professional development opportunities, brokering new relationships with peers and industry professionals and offering young writers the chance to see their work reach new readership. Next Wave’s emerging arts writers have been invited to respond to the theme of New Grand Narrative by seeking out alternative narratives within Next Wave Festival and beyond.
Shankar is an emerging writer who lives in the Kimberley. He currently contributes a weekly column to the Kimberley Echo newspaper, makes monthly contributions to the ABC Open Project (East Kimberley), and produces a weekend radio program called Kimberley Stories with the Waringarri Media Corporation. He is passionate about and privileged to have the opportunity to review and promote indigenous arts, including music, visual art and storytelling. Over the next year, Shankar will be working towards reaching out beyond the Kimberley to meet with and interview emerging contemporary indigenous artists working across Australia, in order to share their story and work with his mentor’s publication: ABC Arts. Visit his website Kimberly Stories here