Let’s get some perspective. Warhol was painting soup cans 50 years ago. Picasso was painting women as abstract shapes 75 years ago. Da Vinci was working on the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile 500 years ago. Aboriginal art has been dated back to 20,000 years. And that was just the rock art. Aboriginal art is intimately linked to its history which dates back as far as between 60,000 to 80,000 years, often drawn in sand or dirt, leaving no trace except for the continuous narrative of its culture.
But where is the best place to immerse yourself in this melding of art and culture? Alice Springs, which was the birthplace for the contemporary Aboriginal art movement that has taken the world by storm since the 1970s.
That movement continues to this day with Parrtjima – A Festival in Light celebrating that art on an epic scale.
The annual light festival showcases the world’s oldest continuous culture through the newest technology against a backdrop of an ancient landscape.
Creative director Rhoda Roberts curates the festival which connects thousands of visitors to Alice Springs – the home of the Arrernte of Mparntwe.
A Bundjalung Widjabul woman, Roberts says she is “indebted” to the cultural guides who sit on the advisory board.
“The inclusivity of the local community, you get a sense of their case making and belonging, and you put that into the event where there is this pride of ownership. That makes the difference in the event,” she says.
“Communities always want to gather and belong. These artists have consistently changed their genre but their stories never change and you say to them now we are going to put [them] into light – with that story remaining the core principle but we have fun with and create installations that have never been seen in the world before.”
This year’s event was Roberts’ third, with the festival gaining “momentum this year” and “ready to continue at that pace”.
“I think it will be our Burning Man,” she says. “One of the key things for this year [was] there was depth. We were listening to the stories of the old people and the layer upon layer of knowledge.
“In the long term I’m hoping the festival really showcases our artists not just locally but for national and international first nations. If you want an Indigenous experience and you want to see how people continue this extraordinary stewardship of their land and stories – this is the place to see it.”
Central to the festival’s success is the landscape itself, which is at the heart of Aboriginal culture and consequently Aboriginal art. It is the very thing that makes any event in Alice Springs so compelling.
“You take the art of our landscape and put it under the extraordinary light and you have something you can’t get anywhere else,” she says.
“They (the elders) strongly believe that everyone should have the story of country as its their country too.”
Another event currently taking place in Alice Springs that showcases Indigenous art is Desert Mob at the Araluen Arts Precinct. Bringing together Desart-member art centres from across the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia, Desert Mob is a annual gathering of artists, artworks and audience.
The opening weekend just kicked off, with Araluen Arts Precinct senior director Felicity Green describing it as a “very eclectic rich offering of what’s going on out there [in the art scene]”.
“It’s about what’s happening now,” she says. “People experimenting and exploring new mediums. We also run a symposium, with 60 percent of the audience made up of Aboriginal artists. There are satellite events all around town. It is a really rich and genuine cultural offering.”
The artists come from far and wide, representing stories from across 2 million square kilometres of country – something Green describes as “mind boggling”.
Green returned to Alice Springs three and half years ago, and the most frequently asked question she is asked by visitors is “can we get a deeper and authentic experience of Aboriginal culture”.
She also chaired this year’s Australian Museums and Galleries Association (AMaGA) conference which was held in Alice Springs in the lead up to Desert Mob.
Before and after the conference, delegates were able to explore the Central Australian landscapes with cultural tours to Uluru, Kata Tjuta and other sacred sites.
“The overwhelming feedback was that it was the best conference they had been to because of the [cultural] immersion,” she says.