Inside Injalak Arts, the tiny art centre that used the internet to become a global sensation
Felicity Wright is the mentor manager at the West Arnhem arts centre. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
Injalak Arts, the Indigenous art centre in the heart of Gunbalanya, can be cut off for months when surrounding floodplains rise each wet season.
But technology is keeping it connected with a growing worldwide audience, mainly through the social media apps on your mobile phone.
The institution is one of a number of remote art centres across the Northern Territory whose work appears in social media feeds regularly.
“I remember being at Injalak when we had one Mac, no internet connection, barely a phone line and we were lucky when the fax was working,” the centre’s mentor manager Felicity Wright said.
Ms Wright managed the centre from 1991 to 1995 and was convinced to take up the post again in 2013.
The centre had several Facebook pages, most of them neglected, and Instagram was a distant thought.
“I started looking at how we could use Facebook and I found when we just shared stories of what was happening and we told a story, we got this incredible response,” Ms Wright said.
The community is home to about 1,100 people and is isolated by floodwater for several months each year. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
“You can do something that’s pretty innovative and interesting, take a photo, put it online, tell the story, and suddenly 3,000 people are aware.”
Today, the centre’s social media following reaches well into the tens of thousands.
Its prints are well-known enough to be recognised by many who pass them on any given Top End street.
And an online store it uses to sell textiles and woven wares has garnered hundreds of glowing reviews.
But balancing worldwide popularity with the demands of the centre can be a double-edged sword.
Beginnings in a dusty shed
When Benson Nagurrgurrba, the centre’s co-manager, helped open it in 1988, the roads weren’t sealed, the centre’s screenprinting table was half the length it is now and an old shed poorly shielded the art.
“Dust used to go into our material — we used to cook it first and then wash it,” Mr Nagurrgurrba said.
“[Back then] people didn’t really know about Injalak.”
Today, anywhere between 20 and 60 local artists might turn up daily and work at their own pace as they paint, weave or screenprint.
Indigenous men and women screenprint on alternate days: women on Tuesdays and Thursdays, men on the other weekdays, and whoever wins the argument on Saturdays — enthusiasm is so large.
The growth of the centre has been hand in hand with its embrace of the internet as more people notice the work they do and invest in it.
As Ms Wright explained, the online popularity partly came down to the young people who have worked at the centre, as well as collaborative initiatives such as the one that saw materials regularly shipped to Cambodia for ethical manufacture.
Isaac Girrabul is one of many artists making the art centre is a hub of activity. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
“Now everybody knows about Injalak today,” Mr Nagurrgurrba said.
“That’s why we’ve got big mob tourists who come and see our painting.”
Tiny art centre goes viral
It has been an occasionally steep learning curve.
Early last year a social media video compiled by Art Insider surprised Injalak when it went viral overnight, racking up 8.4 million views and immense outside interest.
“They’re a social media content generator; I didn’t even know what that was,” Ms Wright recalled.
“They came to us at the end of 2016 and said: ‘Are you interested, if we take some of your digital videos, are you OK with that?'”
At Ms Wright’s request, the social media page withheld publication until they were ready at the end of the wet season — except for one oversight.
She woke up to find about 42,000 hits on the centre’s online store which the video linked to.
“The joke was, of course, we’d been thinking Australia — our market is Australia. We had no shipping settings for international.”
Popularity not always a good thing
Now, the centre fields emails proposing major collaborative projects two or three times a week, sent by anyone from the BBC to delegates from Singapore with an interest in rock art.
“We’re getting a lot of love and that can be a challenge to manage,” Ms Wright said.
She recalled another story that illustrated the clash of immense outside interest in their work and the conditions governing access to it in real life.
A group of New Yorkers embarked on a trip that was many phone calls and emails in the making, only to find they couldn’t pass the flooded crossing that cuts off the community for many months of the year.
“It takes hours to prepare for that,” Ms Wright said.
Eight-metre lengths of fabric are screenprinted with distinct, vibrant designs every day. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
“We have to work out what would accord with what the board of directors imagines that the purpose of Injalak is and what the aims for the organisation to help the community are,” arts worker Alex Ressel said.
“But our challenge is we’re the whitefellas who know the marketing, we know the consumers, because the consumers are not Indigenous,” Ms Wright added.
“Every time Alex or I are sitting at our laptops, answering our phones or on Skype meetings preparing for something, is hours we’re not generating income.”