Why we need context in Indigenous art

The Desert Mob Symposium invites audiences and artists to learn from each other.
Why we need context in Indigenous art

Artists from Papulankutja Artists on the edge of the Great Victoria Desart (WA), singing and dancing at the Desert Mob Symposium 2016; image by Jeremy Blincoe for Desart. 

Indigenous languages in Australia do not have a directly translatable word for ‘art’. Rather than a singular act of expression, for Indigenous people art is an integral part of life, community and culture.

Understanding the context surrounding a piece of artwork means developing an understanding of the artist’s living culture, community and connection to country. The Desert Mob Symposium is taking steps to encourage art collectors and educators to develop a relationship with the artists and share their stories and ideas.


The Symposium is part of Desert Mob, a unique gathering of artists, artworks and audiences focused around Aboriginal art centres of Central Australia. Desert Mob also includes an exhibition, a marketplace and a number of satellite events in Alice Springs, allowing audiences to explore and purchase artworks and share the artists’ cultures in the heart of their country.

The Desert Mob Symposium is a day of presentations by artists, art centres and special guests. The gathering provides a rich context for Desert Mob, reinforcing and celebrating the pivotal role of country, living culture and community in the artists’ lives.

The Symposium will allow artists to tell the stories of the work they are making, said Philip Watkins, Desart CEO. ‘The Symposium is a platform for artists and art centres to talk about their projects, and any new work they are making.

‘The Symposium gives voice to the art, and gives context and complements the exhibition. It also shows the work that goes into artwork and the artist’s process.’

Watkins revealed some teasers for this year’s Symposium program. ‘Hetti Perkins will announce the winner of the Desart Photography Prize, the Hermannsburg Potters artists will talk about the influence on their art of recent visits to the Strehlow Research Centre, and the APY Art Centre Collective will tell the powerful story behind the Australian War Memorial’s commission of a major senior men’s collaborative painting for its permanent display.’

Encouraging audiences to sit with the artists and discover the stories and context surrounding the art works helps develop a deeper understanding of Indigenous culture, said Watkins. ‘There are few opportunities for an audience to engage with an artist in this way, and have those conversations. It’s a comfortable and very personal event.’

Through images, film, animation and performance, artists reveal and share their stories, ideas, projects and creative processes.

‘This gives an insight into the work that the art centres do to initiate, develop and support the artists and artworks. It is an intimate event in that the audience can sit with, engage and interact with the artists,’ Watkins explained.

‘You can feel the unique energy at the event. It’s about people, art and context.’

Jane Young, Desart’s Chairperson and an artist with Tangentyere Artists says, ‘Culture comes first for every Aboriginal person in the desert. Our art centres are happy and inclusive places. We all speak different languages but we all understand each other. At Desert Mob, we come together to share our history and our future.’

Desert Mob is run in partnership with Desart, a non-profit alliance of over 40 Central Australian Aboriginal art centres, representing approximately 8000 artists from 16 distinct language groups spread across the Central Desert region. Desart assists its member art centres through industry advocacy, business support programs and resources, and a customised art worker training program. The peak body has a ‘culture first’ approach to its support for Aboriginal art centres, which in turn provide autonomy, sustained growth and stability for Central Australian Aboriginal communities.

Desert Mob runs over the second weekend in September at the Araluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs. The Symposium will be held on Friday 8 September from 10.00am to 3.30pm. Bookings are essential.

Emma Clark Gratton

Thursday 29 June, 2017

About the author

Emma Clark Gratton is an ArtsHub staff writer.