Leading by celebrating difference

We all know Queenslanders are different, but CIAF has put a new brand on that unique creativity, one that is snagging the eye of international collectors.
Leading by celebrating difference

CIAF celebrates the unique character of Queensland Indigenous artists, and is festival that is incredibly immersive and welcoming; image supplied

Queensland is different. But the clichéd adage even goes a step further: Queenslanders are different.

It is that very richness of difference that the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF) has successfully captured over the past eight years, drawing annual crowds of over 50,000 to its three-day festival (14-16 July).


While CIAF is the quintessential platform for Queensland Indigenous art, this art fair has morphed into a full-blown festival that celebrates performing artists, dancers and musicians, and indeed fashion designers - all of which are culturally linked to the state.

General Manager CIAF, Vanessa Gillen said that while the art fair remains at the core of CIAF, it is an amazing opportunity to experience the whole cultural side of QLD, which is heavily promoted for its beaches, reef and rainforests.

‘It’s about getting exposure for our artists on a national scale,’ she said. ‘These art communities are so remote they are not really that available, but you can see them all at once at CIAF.’

Gillen made the point that CIAF has been timed for the southern state school holidays.

‘People can come from Melbourne where it’s freezing and have a one-stop-shop, extraordinary experience and meet the artists first-hand.’

Janina Harding, Artistic Director of CIAF, continued: ‘It’s our sole purpose – to present Queensland art - and that’s what makes it so different from other art fairs in other capital cities and regional communities.’

QLD Indigenous art is defined by ghostnet weaving and lino printing favoured by Torres Strait Islander artists, coil pots and ceramics from Yarrabah, the fired clay and hand-painted ‘bagu’ spirit figures from Girringun, the almost fluorescent canvas and textiles from Mornington Island to the subdued earthy, rainforest palette from Mossman’s Yalanji Arts and graphic saltwater-inspired designs of Erub Island.

In essence, the art is exciting, diverse, culturally infused and highly desirable. It is for this reason that CIAF has been labelled Australia’s premier Indigenous Art Fair.

Sitting at the core of CIAF is the curated art fair, which draws curators and collections nationally and internationally, giving it the reputation of Australia's leading Indigenous fair; image supplied

Balancing marketplace to collectors

A former art centre manager herself, Gillen explained that when CIAF had an overhaul three years ago it revised how the art centres were presented, creating a curated art fair and an art market.

‘It had been a hotchpotch of fabulous art pieces butting shoulders with coffee mugs and tea towels, so we started to break that format allowing curators and collectors to easily view the high-end curated pieces, while making the art market more accessible to people who wanted something but felt a bit overwhelmed by high-end art,’ she said.

Harding added: ‘It is about our commitment to inclusiveness.’

Gillen said: ‘When we came into the role in 2015 sales were just over $300,000, but after changing to a curated model where the focus was on quality, that went well north to $650,000 in 2016.’

‘That curated model is really key to the success of CIAF, to incentivise support and push artists to reach further in their professional practice,’ she said.

Gillen noted that 100 per cent of all sales go back to the artist, in so doing, underpinning CIAF’s aim of wholly supporting Queensland’s Indigenous artists.

Harding has been joined by curator and writer Hetti Perkins to shape the fair’s vision for 2017 under the theme of Family Values.

2017 CIAF will take place between Friday, 14 July and Sunday, 16 July.

For further information visit ciaf.com.au

CIAF is more than just an art fair; it is a festival that celebrates the cultural diversity and breadth of Indigenous Queensland over four days in July; image supplied

The importance of legacy

While Cairns has always been a tourist town, there is a much greater bearing on this art fair festival. Its legacy is two-fold: creating an ethical stream of financial support to QLD Indigenous artists, but also ensuring the delivery of their work into important collections.

For the first time in 2017, CIAF has introduced a VIP program for sponsors and gallerists that will run in conjunction with its established Collectors and Curator’s Program, led by Perkins who will host up to 45 recognised collectors of Indigenous art and industry professionals from major International and domestic institutions.

Special guests this year includes Donna Carstens, Curator of Australian National Maritime Museum, who said of the program: ‘For me it’s about what is different – what new mediums are people working in.’

Gillen added: ‘We are the only centre that has a program where the big institutions can come in and purchase this stuff. It is about building a symbiotic relationship between curators and artists.’

A new tax-deductibility status has been granted to CIAF to boost its world-class ranking and attract collectors.

But it is not all dollars and cents. As part of CIAF this year, the National Gallery of Victoria has commissioned 30 “dance machines” (zamiyaks) by women from Sue Island in Torres Strait, which will be exhibited at the fair and then become part of the NGV Collection. Lei it On – will also be presented at the Cairns Art Gallery.

New also are the CIAF Art Awards, promising $45,000 in prize money and an opportunity for artists to increase their profile. There is no application process to enter; all works on display within the art fair space will be eligible. The winners will be announced at the opening night party, at Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal on Thursday, 13 July.

Wandan, the CIAF Fashion Program has become world recognised; image supplied

Mark your diary with these highlights:

  • CIAF Art Market will be held in a purpose-built, temporary pavilion and feature 55 exhibitors to present an accessible, affordable and ethical marketplace for visitors.
  • CIAF Conversations will include a variety of opportunities for visitors to listen to and chat with Indigenous artists at Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal Main stage during lunchtime Friday to Sunday.
  • This year CIAF will introduce a daily program of Artist Talks (20 mins each) allowing fair-goers to be up close and personal with the artist as they talk about their practice and work featured in the curated exhibition.
  • CIAF’s fashion performance is considered world-class. This year it will be presented at Tanks Arts Centre, in its former repurposed World War II fuel tanks. Wandan, meaning future, will be held Friday, 14 July, with an expanded program of ticketed shows.
  • Bitter Sweet is a major new exhibition by Daniel Boyd at Cairns Regional Gallery (20 June - 10 September), which examines narratives of the Pacific Islands as a “paradise”, and the life of Pacific Islanders in relation to slavery and the sugar cane industry.
  • A highlight will be weaving, carving demonstrations with the artists who create the renowned Aurukun dogs, jewellery workshops, wattle woomeras and more will feature as part of the adult cultural workshops on all three days of CIAF.
  • An artistic workshop space created especially for children, Gungun Warruwarru, will also provide an opportunity for Queensland’s Indigenous artists to share talent and create art with children.

To view the full program for 2017 CIAF

2017 CIAF will take place between Friday, 14 July and Sunday, 16 July, at multiple venues across Cairns.

No image supplied

Gina Fairley

Tuesday 30 May, 2017

About the author

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW.

Twitter: @ginafairley
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