Above: Desert Mob 2015, opening night. In the foreground, work by the Hermannsburg Potters. Now a younger generation of potters is emerging.
By KIERAN FINNANE
“Extraordinary contemporary art by some of Central Australia’s most celebrated Aboriginal artists” in a “truly unique event” – this is almost upon us with the annual Desert Mob, no need to wait for Parrtjima.
The coming together in Alice Springs of Aboriginal artists from around the desert is in its 27th year. It’s the real deal, directed by the artists and their art centres, with the support of their association Desart and the Araluen Arts Centre.
It has grown from a highly anticipated annual exhibition to a festival in its own right even if it doesn’t adopt that label. Apart from the core events at Araluen there are several associated smaller exhibitions and as well as opportunities to visit the town-based Aboriginal-owned art centres and galleries, including a pop-up by Tjanpi Desert Weavers.
Two features of the program that have been developed in recent years are especially worthy of note.
One is the Desart Photography Prize. It is relatively humble in its presentation – a developmental show of small-scale works and exhibited off-site – but in its five years (this will be its sixth) it has more than accomplished its original goals.
Left: Robert Fielding, 2015, with his photographic work Milkali Kutju (Four daughters – one blood).
It was conceived as a way of developing the digital photography skills of Aboriginal art workers, who use photography to record what’s happening in and around the art centres as well as to document artworks. There are around 100 Aboriginal art workers employed across the desert at present; most art centres have one, some have two or more (although some don’t have any).
The prize has yielded some very fine individual photographs over the years, and the inherent interest of the whole body of work – for the way it reveals experiences of “culture, community and country” – has attracted a number of exhibition opportunities, including at Alcaston Gallery in Melbourne.
It has also helped establish the photographic art practice of Unrupa Rhonda Dick and Robert Fielding, both of them prize-winners at this year’s National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (Dick sharing the top prize with fellow artists Anwar Young and Frank Young).
This year entries in the prize will be hung at Desart’s own gallery, in Reg Harris Lane off Todd Mall, opening at midday on Thursday 7 September. The winner will be announced the next day at the Desert Mob Symposium, which is the other program feature that has grown in excellence in recent years.
Above: Dancers from Papulankutja Artists opening the 2016 symposium.
The day-long symposium is dedicated to artists’ voices: just as the exhibition is thoroughly theirs, so too the symposium. It’s invaluable for outsiders, providing a way into the artworks and the whole rich context of their production, which of course includes insights into what life is like in today’s desert Aboriginal communities. As a learning experience, there is nothing comparable to this on the Central Australian calendar.
It is also clearly rewarding for the artists themselves. They are embracing all the aids at their disposal, from interpreters to audio-visual technologies, to transmit their messages, although at times brilliantly multi-lingual speakers and story-tellers hold centre stage unassisted. Films (and filmmakers, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) have also made excellent contributions. This year Artists of Ampilatwatja will present four short films, about bush medicine as it features in their art and healing practices.
As well, the program typically features a presentation from artists and /or art centres outside of the desert region. Last year we heard from Injalak Arts from Gunbalanya (Oenpelli); this year, we are going further north to Maningrida to hear about Babbarra Designs, one of the oldest continuously operating Indigenous textile enterprises in Australia.
The symposium is particularly the contribution of Desart to the program. There’s increasing competition from other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art events and festivals, so it’s important to keep Desert Mob “edgy”, says Desart CEO Philip Watkins. The symposium is part of what helps maintain its place in the national arts landscape, as is Araluen’s increased effort with the catalogue.
Right: Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis (in red), speaking to the film she directed, Kuruyurltu, at the 2014 symposium. The film was about painting trip to this important place by Tjarlirli and Warakurna artists.
But fundamentally it is the artists themselves who preserve Desert Mob’s edge: desert artists (from the APY Lands) took four out of six prizes at the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. They will be duly acknowledged at the symposium, which will also hear about a new project senior APY male artists are involved with, commissioned by the National War Memorial.
A panel discussion with artists from the Ngaanyatjarra lands will background their work for the forthcoming Tarnanthi festival in Adelaide: a show not of their art but about their ngurra or home – where this art comes from. The panel will share some of the processes and projects artists have undertaken over the last year.
Another presentation will come from the curators of Tjungunutja: from having come together, the exhibition of early Papunya boards and their historical context that is now showing at Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin.
At the symposium and elsewhere at Desert Mob, one question on many lips will be about what is happening with the proposed national Indigenous art gallery. Mr Watkins (left, in front of a painting by Yakari Napaltjarri) is one of the co-chairs of the steering committee doing the early groundwork for this project. The other is Hetti Perkins who will also be present – apart from anything else as one of the judges of the Desart Photography Prize.
The committee has met four times to date. To what extent have they heard views from Aboriginal artists and art industry representatives from around the country about having a national gallery in Alice Springs?
The focus for the co-chairs thus far has been on talking to key stakeholders in Central Australia, says Mr Watkins. Going further afield will follow their first report to government, due in October, which will include the committee’s recommendations on the location and the key purposes, including curatorial premise, of the gallery.
Will there be any announcements at Desert Mob?
In short, no. We will have to wait for announcements from government, says Mr Watkins, but he does clarify that the gallery and cultural centre are still being seen as two separate projects (in contrast to statements by Harold Furber on NAIDOC Day).
Meanwhile Mr Watkins welcomes as “long overdue” the government’s investment in Aboriginal art centre infrastructure, as part of its Arts Trail commitment.
Desert Mob opens at Araluen on 7 September; the symposium is on 8 December, followed by the popular MarktePlace (for lower-priced works) on 9 September.
RELATED READING (Desert Mob over the last five years):
For richness and breadth there is nothing like Desert Mob
25th Desert Mob: ‘We all grew up together’
Desert Mob: This is who we are
Never ending story: Desert Mob 2013
The way it’s always been and the ways of the future