How two unlikely South Americans transformed an Indigenous Art Centre

Cecilia Alfonso and Gloria Morales come from dramatically different social, cultural and political backgrounds. In their home country of Chile they would likely have never met.

They’re also not the most obvious candidates to negotiate the fraught politics and cultural protocols of a remote Aboriginal community.

Yet, over the past 15 years, their blend of passion and hard-headed pragmatism has transformed the Warlukurlangu Art Centre into one of the most successful in Australia, earning the praise of the Warlpiri artists it supports.

So how did these two Chilean women make their way to a remote Indigenous community in outback Australia, and stay there?

Ms Alfonso hugs an Indigenous artist by the name of Paddy Stewart.

Cecilia came from an aristocratic Chilean family that boasts “a long line of Conquistadores”.

They moved to Australia in 1971 after receiving threats from the then-new Allende socialist government.

Gloria, in contrast, grew up in an Indigenous Mapuche community in Chile.

Her people struggled to survive and were sometimes forced to work for nothing on land they once owned.

Listen to the history of the Warlukurlangu Art Centre.

When Allende died in 1973 in a coup led by the infamous General Pinochet — a friend of Cecilia’s family — Gloria’s family grieved.

“We often say had we been in Chile, it’s very unlikely our paths would have crossed,” Ms Alfonso said.

Through grit and intelligence, Gloria got a scholarship to university and became an art conservator.

But as someone “from the wrong side of the tracks”, she found it hard to advance in Chile and emigrated to Australia.

Cecilia, meanwhile, studied art administration and in 2001 was offered her “dream job” — managing an Aboriginal art centre in the tiny community of Yuendemu, 300 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs.

When she advertised for an assistant, Gloria was the standout candidate.

‘They hired me because I’m an outsider’

Two Indigenous artists hold paint brushes in their hands as they paint a canvas on the ground.

Whether it adorns mugs in airport gift shops or canvases bound for an exhibition in Singapore, Cecilia spruiks the Warlukurlangu art with gusto — and an eye for the bottom line.

She’s accompanied the women artists on bush trips where they sleep in dry creek beds and sing and dance their connection to country under the desert’s starry skies.

But she’s clear on the difference between cultural practice and commercial reality.

“I could sell rice to China,” she said.

“I didn’t come here to be spiritual.

“They don’t want some hippy-dippy person. They hired me because I’m an outsider.”

According to Cecilia, when she arrived she found the art “pretty dreary”.

She told the Warlpiri people there was a lot more competition in the market and they’d have to “lift their game”. Some in the community were upset.

“They thought I was insulting them because I was very blunt,” she said.

Increasing the colour palette for Seven Sisters

Indigenous woman dips her paint brush into a bucket with red paint.

Established in 1984, Warlukurlangu is one of the oldest of the Aboriginal art centres that erupted across the country in the eighties, each with its own distinctive style.

These federally funded art centres became sites of cross-cultural engagement: though run by a local Indigenous board, their managers were usually white people educated in arts management and the art market.

They managed the merchandising and balanced the books, while mediating cultural difference and handing out cheques.

But one of the first things Ms Morales did when she arrived at the art centre was extend the artists’ colour palette.

In nearby Papunya Tula, the dot painting that kicked off contemporary Aboriginal art in the early ’70s had a well established brand based on traditional ochres in red, yellow, black and white.

The Warlukurlangu artists had already distinguished themselves with the use of much brighter colours, but with acrylic paints available in hundreds of colours Ms Morales saw the chance to go even further.

After all, the artists showed her the landscape was alive with colour — as one of the foundation artists at Warlukurlangu, Paddy Japaljarri Stewart, was fond of telling her.

Paddy showed Gloria the orange of natural honey, the kaleidoscope of colourful flowers after rain, the fluorescent green of the budgerigar.

She increased the palette to about 300 colours and the artists took to them with alacrity.

One of them was the late Alma Nungarrayi Granites, who painted luminous celestial skies to tell her Seven Sisters story.

Two women sitting on a couch arm in arm.

Gloria gave her seven new shades of blue to extend her range, along with new techniques.

“Before I painted dots. Now I do splatter too,” Alma said.

Alma said she grateful Gloria helped her to think differently, to work with the “mistakes” she made.

“Nothing is a mistake in painting,” Gloria told her.

“It gives you an opportunity to explore a new idea.”

Alma’s father, Paddy Japaljarri Sims, another foundation artist at Yuendemu, witnessed an extraordinary transition.

He went from being part of a desert community that had never seen white people to showing his art in Paris, in the celebrated Magicians of the Earth exhibition in 1989.

In the same spirit, Cecilia believes the art at Warlukurlangu is always changing — and sometimes that takes artists away from painting their tjukurrpa, or dreaming, story.

“There’s no doubt that originally those paintings were maps … spiritual documents, but the culture has evolved and people’s connection to that culture has changed,” she said.

If some artists want to paint “secular” paintings that abandon traditional iconography, that’s fine by her.

“You can’t put people in a time capsule,” Ms Alfonso said.

Some tourists are taken aback that the artists are market-oriented. Gloria has no time for such attitudes.

Woman surrounded by dozens of dogs in rural community.

“I remember somebody saying: ‘oh, are they working for money?’ And I went, ‘I work for money: don’t you work for money? Tell me which white artist paints for nothing?'”

Over the years, both women have grown attached to the place and close to particular artists.

“I’ve had a child there and I’ve been part of that community … Yuendumu has been my home,” said Cecilia.

But while she has learned a lot from Indigenous ways of thinking, she refuses to idealise the community.

“It’s important not to think that they’re living in this utopian ideal, because they’re not.”

The dog whisperer

Gloria has come to love the open space.

“Every time I go into a city, I feel I want to get out of there as quickly as I can. I just feel suffocated. I need this: no boundaries,” she said.

Given her “dog project”, she is unlikely to leave.

When she arrived, there were about 700 dogs and 1,000 people.

At the art centre, starving dogs would run across the paintings on the ground to get to food.

Gloria started desexing, adoption and veterinary programs and the reduced numbers of dogs are now in much better health.

She personally takes care of any who fall between the cracks.

“I call them the rejects,” she said, laughing.

She currently lives with about forty of them.

Two women leaning against a wall with two dogs.

Putting Warlukurlangu on the global stage

Cecilia has now taken the annual turnover at Warlukurlangu from around 300 artworks to a staggering 8,000, with the artists taking 50 per cent of each sale, paid in advance.

“I’m giving out a million dollars a year,” she said.

Her bald honesty seems to have been accepted.

“If the Warlpiri don’t like you, they do get rid of you.”

She is proud she has put art from Warlukurlangu on the world map, but she is unequivocal about why it has worked.

“Gloria is my secret weapon. She is also one of the most important relationships of my life.”

Their relationship is a small miracle.

Recently, on her first trip to Chile in two decades, Cecilia travelled to Gloria’s Indigenous community to meet her family, who received her warmly.

The woman who counts a former Chilean president among her European forebears communed with those the colonisers had dispossessed.

In some ways, the cross-cultural relationship between Cecilia and Gloria mirrors the small acts of healing that can happen every time a white Australian buys a piece of Warlukurlangu art.

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