Across the breadth of China, children explore Aboriginal dot painting in art galleries. Meanwhile, back in the remote Warburton community, a group of Ngaanyatjarra children draw the Chinese symbols ‘Ni Hao Zhong Guo’ (‘Hello, China’).
It is hard to imagine the meeting of two more different worlds, but these snapshots illustrate an extraordinary cultural odyssey that has seen Western Australian Indigenous art become the largest touring exhibition ever to visit China.
The show, Tu Di Shen Ti, or Our Land, Our Body: Masterworks of the Warburton Collection, has drawn huge crowds – over 500,000 visitors.
How has this masterstroke been carried off by a tiny settlement of 750 people in central WA?
The China mission was the idea of Warburton’s art curator Gary Proctor. On a 2008 visit to Shanghai, he got talking with an Austrade official about taking Warburton’s cultural heritage out to the world.
Since 1989, Warburton’s artists have adopted a strict cultural policy of keeping their best artworks, many of which could now sell for large sums. As artist Lalla West describes it: “We store it, put it away for our children.”
Proctor says the result is that “we have more than 1000 works in the Warburton collection, making it the largest collection of Aboriginal art held by an Indigenous community in the world. But no one knows about it and it’s time that changed.”
Backed by major sponsor Rio Tinto – and assisted by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the WA government, Healthway, and Art on the Move – the Warburton community vowed to make China a portal to international exposure, and a possible route to future sources of tourist income.
“The question was how to introduce Australian Indigenous culture to a self-referential civilisation like China,” says Proctor. “We decided to try taking the finest Warburton works to several major museums. We started with Shanghai, then Beijing’s top contemporary art venue, Today Art Museum. Then several more second-tier cities came forward.”
During 2011-12, the exhibition toured galleries in eastern China, followed by a tour of western China in 2013-14. It will draw to a close in August.
Warburton’s success has been phenomenal – and rare among foreign art institutions, many of which have baulked at the logistical hurdles posed by touring art in China.
Proctor says his secret weapon has been his wife, Zhou Ling Ling, who is the exhibition project manager. He also had every letter, every document and a free educational guide book translated into Mandarin. It has given thousands of Chinese schoolchildren and their teachers access to stories of the Dreaming and concepts like dot painting.
But the most powerful tool has been the all-embracing nature of Our Land, Our Body; it gives viewers a tangible taste of life in outback Australia.
Large canvasses are carefully pinned directly on the walls, alongside genealogy maps, thousands of snapshots taken by Warburton schoolchildren and text by senior community members. A 20-track audio-visual display brings desert sounds and sights – from rippling grasses to red dirt – to people living in some of China’s
most congested cities.
When the exhibition returns home, Proctor says work will begin on upgrading tourism facilities and creating job opportunities. Chinese tourism is on the rise, he says, and local road routes connect Warburton to Uluru and Alice Springs.
“The China shows have created a new way of thinking about Warburton community in the world. We’re seeing new opportunities and, whereas before there was despair, for the first time I can see some stars to steer by into the future.”