23 November, 2017
A conversation between Amina McConvell and Alana Hunt
Amina McConvell is an artist, curator, and community arts worker who lives in Darwin and often enables cross-cultural exchanges between artists in the Northern Territory and South East Asia in her role as the creative producer of Asia in Darwin. Amina also works at Darwin Community Arts as the creative producer of Arts Access Darwin and is the founder and director of the Free Space Studio a visual arts studio for artists with intellectual disabilities in Darwin. Since 2010 Amina has worked closely with Yolngu artist Annie Moors whose first solo exhibition will open at Blak Dot in Melbourne on the 23rd of November. (You can hear Annie talking about her work with Amina on the audio link below.)
I am interested in the intervention Amina’s work has made into the space that normally divides contemporary and community art in the north of Australia. Like many artists today, Amina’s practice is diverse in the way it incorporates art making, curation, administration and education. In some ways this is by choice and in other ways by necessity. But it is an example of how many artists are redefining the way they are able to sustain a living and continue to do what they believe in and feel passionate about. I wanted to learn a little more, so I invited Amina to a conversation.
Alana Hunt: Can you start by telling me about how you and Annie began working together?
Amina McConvell: I have been working with Annie since 2010. My role is to support Annie's studio development and support her to further her career as an artist. We met through the Life Without Barriers—Community Pathways Program, and then when I started Free Space Studio at Darwin Community Arts in 2013 she joined the studio collective.
AH: So what exactly is Free Space Studio? And why did you feel the need to establish it?
AM: Free Space Studio is a visual arts space for artists with intellectual disabilities. It functions somewhat like an artists’ collective. The studio is all about independent practice, skills development and providing professional development for artists—exhibitions, publications, involvement in festivals etc. There was nothing like that in Darwin before we started.
AH: This shift from ‘community arts’ to ‘professional artist’ feels significant. I want to understand a little more about your perspective on the space, or the line, dividing community arts and professional art practice, and how you have negotiated, perhaps even defied it. In your experience is there a line here? Is the line valid?
AM: The community element of the studio is essential. The studio sits within Darwin Community Arts, which is a space for community practice and is not specifically about professional outcomes. Many of the people who share the studio have been working together for years now, and the setting gives artists the opportunity to collaborate on projects or work independently at different times. However, Free Space Studio has its own objectives. One of them is to support professional practice for participating artists. To my mind theirs is a professional practice in the sense that they are artists working on new bodies of work, developing concepts, exhibiting regularly, developing a CV, applying for grants, traveling to exhibit, undertaking residencies etc. Yet the artists at Free Space Studio have intellectual disabilities that can create significant barriers to the kinds of professional outcomes that you and I have access to. Our role is to advocate for the artists in the collective so that there is closer to equal participation.
AH: And this emerged from your earlier work with Life Without Barriers and their Community Pathways Program. Did you see a need for professional opportunities? Were the artists requesting something more at this point? Something different?
AM: The Community Pathways Program is a day centre and art is present, but it was an activity to pass time. People were doing amazing work, but it seemed like they needed to be given the recognition they deserved. In practical terms this meant funding for access to quality art materials, a studio space in which to develop new work and regular exhibition outcomes in mainstream contemporary art spaces.
AH: Free Studio Space began in 2013, so how many people are part of the collective now?
AM: There are 21 artists at present, many of whom are original members. And they come to the studio through the Life Without Barriers community pathways program, Carpentaria Disability Services and the NT Office of The Public Guardian.
AH: It sounds like a beautiful atelier, not entirely dissimilar to the way Aboriginal art centres exist in a cross over between a thriving community space accompanied by world class professional practice. Did Aboriginal art centres have any influence on the way Free Space Studio was envisioned?
AM: I hadn't thought of that, but you are right, there are similarities in the crossovers of the functions of the studio space and our effort to support professional development through solo and group exhibitions. And this professionalism was our point of departure from art being used as an activity to just pass the time.
AH: Let's talk about Annie's practice. You must have a pretty solid relationship now, having worked together since 2010. Is her show with Blak Dot the first solo exhibition outside of Darwin for a member of the collective?
AM: Yes, Annie is the first Free Studio Space artist to undertake a solo show interstate. It's a big step and its very exciting.
Annie and I are very close. We have a professional relationship but we are also old friends. Annie is a Yolngu artist from Millingimbi who has grown up in Darwin. Her work is almost all figurative and focuses on her family and her family relationships to Yolngu totems, as well as depictions of her friends and carers. To me, Annie's work touches on some deep and sometimes dark subject matter related to life and death, love and loss, and memories of ancestors. But it is also about day-to-day situations and places that are significant to her in Darwin, like the flats where she grew up and the public buses that she often rides.
Annie's work is also entwined with pop-culture, and she often paints her mother Nancy and her father John. Self-portraits are also a recurring theme. It is worth noting that Annie’s father is from Sydney and of European descent and her Mother is a Yolngu lady from Milingimbi. This mixed cultural influence plays a big part in Annie's practice and informs how she navigates her ideas of identity. The body of work for the Blak Dot show took 12 months to complete and spans much of the subject matter I’ve mentioned.
The exhibition is one part of a larger project that Annie has undertaken with the support of the Australia Council which has included solo studio practice, a public art project with Darwin based street artist David Collins that featured at the 2017 Darwin Festival, and her first inter-state solo exhibition with Blak Dot.
AH: You are an artist and curator in your own right. And it is obvious how the professionalism of your own practice has influenced and enabled the growth of Free Space Studio. But I am also interested in how your work in community arts and with the artists at Free Space Studio have influenced your work. Has anything shifted? Have you learnt something you didn't expect to learn?
AM: Equal rights is the key lesson. Equality in the context of Free Studio Space is about supporting talented artists in Darwin—who face systematic discrimination—to be able to access funding, quality materials and equipment, and a studio space to pursue their creative practice. We currently receive state (Arts NT) & national (Australia Council) funding to keep the studio operational and pursue various projects. Without this we couldn’t be here.
My own practice has three parts to it. One is my solo practice as a mural and installation artist which is focused on non-objective abstraction, then there are collaborative cross-cultural projects with a focus on South East Asian collaborations with NT and Australian artists, and finally managing Free Space Studio. I think of these as three pretty distinct areas that I divide my time between. When I am at Free Space Studio it is all about other people’s practice but I tend to base the objectives of Free Studio Space on the same things we generally seek to achieve as individual artists. It’s the model that we learnt at art school: to make new work, exhibit regularly, nurture professional experiences and secure funding for new projects. My work at Free Space Studio is delivering the nuts and bolts of arts administration in order to serve the members of the collective. But I also teach painting and drawing at the studio, so there is an educational component as well.
AH: And how does that sense of equality, as a driving ethic, influence your own art making and projects that collaborate with South East Asia?
AM: I have spent the past 5 years working between Yogyakarta and Darwin on and off. In the process I have learnt a lot about community and socially engaged practice. In Yogyakarta most artists will have a social or community based project either as a component of their practice or as their central focus. Working in Yogyakarta taught me that ‘community’ is only achieved in a meaningful way through long term investments of time, ongoing friendship and trust. And this has definitely transferred into my work with Free Space Studio. Two-way reciprocal learning happens when people really work together in a community or collective or through collaborations.
AH: Your recent exhibition with Darwin Visual Arts Association, titled A Combinatorial Explosion (2017), referred to the "rapid growth of forms in combination —where one form builds on another, on another, on another etc." It seems to me like this is a really useful way of understanding your practice in its entirety, as it moves across art making, administration, education, curation, and cross-cultural facilitation. Have you thought of the way your work with Free Studio Space builds on your painting, and how that builds on your work in South East Asia which in turn feeds your work in Free Studio Space like some sort of combinatorial explosion?
AM: I actually try really hard to compartmentalise my practice(s). However there is no denying these things do build on each other. Though I don’t always think of it consciously, lessons learned in one project filter through to the others and sometimes direct crossovers will be possible. For example I think we should do a Free Space Project in Asia in the next couple of years (fingers crossed)! But my painting practice I like to keep as a little individualistic place. I still like to sit alone in a room and paint and think and make immersive compositions in response to scientific ideas around cosmology and perception. This is an area of creativity that, amidst all the other work, I treasure for myself.
’AA’ - a celebration of the work of artists Annie Moors (Yolngu) and Amani Tia (Samoan) will be on at Blak Dot Gallery (Melbourne) from November 23 - December 10, 2017.
Alana Hunt is an artist, writer and cultural producer living on Miriwoong country in the remote northwest of Australia and working across the Asia-Pacific. From 2011-2015 she worked at Warmun Art Centre and has recently completed an eleven-month newspaper serial in occupied Kashmir.