Could you imagine the Australian art scene existing without the following Aboriginal luminaries: Bronwyn Bancroft, Mervyn Bishop, Euphemia Bostock, Sheryl Conners, Brenda Croft, Destiny Deacon, Tracy Duncan, Fiona Foley, Gary Foley, Jenny Fraser, Adam Hill, Joe Hurst, Arone Raymond Meeks, Tracey Moffatt, Hetti Perkins, Avril Quaill, r e a, Michael Riley, Elaine Russell, Jeffrey Samuels and many more.
What do these people have in common apart from their Aboriginality? Boomalli Aboriginal Artists’ Cooperative. The innovation, professional development, and success of these artists and arts professionals can be directly attributed to this single organisation and its influence on the contemporary art world. The word “Boomalli” means “to strike back” (Kamilaroi), “to make a mark” (Wiradjuri) and “to light up” (Bundjalung), three Aboriginal languages of New South Wales. It is this fighting spirit that encapsulated the heady, exciting moment of Boomalli’s founding: in 1987, ten members of Sydney’s black avant-garde were determined to create and exhibit work on their own terms; to confront the lack of representation of urban Aboriginal art within the wider art scene; and to debunk predominant stereotypes of Aboriginality and aesthetic production. Since its inception, the Cooperative has played a critical role in gaining recognition and respect for the diversity of Indigenous history, visual culture, and artists—in Sydney and around the world.
The 22-year history is unique and quite remarkable. Highlights have included:
-Boomalli’s first funding was secured with the support of longtime activist Gary Foley, then-director of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council. Chicka Dixon and Lin Onus were also instrumental in establishing and maintaining Boomalli as an indispensable part of the art scene and political world of New South Wales. Boomalli was originally located in Chippendale due to its proximity to Redfern, with its large Indigenous population, to provide community access to gallery space. Over time, the Cooperative has moved west—first to improve and professionalize its gallery space, and then later with purposeful intent to better cater to and represent the movement west of Sydney’s Indigenous population.
-Boomalli au-go-go, the inaugural Boomalli show, was held in November 1987. It set a benchmark by acknowledging the reality of urban Aboriginal culture, forging a physical presence for urban Aboriginal artists within Redfern/Chippendale and greater Sydney. The exhibition was so successful—in terms of sales of work and in raising the profiles of the founding artists—that new artists immediately began approaching Boomalli for representation, support, and exhibition ideas.
-In 1988 Michael Riley’s film Boomalli: Five Koori Artists was commissioned by Film Australia and captured the dynamic energy of the Cooperative’s early years; it featured Bronwyn Bancroft, Fiona Foley, Arone Raymond Meeks, Tracey Moffatt, and Jeffrey Samuels, and footage from the launch of Boomalli au-go-go. In the film, the artists speak with heart and candour about the instrumental role of art and art-making in their personal lives, and in effecting real change in their urban context.
-ANCAA and Boomalli: Artworks Produced and Managed by Aboriginal People (ANCAA was the Association of Northern and Central Australian Aboriginal Artists, now known as the Association of Northern, Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists, or more commonly, ANKAA). This show featured Koori-Yolngu dialogue as vital to the development of a strong, unified Aboriginal art movement in the present and into the future, and included the works of Boomalli artists Bronwyn Bancroft, Euphemia Bostock, Fiona Foley, Fernanda Martins, Arone Raymond Meeks, Avril Quaill, Sheryl Parnell, Michael Riley, and Jeffrey Samuels.
-Regional artists were not forgotten by their urban brothers and sisters. Kempsey Koori Artists was held at Boomalli in 1988, featuring artists from the rural town of Kempsey in northern NSW. Initiated by Robert Campbell, Jr., it included his work as well as those of Milton Budge (Ngaku), Raymond Button, Mary Duroux, David Fernando (Gamilaroi), and Sharon Smith (Gumbaingger/Bundjalung). Moree Mob (1989) was an exhibition by 13 artists of Gomileroi country. The talents of 13 people: painters, carvers, dancers, and didgeridoo player were showcased, including Boomalli founding-member Michael Riley. Together, the Kempsey and Moree shows were very important as the very first to showcase and legitimise regional NSW artists.
-In the early 1990s, Fiona Foley was instrumental in elevating the profile of Boomalli. She created a training program for Aboriginal artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and curated two seminal exhibitions. In October 1991, Ian Abdulla (Ngarrindjeri) & Harry Wedge (Wiradjuri) paired two great, distinctive narrative painters living in rural communities (in SA and NSW, respectively). Abdulla’s work reflected memories of his early, itinerant life in the Riverland and Murray River region of SA. In November-December 1991, Kudjeris (meaning “women” in Northern Australia) featured the work of Destiny Deacon, Lisa Bellear, and Brenda Croft. Deacon’s work “blak lik mi” coined “blak” here in an effort of reclamation and affirmation of identity; and together, the work of these three artists highlighted the diversity of contemporary photographic practice.
-From 1992-1995, Boomalli was under the shared leadership of Brenda Croft (Manager) and Hetti Perkins (Exhibitions Coordinator/Curator), maintaining an extensive exhibition and events calendar, with in-house, touring, regional, national, and international projects operating simultaneously. During this period, Boomalli grew from being a community arts centre to being an internationally-recognized arts organization. Importantly, this transition was guided by Boomalli’s firm commitment to maintaining its status as a cooperative run by Aboriginal people for Aboriginal people.
-The 1993-1994 International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples was a high point in Boomalli’s operations. The events calendar was full to capacity for two years, including:
§ relocation to new premises (in Chippendale) that included a gallery, artists’ studio, slide and publications library, and archive;
§ securing of funds for four full-time staff;
§ organization of 14 in-house exhibitions, 9 exhibitions at other venues, 2 international exhibitions, and several international residencies;
§ hosting of international exchanges;
§ production of several publications; and
§ coordination of forums and events at Boomalli and elsewhere.
-Since the mid-nineties, significant Boomalli milestones have included: True Colours: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Artists Raise the Flag, an exhibition that toured for two years across Australia and the U.K. (1994-1996); fluent, Australia’s representation at the 1997 Venice Biennale (curated by Hetti Perkins, Brenda Croft, and Victoria Lynn and featuring Emily Kngwarreye, Judy Watson, and Yvonne Koolmatrie); Mum Shirl: The Sacred Trust of Memory (2000-2001; project managed and curated by Bronwyn Bancroft) a moving tribute to Aboriginal activist Shirley C. Smith (2000-2001); as well as annual members’ exhibitions and regular participation in Sydney’s Mardi Gras festivities.
Boomalli has launched the careers of several generations of Indigenous artists in Australia, leading their work to be represented by commercial galleries, collected by national institutions, and coveted by collectors across the globe. Boomalli alumna Tracey Moffatt now divides her time between Australia and New York City; avant-garde filmmaker and photographer, her work is now held in collections all over the world. The late Michael Riley’s work is held by the National Gallery of Australia, the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, as well as several high-profile private collections. Fiona Foley has gained a reputation as an international artist/academic; her challenging public artworks are on display in major public institutions in Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane, and in the next year alone, her work will be celebrated in a major retrospective at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art and Sydney’s Biennale. Longtime senior curators—Hetti Perkins of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and Brenda Croft (until this year, of the National Gallery of Australia) both began their careers as national and international cultural brokers from Boomalli. Bronwyn Bancroft is a successful painter whose work is collected nationally and internationally; she is also author/illustrator of 20 children’s books. Euphemia Bostock’s textiles are held by the National Gallery of Australia, and her designs have been reproduced on a national stamp. Arone Raymond Meeks has become well-known for his printmaking and etchings, melding traditional motifs with contemporary political issues; his work is held in collections in Argentina, Australia, the U.S.A., France, and Japan. Boomalli alumni Adam Hill, Joe Hurst, r e a , and Elaine Russell have all participated in international exhibitions, are represented by private commercial galleries, and now find themselves gaining much attention in the Australian contemporary art scene.
Boomalli has been fundamental to these artists’ growth, development, and success. As an institution, it has provided exhibition and studio space, as well as administrative support for artists’ participation in international and national competitions, arts awards, cross-cultural exchanges, and overseas residency programs. Boomalli has offered training and outreach to Indigenous artists from diverse backgrounds, including: gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender artists; artists in custody; young artists; Indigenous artists from overseas; and artists of colour. Perhaps most importantly, Boomalli has supplied a space for artists to engage with each other and make statements to a wider community about the inextricability of aesthetics and politics, the importance of art in effecting political change.
Challenging, confronting art—as well as productions that are arrestingly beautiful—made by Indigenous artists—has come to prominence, due in no small part to this small, courageous Cooperative. The diversity of Indigenous artists and the importance of telling their stories can no longer be denied—due to the tireless interventions of Boomalli members.
Boomalli has been in danger several times over this distinguished 22-year history—we’ve lost members, we’ve lost leases, governments have changed, funding has evaporated—but each time we’ve emerged, stronger and ever-more determined to provide a space and a voice for New South Wales Indigenous artists. The camaraderie and leadership of Boomalli must continue to guide artists through the complex landscape of Australian visual arts. There are more stories to tell, more changes to make, more work to be done. The fire in our bellies burns strong—but now we need more help.
We need to raise funds to safeguard the legacy and secure the future of this seminal organisation, and we can’t do it without your assistance: help us convince the press and the politicians that we are voices who still need to be heard, artists whose work must be seen.
For further information, and/or genuine offers to help, do not hesitate to contact us: