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April 23, 2024

Storylines – Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative

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This article is made possible by the support of Ninbella Gallery.

♦ Budgeram means story in Bundjalung language.

Thirty-five years ago, ten Aboriginal artists gathered to create an Aboriginal Artists Co-operative in Sydney, the place of first point of contact with the English in 1788, when Captain Cook proclaimed that the land was now England’s and all black people can bugger off! There are historical notes that inform us that Cook’s instructions, from British High Command, were to take possession ‘with the consent of the Natives’. As we all know this never happened and the murderous tentacles of self-righteousness and greed infiltrated our country.

Smallpox was introduced and decimated many of the Gadigal people and from that point on the imperious English stole our family’s lives and our country. They worked assiduously to destroy any cultural knowledge and history and replace that with Christianity, with clothing to cover the human body, and murder of black people went unchecked and was widespread. My own family/clan members were massacred in 1840 under the direction of the British Command at Nogrigar Creek in our traditional land outside of Grafton. Even writing this down fills me with sadness. 

Founding Members of Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative. Photo Margaret Olah

Fast forward to 1987, when ten artists decided to work together as a group to leverage and dispel many naïve impressions held by non-Aboriginal commentators about our art, our lives and our history. The ten Boomalli founding member artists were Michael Riley (dec.), Fiona Foley, Tracey Moffatt, Brenda L Croft, Arone Raymond Meeks (dec.), Fernanda Martens, Jeffrey Samuels, Avril Quaill, Euphemia Bostock and Bronwyn Bancroft. We came from many different language groups and all had a passion to create. Our first exhibition ‘Boomalli Au Go Go’ was held at 18 Meagher St, Chippendale in Sydney on 25 November 1987 and was opened by legendary journalist, John Newfong. 

Our challenges were many as we confronted a lack of commitment by many to learn about our cultures and connections. We all had strong links to our families. The gross interrogation by many about our Aboriginality was not only repulsive but indicative of a non-Aboriginal narrative that has been written by the British since they came here. As is often stated ‘the victor writes the history!’. I am so proud of my peers and the work they have contributed over many decades to move the ignorance that prevailed through a white lens. 

Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative celebrates its 35th year in 2022, but within that anniversary milestone are the tears, pain, success, turmoil and hard work that is always embedded in being a survivor as an organisation. Many Aboriginal artists have benefited from the presence of Boomalli and I cannot imagine a world where it might not have existed. The existence of Boomalli has provided opportunities for so many artists to have their art, stories and history appreciated without having the conflict of their relevance, integrity and authenticity being challenged constantly by outsiders who never delved into the dark history of Australia’s unlawful dispossession by the British. All this history is artfully documented by many squatters in homestead journals, but carefully written to disguise the full force of brutality that is now known as the Frontier Wars.

When we were embarking on our art journey in 1987, we faced a lot of resistance to our work, but on the flipside we had many amazing supporters and friends amongst the non-Aboriginal community who worked hard to be our allies. Michael Riley (dec.) was behind the impetus to set up Boomalli (in the languages of the Bundjalung, Gamilaroi and Wiradjuri, Boomalli means to strike; to make a mark) and went to state our case with the then Director of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council, Mr Gary Foley and Chairperson, Uncle Chicka Dixon. This meeting resulted in Boomalli securing funds for rent at the Meagher Street space. It was a monumental moment for this fledgling group and laid the foundation for all of us to learn about how to run an exhibition space and all that this entailed. Boomalli will be celebrating its 35th year of existence on 25 November at our Flood St Gallery in Leichhardt, Sydney.

My passion as a founding member of this co-operative has been to contribute to its survival for other Aboriginal artists so that the opportunities to showcase their work and to be able to sustain themselves and their families through the creation of art are there. This has been pivotal in me still being involved as the senior strategist. I have volunteered for the last 13 years to save the Co-operative from financial turmoil, imminent closure by government officials and the possibility of eviction by the then Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. A small group of us withstood the pressure by external forces to fold and through the maze of bureaucratic intricacies and bullying by outsiders we have survived.

Boomalli now focuses on artists from language groups within the state-based border of New South Wales and we are thriving. Our space at 55–59 Flood St Leichhardt is fully renovated with solar panels and three gallery spaces (however, we still do not have airconditioning). We have 59 members and a strong program of external and internal exhibitions, all with a skeletal part-time staff of four. We rely on volunteers to assist us and always acknowledge with gratitude their contribution in support of our artists. We have recently achieved Deductible Gift Recipient Status and will be working hard next year to build philanthropic donations to help assist with staff wages. Our lives are bound by grant applications that are year-by-year so the threat of imminent closure is only relieved when we receive news of a successful application. You would think that a place like Boomalli should be fully supported for at least a three-year period, but that is not the case. 

This is a brief article and in no way illuminates the victories and losses over this 35 year period, but something to be mindful of is that the Aboriginal people of NSW were the first colonised and last to be recognised – and that should always be remembered as we are survivors and our art is our storytelling.

Dr Bronwyn Bancroft. Photo Sharon Hickey.

Dr Bronwyn Bancroft is a proud Bundjalung woman and artist.

Bronwyn started creating from the age of seven, growing up in Tenterfield in Northern NSW. Her professional career as an artist began following her graduation from the Canberra School of Arts in 1980.

Bronwyn’s career has included both national and international exhibitions. Her work has been acquired by all major Australian galleries, state libraries and private collections.

Bronwyn’s contribution to Indigenous children’s literature has been immense and has included the publication of 43 books.

Bronwyn is a Founding Member of Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative, established in 1987, and has been the Co-operative’s volunteer senior strategist since 2009. Bronwyn also offers her extensive expertise as a Board member/Director of Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME), Australian Society of Authors, and the Commonwealth Bank Indigenous Advisory Council.

Bronwyn has a Diploma of Visual Arts from Canberra School of Art , two Masters degrees (Studio Practice and Visual Art) and a Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Sydney.

Bronwyn received the University of Sydney’s Alison Bush Graduate Medal for her contribution to the Indigenous Community and is the recipient of the inaugural NSW Aboriginal Creative Fellowship at the State Library of New South Wales.

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  1. An heroic journey – Happy 35th.
    But Ms Bancroft really needs to distinguish between Lieut Cook (in 1770) and Governor Phillip in 1788.
    Cook proclaimed New South Wales in the Torres Strait (on Possession Island!) while it was Phillip who was instructed to take possession ‘with the consent of the Natives’.
    PS – wasn’t Hetti Perkins a founding member?


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