When I saw photos of Broome, I assumed they were edited, that the turquoise water and rich reds of the pindan earth had been turned up a notch to dazzle in tourism brochures.
In real life, the colours are brighter. I spent my first few days on Yawuru Country in a daze, enchanted by the landscape. Then I listened to people’s stories and began to understand Western Australia’s Kimberley region as one of the world’s truly unique places, rich in story, culture, and beauty.
When you walk in the door of the Nagula Jarndu Arts Centre the colours and the shapes of Country radiate back at you. It’s a women’s space, and you can feel it. After browsing textiles, jewellery and handmade candles and soaps infused with local bush medicines, I took a seat on the couch and chatted with artists while they block printed fabrics.
Nagula Jarndu evolved from a women’s resource centre established in 1987 by Yawuru women. Today, it has a membership of 120 Indigenous women and is governed by seven Yawuru women directors.
Sherena Bin Hitam is a director of the organisation, an employee and an artist. She tells me her story:
‘Nagula Jarndu was started by our mothers, our aunts and our grandmothers, as a place where Aboriginal women in Broome can come to share their culture and stories.
‘Jaogerie is my Bush name, I carry this name forward from one of my elders. In late 2020 I got involved again with Nagula Jarndu through a Covid response program, making soaps to send out to community. I then commenced providing help with grant submissions and doing financial and administration work. In 2021, I joined the board as I felt I could contribute as a director and work with the other sisters to sustain its governance commitments. Whilst working daily, my Liyan (spirit) felt strong and inspired, so I decided, to give myself this time to do my art. I wanted to join Nagula Jarndu for a long time since I was younger, but art was always second to working and being a mum.
Like many of us aboriginal women, we’re always running around, looking after everyone else and often forget to look after our own interest too. We make excuses; tell ourselves art is too expensive, or I don’t have time. I have discovered block printing is my retreat. It is a simple form of art, the materials are affordable, and it keeps my mind in a positive space and my Liyan happy and strong. From my lived experience and learnings is to “be me”, give myself and work towards peace, calm, and happiness because only I can. For me, block printing does just that.
As a technique, block printing can be done with linocuts – carving your design onto linoleum sheets – or on compressed Styrofoam. We at Nagula Jarndu keep it simple, and sweet. This type of art offers ease to transport, set up and do, hence we do block printing workshops at Nagula Jarndu for private groups or go to remote communities and skill share with other women.
My Jiidid design represents the whirlpool in my Bardi Jawi Country. I have had a strong resonation with this natural phenomenon and of the sea (Gaarra) like many Bardi Jawi people appreciating and respecting its power and accustomed to living with. I have likened this to; “as we go through life, we go through whirlpools, and they test our strength to deal with things”. My Liyan is strong because I feel I’ve been tested, but I came out the other side much stronger. When you go through hardship going back to Buru (country) to make your Liyan strong again allows you to appreciate life better and the people around you. That’s why the Jiidid design resonates with me. As an Aboriginal woman we have a role to carry on stories to the next generation. Like other Aboriginal artists, I like telling stories through my art or sharing my culture and knowledge of country.
My Aboriginal heritage is strong, but I have mixed heritage with Malay and English. Growing up in Broome has given me a foundation and appreciation of different cultures. My maternal line is the Bardi and Jawi people from the Dampier Peninsular north of Broome, my father (Gabriel Dolby) was a Malaysian who came to Broome as an indentured labourer in 1950’s to work in the pearling industry. I have six biological siblings, but at the age of two, I was given to be raised by my dad’s sister and her husband – Alberta and Jack McKenna. They gave me a home full of love, 10 more siblings, learning about and connection to Yawuru country, and families in Broome. My mother felt it was best for me as my dad was in the leprosarium, 50km out of Derby.
Like many people in the Kimberley who had leprosy they were quarantined, dad spent most of his 84 years of his life there. Only adults were allowed to visit their families, so mum would leave us in the bush amusing ourselves – but hiding from authorities – two big hills away and they would bring dad and the uncles to see us in secret.
My dad was very artistic, I think I absorbed painting, carving and crafts skills from him. Every school holiday going to Derby me, and my sisters would help dad sand, scrape or shave bullock horns, shells or boab nuts to make carvings. He was a master of creating a shark out of a bullock horn. I had the onus to collect periwinkle shells for the eyes and turtle shells from families on the Dampier Peninsula to make the fins. My dad was an artist in his own right, he carved boab nuts, he painted, and he always gave them away. In 1979, as the head girl, I presented (then) Prince Charles with a book about Broome, and a cousin in Derby presented one of dad’s sharks to Prince Charles, who is the King of England, now. I want to help people and be creative like him.
I look forward to the thought of being a part of a social enterprise that helps other women to realise their dream or establish a level of independence. At Nagula Jarndu, we strive to give our members and artists something that can help build their Liyan and make them strong. Mum and Dad always looked after people and we would hear often “There is always someone less fortunate, if someone need help or food we should provide” – their home was open to everybody. Growing up our house was always full of visitors, to this day we have many of non-Indigenous and other cultures of family because Mum and Dad embraced everyone.
We carry on their legacy at Nagula Jarndu and in our homes today – to look after people, welcome them to the family, to the table, to our home. We should always give more than we take.’