cairns indigenous art fair 2011

cairns cruise liner terminal
18 - 21 August 2011

As a first time visitor to the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF) I was taken right back to one of the great Aboriginal Cultural Foundation dance festivals on Groote Eyelandt, which fate had sent me to back in 1985. This prompt was stimulated by a comment about CIAF from an unnamed Yidinji Traditional Owner quoted in the Fair’s 2010 Annual Report, ‘[The Fair is] like a corroboree and bora ground—we all come together … to practice our culture on this country, and we are also exposing our culture to other communities’.

In 1985, I had seen cultures from Cape York to Broome and from the Tiwi Islands to Uluru showing off their ceremonies to each other—in awe of the strong Pitjantjatjara women mocking their Borroloola counterparts’ love magic—but most of all, ensuring that their offspring became aware that the culture in all its complexity really existed. So, in Cairns in 2011, a powerful moment for me was the opening ceremony where Seith Fourmile, probably the Traditional Owner quoted above, had set a bunch of Yidinji kids dancing while he chanted with an ineffable look of pride on his face.

The difference between the two experiences was that, unlike remote Groote, tourist-town Cairns is as non-indigenous as they come. But both the local culture and the more remote cultures from the Cape and the Torres Strait Islands (TSI) seem to be able to maintain their connectedness to ancient traditions and many of their languages in the face of so many distractions. This was clearly seen in the Fair and surrounding events.

Take Badu Islander, Alick Tipoti’s new exhibition of Sorcerers’ Masks—transformed into art by their individuality, their production from fibreglass rather than the endangered turtle shell, and by their range of sizes extending right up to the ‘Wow!’, in Tipoti’s own words. Such new material required a new ritual to bring it correctly into the world at Canopy Artspace. Ancient language was chanted, new choreography was created, and the message was clear that despite the masks’ purpose of protecting a buyer’s home and family, he or she would never become the owner of such a powerful cultural product, merely the keeper. Look out for Tipoti in 2012 at both the Sydney Biennale and Brisbane’s Asia-Pacific Triennial.

Meanwhile, over in the calm and collected conditions of the Regional Art Gallery, CIAF Director Avril Quaill had curated an exhibition of ‘fine art’ from the region—‘pivotal works by major artists and strong works by emerging artists’, in her words. This best of the best contextualised the ambitions of community artists from eight Cape York, three TSI and two community art centres from outside Far North Queensland. Reportedly, next year this show will be seen beside the art centres and commercial galleries in the Cruise Liner Terminal setting that was inaugurated this year. In twelve months, one handsomely restored shed will become two.

Outstanding at the Gallery were Waiben man Brian Robinson’s new prints combining traditional TSI iconography with Greek mythology. Dennis Nona—master printmaker—has turned painter, revealing an extraordinary colour sense for one so used to working in black and white. Out of the rainforest, a young Napoleon Oui is transforming the old shield-master, Michael Anning’s historic artefacts into 2D art. And Roy McIvor, Chair of the Hope Vale Art Centre, now paints wawu, spiritually satisfying mosaics of colour under the apposite title, ‘Dynamic Order’, a huge advance on his 2002 quasi-bark works for the Queensland Art Gallery’s seminal ‘Story Place’ Cape York survey, which in many ways kicked off this whole effulgence.

Dynamic disorder was more the flavour of the Fair itself—as any art fair might expect to be. This was emphasised by the presence, in one place, of fine art galleries who would normally turn up their elegant noses at sitting cheek by jowl beside tea-towels, boomerangs and T-shirts. That was just the most obvious clash of cultures; others being the clear differences in both intent and style between TSI, Cape York and urban indigenous art; and one has to admit that, just occasionally, community art centres do not see eye to eye with the city dealers.

Yet the range of agendas within CIAF all have to be addressed. Community artists need to go home with some cash; less-affluent buyers want to be in on the game. Hence the tea-towels, etcetera. And when an artist as experienced as retired fashionista Linda Jackson is on hand to offer assistance to Yalanji artists from Mossman, the work crosses borders most fruitfully. On the other hand, VIPs on the Collectors and Curators program organised by Jonah Jones, the man who first thought up this ‘boutique’ art fair, need to see (and hopefully buy) quality works that will suit their needs. ‘The punters see value when art galleries and museums buy this art, which, hopefully, will become as identified with the region as reef and rainforest’, said the pragmatic Director.

Significantly, Avril Quaill is indigenous herself—proudest when introducing the VIPs to ‘her Mob’ on the Quandamooka stand at the Fair. She and her Manager have also moved to Cairns to give CIAF a year long presence in its home town.

It’ll be fascinating to see how that affects her decision-taking on future Fairs. For the pull of big Blak Brisbane where Quaill spent time with the Queensland Art Gallery and with the Queensland Indigenous Arts Marketing and Export Agency (QIAMEA)—the government body dedicated to marketing and exporting Queensland’s indigenous art—is still strong. So that boyish bunch of provocateurs—proppaNOW—had a presence wherever one turned.

Commissioned for the Fair itself, Tony Albert—the gentlest of the gang—emboldened us all to ‘Be Deadly’; generously including non-indigenous buyers of his poster with a price that was double what indigenes paid! Fair enough for a piece encouraging empowerment by a locally-born artist who has spent time cross-fertilising in his home town of Cardwell, and at Aurukun on the Cape, as well as in Brisbane. As Simon Wright of the Griffith University Art Gallery says in the catalogue, ‘This is less “Aboriginal art” than it is a conceptual art practice that raises certain issues…’.

Issues like that came up a lot at the KickArts contemporary art centre. The annual CIAF Symposium was held there beside a major act of provocation from proppaNOW—though it playfully hid behind the printable title of ‘The Black See’—as in ‘C’. I cannot condone footballer Andrew Johns’s use of that epithet. But does he really deserve such renown fifteen months later in Cairns?

ProppaNOW’s theorist Vernon Ah Kee was also given the opportunity to provoke as a keynote speaker at the Symposium. His views seemed designed to question the validity of much of the art around him at CIAF, suggesting that ‘the Aboriginal art movement’ is a juggernaut like the Dutch Tulip Bubble—which will soon be over. He also questioned the artistic validity of artists ‘telling the same story over and over again’, and used the phrases ‘cottage industry’ and ‘folk art’ as pejoratively as those nice folk at the Frankfurt Art Fair did many moons ago.

Was Ah Kee trying to be insulting? Avril Quaill believed there was ‘nothing personal’ in his words—though I suspect it was good that few remote artists were there to hear them. Quaill went on to explain that much in her Symposium was aimed at considering ‘the power relationships in the industry’ in order to encourage more indigenous management. Indeed, the session entitled ‘Not every Aborigine is an artist’ never really tackled that matter, but did offer three indigenous curators the opportunity to inveigh against the ‘white institutions’ that employed them, and for the National Gallery of Australia’s Franchesca Cubillo to share her ‘vision that our languages and aesthetic should determine the value of our art’.

Fortunately for my temper, someone with both languages and aesthetic to burn was also on the Symposium bill of fare. Professor Peter Sutton was there to share with us his detailed researches into the Wik culture of gender exchange and the Wik language—sadly he is the last speaker of the Flinders Island dialect—and to presage what will surely be a fascinating account of 1920’s anthropologist Ursula McConnel’s experiences there, beyond the frontier, in a book he is writing on the subject. But the man who will also be remembered for his breakthrough American exhibition of Aboriginal bark and Desert art, ‘Dreamings’ (1988), could not resist a riposte to Ah Kee, pointing out that it was he who originated the phrase ‘cottage industry’, ‘which’ he continued, ‘is literally true, and suits everybody in remote situations’. He also explained that ‘repetition is the law in Aboriginal society—Dickie Minyintiri (winner of the big Telstra Prize this year, and an old friend) has been painting the same stories on the ground and on bodies for sixty years now. The only new thing is that he can make money out of it today—which is a positive’.

Fortunately, strong cultures on show at CIAF show every sign of surviving the divisions in the industry, partly as a result of what Sutton was calling ‘classicism’—meaning research into the history of their culture by artists such as Arthur Pambegan, Alick Tipoti and Dennis Nona, in order to inform and enrich today’s work.

But CIAF also offered multiple opportunities for the more practical sides of survival to show their wares. John Oster, lone pioneering Executive of the Indigenous Art Code, was particularly conciliatory in hoping that all factions in the industry would come to welcome a minimal level of regulation (with teeth) that would avoid what he discerned to be ‘the danger of trashing an icon that has become the brand of the country’. Oster will be helped, potentially, by the parallel imposition of Resale Royalty on artwork resales. For, though we learnt that $385,000 had been collected between June last year and August this year on behalf of three hundred plus artists, 75% of them indigenous, it is suspected that the simple collection of hard data on buying and selling by the Royalty’s administrators will be even more beneficial in the long run, assisting the Code and the rest of us to better understand this industry; even better than regular attendance at CIAF. 

Bagu from Girrigun Aborignal Art centre. Photography Kerry Trapnell. Courtesy of the artists and Griigun Art Centre.

Tony Albert, be Deadly, 2011. Acrylic and collage elements on linen, 213 x 252 cm. Courtesy the artist and Sullivan + Strumpf Fine Art, Sydney.