By: Claire Summers, Executive Director, Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation
The nature of Art Centres and their journey to the fair, the role of art fairs in the Australian marketplace, and the evolution of DAAF over the past 10 years
The Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair has been celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art for a decade – and what an incredible decade it has been! It is an event that had humble beginnings in 2007, hosting 16 Art Centres in the ballroom of Darwin’s Holiday Inn. In 2016, the fair is hosting some sixty Indigenous owned and operated Art Centres from across Australia, all converging at the Darwin Convention Centre and commanding three huge exhibition halls. There is a buzz in the arts community that is hard to ignore. The art is exciting and diverse, it is challenging our traditional notions of arts practice and technique, and it is catching the attention of a new generations of enigmatic buyers who are starting to dictate how Indigenous art is consumed and critiqued.
Each Art Centre is as unique as the landscape it inhabits. It is shaped and designed to embrace its community’s cultural ceremonies and traditional practice, its Country, its history and ancestry, and its peoples. It is the art that plays a pivotal role in communicating the stories and messages to future generations. The role of community Art Centres stretches far beyond the marketing and sales of art. Art Centres are cultural keeping places that promote traditional practices and play a vital part in language recording and preservation. They are major employers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and offer meaningful professional development opportunities. They are social and economic hubs and can often be the only community owned enterprise that generate external income.
The last ten years has challenged the production and sales of contemporary fine art. The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 took its toll, and the industry received a further assault in 2011 when investors were prohibited from displaying artworks purchased through self-managed superannuation funds. It was a difficult time for artists, Art Centres and commercial galleries alike. It therefore became imperative that Art Centres found ways to diversify their businesses and attract new markets. This was no small challenge. The rise of textile art and design is a prime example of how the implementation of different mediums and techniques, that are positioned at an affordable price point, can awaken a sleeping giant. Textiles, fashion accessories, couture, limited edition prints, ceramics, smaller canvases, and even merchandise forayed onto the scene. The art was contemporary, of high quality, and was suddenly being devoured!
This evolution in the Indigenous art movement, gave rise to the development of Indigenous art fairs across Australia. The continuing success of Desart’s renowned “Desert Mob”, which has been held in Alice Springs annually for the last 25 years, validated that there was a resounding thirst from buyers for a direct link to the Art Centres. The Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair was established to provide a promotional platform for Art Centres at a national level. It differentiated from Desert Mob by adopting the structure of an art fair, rather than a market, yet it formed its own unique art fair model by inviting the Art Centres to participate, rather than commercial galleries. The establishment of the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation in 2012 also meant that event would always be governed by a membership of Art Centres.
The emergence of new subsequent Indigenous art fairs in Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia gave strength to the role of the art fair, indicating that it had an important role to play in the development of the sector. The fairs overcame the tyranny of distance, bringing both buyers and Art Centres together under the one roof to network, and discover new emerging talent. Visitors were enthralled with cultural experiences, and had opportunities to connect deeply with the art by genuinely engaging with artists and arts workers.
Equally, the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair enables artists and arts workers to gain enormous exposure to the commercial market place. Attending the Fair is imbedded in many Art Centre’s marketing and promotion strategies as it not only generates tens of thousands of dollars for each centre, but it also proliferates networking opportunities. The resources that Art Centres allocate to attend the fair must also be acknowledged. Preparations commence months and months in advance. Managers and artists fondly recount stories of bush trips to collect raw materials, cups of tea whilst discussing and designing new creations, artist workshops to develop new mediums and styles of art, and keeping prying eyes away from the corner of the collection room that is devoted to putting the best works aside for the Fair!
A month before the fair, packing and freight rooms across the country are alive with the screech of packing tape and the popping of bubble wrap, as thousands of pieces of art work are carefully wrapped and placed on barges, buses, aeroplanes, trucks, and troop carries caked in red dust. For some Art Centre staff and artists, it is a two or three-day voyage to Darwin over corrugated dirt roads, through river crossings, and over mountain ranges. The odd flat tyre stories are not unheard of! Some Art Centres must hop from island to island on charter flights before flying or driving for thousands of kilometres to reach Darwin! It is a sight to behold on the day of the bump in. Myriads of dusty, and often worse for wear, troop carriers line up in the loading docks of the Darwin Convention Centre. The exhibition halls are suddenly alive with activity and splashes of colour, as the art work emerges from boxes, post tubes, tubs and crates.
The Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair is a spectacular annual showcase of the incredible art that is being produced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. Arguably, the emergence of Indigenous art fairs in the Australian market has helped revitalise the industry by ensuring that emerging artists have the opportunity to present their work to both new and seasoned audiences. Many new artists have been discovered by public institutions, private collectors and galleries at the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair. There is a global excitement about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art brewing once more, and this energy will be felt at the 10th Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair.