August is a time of year I really look forward to. It’s not the icy winds and rain of Narrm (Melbourne) or those short days when the sun seems to go to sleep at 4.30pm. It is because I look towards the north and pack my bags for Larrakia country, Darwin. August is a vibrant time in the Northern Territory for First Peoples arts fairs and festivals, including the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair (DAAF) and the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Awards (NATSIAA). A particular highlight this year was the addition of the Indigenous fashion runway curated by Torres Strait Island woman Grace Lillian-Lee. These events celebrate the breadth of the contemporary arts of First Peoples from across the country. It is a time where we can celebrate and showcase our cultural practices of time immemorial. Practices that continue to flourish and evolve into the new, all telling the stories of country, culture and politics. All boldly saying, we are still here.
The Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair is one of the key events in the Australian First Peoples arts calendar and for the 11th fair in 2017 it showcased the work of two thousand artists from over 67 arts centres across the country. DAAF is one of the most significant national festivals of First Peoples art in the world, generating over $7.5 million of art sales in the past five years alone. It is also a space where artists, collectors, gallerists and curators come together to further relationships. The fair provides four days of art, performance and panel discussions and is where the public can come and meet artists and buy their works ethically and directly from the arts centres. I was excited to see two Victorian Aboriginal Art Centres there this year – Gallery Kaiela (Shepparton) and Baluk Arts (Mornington Peninsular), both highlighting the strength of First Peoples culture of the South East.
This year I was invited to participate in the inaugural Indigenous Curators Symposium in collaboration with Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair. The symposium brought curators from diverse backgrounds together to discuss the sector and identify areas where we can strengthen and support the Indigenous arts and cultural space. These forums are crucial in supporting First Peoples working both in institutions and independently as we continue to be underrepresented in curatorial and collection management in museums, galleries and art spaces, even though our creative cultural practices bring in millions of dollars and cultural capital to the country yearly.
The significance of this forum builds upon DAAF’s motto that ‘our art is more than a living, our art is living’. This ongoing program addresses the responsibilities that we as curators have to the communities we work with and to the culture we live every day. It speaks to our role in supporting and promoting artists, and ensuring that cultural protocol is present in all we do. The most discussed topic during the forum was developing ways to ensure that there is always a written legacy – both online and in print – for the shows we curate, the projects that we develop and the artists we collaborate with. Many of my peers at the symposium are exceptional and active arts writers and the symposium reiterated the importance of Indigenous curators writing about our own art in our own way, both from in and outside of institutions. Franchesca Cubillo, Chair of DAAF and Senior Curator at the National Gallery of Australia states:
“At the forefront of my thinking now is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need to start writing our own art history, with our own perspective’.1
As part of the program, curators were also assigned to art centres, to assist in the setup of their stall and to build connections. Coming from Melbourne and with my cultural grounding being in Victoria, I found it was a significant opportunity to build my relationships outside of the South East. I worked closely with Spinifex Hill Artists, Martumili Arts and Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre.
All three are outstanding art centres, playing a very important role in the First Peoples arts market today, as do many of the centres at DAAF, producing remarkable painting, weaving, new media and sculpture. Each centre hosts a range of works from emerging through to established artists, and also have accessible products such as jewellery, clothing and bags.
Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre is one of Australia’s premier art centres, and this year featured the lead female artist Galuma Maymuru. Galuma is one of the first Yolngu women to be instructed to paint (by her father, artist Narritjin) the sacred clan designs that were previously the domain of high-ranking men. Buku-Larrnggay Mulka is renowned for the extraordinary painted barks and larrakitj poles and this year also had a range of delicate shell necklaces on display. One of their senior artists, Nayappanyapa Yunupingu, was the winner of the 2017 NATSIAA work on bark award.
Martumilli arts showcased the strength of Martu culture; acclaimed artist Billy Yunkurra Atkins was the feature artist this year for the centre and a finalist for the 2017 NATSIAAS with his playful work Kumpupirntily Ngayurnangalku (2017), stories of the ‘Mummy cannibal and his little babies’, an important Martu story. His work and designs were also printed on t-shirts and are available through the centre, Deadly, both on canvas and as wearable art!
Spinifex Hill Artists have over forty artists making work across a diverse range of styles, including lead artist, story-teller and language worker Nyaparu (William) Gardiner. Mr Gardiner’s work tells the story of his childhood growing up in the Pilbara and the 1946 Pilbra Strike. It is these stories and lived histories that make the works at DAFF so important.
Being at the fair, you were immersed in the beauty and personal stories, culture and country of thousands of artists. Importantly what was also present was strong political voice and activisms, from the Uluru statement from the heart there to sign, to a painting of Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull painted for western desert ceremony (Spinifex Hill artists), through to a very powerful sculptural installation of a horseman and two Aboriginal men in chains from Ngukurr Arts, NT. DAAF is a space of not only promotion and ethical trade, but also where artists can express their culture and politics outside of the white cube and institutions, where they can meet the people that are interested in their works and also have meaningful connections with curators and the people that work for their communities within institutions.
DAAF overall is something every art lover should experience. It always leaves me with pride and awe at the extraordinary arts practices of First Peoples from the south to the north and everywhere in between, artistically and culturally we continue to be strong and present.
Kimberley Moulton is a Yorta Yorta writer and curator based in Narrm (Melbourne) and Senior Curator of South Eastern Aboriginal Collections at Museums Victoria.