The Laarri Gallery is in the small community of Yiyili, an hour or so’s drive west of Fitzroy Crossing in, at this time of year anyway, the dry and hot heart of the Kimberley. A short drive down a rolling dirt road through rocky hills takes you to Yiyili and signs direct you to the gallery carpark near to the Yiyili School.
As you step out of the car a number of large murals in an open shed tell of the history of the town and region and the Gooniyandi people that live and work there.
The gallery is in a large and airy room next to the work room where there are usually a few artists working on paintings or artefacts, sitting in the cool with a cup of tea and a yarn, grinding up some local ochres for use in a painting or looking after the kids in the school tuckshop next door.
Inside the gallery there are a large number of paintings, wooden artefacts, painted Boab nuts and a selection of books and publications, including the captivating “Know your Granny” a history of the area in words and pictures that is dedicated to:
…our young people. Know your granny and be proud. In memory of Frank Cox – a respected elder who contributed much towards this book; to his family and his community.
The Foreword is written by the widely regarded artist and community elder Mervyn Street:
Since I was a little kid I’ve been told these stories by my granny and my mother; of how it was since the Kartiya (non-Aboriginal people) came to our country. We need to write it down, draw and paint pictures, while this old man (Frank Cox) and this old woman (Penny Mudeling) and all of us remember. Young people, like Big John, can write songs and music about our history. If we don’t tell it and write it down, no-one will know when we are gone.”
The very useful and informative Australian Art Collector Magazine’s Aboriginal Art Centres Guide says that the Laarri Gallery is:
…a hidden gem in the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia, is situated in Yiyili Aboriginal Community between Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing, just 5 km off the Great Northern Highway. Laarri Gallery was established in a collaboration between Yiyili Community School and Yiyili Community Aboriginal Corporation in 1999. The goal of Laarri Gallery is to provide a place for local artists to work and a space to show. Like other art centres, the money raised from artwork sales goes directly back into the community, not only supporting the artists, but the community at large.
Local knowledge of bush tucker and bush medicine have also become integral themes of Yiyili and Laarri art. The community has produced two award winning artists to date and has fostered the telling of Gooniyandi stories and dreaming through art.
The gallery is open during Western Australian school term dates (appointments are necessary during term one). The gallery offers a large number of paintings, as well as locally produced books and postcards. All paintings come with a story of the work, an artist profile and a certificate of authenticity. Laarri and Yiyili art is unique in the Indigenous art world, there is sure to be something to catch your eye!
Yiyili is a local service centre for the small homelands of Ganinya, Goolgaradah, Kurinyjarn, Moongardie, Pullout Springs and Rocky Springs. Yiyili is on an excision from the once very large Louisa Downs Station which is now owned and operated by locals.
Yiyili has a vibrant and active independent school where the language spoken by all the children and a large majority of the adults is Kriol. Gooniyandi is the traditional language, however, there are only a few fluent speakers in the community and they are elderly people.
The following comes from the website of the Western Australian Aboriginal Independent Schools:
Yiyili was established in 1981. People had left the station earlier when equal pay issues faced non-Aboriginal station owners and Aborigines were told to leave cattle stations. When people returned, they lived in shelters on the edge of the Margaret River. They also did mustering and fencing on Louisa Downs in return for a space on their traditional land. The school and the community were established simultaneously and a mobile Kindy teacher was employed to conduct classes in a bough shed. In 1986 Yiyili was granted an excision allowing permanent housing and a school building to be erected. A teacher house was built in 1986 and then another in 1988. During 1989 Louisa Downs Station was handed back to the Cox family. It was purchased by ATSIC and leased to the Community for 99 years. The Station employs people from Yiyili and they are mainly members of the Cox family. During 1990 a building that houses the Clinic and the Store was built. A Community Office building was erected in 1996. The Store is owned by the people of Yiyili. A Doctor visits the Community fortnightly and every other fortnight a Community Health Worker visits the Community.