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Support needed to save Aboriginal art co-operative Boomalli

Boomalli_artworkBased in the inner-west suburb Leichardt, Boomalli is one of Australia’s longest-running Aboriginal artists’ co-operatives and is facing the threat of closure, writes Rachel Evans.

Boomalli was about to be declared insolvent last year because of a $90,000 tax bill, but quick work by the co-operative stayed this decision.

According to Lynette Riley, an Aboriginal artist and co-operative member who has been campaigning to save the space, Boomalli means “to strike, to make a mark, to fight back, to light up,” – in the languages of the Kamilaroi, Wiradjuri and Bundjalung peoples of New South Wales.

Boomalli was set up in the late 1980s by Aboriginal artists because they couldn't get their art recognised. “At this time urban Aboriginal art was not considered art; only traditional dot paintings coming out of the Northern Territory was considered ‘Aboriginal art’,” Riley explains.

Boomalli was and continues to be about supporting NSW Aboriginal artists, their cultural recognition and helping them make a living. Bronwyn Bancroft, Tracey Moffatt, Fiona Foley, Jenny Fraser, Michael Riley, Jeffery Samuels, Frances Belle Parker are just a few Aboriginal artists who have benefitted from Boomalli.

“Boomalli is about giving strength to Aboriginal culture,” says Riley. “This is very important because the custom before the successful 1967 referendum in the ‘protection era’ was not to practice culture. There was thinking it was in the best interest of Aboriginal people to be assimilated.

“My uncle spoke his own language in class and was told it was a dirty language and he got taken away for just talking his own language. The lesson learnt was don't talk language in front of white people and don't transmit culture.

“Aunties didn’t want to lose kids so we were not taught the language. My parents didn't teach me. The Eastern communities in Australia were the worst hit. It’s only been in the last decade that there is confidence that you can transmit culture. Boomalli is so important because it strengthens the foundations of Aboriginal cultural identity.”

To raise community awareness and support for Boomalli, the gallery is running exhibitions. “Exhibitions are important because it helps artists make a living,” says Riley. “It keeps Aboriginal art and culture alive, teaches people to make a living as an artist and make their start as an artist.

“In my case, I'm just starting relearning Wiradjuri art forms and symbols. Aboriginal Nations are very diverse. The concept 'tribe' is a white social construct and doesn't let people understand cultural and social complexities.

“Distinct Nations have different languages and art and we represent all Nations at Boomalli. For us it's us defining our culture and not having anyone defining it for us.”

Boomalli_campaignOn the current campaign to save Boomalli, Riley says, “We are very hopeful that we have saved Boomalli – we will find out for sure soon. Boomalli is still open and we’ve already held two exhibitions this year. We want to evolve as a major artist and cultural centre for Indigenous people. Boomalli is run on all volunteer work at moment – Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people together.”

On the legalities, Riley says, “We are negotiating to get Boomalli gallery to be handed back to us – as it still legally belongs to someone else. We are in the process of proving we have capacity to run it with a new board of directors with me as a new chairperson.

“We are calling on the community to support us in proving the benefits of having a place like Boomalli so we can keep it. People can become Friends of Boomalli. They can volunteer with us in any capacity they’re able and writing an email supporting us will help us a lot.”

For more history on Boomalli visit the Art Gallery of NSW website.

Visit Boomalli at 55 -59 Flood St, Leichhardt. Check out
Boomalli's website where you can send emails of support.

Rachel Evans is a queer and anti-racist grassroots activist based in Sydney, Australia.

Images: From top: From exhibition by Jeffrey Samuels; Boomalli Artists Members and Friends campaigning for Boomalli’s continued existence 2010. Courtesy of Boomalli.

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