RMIT Gallery's two distinct exhibitions of indigenous art of remote Western Australia attracted a capacity audience on opening night.
More than 700 guests, including many indigenous artists represented in the exhibitions, celebrated the opening of Warlayirti: The Art of Balgo and Garnkiny: Constellations of Meaning last week.
Stories of Christianity entwined with the mission history of Balgo from Warlayirti Artists provided a contrast to the Gija narrative of Dreaming Moon man from the neighbouring Warmun Art Centre.
The Welcome to Country was performed by Colin Hunter, Elder of the Wurundjeri Tribe Council, and was followed by a didge performance by Jesse Gardiner.
Special guest The Most Rev Christopher A Saunders DD, Bishop of Broome, spoke of the stories of history and faith that are so beautifully revealed in Warlayirti Artists' works.
The two exhibitions were opened by Tony Ellwood, Director of the National Gallery of Victoria.
He said they provided audiences with a "very big story" and the opportunity to see two distinct approaches to art from similar areas.
"These intricate connections between country, nature and the people who inhabit it reveal an intrinsic love for ancestral land and these two exhibitions pay homage to that," Mr Ellwood said.
"The works are powerful expressions of indigenous culture."
Distinguished by the exuberant use of pure colour, the works in Warlayirti: The Art of Balgo, curated by Dr Jacqueline Healy examine the importance of Christianity to the Balgo community as a means of cross-cultural communication.
The more subdued locally-sourced ochre paint that predominates in the exhibition Garnkiny: Constellations of Meaning features a series of paintings on one Gija narrative by some of Warmun's most revered artists.
Curated by Adam Boyd, Anna Crane and Alana Hunt, the story of Garnkiny's travels across a vast expanse of Gija country and concerns some of the most serious tenets of Gija Law and most primary of human experiences; death and mortality, love and sex, jealousy and desire, transgression and obligation.
RMIT Gallery Director Suzanne Davies said the exhibitions revealed a deep spirituality connected to the land and the publications available for both exhibitions continued the theme of telling stories.
Ms Davies praised the lengthy research carried out by Dr Healy, who had spent seven years travelling to Balgo initially as part of her doctoral research, and recorded the history of the formation of Warlayirti Artists from its beginnings in 1981 at the Adult Education Centre, to what has become an important art movement.
The Pallottine Mission was established near Balgo in the late 1930s as a buffer for indigenous people against the onslaught of pastoralism and mining.
Although the community achieved self-determination and government in 1980s, it kept an ongoing relationship with the Catholic Church within the community.
Dr Healy said that the early church banners painted by Senior Men, which are now on display at RMIT Gallery for the first time since 1981, exemplify the power of this relationship which continues today.
"These banners were painted on calico with poster paint in the Adult Education Centre at Balgo, utilising materials available in the community at the time.
It was a most significant gesture to Father Piele, and in these collaborative works each Senior Man revealed his country," she said.
"The artists with us at the opening were young men who assisted back in 1981.
"It was quite emotional for them to see the banners restored and displayed at RMIT Gallery."
Warlayirti: The Art of Balgo and Garnkiny: Constellations of Meaning are on at RMIT Gallery until Saturday, 8 November.