BY ANNA FREELAND
In 1987, a group of promising young Indigenous artists banded together to form the Boomalli Aboriginal Arts Cooperative. Heralding from arts schools across Sydney, the 10 multidisciplinary art-makers set up shop in a shabby old warehouse in Chippendale which they gutted, swept, scrubbed and painted to host their very first show ‘Boomalli au go go’.
On 25 November, it will be 30 years since that first exhibition and, to celebrate, the Leichhardt-based gallery and cooperative is exhibiting a collection of works from its founding members, including internationally-acclaimed video and photographic artist Tracey Moffatt.
Proud Munanjali-Bundjalung woman Euphemia ‘Phemie’ Bostock is one of the original ‘Boomalli Ten’ and is also chair of the Boomalli Board.
“They wouldn’t let me be chairperson anywhere else,” she said, “but, I’m old! People always say it was started by 10 young people but actually it was nine young people and one middle-aged woman,” she laughed.
Established in 1987, the ‘Boomalli Ten’ founded the co-operative at a time when Phemie said, “No-one was interested in giving urban Aboriginal artists a space.
“All we wanted was somewhere we could workshop for ourselves. We had no plans to become a gallery, we just thought we’d have a party with the first exhibition to tell the community ‘we’re here’.”
The word ‘Boomalli’ means ‘to strike’ or ‘to raise a hand’ in three unique Indigenous language groups: Gamileroi, Bundjalung and Wiradjuri. Phemie says the sentiment speaks to the founding principles of the collective and remains part of their identity 30 years on.
“We wanted to show that we had things we wanted to paint about and to get urban Aboriginals’ work recognised,” said Phemie.
With the creation of the Aboriginal Arts Board under the Whitlam government, the group were given funding for an initial 12-month period.
We had nothing else except our energy,” Phemie said. “It was just pure tenacity.”
The textiles artist trained at Sydney College of the Arts and the former East Sydney Technical College, now the site of the National Art School, and said an emphasis on originality and diversity has always been part of Boomalli’s ethos.
“Everyone at Boomalli has their own style and we all support each other,” she said. “We’re a team. Boomalli is about community. We’re a family.”
Boomalli is the longest-running Indigenous arts cooperative in New South Wales. While they primarily showcase Sydney-based artists, the gallery also exhibits work from regional communities, giving lesser-known Indigenous artists the opportunity to be seen in the big smoke.
Over the past three decades, the co-operative has had its fair share of ups and downs. Just seven years ago, following cuts to funding and several forced relocations, Boomalli was on the verge of shutting its doors for good.
“It’s been a long seven years of saving the place,” Phemie said. “We had to learn about good governance through trial and error and working together.”
Largely thanks to the efforts of Bronwyn Bancroft, a fellow artist and one of the 10 co-founders of Boomalli, Phemie said they were able to save the gallery.
“Now we’re running. We’ve got a wonderful working team and Board of Directors.”
At 81 years old, Phemie is still making art and says she is most proud of the gallery’s survival.
“If you look at the world, it’s the artists, the writers, the poets and the art-makers that make the world a liveable place,” she said.
“So, it’s important that the government keeps supporting all art no matter where we come from,” but says, “We still don’t really get enough at Boomalli to run the place.”
“We’re still fighting for every penny we get.”
The Boomalli 30th anniversary exhibition is curated by Djon Mundine OAM and will run until late January 2018.