Cairns Indigenous Art Fair

Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal
24-27 July 2014

The Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF) is a cultural festival, a multifaceted celebration of dance, art, music and community. This year saw the fifth Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, after a one year break, a change in management structure and board, and with independence and a state of the art venue. The Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal generously accommodated the Fair in light and airy spaces—between the seaport on one side and the grassy garden area on the other. Dance, music and food filled the garden area over the three-day event, with fashion, a symposium, magazine stands, and a cafe in an adjacent building, and a beautifully rendered fabric display by Darnley Island’s Erub Arts situated like a contemplation zone between. 

For Ali Copley, CIAF chief executive officer, the cultural profile of CIAF is unique. ‘It celebrates diversity… At the fair there is something for everyone… it showcases, in one space, emerging artists alongside very established artists.’ 

Since February 2014 CIAF, as a not-for-profit entity, has been independent of Arts Queensland (who conceived the event). It opened the national art fair circuit this year, followed by the Darwin Festival (7–24 August), the 31st Telstra NATSIA Awards (8 August), and the Melbourne Art Fair (13–17 August). 

There were some three hundred artists from Queensland at CIAF, from Badu Island in the far north, to Stradbroke Island and the ProppaNow group from the south-east. Aurukun, Lockhart River and others were participants, alongside seven commercial galleries. The fair was a visual and economic mix—with the thirteen art centre displays crowded, raffish and densely hung, between the two contemporary galleries from Sydney. Martin Browne Contemporary, showing three major works from Mavis Ngallametta, and Michael Reid a slick display of Christian Thompson’s sophisticated photographs, were an oasis of visual calm amid the other boisterous and crowded stands.

Attendances this year topped 2012 figures by over 2,500, with a total number of visitors at 18,304. Art sales reached approximately $500,000 across the fair (this figure includes galleries in Cairns over the period).

Within the program of associated exhibitions around Cairns, Bruce McLean’s exhibition SOLID! (curated for Cairns Regional Gallery) was the stand out, for its quirky selection of characteristically irreverent sculpture from Queensland, a celebration of its ‘kookiness’, also visible throughout CIAF’s stands.

The symposium and artist talks added depth to the experience, with recent work presented by artists Judy Watson and Dale Harding, together with Bruce McLean’s discussion of the development of his major exhibition for the Gallery of Modern Art ‘My Country’ (2011). The most pertinent discussion to the future of the fair, however, may be Tim Acker’s research on the art produced by Indigenous art centres and the marketplace over the last ten years, noting the decrease in sales of Indigenous art since 2007. He concluded that, despite the impact of the global financial crises over this period, the greatest threat to art centres is an oversupply of work and variable quality. He also noted that the perceived link between tourism and art sales is tenuous, suggesting clear differentiation between these audiences. 

The fair’s five iterations marks significant successes—the pack of Aurukun dogs sold to the Queensland Art Gallery after the first CIAF in 2009, the sense of discovery and awakening in this region, and the observance in strength of culture and palpable pride in Indigenous achievement. This year major institutional acquisitions included the sale of the three Erub Arts’ works, including the ghost net dinghy, to the National Museum in Canberra. The National Gallery of Victoria is negotiating for a group of works on paper that elucidate the women’s perspective (also from Erub).

While there is essential financial support from funding bodies, CIAF’s future remains bright, as evidenced by the significant line up of government dignitaries that spoke at the opening party. However if it was left to commerce, despite its worthy ambition to become a gateway to the Asia-Pacific region, I suspect that it may struggle. Gallerist Michael Reid believes that a broader remit might allow CIAF a significant future, and suggested, ‘There is a need for a peak body gathering experience and CIAF could be that forum. I do believe that CIAF has a significant future, if the experience broadens out beyond art and culture to administration, governance and politics … for first people matters in this country.’ 

Reid has an interesting point, with leadership in Indigenous communities more often allied to their creative members than in broader Australian society. It seems important too, as evidenced in the cultural power in the CIAF celebration, to allow for its advocacy on a broader platform than its economic credentials alone.

David Jones, Where's my wages?, 2013. Linoleum prints on 9 wooden scrubbing brushes, enamelled metal dish, dimensions variable. From SOLID! Cairns Regional Gallery. Courtesy the artist and Woollongabba Art Gallery, Brisbane.

SOLID! Installation view, Cairns Regional Gallery. Photograph Michael Marzik.

Ian Waldron and Katrina Chapman, Out of the Woods, 2013. Acrylic and timber diorama, 41 x 31 x 20cm. Courtesy the artist and Fireworks Gallery.

Laurie Neilson, The Shroud, 2010. Mixed Media on timber. Courtesy the artist and Firework Gallery; CIAF Dancers. Photograph Mick Richards. 

notes: 

See www.ciaf.com.au

Louise Martin-Chew travelled to Cairns courtesy of the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair.