This year we had our second chance to be in attendance at the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair. We’d been to the second one, in 2008, and I have to say that this year’s far outshone the earlier one, as can only be hoped. And this despite the fact that there was clear and direct competition from the WA Indigenous Art Award, taking place at the same time, and the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, which opened soon after.
In a way, it’s wonderful that there can be such a wealth and diversity of events celebrating Aboriginal art, and a shame that they do vie with one another. Not only did many people elect to attend one over the other (understandable) but it seemed that the competition for exhibitors limited participation in Darwin. I don’t believe I saw a single art centre from Queensland represented at DAAF 2011; there were precious few from WA either. Like the National Indigenous Music Awards held in Darwin a week later, the DAAF seemed in many ways to be a Territorian affair, equal parts desert and saltwater, still stunningly diverse, but….
But…I’m not complaining. There was still more at the DAAF than two days’ worth of visits allowed me to absorb, and the precious few photographs I brought home with me reflect what a whirlwind I was in most of the time: I was too busy greeting old friends and exploring new art centres to snap many memories. Luckily, there are plenty of wonderful photographs available on the DAAF website’s media pages.
So I will share with you those few photographs I did manage to take, and also one short story to stand for the many serendipitous encounters of the weekend. On the fair’s final day we returned to pick up our purchases and make arrangements for shipping them home. As I turned away from the Pack & Send booth at the rear of the exhibition hall, I saw what seemed to me a familiar face. I stopped, did a double-take, and then plucked up my courage and walked over to the booth of Bima Wear, the Tiwi women’s fabric and painting enterprise located at Nguiu on Bathurst Island. For who should be covering the booth at that moment but Crystal, star of the Sistagirls documentary shot by Bindi Cole and shown on the ABC earlier this year. She seemed a little surprised that an American would be raving about her wonderful portrait, but once we established that I wasn’t crazy (or a groupie of some sort), she shared a startling story with me. “In that picture, you know, I’m portraying Mudungkala, that old blind woman.”
The story of Mudungkala is one of the important Tiwi creation myths, but it is far less often told in art than that of Purukuparli and the coming of death into the world. So in Crystal’s honor, let me share it with you, courtesy of Tiwi Art.
An old blind woman arose from the ground at Murupianga in the South East of Melville Island. Clasping her three infants to her breast and crawling on her knees she traveled slowly north. The fresh water that bubbled up in the track she made became the tideways or the Clarence and Dundas Straits, dividing the two islands from the mainland. She made her way slowly around the land mass and then, deciding it was too large, created the Apsley Strait dividing the Islands. She then decreed that the bare islands be covered with vegetation and inhabited with animals so that her three children left behind would have food. Nobody knows where she came from. Having completed her work, Mudungkala vanished.
The hall was closing, booths were being disassembled, and so my encounter with Crystal was quite short, but it was in its own way just as exciting as the previous night’s engagement with her fellow Sistagirls Foxxy, Bimbo, and Laura.
But on to the photographs:
For many who attended, the highlight of the weekend was the opening speech by Franchesca Cubillo, returning to her Larrakia homeland from duties at the National Gallery of Australia, where she now holds the position of Senior Curator of Indigenous Art. Franchesca’s speech was warm and personal–she spoke of the pride she knew her grandparents would feel if they could witness an event like the DAAF–as well as a brilliant historical overview of the development of Aboriginal fine art and its markets. There is an all-too-brief excerpt from her remarks in the clip below that can be found on YouTube. Luckily, an audio recording of her complete speech can be heard on the DAAF website (scroll down past the video and click the link that says “Tune in: Franchesca Cubillo’s Opening Remarks“). Eloquent, passionate, personable and intelligent, Franchesca is always worth listening to, and I recommend her to you without reservations.