Aboriginal art fair rides the wave of global ambition

ArtsHub speaks with Shilo McNamee of Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair on future ambitions and the highlights of this year’s flagship program.
Ngaanyatjarra Land, artists from L-R: Nyungawarra Ward, Dorcas Tinamayi Bennett, Cynthia Burke, Delilah Shepherd and Nancy Nyanyarna Jackson. Photo: Jason Thomas. Image: Courtesy of Warakurna Artists. Five large-scale paintings held up by artists in the Australian desert landscape with a blue skyline in the background.

Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair (DAAF) makes a triumphant return to Larrakia Country from 9-11 August after another record-breaking year in 2023. The annual event presents artworks from over 75 Indigenous-owned Arts Centres, with 100% of sales going directly back to support the artists and their communities. 

DAAF has long championed First Nations talent and sovereignty, allowing artists to showcase their most authentic and empowered selves. It’s an opportunity for visitors to ethically purchase artworks, but also hear stories in person, and become immersed in public programming, material demonstrations, children’s activities, fashion and more. 

The fair component will once again have an online counterpart for those unable to attend in person, helping Arts Centres maximise exposure and sales. 

DAAF Artistic Director, Shilo McNamee, tells ArtsHub, ‘We take great pride and responsibility in being one of Australia’s most significant Indigenous arts and cultural events, and are always looking to see how we can do better, and how our event fits within the global landscape of other art fairs.’

Peppimenarti Dancers, Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair 2023. Photo: Tamati Smith. Aboriginal dancers in yellow body paint are interacting with a young child in their midst. They are stepping on red sand inside a convention centre.
Peppimenarti Dancers, Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair 2023. Photo: Tamati Smith.

Last year, the DAAF team undertook an extensive research trip to participate and learn from other international art fairs, such as Frieze London. 

‘A lot of the spaces that we went to didn’t really have a First Nations presence,’ continues McNamee, ‘so we’re looking at [things like] international relationship building, making sure that our art fair is a truly world-class event, also where there is room for expansion.’

Adopting a hybrid art fair approach over the past few years has allowed DAAF to gain insight on interest from overseas. It has revealed potential engagement with cities including Paris and London and those in the North America region. 

McNamee says, ‘People are really starting to engage with our First Nations arts and culture and they are hungry for information… A lot of the work that we’re doing at DAAF Foundation now is preparing for what we see as inevitable engagement and interest from the rest of the world, making sure that we’re ready, and that the industry can direct people to purchase [First Nations artworks] in the most ethical way.’

Hopefully, this will translate to an in-person experience, where visitors will be able to witness and participate in Australia’s First Nations arts and culture in its most authentic form. DAAF Foundation events will run for a full week from 6-11 August, with the flagship Country to Couture fashion runways on 6 August tied to this year’s NAIDOC theme, ‘Keep the Fire Burning! Blak, Loud and Proud’, followed by the National Indigenous Fashion Awards on 7 August. The Art Fair kicks off with an opening ceremony on 8 August, and public fair days from 9-11 August, complemented by DAAF online. 

The DAAF Open Studios program will host a line-up of inspiring artists demonstrating their skills, alongside a curator and conservator on board to answer any questions from the public. 

Regardless of whether you’ve never been to the Northern Territory before, or are a regular visitor, ‘what’s special about DAAF is that it brings everyone together,’ says McNamee. ‘You’re really getting a snapshot of the whole of Australia at this event. We call it “the week of Indigenous excellence” because there are also the National Indigenous Fashion Awards, the National Indigenous Music Awards and the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Awards, all in Darwin.’

It’s the perfect time to head to DAAF and immerse yourself in the breadth of First Nations arts and cultural offerings, passionately led by the artists, Arts Centres and community.

Head to DAAF to learn more.

Celina Lei is an arts writer and editor at ArtsHub. She acquired her M.A in Art, Law and Business in New York with a B.A. in Art History and Philosophy from the University of Melbourne. She has previously worked across global art hubs in Beijing, Hong Kong and New York in both the commercial art sector and art criticism. She took part in drafting NAVA’s revised Code of Practice - Art Fairs and was the project manager of ArtsHub’s diverse writers initiative, Amplify Collective. Celina is based in Naarm/Melbourne. Instagram @lleizy_