AArt of the North

by: Anita Heiss   published: 20th August 2012

From Cairns to Cooktown, Indigenous artists and tourism operators are helping to make Tropical North Queensland a tempting destination for the culturally curious. Australian author Anita Heiss takes the tour.

In Wiradjuri country in central NSW, from where I hail, dot painting is not part of our past cultural tradition; rather, carved and decorated boomerangs and shields were significant. That's neither here nor there, as I have no art and craft skills anyway. But when most people think of Indigenous Australian art and culture, the Red Centre often comes to mind: Uluru, dot paintings and didgeridoos. However, the highest concentration of Indigenous people is on the eastern seaboard, with Queensland having the second-largest population after New South Wales. So rather than reflecting the red earth of the desert, Indigenous art from Tropical North Queensland is dominated by the opal blues of the sea and rich rainforest greens.

Despite such jewels as the Great Barrier Reef, Cape Tribulation and Daintree Rainforest, it is the region's other gems that are sparkling. The picturesque path from Cairns to Cooktown now has a thriving Indigenous cultural tourism industry. Artists and operators are increasingly adapting and diversifying their practices, fusing materials and stories that are thousands of years old with those of the 21st century. Queensland encapsulates the best of natural and manmade experiences. Bag a canvas by promising artists, learn to spearfish among the mangroves or go on a guided Indigenous Dreamtime walk and learn to decipher rock art.

Cairns

From August 17 to 19, the Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal - which stands on the traditional land of the Yindinji people - will be the venue for the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (www.ciaf.com.au), showcasing works by more than 300 Indigenous visual artists. There will be painting, sculpture, photography, weaving and ceramics from 24 Indigenous arts centres - including Pormpuraaw Lockhart River and Badu Island - and commercial galleries.

With former National Gallery of Australia curator Avril Quaill at the helm for the second time, and high-profile curator Hetti Perkins assisting, this year's fair is sure to attract more than the 13,000 visitors of 2011, adding significantly to the $4.1m infected into the local economy in the past three years. Queensland is the only Australian state home to two unique Indigenous cultures - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander - and the fair reflects both in its programming.

Renowned artist and filmmaker Destiny Deacon of the Ku'a Ku'a and Erub/Mer people is keynote speaker, while acclaimed artist and illustrator Arone Meeks, from Laura, is exhibiting. But Quaill's tip is to look out for the emerging artists in the Big Wet Project, especially Justin Majid. And, she warns, 'Don't expect to see typically red earth-related pieces, because much of the art work reflects the lush tropical landscape and surrounding coral reef."

Now in its fourth year, the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair is touted as the premier event of its kind, attracting discerning collectors, gallery curators and tourists from around the globe. More importantly, it's a place where visitors can get a unique taste of Indigenous culture as they participate in a diverse program of art forums, music, dance and children's activities. In this respect, the CIAF has more resemblance to a festival of culture than it has to an art fair.

Can't make it to the fair? Satellite venues such as the Canopy Artspace, home to Torres Strait Islander artists Dennis Nona and Alick Tipoti (www.canopyarts.com) and UMI Arts (www.umiarts.com.au), the region's peak Indigenous arts and culture organisation, have permanent galleries and shopfronts. Avoid the 'made in china' art found in cheap tourist shops and head to either of these galleries, where visitors can often meet local artists. UMI Arts also has a market on the Cairns Esplanade on the last Friday of every month (May-October) with arts, crafts, performance, music, dance and food.

Cooktown

An adventurous drive along the Bloomfield track - with a stock at the eclectic and rustic Lion Den Pub along the way - or a quick scenic flight from Cairns, Cooktown is home to Guurrbi Tours (www.guurrbitours.com), led by the generous-spirited Willie Gordon, a Nugal-warra elder and story keeper. Far from an average bushwalk, Gordon's tours help local and overseas visitors understand connection to country and the importance of birth and death rituals among his people. Guests are taught how to read the land and rock art, and to consider the link between spirituality, education and the economy.

Port Douglas

Like most Indigenous Australians, I live in an urban setting where mangroves aren't common and hunting for bush tucker occurs in the supermarket. So while somewhat daunted by the prospect of slipping off my sling-backs, sinking into mudflats and manoeuvring myself through the mangroves, the experience of visiting the traditional fishing grounds of Linc and Brandon Walker, brothers who run Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat Tours (07 4098 3437), is too good to pass up. A quick lesson in spear-throwing on the sand at Cooya Beach (Kuyu Kuyu), 10 minutes north of Port Douglas, proves that I am on target when aiming at a coconut, but the crabs and fish elude me. A good day will bring in mud and sand crabs, mangrove worms, periwinkles and mussels. But no-one goes hungry on these tours, because the hosts cook up a feast. A fusion of bush tucker - chilli crab and turtle fried rice, for example - awaits visitors at the brothers' home base, to be washed down with the juice of coconuts fresh from a nearby tree.

Mossman Gorge

Eco-friendly Mossman Gorge Centre (www.mossmangorge.com.au), the vision of local elder Roy Gibson, opened in June. It has an art gallery exhibiting work by local community artists, a contemporary bush tucker café (with barramundi and tiger prawn spring rolls) and a training centre for future employees. The traditional owners of the Gorge, the Kuku Yalanji, offer guided walks.

The infectious enthusiasm of Brian Swindley - better known as "Binna" - makes it impossible for even the artistically bereft not to participate in his painting workshop at Janbal Gallery in Mossman township (www.janbalgallery.com.au). A talented artist, Binna is also a teacher, curator and owner/operator of the enterprise.

Anita Heiss' Am I Black Enough For You? Is out now (Bantam Australia)