In short:

The Umoona Art Centre, established this year, is the first permanent facility of its kind in the isolated area.

Costing $865,000, it was set up with funding from the federal government’s Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation and the state government.

What’s next?

Artists hope more Aboriginal community members will be able to find an independent income stream in art with the centre’s help.

On the outskirts of remote opal mining town Coober Pedy lies the Aboriginal community of Umoona.

Among the mining mounds and a smattering of transportable houses, a new silver corrugated building stands in stark contrast with its surroundings. 

It is the result of a decades-long, community-led push to create a facility to foster artistic talent and create independent income streams for Aboriginal people in the region between Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY Lands) and Adelaide. 

Manager Joanne O’Toole unveiling the sign on the $865,000 Umoona Art Centre.(ABC North and West: Kate Higgins)

George Cooley is the last surviving establishing member of the Umoona Council, which has overseen the community about 850 kilometres north-west of Adelaide since 1975. 

He has observed the challenges the community has faced to develop facilities.  

“We were one of the communities that seemed to be overlooked every time, because we had a feeling that we may be not far enough north to get noticed and not far enough south to get noticed,” Mr Cooley said.

“We were in between communities.” 

George Cooley only started painting in 2021, but has already had his works exhibited in the state gallery’s biennial exhibition.(ABC North and West: Isabella Carbone)

Locals joined forces with the APY Arts Centre Collective to establish the Umoona Arts Collective in 2019 and begun hosting workshops in places such as basketball courts. 

“We had about probably 50 to 60 artists that turned up from Coober Pedy, we knew that the artists were there all the time but we just never had the opportunity,” Mr Cooley said. 

It was at one of these workshops that the former opal miner tried painting, which kickstarted his art career.

Since then, Mr Cooley’s work has taken centre stage in this year’s Art Gallery of South Australia’s Biennial “Inner Sanctum” and he, alongside Umoona collective member Keith Minunga, was a finalist in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA).

Other collective members have quickly found success, with Myra Kunatjayi, Jeannie Minunga, Kay Kay Finn and Mr Cooley listed as finalists in the prestigious Wynne Landscape Award at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Umoona is an Aboriginal community next to Coober Pedy in South Australia’s outback.(ABC North and West: Isabella Carbone)

Most Umoona painters, such as school teacher Pearl Austin, would paint alone in their homes and sell to tourists in Coober Pedy.

To work in a studio space, painters would have to either drive hours north to an art centre on the APY Lands or south to Adelaide. 

With funding from the federal government’s Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation and the state government, the Umoona Art Centre finally became reality this year — the first permanent art centre in the isolated area. 

There are 18 artists already working at the facility, which has separate indoor spaces for men and women, and a central collaborative open-air space with views of the nearby hill. 

Coober Pedy school teacher Pearl Austin also has a burgeoning art career.(ABC North and West: Isabella Carbone)

Key community connections

Centre manager Yanyuwa Yankunytjatjara artist Joanne O’Toole said it was not just for established and early-career artists, but would also be a place to engage with the young people in the community.  

“They’ve always wanted to paint and then they come along and we show them,” she said. 

The centre is also fostering intergenerational relationships, painter Janice Bailes said. 

Janice Bailes says the art centre is also a place to get ideas and advice from Elders.(ABC North and West: Isabella Carbone)

“We watch and observe how our Elders are painting and we get ideas and advice from them,” Ms Bailes said. 

“It’s a sense of belonging now and just a space where we can all meet up and share … for me it’s keeping my language strong because [we] sit and communicate with the Elders in language.”

Financial benefit 

South Australia’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister Kyam Maher said remote art centres play a crucial role in Aboriginal communities.

“An ability to earn money, an economic role, but also an ability to record and capture those thousands of years of culture, of stories,” he said.

Artists hold hopes more Aboriginal community members will use art as an independent income stream in a town where there is not a lot of job opportunities.

Their aim is to support single mothers who aren’t able to work full-time.

“You can now get an extra income out of this project here, and it’s not only a project, it’s a business,” Mr Cooley said.

“Its not like the normal government project that you fund it and got to put the submission for next year, hoping that you’re going to get it.”

Umoona Council member Dean Walker welcomed the opening of the centre.(ABC North and West: Kate Higgins)

The APY ACC said in the financial year ending in 2022, on average 66 per cent of the Umoona Art Collective’s sales were returned directly to the artist.

Artists hope the centre will also become an attraction for the copious tourists who visit Coober Pedy for its opal mining history.

Probe findings expected soon

The Umoona Arts Collective were supported by the APY Arts Centre Collective, which has been at the centre of controversy in the last year after News Corp broadsheet The Australian published footage that it said appeared to show a non-Indigenous assistant making creative decisions and painting on a canvas

The APY ACC has previously “strenuously” denied the allegations printed by News Corp.

A following National Gallery of Australia review into APY ACC works scheduled for exhibition found no improper interference. 

In December, a state government probe ended with the panel referring their evidence to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations. 

It is expected those organisations will hand down their findings in the coming weeks.