Creativity born from varied past
In its 150 years of history, the town of Roebourne has faced more upheaval and struggle than most.
But one thing its varied history has done is make it a place rich in stories.
Today, these stories have been the catalyst for Roebourne’s recent growth into an arts town.
Almost every kind of art is now flourishing here, from traditional painting to music, film, theatre and dance.
Together, they form a rich arts culture that is not seen in neighbouring Pilbara towns.
As many Roebourne leaders are attempting to change the image of the town from a place defined by its past trauma to one focusing on a unified, positive future — what some call the “New Roebourne” — one of the key ways that new narrative is being told is through the arts, in all forms.
Art old and new
One of the first signs of Roebourne’s emphasis on the arts is that there are not one, but two, art centres on the main street.
At Yinjaa-Barni Art, chairwoman, artist and elder Allery Sandy sits working on a canvas that is one of her two possible entries for the Cossack Art Awards mid-year.
She is one of 16 artists who has been with the group since it was established in 2006.
It and Roebourne Arts Group are the main centres of painting and crafts in town and both enter multiple exhibitions each year.
Ms Sandy specialises in aerial paintings, portraying landforms seen from above in bold colours and organic patterns.
“I sit and look at the country and I look at the colours,” she said.
“I guess for me, it’s always that happy feeling, and colours that bring joy. I like to have something that’s bright and beautiful.
“Everyone’s really changed a lot from where we were to what we are today. We’re putting more work into our art, and it’s amazing.” That said, one of the most interesting dimensions of Roebourne’s arts scene is how, for such an old town, it has also embraced cutting-edge new media.
Digital storyteller Stu Campbell led the development of print and interactive comic book series Neomad, based on cultural mythology and real Roebourne people, in 2012.
It was a hit and kick-started more digital stories through arts company Big hART.
He said the pop culture work was designed to get young residents enthusiastic about their town.
“The intention of the video game right from the start was to capture Roebourne as an exciting, fun, playful, energetic, lively place, where all these kids were living,” he said.
“To focus on giving them a great opportunity that was positive and enjoyable for everyone.”
Also involved in Neomad was Tyson Mowarin, a prolific filmmaker who owns Weerianna Street Media in Roebourne. He created the award-winning Welcome to Country app last year.
“My main aim doing films is to create a living, breathing archive for our history,” he said.
“So people can see them and learn. Not just keep them in an archive in Canberra where someone can see them in 100 years time, but to give access to them.”
Content and complex
One of the most recent and influential players in the Roebourne arts community is national arts and social justice organisation Big hART.
Big hART creative director Scott Rankin was responsible for bringing the group to the town in late 2009, when female elders invited them to help tell stories of a more positive and future-oriented Roebourne.
From there, Big hART and the community jointly developed a broad arts project called Yijala Yala.
Both words mean “now” in the Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi languages respectively and were chosen to convey the idea of a new Roebourne.
As well as Neomad, the program has involved critically acclaimed theatrical show Hipbone Sticking Out, the musical Murru Project, youth filmmaking workshops SMASHED Films, and the upcoming traditional song and dance show the Tjaabi Project, with local artist Patrick Churnside.
Big hART producer Angela Prior explained their work was designed to be intergenerational.
“There’s knowledge with older people, there’s the future with the younger people, and as a community it’s all connected,” she said.
“Art is part of building and exploring those connections.”
The most concrete sign of Roebourne’s recent commitment to the arts has been the establishment of the Ngurin Cultural Centre.
It was an initiative of the Ngarluma and Yindjibardni Foundation Ltd, who provided all the funding and are trying to fill it with events to engage the community.
NYFL has built the amphitheatre and central building in stages over the past several years and Big hART is the current company in residence.
Mr Rankin believes that with the centre in place as a community hub, Roebourne’s reputation as an arts centre will only grow.
“Big hART is working on the capacity and content and NYFL is working on the complex,” he said.
“When that cultural centre is finished, the problem in Roebourne will be finding a place to park.”
In Roebourne today, the arts are a powerful way for residents to tell their stories both individually and as a community with a common goal. Big hART’s Mr Rankin has a passionate belief in the town’s potential to be a major arts centre in WA and Australia.
“It’s the best place in the world to be working as artists, Roebourne,” he said.
“For us (Big hART), you don’t want to be working with the hipsters in Subiaco and Brunswick and Ballinghurst. You don’t want to be predictable and boring, surrounded by the same stories that everyone wants to tell. You want to be at the coalface of the 21st century. And here in Roebourne is that place. It is a cultural frontier town which is sitting on the most beautiful deposits of culture, far bigger than any minerals.”
There are many more stories for Roebourne still to tell and no shortage of media, or passionate residents, to tell them.
Mr Campbell said artist Ms Sandy once summed up the effect while watching a Neomad interactive comic. “When she first experienced the iPad app, and she tapped on the speech bubbles and heard the voices, she said she just thought this is such a great continuation of how we’ve always told stories, where you’d hear the voices, telling you the story,” he said.
“She made that connection to the old ways that they would hear stories.
“And I thought wow, what a great way to keep the tradition alive.”
Max Coppin and artist Allery Sandy with one of her canvases at the Yinjaa-Barni Art studio.
These boys are part of the real-life cast for the Love Punks gang in comic series Neomad, based on actual Roebourne residents.
Big hART’s Angela Prior and Stu Campbell in the Ngurin Cultural Centre, where the arts group is the company in residence.