Day One! We are heading to Baradine, in the cattle and sheep country of north-west NSW. It’s hot and dusty, even though it’s winter. But before we set up camp, we need to check out the site of the Coonamble Pavilion, where the Moorambilla gala concert is going to take place in September. The Pavillion is in the showground, site of the famous annual Coonamble rodeo. It’s a massive space made of corrugated iron with a cement floor. Indigenous visual artist Frank Wright, textile artist Fiona Fagan and Artistic Director Michelle Leonard meet on the site to discuss the planned designs for the backdrop and other textile works. The pavilion is a giant cavernous space which seats about 500 people. The doors creak open – we have forgotten how large this space is. It is massive!
Frank is a proud descendant of the Gamilaroi people and was born in Walgett, further out west in New South Wales, where the two rivers, the Namoi and the Barwon, meet. This is his mother’s country. Fiona Fagan is a textile designer and author, who grew up on the land in Coonamble. She created Moorambilla’s silver tree backdrop last year, and for the two years previous to that, designed and made the children’s costumes.
We repack thecar and head on over to Baradine. At Camp Cypress, Camp Manager Dot Thompson, Operations Manager Jacqui Smith and International Education Observer Beth Stanley are making notes, labeling things, unpacking boxes, and making an inventory of all the beds and duvets and towels on site. They’ve even brought spare toothpaste.
At Baradine Town Hall, Frank Wright and Susan Lawrence from Outback Arts unpack the huge amount of canvas they have brought. The Town Hall too is a massive space with a wooden floor – it used to be used a dance hall. You only get these spaces outside of the city. This hall is home to Moorambilla Voices, and everyone who has worked in the space always remembers the atmosphere created by the history of the place. Frank has decided to use black canvas and sketches out the basic shapes in white chalk. Together with Fiona, they work up designs based on the stories of Tiddalik the Giant Frog, Biggi-Billa the Echidna, Waraba the Turtle and Gulayaali the Pelican.
“The Pavilion is a fantastic blank canvas to work on” says Fiona, “but something so big means you have to think on a large scale, using clean, simple lines and colour. The scale has to be used to give visual impact.”
It’s the first time that Fiona has worked with Indigenous motifs. “It’s part of our heritage, and the stories can be adapted to today, for example, we can use them to teach children how to behave. It’s such a wonderful opportunity for me.”
Justin Welsh, Indigenous Youth Mentor for Moorambilla Voices, drops into Baradine Town Hall to see how it’s all going.
Throughout the afternoon, Frank continually adds to the black canvas, talking to Fiona about ideas that he has. He thinks that footprints along the river could be good, signifying the river as a trading and travelling route. He adds brolgas, fish and camps.
Although Frank has been used to working on a large scale before, creating a outdoor mural for a Men’s Refuge in Walgett, he hasn’t worked on a piece of canvas of this size and scope.
Frank draws the Namoi and the Barwon – two iconic Australian rivers – across the width of the black canvas with the white chalk in two strong lines. He plots major camps along these on the canvas. “The river is really important to this work, and to all of us. But it’s changing. Dams on farms are changing the way the river floods and moves.” This year’s theme for Moorambilla is Fire and Water – Wii Gali.
Frank isn’t worried about working on a piece that needs to match the sheer scale of the Pavilion. “I’m more worried about getting it into the Pavilion!” he says. When the glass doors open tomorrow morning at the Town Hall, how is this canvas going to start to shape and inspire the dance, music and weaving for this year’s festival?
Text and photography: Lliane Clarke