A living canvas over 65,000 years in the making, the Northern Territory is home to some of the nation’s most significant artists; members of the world’s oldest continual culture whose connection to Country is as deep as their art is dynamic.
From remote Aboriginal arts centres where practitioners explore ancient traditions with contemporary flair, to the electrifying performances of Yolngu hip-hop artist Baker Boy (2019’s Young Australian of the Year) the Territory’s 1.3 million square kilometres are packed with authentic and enriching experiences for the culture-hungry traveller.
A new initiative, the Territory Arts Trail, makes planning a journey to the heart and soul of the nation significantly easier for visitors to the NT.
Learn more about the Territory Arts Trail
Central Arrernte and Mudburra elder, Patricia Ansell Dodds, is an artist whose works have appeared everywhere from local and interstate art exhibitions to projections on the sails of the Sydney Opera House.
Her paintings ‘show my country and our stories through our eyes,’ she said. ‘The food: Akatjurra – bush tomato; Yalkas – bush onion; Alangkwe – bush banana; Arrutnenge – bush passionfruit; wild fig; honey ants; witchetty grubs and the women and children collecting them. Our landscapes, the ranges, the desert, the dry creek beds, the waterholes, the campfires and the ceremonies and stories that have taken place.’
While she creates exhibition-sized pieces of considerable scale, ‘I also create smaller pieces for everyday people to who would like to share in our culture,’ she added.
Sharing in the history and culture of our First Peoples is clearly significant to non-Indigenous Australians, as illustrated by a 2016 Australia Council report, which found that 92% of Australians consider Indigenous arts important to Australian culture.
The primacy of Aboriginal art across the Territory is reflected in a range of events as colourful and individual as Territorians themselves, ranging from the internationally respected Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award and the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, through to the spectacular Parrtjima – A Festival in Light, and the quirky charm of the Alice Springs Beanie Festival. In short, there’s an arts experience in the NT for every taste.
Jo Nixon, Executive Officer of Alice Springs Beanie Festival, praised the vibrancy and diversity of the Territory’s arts sector: ‘The Territory abounds with unique and incredible arts – paintings, baskets, fabrics, dancing, and music. It’s also home to utterly unique headwear: the beanie. We are full of amazing festivals, exhibitions and performances seen nowhere else in the world and the Beanie Festival highlights the amazing, vibrant culture that we love,’ Nixon told ArtsHub.
Founded in 1997, Alice Springs Beanie Festival was established in order to sell beanies crocheted by Aboriginal women in remote communities. It has grown into a celebration where Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists share their culture and exhibit their work side by side.
‘The beanies that arrive at the festival reflect cultures, life and delights from all around the world. It is truly amazing what story a beanie can bring. You absolutely have to see the beanies to understand their scope – and this includes the Indigenous beanies full of life from the remote deserts of the Red Centre,’ Nixon said.
‘Our core business is to enable and enhance the work of Indigenous mukata (beanie) artists. Workshops are held in remote communities around Central Australia throughout the year, putting the incredible talents of these artists on show. Many then travel to the festival to take part in workshops to teach tourists and visitors their beanie-making skills, some language and some culture. We provide a rare and delightful opportunity for the public to sit and engage with Indigenous artists in a safe and inspiring environment.’
Explore the Territory Arts Trail
In this, the International Year of Indigenous Languages, visitors to the Territory can hear over 100 Aboriginal languages spoken daily.
English is the third language spoken by award-winning artist Baker Boy – who headlines the closing night of this year’s Parrtjima – A Festival in Light. Switching between English and his native tongue, Yolngu Matha, in his songs, Baker Boy’s linguistic skills are not unusual in the Territory, where the ability to speak multiple languages is often taken for granted.
By displaying his verbal dexterity in his songs, Baker Boy said he hopes to make ‘Balanda [white people] … curious about it and then learn the language so they can understand what I’m saying. Then they’ll want to learn more language and try and connect to the community – it’s like my secret way of pulling everyone together, I guess,’ the young rapper told Guardian Australia.
Photo supplied by Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures.
The Parrtjima program includes the opportunity to participate in a range of language classes, while some of the spectacular light installations at the festival also reflect the linguistic diversity of the Territory.
Rhoda Roberts AO, Parrtjima’s Indigenous creative curator, said: ‘We have looked at language, not only the mother tongues of homeland, but also how Aboriginal people use the English language and way they have created their own language. For example, the language of stockmen.
'We have taken that voice and worked with local artists Johnny Young and David Wallace with the Tapatjatjaka Arts Centre to tell the lesser-known social history of First Nations station workers and their language of the land [in the light installation, Angkentye Stockmen Mape-kenhe – The Language of Stockmen],’ Roberts said.
From their base in Alice Springs, Desart works with 41 Aboriginal art centres – representing some 8000 artists – across the Central Desert region. The Desart team’s work culminates each year at Desert Mob, a total immersion in the artwork and stories of Aboriginal art from the desert; an exhibition, symposium, and marketplace for artists, arts workers and arts lovers alike.
Clearly, the Territory Arts Trail presents a rich depth of Aboriginal arts, events and cultural experiences to explore.
FOR COLLECTORS & SERIOUS ART LOVERS:
Held in Darwin and coinciding with the Darwin Festival, the Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (10 August to 3 November 2019) showcase the very best Australian Indigenous art from around the country.
Desert Mob (6 September to 20 October 2019) brings together the Central Desert’s Aboriginal-owned art centres for a breathtaking annual exhibition in Alice Springs. The event also features a symposium where artists tell the stories behind their work and a marketplace where art collectors can grab a bargain.
Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair (9-11 August 2019) showcases the contemporary fine art of over 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts centres. The Art Fair also includes the DAAFF Fashion Show, celebrating the marriage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander textile design and high end fashion.
Stay on country at Barunga Festival (7-9 June 2019) and participate in a program of music, sport, traditional arts and cultural activities over the three-day long weekend in June each year, welcomed by the traditional owners.
Tjanpi Desert Weavers is a social enterprise of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yakunytjatjara Women’s Council supporting over 400 remote Central Australian fibre artists. Alice Springs hosts a gallery showcasing tjanpi (grass) sculptures, baskets, jewellery and more.
Celebrating the humble beanie, the Alice Springs Beanie Festival (28 June – 1 July 2019) is a quirky weekend of exhibitions, workshops and a market selling over 5000 hand-crafted beanies from around Australia, including remote Aboriginal communities in central Australia.
Parrtjima – A Festival in Light (5-14 April 2019) is the only Aboriginal light festival of its kind. The free annual program takes over Alice Springs with 10 nights of light installations from a number of Aboriginal artists, set against the majestic MacDonnell Ranges. Alongside artworks you can enjoy a program packed full of live talks, events and music by local and national musicians.
ONE STOP SHOPPERS:
Situated in the historical Lyons Cottage along the Darwin Esplanade, Aboriginal Bush Traders provides avenues for Aboriginal people wanting to engage in economic activities in a sustainable way. They specialise in sourcing unique, authentic and ethically sourced Aboriginal products from across the Northern Territory. The retail outlet is complimented by a café which focuses on using native Australian products and bush tucker.
REMOTE BOUNTY HUNTERS:
Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala (near Nhulunbuy) consists of an art centre showcasing local Yolngu artists’ work and The Mulka Project; a digital and archival keeping place to sustain and protect Yolngu cultural knowledge.
Warlukurlangu Art Centre in Yuendemu (about 300km from Alice Springs) is one of the longest-running and most successful Aboriginal-owned art centres in Central Australia. Artists here have national and international profiles and have been featured in hundreds of exhibitions and publications around the world. Warlukurlangu is also home to the Yuendemu Men’s Museum, holding significant murals and sacred objects.
Visit northernterritory.com/things-to-do/art-and-culture/territory-arts-trail to learn more about these and other attractions on the Territory Arts Trail.