Ditch Disney: the best stories now are at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair

5 July, 2017

The world's longest living legends and lore will take centre stage from July 14 -16 when artists representing aboriginal communities from Tropical North Queensland come together to showcase their finest visual and performance art at the 2017 Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF).  

And the local arts community is energised.  

Already fired up from last weekend's biennial Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival - which saw some remote communities rehearse in tourist camps in the lead up to the “dance-off” – north Queensland is now turning attention to its visual artists, including block print artists, painters, sculptures, carvers, potters, fashion designers and dancers.

First launched in 2009, the three-day Cairns Indigenous Art Fair is a one-stop exhibition for stories from the top end and was first developed to rally positivity around indigenous culture and create cultural exchange and an ethical market place for the sale of indigenous art.

“It's very important to continue the stories of my community,” said Glen Mackie, a Cairns-based print artists and the only living artist from the 600-strong population that makes up Yam Island in the Torres Strait.

“My culture is dying and I'm scared.

“Our art is based on stories. The most important thing right now is to get those stories out. To get them down on record and as close to what my grandparents told me.”

Mackie carves intricate legends onto household-grade vinyl. He then collaborates with master print maker Theo Tremblay, of Canopy Art Centre, to translate those stories onto paper.

Along with the 2000 artists who have been represented since CIAF first began, Mackie is looking forward to this year's fair.

“It's a great moment to see (my) work exposed to a wider audience and to document that story forever. You can't see my country on the map. But you can see it in my stories.”

For more information on CIAF, see ciaf.com.au.

With a bit of legwork, visitors unable to get to Cairns in time for the July fair can still experience the extraordinary depth of indigenous art year-round at the following galleries and studios:

Umi Arts,

A traditional Queenslander shop on the outskirts of the Cairns CBD, UMI Arts houses the rising stars and next big thing in the north Queensland art world. It can be a great place to buy and original at a pocket friendly price.

A: 335 Sheridan Street, North Cairns

W: www.umiarts.com.au

KickArts W: www.kickarts.org.au

This is one of those galleries that you can “do” in 30 minutes but you leave with a lasting impression. It's free to enter and there's always an eclectic and electric line-up of art on show. You can't miss the building: look for the giant jelly baby spirit people on the exterior.

Tip: For less than $20 you can buy some practical memories of the local arts; like some cool Dolly Loogatha wrapping paper for $5.00.

Janbal Gallery W: www.janbalgallery.com.au

Brian “Binna” Swindley is a proud Kuku Yalanji man and the owner, artist, teacher and front man of Janbal Gallery in Mosman. His art is inspired by his late mother, his totem (the cassowary) and the sources of food.

Tip: Sign up for his art class and create your own masterpiece on a “burnie” bean or a 10cm canvas. It's a great opportunity to sit and talk to Binna about his life.

Canopy Art Centre. http://www.canopyartcentre.com/

When most people think of aboriginal art, they conjure up images of ochre, dots and aerial views. Not so for many of the artists of Cairns and Tropical North Queensland. These are rainforest people and their art also reflects the blues of the reef and greens of the world's oldest rainforest as well as the intricate legends of the Torres Strait Islander artists in block print format. The current exhibition at Canopy Art Centre is a showcase of some of the finest block prints, ghost net art (eclectic pieces made from abandoned fishing nets) and sculptures. 

Tip: Some of the nation's leading indigenous artists quietly work away in the studio behind the gallery.

Ngarru Art Gallery http://www.ngarrugallery.com.au/

Don't let the fancy Port Douglas shopfront stop you from entering this gallery. Like Doongall in Cairns, this is the kind of place that leaves you wishing you had deeper pockets and a spare month's salary. Push on. At the rear of the store there is a wall of stunning 300 mm x 300 mm miniatures – all original - that are perfectly sized for just about everyone's suitcase and everyone's budget.

Bana Yirriji Art & Cultural Centre

Only the adventurous who dare the Bloomfield Track make it to this gallery, but the friendly artists from the local Wujal Wujal community love a visitor and it's worth popping by. Their native bead necklaces and silk Kaftans are particularly gorgeous.

Tip: Ask if you can visit the studio in the back and chat to some of the artists.


Quinkan and Regional Cultural Centre

Laura is known for two things: a petrol station-come-general store that's possibly the last stop in Queensland to purchase a Weiss bar icecream and one of UNESCOs top 10 sites for rock art in the world. You can't buy art from here (and please don't steal it), as this is one of the best outdoor galleries in the world with a history that stretches back 30,000 years and showcases giant horses and striking spirit creatures.

Tip: Book a two hour guided tour (between March and October) to understand a little more than what you can see free.

W: www.quinkancc.com.au

Other galleries to consider: 

Cairns Regional Art Gallery

Start your Aboriginal art education at this little gem of a gallery in the heart of the city.  

Doongall Arts

The Gallery represents over 20 local artists specialising in Aboriginal Rainforest Art.


Yarrabah Arts Precinct, south of Cairns

Just a few kilometres from Cairns as the crow flies, The Yarrabah Arts Precinct is a showcase for ceramics, painting, weaving, arts and craft, textiles and of the local community. Requests can be made for a guided tour of the museum and works can be commissioned

Mossman Gorge Centre

Walk in the footsteps of the original rainforest people at Mossman Gorge and then fossick around the art gallery. W: www.mossmangorge.com.au


Word Count: 1046
Author: Shelley Winkel
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