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Issue #1582      February 20, 2013

Fears for future of Dumbartung

Who will stand up for Nyoongah culture? That is the question being asked by Nyoongah man Robert Eggington, who for more than 20 years has led the Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation and its renowned Kyana Gallery in Perth.

Selina and Robert Eggington and Nyoongah Elder John Pell inside Dumbartung’s Kyana Gallery. (Photo: Koori Mail)

Mr Eggington says Dumbartung, which operates out of the old Catholic orphanage (Clontarf) in the suburb of Waterford, is potentially just months – if not weeks – from closure as its current funding peters out with little word of more.

For the past year, the grassroots organisation has survived on a one-off community grant from Lotterywest and funds from a tender under Redress WA to record the stories of adults seeking ex-gratia payments for abuse and/or neglect suffered while they were in state care.

Part of the Lotterywest grant was put towards development of a business plan to help Dumbartung use its resources in an income-generating, sustainable way.

The business planning consultants are due to report at the end of this week, but Mr Eggington is apprehensive about what may lay ahead.

“If Dumbartung isn’t funded through the responsibilities of government heritage and cultural maintenance, we would have to go overseas to get access to the money needed to keep this asset going,” he told the Koori Mail newspaper.

“Within that lies an absolutely shameful hypocrisy of the fact that the state and federal governments do not see the preciousness of the Kyana Gallery, an asset they should feel privileged to fund.”

Dumbartung began as an advocacy and cultural body, hosting the famous Kyana Aboriginal Cultural Festivals of the early 1990s.

Over time, its scope has morphed to encompass campaigning for human rights, protection of Aboriginal intellectual property (including a fight against the fabrication of stories in American author Marlo Morgan’s controversial book Mutant Message Down Under), repatriation of cultural material, educational and cross-cultural programs reaching thousands of schoolchildren and adults, and prison art activities.

Some of its most important work centres on healing the grief and loss experienced by Aboriginal women, through a program conducted by Robert’s wife Selina, and other activities conducted with Nyoongah youth around substance abuse, identity, and suicide prevention.

The Kyana Gallery is a cultural, totally non-commercial enterprise that is home to thousands of Nyoongah and other items donated and acquired over time, including rare artefacts (some of which have been repatriated from domestic and overseas collecting institutions), artworks including some by the late Revel Cooper and other famed artists from Carrolup in the state’s south-west, “bookahs” (Nyoongah kangaroo cloaks), historical photos and records, and much more. None of these items are for sale.

Mr Eggington said that some items in the gallery’s non-public keeping room were thousands of years old; so ancient that the ceremonies they were used for no longer existed.

However, the conditions within the gallery are far from ideal. Its floor is uneven, the roof leaks when it rains and there’s no temperature or climate control, which means some of the gallery’s contents are continually at risk.

A few years back, the Gallery was recognised by the National Library of Australia (NLA), the National Archives and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet as nationally significant.

Museum consultants Dr Brian Shepherd and Paul Bridges have assessed the significance of Dumbartung and its collections.

“It is clear that it is one of considerable local, state, national and international significance when understood within its institutional context,” the pair said in their 2011 report.

Their recommendations referred to “the need to harness the collection within recognised professional museum practice to ensure that its worth can be more widely understood and passed to future generations”.

Dumbartung and the Kyana Gallery also have the support of a cross-section of the community, from Nyoongah people to respected child health expert and 2003 Australian of the Year Professor Fiona Stanley and activist journalist John Pilger.

Over time, they have hosted and won the admiration of the Dalai Lama, folk singer Bob Dylan, the late Johnny Cash, who visited with his late wife June Carter and actor Kris Kristofferson, and British punk band Prodigy.

But all of this will matter little unless Dumbartung gets thrown a lifeline, and quick.

Behind the scenes, some suggest that Nyoongah culture is too hot a topic for the WA Liberal government, which is currently negotiating with the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council (SWALSC) over a rumoured $1 billion native title settlement.

There’ve been vocal, highly-charged protests against the would-be deal, with much of the dissent coming from a Noongar Tent Embassy established on Heirisson Island (Matagarup) in the Swan River on the city centre outskirts.

“Our story, our way”

“This all comes down to one very, very important human right and that is Aboriginal people’s human right to start throughout those collections to archive, maintain and interpret our story, our way, in relation to the significance of what is the oldest living culture on the most ancient land mass on the face of the Earth,” Mr Eggington said.

“And what has become a worldwide interest not in going into tourist shops and buying pretty dot-dot painting or watching a dance group in an auditorium but learning about the real history and culture through bastions of culture like Kyana.

“The story tellers are Aboriginal people because for far too long our story has been told by non-Aboriginal professionals like anthropologists, social workers and more.”

A comment on the future of Dumbartung and the Kyana Gallery was sought from WA’s Minister for Culture and the Arts, John Day, but none was received by the time of printing.

The Labor Opposition’s spokesman for Culture and the Arts, and Heritage John Hyde told the Koori Mail that WA Labor recognised “the importance of Nyoongah culture and values efforts by Nyoongah Elders and stakeholders to preserve and celebrate our indigenous culture”.

He said he was disappointed the government had not done more to research and promote the Carrolup and other Nyoongah artists, or lobby the Commonwealth effectively for a national Indigenous museum to be based in WA. However, Mr Hyde did not comment specifically on Dumbartung or the Kyana Gallery.

Mr Eggington said that numerous government ministers and politicians had visited the Kyana Gallery during the past few years, including federal School Education Minister Peter Garrett, federal Liberal MP Joe Hockey, state Aboriginal Affairs Minister Peter Collier, and Deputy Premier Dr Kim Hames.

“They have seen the value of the gallery and have all said upon their departure ‘we will ensure that Dumbartung will continue,’ ” he said.

“They all leave promising the earth but you never get a grain of sand back.”

Koori Mail  

Selina and Robert Eggington and Nyoongah Elder John Pell inside Dumbartung’s Kyana Gallery.

Next article – 30th Southern Cross Brigade to Cuba

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