The Art Of Storytelling Begins In Cairns

In the lead up to the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, Shelley Winkel discovers the best place go hunting for indigenous experiences is right here in Queensland.

I'm standing ankle deep in the briny waters off North Queensland with my spear raised high and my hunter's eye trained on tonight's catch. Just fifteen metres away, dinner sits rooted to the beach, paralysed in fear before the line-up of seven urban warriors about to send an arsenal of quivers into its core.

On the count of three our daggers whoosh through the air and land with a consecutive plop, plop, plop.

Linc Walker, our guide and a descendent of the Kuku Yalanji people, is trying hard not to laugh. As our spears land closer to the hunters rather than the hunted, it's clear that our target – a washed up coconut – is free to live another day.

This is the Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat Tour, a chance for city folk like me to step into the once shoe-less feet of Australia's original inhabitants and go hunting and gathering through nature's supermarket; the tidal mudflats off Cooyer Beach just ten minutes-drive north of Port Douglas.

At first glance, there's nothing to see except a vast sandbar with corrugated ridges that tickle our normally trussed up toes.

Just a couple of inches below the surface, Linc assures us is a smorgasboard of snacks from mud crabs to periwinkles and clams.

With a red bucket in hand and nature's shop doors flung open, it's game on! This is not a pretty tour and you have to be prepared to muck in, at times jiving knee deep in mud to dislodge cockles, at others trekking through a swampy mangrove, to pluck marine molluscs from muddy tree roots. These are like escargot on steroids, only juicier and larger. I smirk at the thought of their anaemic gaullic cousins. Eat that, Chirac!

The tour is more than a scrounge for food.

As a custodian of the past, Linc Walker is also a link with the present and he eloquently explains the history of his people and the importance of the indigenous culture.

“We are not here to be changed,” he says, “We are here being aboriginal and this (tour) is a way to merge traditional culture with western society. This is what we do and it allows us to teach others.” I learn so much.

“Being Aboriginal” is a badge that Cairns and the tropical north can wear proudly. This frontier city of around 150,000 residents is also a bubbling cauldron of creativity and our tour takes us to Canopy Art Space where some of the nation's foremost artists are gearing up for the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF), held biennially every August.

The event promises to be a hive of energy and colour and a chance to prove that Queensland indigenous artists are punching above their weight.

“Twenty years ago there were no career paths for local artists - so they left,” former artist director Avrill Quaill said. “Then, most of the art sold in Cairns was imported from the desert and people only wanted to look at dots.”

With the infrastructure in place (Cairns TAFE has offered a two-year indigenous art course since 1984) and the first generation of artists now making a commercial living, Quayle is convinced that we “are witnessing something that the French may have witnessed during the early years of impressionism.”

That's a big call. But after seeing the bold linocut prints and the hyper dreamy oil-based interpretations of the past, she may prove to be right.

Billy Missi, a shy Torres Strait Islander is the first artist we meet and he introduces us to an electrifying story of a thanksgiving ceremony. The print practically pumps with ululating figures and explodes with bush plums and berries.

It's unlike any art I've seen and I'm convinced it will do well in my lounge.

A former clam diver, Billy has already exhibited in 32 countries around the world and is now a mentor for the next generation of Torres Strait artists like Glen Mackie and Justin Magid who we spot in the working studio behind the gallery. Coming from a long-lineage of carvers, these three young guns have turned their hand to linocut printing, a pliant medium that enables them to gouge complex patterns depicting legends of their past.

It also allows the artists to make their story commercially assessable to a wider audience.

“We need (our art) to evolve in western media and we need modern materials to keep the art going,” said Missi.

Missi is not the only person concerned about putting indigenous art before an audience.

About four hours drive north, just outside Cooktown, Willy Gordon is worried about the degradation of rock art around his ancestral birthing place and the subsequent loss of his culture.

A Nugal-warra elder and master story teller, Willy has recorded 49 sites within a one kilometre radius of the sacred rock. Each is coated with once vivid images that articulate warnings and outcomes of human action.

Painted in ochre, a medium that generally only lasts 2,000 years, these painting have been used for 10,000 years to educate clan youngsters. Willy is a strong proponent of re-touching the art and is convinced that the authenticity of rock art is not in the art, it's in the story.

“For years, they took us away from our art, took us thousands of kilometres away. Now we have come back,” he explains. “If we don't preserve the art and keep the story, it will become a Dreamtime. If we do that, one day they will say, 'those silly buggers let it all go'”, he said. “Today, I'm hoping you take a picture and you explain it to others.  It doesn't matter that you are not Aboriginal. You don't have to be. As long as you take the story with you.”

Part teacher, part preacher, Willie Gordon makes a whole lot of common sense and as I pad quietly past the rainbow serpent's head in this deeply spiritual location and tip toe along the bush track used by his ancestral mothers for thousands of years, I can't help but wonder what else these first Australians can teach us.

And for that reason I'm booking a return visit to see the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, a time when the tropics comes alive with artists and story tellers just like Linc, Billy and and the wisest of them all, Willy.

Editor's Notes:

Word Count: 1132
Author: Shelley Winkel

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