Cairns Indigenous Art Fair

Six Years On
31 July - 2 August 2015

The opening night of the 2015 Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF) saw star-studded performances by Christine Anu and singer songwriter Archie Roach, set against a sky of fireworks. The night was capped off by the announcement by Arts Queensland of a further three years of funding for the Fair, ensuring its longevity to 2018. 

CIAF began in 2009 to showcase Indigenous Art Centres and commercial galleries together, in one venue. The initial two fairs were strongly centered on presenting high-end visual arts alongside an academic symposium; they were directed by Michael Snelling and run by Arts Queensland. 

Six years on and the three day art fair has developed to encompass not only visual arts, but also fashion, theatre, dance, music and film. The program has grown into the format of a festival in many respects, hosting an artist party, opening night celebrations, satellite exhibitions, collectors and VIP viewings, art markets, music performances, dance, a fashion parade, pop up shops, and children’s workshops.

Satellite exhibitions are held at the Cairns Regional Gallery, KickArts Contemporary Arts and Tanks Arts Centre. The Centre of Contemporary Art hosted a Black Cabaret and an Indigenous Short Film night for the first time in 2015.

The current artistic director Janina Harding says that while CIAF has expanded its scope, it ‘is still very much centered on creating economic opportunities for artists and creating a marketplace in Cairns for the Queensland Indigenous region’.

2015 saw high-end works curated into an art fair exhibition and the Art Centres, galleries and artists hosting a ‘market place’ with more affordable art and merchandise in the adjacent wharf shed. Previously the artworks and merchandise were shown together. 

The CIAF exhibition, ‘Wabu Minjaam’ (Coming Together to Share) was curated by Janina Harding (first year as Artistic Director), and Hetti Perkins. The exhibition demonstrates that there are two dominant art forms that have emerged over the past six years in the Queensland Indigenous art scene—sculptural works and textiles. Highlights from the art centres included Erub Art Centre and their amazing tropical coconut palm tree sculptural installation, Warab Sau, made completely out of reclaimed ghost net, an artform which Erub have made their own. Also Wik and Kugu Aurukun Art Centre presented a strong body of new works with their bold and graphically painted canvasses and wooden carved birdlife based on animal totems. Both these Centres presented cohesive bodies of work that were obviously created for CIAF.

Brian Robinson stole the show for KickArts Contemporary Arts with his impressive circular work, Warual Mandala II, which is printed onto textile, and the accompanying lino print series Waru Kazi. Robinson’s work was at the entrance to the exhibition and it was great to see him given the limelight. He is one of the most interesting artists to come out of the Far North Queensland region in recent years. He has successfully combined his traditional Torres Strait carving background with contemporary pop culture influences, keeping his works current and interesting. 

The 2015 Fair was inclusive of independent artists, those who are not members of an art centre or represented by a gallery. The ‘independents’ had their own space in the exhibition, and some artists, such as Teho Ropeyarn, had their own market space also. Ropeyarn, an emerging artist from Injinoo and based in Cairns, presented a strong body of work at the market place. He also launched his textile designs in the fashion parade, and these were for sale in his market space. It is an important development that all Far North Queensland Indigenous artists, including independent practitioners, have access to the economic benefits of CIAF.

One of the most popular venues were the art markets. They had an air of excitement to them, particularly as they offered visitors the chance to meet the artists, which is always a privilege when purchasing work from remote Indigenous centres and communities.

The curators and collectors program was bolstered this year with a popular visit to Yarrabah Art Centre, a one-hour drive south of Cairns. This became a highlight for many collectors, including Tina Baum from the National Gallery of Australia who noted, ‘to be welcomed by the Yarrabah community and watch the community performances … was a uniquely insightful and satisfying experience’. 

Textiles and fashion have cemented their place at CIAF with the ever-popular fashion parade and performance. This was the third year that RMIT fashion graduate Grace Lillian Lee curated the event Birrimbi Dulgu Bajal (Sea and Rainforest Dreaming). The performance offered a rare glimpse into the world of Indigenous textile design, and also had a busy pop-up shop for the night to purchase textiles and fashion pieces directly from the designers. The event was a full house, and hosted designs from Indigenous Art Centres and independent artists. 

Satellite venues across Cairns had a full program of local Indigenous art. Beginning with Tanks Arts Centre’s ‘Currents: Trends and Movements in Queensland Indigenous Art Centres’, which acknowledged the passing of one of Far North Queensland’s most famous artists, Sally Gabori from Mornington Island Art Centre. The exhibition included Gabori’s early career paintings and, touchingly, the last painting she made, Thundi (2013). Tanks Arts Centre also hosted a scaled down version of ‘Bungaree’s Farm’ curated by Djon Mundine. KickArts Contemporary Arts Space had a group exhibition ‘Warriors, Sorcerers and Spirits’ that also acknowledged the late Sally Gabori with a key painting. KickArts showed ‘Icons in Clay’ in its level two space, a collaboration between Yarrabah Art Centre and established Queensland ceramicist Janet Fieldhouse. 

Cairns Regional Gallery presented a solo exhibition by Torres Strait artist Alick Tipoti. Titled ‘Zugubal’, it brought together two strong bodies of his work, Girelal (2011), an eight metre single block vinyl cut print, and impressive large-scale masks based on ancestral artefacts. The comprehensive exhibition richly illustrated Tipoti’s Badu Island heritage. The regional gallery also presented ‘Out of Queensland: New Indigenous Textiles’, where Queensland Indigenous artists were commissioned, in partnership with CIAF, to create new textile designs. The artists’ designs were digitalised and printed on large reams of linen: some translations were more successful than others. Arthur Roughsey’s work, Thuwathu, from Mornington Island Art Centre, developed particularly well into textile. His design of small dot work represents constellations in the sky and the story was based on Thuwathu, the rainbow serpent. 

Together with CIAF, the satellite venues presented an impressive collection of artists and works from Far North Queensland. However several artists appeared in multiple venues, creating some repetition, and most works were by the known artists of the region. It would be good to see some space dedicated to emerging artists and different art forms in the coming years. Also the main CIAF exhibition could push the envelope and take more risks, dissolve the locational partitions, and create a more fluid exhibition that highlights the unique art forms coming out of the North Queensland Indigenous art sector.

Overall the 2015 CIAF had a strong feeling of cohesion amongst artists, art centres, galleries and the community. There seemed to be less pressure on high-end art and more investment on the community aspects of the industry. The fair has developed into its own festival of events, and after six years CIAF may have found its unique place on the annual Indigenous arts calendar. 

Brian Robinson, Warual Mandala II, 2014. Linoprint on fabric, lego, edition of 5. 

Erub Art Centre, Warab Sau, 2015. Installation, CIAF, 2015. Reclaimed ghost net. Photograph Kerry Trapnell for DSX images, supplied by CIAF.

Teho Ropeyarn, 2015. Fashion designs at the CIAF fashion parade. Photograph Kerry Trapnell for DSX images, supplied by CIAF.