A new age of appreciation for First Nations visual arts

Indigenous artists from Far North Queensland to feature in Belonging, a major national exhibition.

The remote reaches of Far North Queensland (FNQ) are home to many vibrant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Centres that are recognised as leaders within the national and international arts and cultural sectors.

These Art Centres play a critical role in developing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture and connecting artists with a wider audience. Already widely recognised for its artistic excellence, the art of FNQ is in demand and the local artists are making the most of this new age of appreciation.

Collectors, public institutions and international galleries are always keen for an opportunity to purchase, tour and display works from across the region. And now a major collection of the work is coming to Canberra and beyond.

For two years, the Art Centres of FNQ have been producing artworks for the Belonging exhibition that will open at the National Museum of Australia in mid-2021 before touring nationally. Together, the Art Centres work with over 500 artists and come under the Indigenous Art Centre Alliance (IACA).

‘IACA member artists are from mostly very remote Indigenous communities and most of them have very strong connections to country and culture,’ said IACA Manager Pam Bigelow.

The Belonging exhibition is being co-ordinated by IACA in partnership with its members.  It brings together artists from the islands of the Torres Strait, the Gulf of Carpentaria, Cape York, and the tropical rainforest and coastal area surrounding Cairns and Cardwell regions. 

‘Far North Queensland is a unique environment from the Wet Tropics Rainforest, the Great Barrier Reef sea country, the dry savannah country on Cape York, to the swaying palms and aqua seas of the Torres Strait Islands. The diversity of environments is reflected in the work of our artists,’ she said.

Belonging will be the first opportunity for audiences outside Queensland to see such a large and diverse body of new work from the region. The exhibition will be curated by the National Museum of Australia whose curatorial and exhibition design team will work closely with the artists, their Art Centres, and IACA to ensure the artworks, stories and culture are showcased in a powerful and innovative way.     

IACA has hosted these high-level arts facilitation workshops at all the member Art Centres over the last two years. Whilst focussed on the Belonging exhibition, the workshops have had a deeper impact.

‘The artists have loved the workshops and the results have been extraordinary. But more than that, the workshops will leave a legacy of best-practice skills including, artistic conceptual development, professional studio practice and access to the best quality materials,’ she said.

Around 400 works will be featured in the exhibition, representing each of the 13 IACA members.

Lex Namponan Blue Ku. Dry pigment on milkwood. Made at Wik & Kugu Art Centre in Aurukun during the Belonging Workshop, February 2019. Image IACA  Edwina Circuitt

‘The works are all spectacular, incredibly varied, and very original, with some incredibly stunning pieces. Blue Ku by Lex Namponan is a new take on the famous Aurukun Dogs. It’s dry pigment on milkwood and was made at Wik and Kugu Art Centre during the Belonging Workshop in February this year.’

Another highlight work is Gilbert Jack’s Moon Creation Story lightbox that was made during the workshop at Pormpuraaw Art and Culture Centre.

‘Photography and film workshops were selected by artists from the Torres Strait and Mapoon on Cape York and they have been incredibly popular. The images and films produced are extraordinary and the artists have learnt editing and post-production skills so they can continue in this new art form that many had never used before,’ said Bigelow.

Artist Gilbert Jack with his Moon Creation Story lightbox. Made during the IACA Belonging workshop at Pormpuraaw Art & Culture Centre, June 2019. Image IACA  Edwina Circuitt

The Art Centres also play an important role in protecting the rights and intellectual property of the Indigenous artists.

‘Carpet baggers haven’t gone away. Communities still report unscrupulous dealers visiting them and trying to entice artists to sell their works cheaply outside of the Art Centre,’ she said.

‘We all work hard to stop unethical dealings and rip-offs and IACA members are very engaged with the work of the indigenous Art Code and were very active in the Fake Art Harms Culture campaign’.

The Belonging exhibition will be culturally significant, showcasing a massive body of work that personifies the country and culture of Far North Queensland. The National Museum of Australia is to host and acquire the entire exhibition which will be accompanied by a high-quality catalogue. To find out more go to the IACA website.

Dr Diana Carroll
About the Author
Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the SMH, the Oz, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.