18 September 2012
For all the attractions of the annual Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF), its most anticipated is the unveiling of new works from the 15 community art centres around Far North Queensland. As isolated as many of them are, artists rely on advice, guidance and expertise from outside before displaying them during the city's artistic high season.
Arone Meeks is a Kuku Midigi man whose country is around Laura, Cape York, home of the famous Aboriginal dance festival. Prior to this year's CIAF event, he spent several months in two communities offering his expertise as a senior indigenous artist and teacher. In Yarrabah, just east of Cairns, he has relatives so his job was made easier. But at the tip of Cape York, centred on New Mapoon, he entered as an outsider.
"There's a certain amount of time and space and trust that you need to win over when you go into a community," he told Telinga Media during the art fair. "My main tactic is when I go into communities to teach, I'm not there to tell them what to paint. I'm bascially helping them expand on their stories, and show them new techniques and mediums."
During his time at the art centre at New Mapoon, he worked with artists from the five communities of the Northern Peninsula Area (NPA) - Bamaga, New Mapoon, Injinoo, Umagico and Seisia.
He says the first week was very slow. The middle of the second week was a turning point. Meeks uses the imagery of birth to describe what happened.
"This egg exploded. And it was full of colour. And everyone became intoxicated with the paint; they understood the medium, they understood the technique; it all sort of came together."
An exhibition was planned for June so Meeks secured one more week to bring the works together. When he returned to the centre, the number of artists had doubled and the paintings were well on their way.
Eight of Arone's NPA artists were chosen to exhibit at the UMI Arts Gallery in Cairns, opening under the name 'Ngalpa Mura Tjara Tjera Apudthama' or Our Journey Together. It was the first time a showing of works by solely NPA artists had been staged in Cairns.
The artists went through a regular program at UMI Arts introducing them to all the tasks required to prepare for public exhibition.
UMI Arts both services the art centres with resident teachers such as Meeks and develops the artists' awareness of what happens to the artworks once they leave their hands. It also runs its own gallery.
"There's both the technical level of learning new ways of creating art," says Janet Parfenovics, executive officer at UMI Arts which operates under an all-indigenous board. "It's also about the older, more experienced artists reinforcing the importance of getting cultural permissions of what they tell through their art from their elders."
"There's lots of workshops run by mainstream artists (who) go into many of the arts centres in Far North Queensland and that's absolutely valid," she says. "But there's not those protocols that sit behind that."
Arone Meeks believes community artists like his students at New Mapoon still struggle to understand the public and commercial spaces into which their works are placed.
"They're trying to come to terms with what's happening with contemporary indigenous art," he explains. "They don't understand it. They don't understand what constitutes someone like Vernon Ah Kee or Samantha Hobson. And yet they like it, but they don't understand why."
"We talk about stuff like 'why there is a New Mapoon? What happened to the old Mapoon?' Things that are happening in their community...That's their sort of dictionary to refer to or subject matter for their artwork."
"If you listen carefully enough, you can pick out some of these key words and subjects, and help develop them with the artists into a painting."
A sophisticated grasp of the categories (contemporary, traditional) that allow art dealers, collectors and critics to talk to each other may not be so vital to the artists from New Mapoon. Of more consequence, believes UMI Arts's Janet Parfenovics, is how going public with their art strengthens their people back home.
"It brought a real pride from the rest of the community," she says about the first exhibition of NPA artists even shown in Cairns. "When the opening of their exhibition took place, it was community that came because they were there to celebrate the successes of the artists from within their community."
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