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HomeIssue 1Cultural museum for Alice: That's how it could be done

Cultural museum for Alice: That's how it could be done

p22103-Abor-Art-SA-16By ERWIN CHLANDA 

While talk about an Aboriginal cultural centre in Alice Springs remains just that – talk, unless we are all being kept in the dark – and the Town Council is moving to plonk a multi-storey car park on the choicest piece of land in the town’s centre where the international tourist attraction could be located, Aboriginal artists from The Centre are the talk of the Australian art world.
They include people living in the town camps of Alice Springs and in the remote communities of the region.
While the show is national in its scope, desert artists are nonetheless providing the majority of the works on show in Tarnanthi, celebrating “the vibrancy and diversity of work” being created by contemporary Indigenous artists.

Pity that the showing place isn’t in Alice Springs but in Adelaide: the Art Gallery of South Australia, which boasts of Tarnanthi as the “most ambitious exhibition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art in its 134-year history”. It is a fine example of what a permanent centre could be like.
The show, whose title in Adelaide’s Kaurna language means “to come forth or appear, like the sun and the first emergence of light, or a seed sprouting,” takes up several rooms as well as all of the gallery’s lower floor. It opened with fanfare in early October – with multiple partner exhibitions coinciding with the AGSA’s show, making a veritable festival of Indigenous art across the city – and continues to January 14.
It was like running into old friends, seeing the soft sculptures by artists from Yarrenyty Arltere (based at Larapinta Valley town camp.) Their installation mapped their town: the places important to them, such as the hospital, Congress, Yipirinya School and Woolies, but also the river when it runs and brings life to the desert in the form of plants, animals, “birds with song”.
Alice Springs-born and bred film-maker and artist Warwick Thornton gained international acclaim with his film Samson and Delilah. In ‘The Way of the Ngangkari’  he sees the thrill of Star Wars heroes in the powerful traditional healers (Ngangkari) of his own culture.
One of many large collaborative canvasses in the show, this one, Seven Sisters, is by artists from Tjala Arts based in Amata, South Australia: Yaritji Young, Sandra ken, Freda Brady, Maringka Tunkin, Tjungkara Ken.
Ngurratjuta Iltja Ntjarra Artists, based in Alice Springs and painting in the Namatjira tradition, show the desert in another light: the softer hues of watercolour, the graceful swirl of dancers.
The painted wooden sculptures of footy players by Anmatyerre artist Dinni Kunoth Kemarre and the detailed colourful canvasses by his wife Joise Kunoth Petyarre celebrating the place of the game in the bush were given pride of place at the gallery – sees photos at top of the entrance, outside and in. In the gallery Kemarre and family show other figures from their repertoire.


  1. If anyone wants an Aboriginal cultural centre in Alice Springs the first thing they should do is follow cultural protocols and talk to the apmereke-artweye and kwetungurle for mparntwe. Otherwise it’s gammon.

  2. @ Penangke: The following of cultural protocols is correct, but the finding of such owner and manager of mparntwe is unachievable in the landscape of behaviour and attitudes among Aboriginal people who have affiliation through lineage to this country. Knowledge and understanding of who these people are is always contested and dismissed as not true.

  3. Good point Elvis.
    And to elaborate further: The owners and caretakers of Alice Springs and the surrounding estates continue to bicker amongst themselves about land ownership protocols.
    There is a lack of strong, determined leadership to negotiate such proposals that would provide huge benefits both culturally and economically for Aranda people.
    Meanwhile to our children, the town and its visitors I’m afraid to say: The “cultural centre of Australia” as we boast to the eastern states will lose out again.
    This proposal for the national cultural centre will end up in Canberra, Victoria or NSW, to the people we criticise for having no knowledge or lack culture.
    What an oxymoron, eh?
    Meanwhile the fantastic photographic and other non restricted collections of Spencer and Gillen, Strehlow and others who researched with old people throughout Central Australia circa 1890-1960, whose knowledge is unquestionable, will remain in the museum archives that they currently occupy, collecting dust while we continue to argue about “who comes from where”.

  4. There will never be a cultural centre here.
    Just the idea of one sparks arguing among various Aboriginal stake holders.
    As for a centre that could represent the diverse art and culture of the region?
    Forget it.
    It’s a nice idea though, one that could be a huge drawcard for tourists.
    But only in our dreams.

  5. The apmereke artweye and kwetungurle are known. But they are seldom respected particularly by developers and government who look for yes men to support their plans and to foster the bickering and division.

  6. Why do cultural centres exist in other places ?
    Because in other places there was determination to share cultural knowledge with others.
    In contrast, Alice Springs is awash in petty squabbles, over who controls or gains from the information, with lack of interest in sharing. Perhaps there is a preference in knowledge disappearing rather than being shared.
    Information seeps around, like water into ground, or smoke in the air.
    The cultural squabblers are unable to co-operate, unprepared to share with others, deny themselves more than others.
    Soon enough their descendants will visit cultural centres elsewhere to learn what they lost.

  7. Paul Parker (Posted December 22, 2015 at 8:03 am): I am not so pessimistic. People need to remember that the Alice Springs situation is pretty unusual compared to most other places that have contemplated the complicated project of planning to build a contemporary cultural centre.
    There are moves afoot towards mediating disputes, repairing damaged relationships, and building cultural bridges; and there is leadership adequate to the task.
    It is just long, difficult work, by its very nature.
    Alice combines the presence of a large mass of “immigrant” Aboriginal individuals, numbering several thousand, mostly from the central Australian hinterland, with a much smaller local network of traditional owner and custodian families, many of whom were displaced during the colonial period, and some of whom have intermarried with members of the immigrant groups.
    Alice Springs also boasts an unbroken line of detailed knowledge about traditional culture and social practices in the area, carried by some of the TOs and their associated custodian families who have re-occupied the town following the demise of the old systems of displacement and control.
    Many of these TOs and custodians had been shipped away, in the early to mid-twentieth century, to missions, assimilation settlements, welfare homes, pastoral leases, mines and foster homes.
    When you add to this volatile mix the fact that most of the local traditional owner families were subjected to the full brunt of colonial occupation, gun-enforced pastoral settlement, missionary interventions, lawless mining rushes and feral prospectors, all accompanied by succeeding waves of deadly new diseases, rogue cops and the misguided fracturing of their families by often over-enthusiastic child welfare practitioners, it is a wonder that so many of these families have survived in some form. Many have not.
    Therefore it is little wonder that there is still more healing time needed for some of these families, for mediating, and mending some of the fractures that have arisen between them.
    Other players in the town would do well to keep this in mind, and provide non-partisan support and solidarity, rather than pick away at the exposed wounds.
    If it is going to happen, it needs to be done properly. Great patience is required.
    Still, it is good to see Steve Brown and other local leaders here willing to offer unconditional support for the general project, and to see a number of others, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, willing to put their heads up and provide leadership in the effort to explore ways forward on these complex issues.

  8. Well said, Paul Parker. Alice Springs is indeed awash in petty squabbles, over who controls or gains from the information, with lack of interest in sharing.
    Sharing is seen as diluting the value of ownership and holders of knowledge would rather take it the grave than let others use it.
    It’s a bit like burning your car when it breaks down to make sure no one else can use it / take parts etc.
    I’ve seen the last custodians of a ceremony demand a grand each to share it with the next generation.
    Ultimately they didn’t get the money and now it’s gone forever.
    There are certainly a few who are not like that but many are, especially the older generation.
    They tell me they feel unappreciated and overlooked / disrespected by the young people, including those from their own families.
    There is a massive generational gap.
    Paul, descendants may well visit cultural centres elsewhere to learn what they lost.
    I note that the Desert Park employed whitefella archaeologists to teach their Aboriginal staff, so they could be tour guides.


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