When did Maningrida art and culture become unimportant?

Ten years ago, Maningrida artists and community members selected a spot for the Maningrida Arts and Culture alongside the airport and a tract of vacant land that would allow future expansion.

Our now internationally renowned artists, including John Mawurndjul OAM, Johnny Bulunbulun, Lena Yarinkura and Bob Burruwal, had the foresight to select that site with a keen eye to the future.

Over the past five years, the community has planned a Maningrida Arts Precinct expansion project. The precinct would incorporate the art centre, the Djomi museum, the Bábbarra women’s centre tourism and retail facilities and open space for cultural performances.

The concept design has been three years in development with national project partners providing pro-bono support. Acclaimed architects provided free services because they could see the long-term benefits to our community and the world.

The proposed new BAC Maningrida Art Precinct development would have improved the economy of Maningrida and its 32 surrounding Homelands (with 110 clans) by an estimated $2.2 million in its first year.

But, culturally compromised individuals, agencies and organisations outside of Maningrida have determined that the site proposed for the art and cultural precinct expansion will instead house a new police precinct. For a range of logistical, social, cultural and operational reasons, police holding cells and an art and cultural precinct cannot successfully exist side by side.

With so few self-determined and self-sustaining economic opportunities for countrymen in Maningrida, how can something as economically and socially significant as the art and culture precinct development be treated as inconsequential?

The Maningrida art movement has been a foundation of the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation since its inception 40 years ago. Today there are 1250 artists on the Maningrida Arts Centre membership list, 50 designers, six tour guides, 20 language and culture workers and 20 full-time professional staff.

We have been a significant contributor to the West Arnhem Land art movement’s sustainability. World recognition of our region’s art began 100 years when anthropologists Baldwin Spencer and Donald Thompson acquired works for museums and collections.

Our Bábbarra Women’s Centre artists are now world-famous. Their recent textile exhibitions in Paris attracted media accolades as they followed the ladies extraordinary journey to France.

However, the women have returned from Parisian fashion houses to their loved, but dilapidated, design space, which was initially built as a women’s refuge centre 35 years ago.

Their dream and aspirations to grow their importance as cultural ambassadors and community leaders crushed along with the plans for their new design home in our proposed art and culture precinct.

It is hard to articulate the devastation the community feels at having this dream dashed. Culturally it is difficult for some individuals to speak out or broadcast their personal views. Still, those of us living and working in the community understand that many critical cultural actions have been taking place.

For example, the new Djomi museum development was to house sacred items and human remains taken years ago. This repatriation program is under negotiation in response to new museum collecting practices and legislative changes in states such as Victoria.

So how is it, that despite all the rhetoric about local decision making and consultation, we have people we believe are culturally compromised, who don’t live here, who have not taken the time to respectfully observe and listen, do a fly-in, fly-out visit to Maningrida then make a decision that has such an enormous impact on our community?