Mimili Maku Arts

Anna Wattler, Manager at Mimili Maku Arts, has shared an update on how the Mimili community have been handling the government restrictions put in place in response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Though this has been a challenging time, it has also brought new opportunities to the community.

"Mimili is on the APY Lands, a region in the far northwest of South Australia. We have been under the Commonwealth Biosecurity Act since mid-March. This means that entry to our region is strictly restricted, and requires 14 days of self-isolation.

Whist those measures may seem extreme, it has been absolutely essential for keeping everyone in community safe. Like many remote Aboriginal communities we experience severe levels of social disadvantage, manifested – amongst other things – in poor health and living conditions that make it hard to impossible to enact best-practice hygiene for prevention of community transmission of COVID. With high rates of diabetes, asthma and kidney disease, large parts of the population out here are considered high-risk when exposed to the virus. That is why the strategy of restricting access to the APY Lands was enacted very early on, and has been strictly executed since.

Of course, this hasn’t been easy – at all! If from one day to the next, there are new regulations to limit people’s movement, that doesn’t go down well anywhere. For example, fuel access has been limited to three days a week, 20 litres a person, in an attempt to limit travel outside of the APY region and between communities. The rules around assembly at funerals are completely contradictory to cultural ways out here, so following them despite a very abstract threat (a virus that isn’t here yet), has been challenging for many people. Another example is that there’s no cash. This has had a huge impact, particularly on the older people, who often don’t have access to bank cards and rely on cash to access basic supplies.

autumn flora sculptures

IMAGE > Sammy Dood. Photograph: Meg Hansen photography. Image courtesy of Mimili Maku Arts.

Monet, The Galette

IMAGE > Robert Fielding working on new works in the studio. Image courtesy of Mimili Maku Arts
IMAGE BELOW > Mimili. Photograph: Meg Hansen photography. Image courtesy of Mimili Maku Arts

After the first hick-ups however, community has now settled into a good place. We are happy that we’ve been able to remain safe and healthy during all this, and we understand how critical the coming weeks and months are going to be.

For the art centre, these past few months have been… stressful, challenging, and reassuring. After closing the studio for a week to assess the situation and making the space “COVID-proof”, we have remained open to the senior artists and Elders. Due to the biosecurity restrictions, some of the usual services have ceased to exist, so the art centre has filled some of those gaps, providing a safe space for the Elders to eat, access information, connect with social services, collect firewood ... and paint!

During this time, we’ve really seen pre-existing fault lines exposed: services that aren’t really working at the best of times, have ceased to exist or relate in any significant way to people’s realities in community. The art centre is a unique position to respond to these circumstances very quickly. Like all community-run art centres, we are governed by a board of Elders. Unlike all other organisations in community, which are government-run and funded, we are an organisation that was started by Anangu, and is run by Anangu every step of the way. This means that we are used to responding to changed circumstances. We are used to redefining what we are, and what we do. So, in a way, the COVID crisis has played to our strengths; we are flexible and used to adjusting the way we operate to create the maximum benefit for our members and community.

"Because our art centre has been on a very busy exhibition schedule over the past years, which remains the art centre’s main source of income, this “commercial break” presents a unique opportunity to explore projects without immediate commercial outcome."

We are currently working on a special project focussed on intergenerational learning and cultural maintenance, which are the core values Mimili Maku Arts is built upon. Robert Fielding’s research project with the South Australian Museum, parts of which are currently presented at Linden New Art, was a huge inspiration for lots of artists here in Mimili. Since then, I’ve had so many community members come up to the art centre interested in recording stories or asking me to look for images of their families in digital museum archives. The artists decided that this process needs to become easier, more accessible. People need to be able to access their family’s histories without having to travel to a museum in Adelaide or Sydney, where many stories and objects are kept. So that’s what we are working on now!

Monet, The Galette

IMAGE > Senior artists Puna Yanima and Tuppy Goodwin at the Mimili Maku breakfast club.
Image courtesy of Mimili Maku Arts

Monet, The Galette

IMAGE > Tuppy and her sister Ngilan Margaret Dodd working on a storytelling project.
Image courtesy of Mimili Maku Arts

We have applied for some project funding to create the beginning of an accessible archive, recorded by community. It will be developed in a slow, artist-led and culturally accountable way, as a resource for future generations of artists and cultural leaders in Mimili. This will be a great starting point for the development of a physical cultural archive space in community.

In a way, Covid-19 has been a chance for us as an art centre to come together, strengthen our foundations, celebrate cultural knowledge, and excel Anangu leadership in the cultural maintenance space, laying the foundations for new forms of art-making.

We have also been working on sharing our art digitally. With the APY Art Centre Collective, we have started an online store, where people can buy work by emerging artists from the APY Lands. All proceeds go back to our organisations and the artists. It’s also been exciting to see some other major shows we’ve been part of go digital, such as the Biennale of Sydney and – of course- Linden New Art!"

Anna Wattler,
Manager at Mimili Maku Arts

View Robert Fielding exhibition View more about Mimili Maku