National Aboriginal culture centre – one that’s up and running



The fixation on location for the Alice Springs national Indigenous cultural centre (as for the art gallery), forever on the drawing board, is in stark contrast with Adelaide’s, the oldest Aboriginal-owned and run cultural centre in Australia, opened in 1989 and set up in a building erected in 1901, the first electricity powerhouse for the city.

Ironically, a very similar building will soon be empty in Alice Springs as the Ron Goodin Power Station, adjacent to the Golf Course Estate, becomes obsolete.

It seems there has been no thought given to the PowerWater complex and its possible repurposing for the art gallery or the cultural centre. This is no surprise because all the NT Government has achieved so far is the demolition of the historic Anzac High School, which might also have been repurposed.

Tandanya CEO Dennis Stokes and his staff, all employed by the SA Government, as many as about 35 during the recent Fringe Festival, and the all-Indigenous board, are of course well beyond the bricks and mortar phase, having cobbled together a neat and constructive philosophy for Tandanya.

“Tandanya is a national institute, more than a museum, a creation and performance art space with music, theatre, dance,” says Mr Stokes.

“We have exhibitions but they are not permanent. We’re working with artists and communities to bring in and highlight all the work or culture they have. There will never be a permanent collection here.”

Tandanya’s agenda reaches for beyond look, don’t touch: personal contact between visitors and the Aboriginal staff is mutually welcomed.

Says Mr Stokes (below): “We always put a positive spin on whatever comes in here. It’s highlighting the contribution Aboriginal people have made to Australia.

“Although we have exhibitions that deal with certain subjects, there has got to be some positivity attached to that. What people see on the walls or on the screen, although things have happened [early in the history of settlement], people are moving forward. It is an adapting culture.”

The audience is shown that “Aboriginal people have contributed to Australia in many ways.

“Last year we had a Vietnam exhibition dedicated to all Indigenous soldiers who had fought in Vietnam, even before they were classed as citizens.”

NEWS: Who is the audience?

“Aboriginal people who want to connect,” says Mr Stokes. “They also want to make sure that culture is kept alive. This is a place that assists that.

“[And] non-Indigenous people who want to connect and know what’s going on in the community.

“Some 80% of visitors are non-Indigenous” the majority being international. The exception is the Fringe, underway as we spoke, when locals make up by far the majority of Tandanya visitors.

Year-round, visitors “go to the South Australian Museum. There are beautiful collections over there, but what they are not getting is personal close contact with Aboriginal people.

“Here they are behind the counter, they work in the cafe, the retail store, in the gallery, myself included, as the CEO. People have a chat, about the exhibition, the space, because they are intrigued about the building, which is beautiful and heritage listed.

“They want to chat, ask questions. Sometimes it’s nothing to do with what’s on the walls.

“That’s what people are looking for. They are looking for actual contact with Aboriginal people.

“They ask about tribal groups, how many people live here.

“Some are very staunch supporters of Indigenous people, who want to fight the fight, talk about racism and the stolen generation.”

Mr Stokes says he’s called in frequently when people are asking questions about history and politics: What does he respond when people say Australia is treating its Aboriginal people badly?

“That’s part of my job.

“We get backlash a bit, because we’re not political enough. But that’s not what this place was created for. You may have politics that you adhere to.

“But at the same time, it’s not politics we want to discuss here. We have every year Survival Day, for example. That is about education and it’s about teaching people that culture and arts are surviving. People are surviving. And we’re adapting as well. And that’s on Australia Day.

“It’s never politicised. It’s not a political event. It’s about teaching people, hey, this is the history as well, it may not necessarily be part of your idea of Australia Day.

“We always try to give a positive spin. There are negatives, there is no way you can deny the things that happened. But it’s not the job of Tandanya to push that agenda. I think that’s what other organisations are for.

“The strange thing for me is most interest comes from people from Europe, probably the colonisers who want to know what happened over here, who may not know about the history of Australia. They either know what’s going on or they don’t. And it’s mostly the don’ts who come in here.”

And some of these are keen to compare activism across the globe.

Mr Stokes says he’s frequently in touch with Alice cultural centre promoters Harold Furber and Owen Cole:  “I actually call them uncles. We’re all mob.” (Mr Stokes’s family is connected to the NT’s Top End and the Torres Strait.)

NEWS: Would the two organisations compete or cooperate?

“Complementing. Always complementing. It’s probably our job to make sure that artists and culture and communities from here are actually participating in what’s going on there [in Alice Springs]. It will be national.”

The board is 100% Indigenous, including a representative for the Torres Strait.

NEWS: Would the Alice centre be bigger than Tandanya?

Mr Stokes side-steps the question: “We would always work in conjunction with whatever is going to be built in the Northern Territory. We are supposed to work with all the communities around the country.” That means up to four exhibitions simultaneously for a couple of months at a time.

NEWS: “Exhibition” conjures things hanging on the wall.

“Visual arts is big part of what we do, but there is a theatre space and a screen with 149 seats, for film, dance, music. Things are created here.”

NEWS: There is some suggestion in Alice Springs that influx into Arrernte country of elements from other cultural areas could have undesirable consequences. Do Adelaide Aborigines have a similar tendency to possessiveness over their land?

Soon to be obsolete: Ron Goodin power station in Alice Springs.

Mr Stokes answers the question with references to the need for its agenda being transparent and to anti-social behaviour: “The Kaurna people are very much … this is their country. We need to keep them informed about what’s coming in. Cultural proprieties need to be attached to that. We just don’t go and do things willy-nilly. We have four board members who are Kaurna (pronounced Garna).”

And: “When other groups and communities come to Adelaide, it happens right through the NT, you know when people come from communities, and they [camp] just in the park, and they do things like that, it would be hoped that they would make contact and do the right thing.”


Thomas E. S. Kelly slowly walks backwards into the stage, puts on a T-shirt and trousers at the outset of [MIS]CONCEIVE, by the Karul Projects dance company. He moves from the dreamtime to the present.

It’s a difficult transition that this 50-minute dance performance on the Tandanya stage at the Adelaide Fringe Festival is grappling with: Sharp, precise movements, some of them repeated as a pattern, are dealing with the misconceptions that in Alice Springs especially are part of daily life.

Why is education a flop? What’s behind booze abuse? Why do so many Aborigines not have a job?

Aborigines are lazy. At this moment the four dancers are lying on the floor, idly looking into the crowd, for quite a long time. The audience light goes on. Some think the show is over and applaud. But clearly the lights mean to shine on the public: It’s you guys who’re saying all this.

PHOTO of Dennis Stokes by Sia Duff. The two exhibition halls by Alice Springs News. Ron Goodin powerhouse – News archive.

FOOTNOTE: The Fringe, clever, funny and tolerant, has managed to bring in an element that is none of those things.

Journalists reviewing performances are required, within 48 hours of the performance being reviewed, to submit their work to the Fringe administrators.

Once submitted the stories are forwarded to the performers who can do with them what they like, including publishing them on social media.

In other words, the writers are forced to surrender their copyright to their work, without any pay and possibly appearing around the world before they have appeared in the medium the journos are working for.

“Please note that failure to upload your reviews to the Fringe Feed may result in cancellation of future tickets,” say the event’s bosses.

Not a bad outcome, a lot of journalists may conclude.



  1. This is the problem with what has been dubbed truth telling, when it comes to indigenous history in Australia, it depends on whose truth is being told.
    To truly achieve any form of reconciliation it is important that the real truth is told, and the myths and mistruths are corrected when ever they are seen.
    Mr Stokes says that the Indigenous Vietnam highlights the Aboriginal contribution to the Vietnam war, before they were even “before they were classed as citizens”.
    This is a bit of a worry when a person in charge of curating displays in a museum or cultural centre imposes a mis truth like this on people who visit.
    One can only assume that he is referring to the 1967 referendum, and the myth that Aboriginal people were not classed as citizens until then.
    This is fundamentally incorrect.
    The 1967 Referendum did not grant citizenship rights. The National and Citizenship Act 1948 had given citizenship to all Australians previously deemed British subjects, including Aboriginal people. In Western Australia, citizenship had been given through the Natives (Citizenship Rights) Act 1944.
    One would hope that he does not also promote the other falsehood that Aboriginal people were considered flora and fauna, under some unknown federal Flora and Fauna Act.
    While the success of the Adelaide centre is to be applauded, we must inform those seeking knowledge with the truth, not somebody’s version of the truth, our outright falsities.


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