Daisy William

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The Aboriginal Cultural Centre is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Daisy William shares how it has bridged the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, by raising awareness of Aboriginal issues and culture.

> When did the Aboriginal Cultural Centre and Keeping Place first open its doors?

Application for funding under the Bicentennial Program to build the Armidale and Region Aboriginal Cultural Centre and Keeping Place Inc. was approved in November 1986. The project was called the Armidale Aboriginal Culture and Heritage Project and was supported by the community, including Mr McCathy, Member for Northern Tablelands and Dr TW Field, the Principal of the Armidale College of Advanced Education. The building was completed in 1988, and the Centre was opened on the 26th November of the same year.

> Who were the original organisers?

It had a strong Interim Board of Trustees made up of Pat Dixon (an Aboriginal elder and Councillor), a qualified Aboriginal curator (Jim Miller, who is the current Aboriginal curator at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney), Joe Eisenberg (former Director of NERAM), Rod Davis (the Registrar of the Armidale College of Advanced Education), Thelma McCarthy, and various other outstanding community members. The Chairperson was Mr Steve Widders.

> How does the Centre differ today?

The Aboriginal Cultural Centre and Keeping Place has had a varied career since it began. It was vibrant at times and at the verge of closing down at other times. In the new millennium, things were becoming bleak, with funding bodies withdrawing and visitor numbers dropping to only 2 in some weeks. Despite being in possession of a ‘fine building’, it was turning into a white elephant, with artworks and a few artifacts displayed haphazardly in a corridor. The condition of the building was poor due to lack of upkeep.

In mid 2005, the Federal Government, through the ICC, funded the Centre to appoint a Director with proven business management skills to develop strong aboriginal and non aboriginal networks, with the aim of increasing the artistic and cultural use of the Centre.

That’s when the Centre took on a new ‘look’ and ‘attitude’. Today, when a visitor walks into our Centre, they are greeted by one of our kind and friendly staff members, ready to answer questions and assist visitors in their quest to learn about Aboriginal culture. 

We have many sections at the Centre, such as a gallery, a musical section, an interactive corner for children, a local heroes display, a historical room, a research room, a lifestyles hallway, a bush tucker walk, a movie area, and an archeological section.

We offer high quality cultural tours, and run a wide range of Aboriginal cultural activities in our workshops. Traditional Aboriginal paintings are for sale all year round at the Centre, and we hire out part or whole of the Centre for private functions and conferences and cater for these functions. There is also a well-stocked gift shop at the centre with Aboriginal artifacts and gifts, which can be customised.

> Who are some of the accredited artists who have visited the centre?

The Aboriginal Cultural Centre has always proudly encouraged and supported local artists. Not only do its gallery exhibitions keep getting stronger, but it has become the sought after venue of artists far beyond Armidale, inviting Guyra, Tamworth, Inverell, Uralla, Bellbrook and Lismore artists. 

Last year, the Centre collaborated with Tamworth’s Gamilarart gallery by having an exhibition entitled ‘In Respect to Mother Earth’. Three of them are outstanding award winning artists who have had works exhibited in Europe and have been finalists in the NSW Parliament award.

From mid November 2007 till mid January 2008, the Centre displayed the works of internationally known artist Digby Moran. At the same time as his exhibition at the Aboriginal Cultural Centre, Digby Moran had another exhibition in South Germany. He has had solo shows at the New Media Art Gallery in Vienna, Austria, Maka Gallery in Osterwald, Byggriet Art Gallery and Museum Hamlen in Germany and the Berlin Aboriginal Art Gallery. He has exhibited locally in Sydney, Canberra, Darwin, Brisbane, Lismore, Byron Bay, and in other regional galleries across the state. Community members were talking about his exhibition at local Christmas gatherings, resulting in masses of people visiting the gallery.

In July and August of this year, the Centre revealed the talent of Moree artist Mark Gibson in its gallery space. He has also sold works to the RED Contemporary Art Gallery in London and was selected to be one of only 12 artists across Australia to win the 2009 Oxfam Calender Competition. 

In September the Centre opened an exhibition of works by Aboriginal artists from Lockhart River Art Gallery in North Queensland. Artists from Lockhart River Art Gallery have had works in an exhibition that toured the USA, starting with New York, called ‘Our Way’. Some of their artists have also exhibited in France and Italy.

Next year the Centre will host an exhibition of Queensland artist Lloyd Hornsby, whose paintings have been included in the Pine Rivers Regional Art Collection and private and corporate art collections in Australia and England.

These are some of the accredited artists who have showed their works at the Aboriginal Cultural Centre.

> What is the Centre’s main purpose?

According to our constitution, the following are the main objectives of the Centre:

(a) To provide a cultural awareness and cross-cultural learning facility throughout the New England region.

(b) Through education, to improve relationships within the Aboriginal and wider communities.

(c) To help, support and encourage Aboriginal people to restore and keep their culture and heritage.

(d) To work with and encourage other Aboriginal cultural activities, for mutual benefit.

(e) To preserve and develop the Centre as a place of learning, through the preservation and exhibition of Aboriginal performing and visual arts.

(f) To research and record oral history in the New England region.

(g) To assist community arts and cultural groups.

(h) To provide a showcase, and keeping place, for items of cultural and spiritual significance, concentrating on the New England region.

(i) To act as a resource centre for Aboriginal history.

(j) To provide educational programs in Aboriginal culture for the schools of the region.

(k) To conduct entrepreneurial activities in terms of these objectives 

(e) To raise funds for the successful operation of the Centre.

(l) To seek, receive and administer grants from government and non-government agencies to assist in the successful operation and development of the Centre.

> How did the art works on the exterior of the Centre happen?

The idea was originally from Margaret Walford, a local elder. She suggested a pathway of Aboriginal art to me. I then asked Adam Spencer, a local artist, to paint the frames so that individual artists could select their diamond-shaped slots. I then organised for about 22 artists to paint the walkway. 

The artists came from Armidale, Guyra and Tamworth. It has made the entrance intriguing and exciting, with the use of bright and vibrant colours and designs of Australian Indigenous contemporary art. This piece of permanent art was unveiled by Richard Torbay on the 7 December, 2006.

> Is the gift shop proving popular?

The gift shop is doing really well. More and more locals and visitors are dropping in to purchase authentic Australian gifts for overseas or for their personal use. Most of our products have Aboriginal themes, motifs and colours. 

Some of them also come with the stories of their designs. A new range of Bush Tucker products are now being sold here such as jams, syrups, dressings, spice packs, tea and dips in native Australian flavours. We are quite pleased with the way our gift shop is growing.

> Tell us about the upcoming 20th anniversary celebrations?

Our 20th anniversary celebration is the next big thing coming up. The theme for the anniversary is ‘Bridging the Gap’. We are celebrating it on Saturday 22nd November 2008. There will be activities for all ages starting at 5.00pm. Iron Men Welders will be having a bush tucker barbecue with emu, kangaroo, crocodile, chicken and lamb meats. 

TAFE’s Tourism and Hospitality department will set up a bush tucker tasting table with a spread of native food.

Activities for children will include a children’s party with party games and food. Local primary schools will present a combined school choir, which will be conducted by Mrs Ruth Samuels, the Principal of Sandon Primary School. Duval High School orchestra will also be performing that evening. Aboriginal children will demonstrate a corroboree, with didgeridoo music and dance.

There will not be a shortage of exhibitions, with three photographic exhibitions which are ‘In-Living Memory’, ‘In-Living Memory (local version’) and ‘Bridging the Gap: History of the Keeping Place’. In Living Memory features images from a series of 1,000 black and white photographs from the official records of the former NSW Aborigines Welfare Board. Most of the photographs were taken to document the work of the Board and to promote its policies. The exhibition also includes images taken during the exhibition consultation process by renowned indigenous photographer Mervyn Bishop. In Living Memory addresses the photographs as living records with compelling histories and powerful connections to the present. The exhibition is helping to create a new purpose and place for the photographs within contemporary indigenous life.

The Centre has always been instrumental in launching emerging artists’ careers. That evening it will present the works of two local Aboriginal artists, Nick Levy and Leo Wright. The Centre will also have a raffle for a painting by Queensland artist Lloyd Hornsby called ‘The Falcon’. It is a magnificent piece of painting of a falcon. 

The main highlight for the evening will be the unveiling of a huge clay mural of an Aboriginal man and a woman measuring 6 feet by 5 feet. It is made by well-known local potter, Joe Sartori. 

The 20th anniversary marks the strength and endurance of the Aboriginal Cultural Centre. For the past 20 years it has bridged the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, raised awareness of Aboriginal issues and exposed visitors to Aboriginal culture. 

It is therefore fitting for Armidale and its surrounding residents to come together to celebrate its presence in the last 20 years.

> Thank you Daisy

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