Worldwide icon-chevron-right South Pacific icon-chevron-right Australia icon-chevron-right Sydney icon-chevron-right This abandoned café in Parramatta has been transformed into an art gallery
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This abandoned café in Parramatta has been transformed into an art gallery

Pari 2019 supplied
Photograph: Supplied

Turning a long-abandoned café into a contemporary art gallery comes with plenty of challenges: refrigerators and food prep equipment needs to be restored or removed, lighting needs to be rewired and adjusted, and just about every surface needs to be cleaned. But there’s one surprising challenge the directors of Pari, a new artist-run initiative in Parramatta, face: hungry visitors searching for a sandwich.

The former commercial space rented from Parramatta City Council is now packed with art and has new gallery walls, but the original menu board, hanging over the area where a counter used to be, is still in place. Although it’s a nice design touch and a reminder of the space’s former life, some folks are disappointed when the Pari team are unable to fill their order for a long black or a “Burger w Lot”.

Rebecca Gallo, one of the five directors behind the space, which opened in October, says it’s not entirely out of the question that they might one day add coffee to their arts offering. That’s because Pari is devoted to doing things differently and figuring out new ways that an artist-run space can serve artists as well as its surrounding communities. And given that it’s currently the only artist-run initiative devoted to contemporary art in Western Sydney, it makes sense that the Pari team might want to explore new avenues.

“People had been talking for a long time about the fact that a lot of infrastructure money and development was happening and being poured into Parramatta, but there was still this lack of music venues and spaces for art,” Gallo says. “There were lots of people making art out here, but not many places to present it.”

Pari mid-renovations. Photograph: Supplied

The five directors of Pari (all of whom have some connection to Western Sydney) realised at about the same time that the enormous creative output happening across the region was rarely being seen in the region itself, and all ended up connecting at the start of 2018 over their drive to create something new. 

Apart from its unconventional premises, Pari has a program that extends well beyond exhibitions, opening its doors to community events, screenings and live music, and will transform the former kitchen space into an artist workshop. The gallery has just wrapped up its first exhibition, Ten Degrees Hotter, featuring artists from across the west, and will be programming predominantly group shows, all via public call-outs. 

“You can see at other artist-run spaces there is an emphasis on solo shows – and for good reason; those things are important – but we’re interested in building up people who haven’t even shown once or twice, and getting them to meet other people in the show,” director Kalanjay Dhir says.

For now, the gallery is putting down its roots and forming more connections with the community. Located in Parramatta’s CBD, it’s attracting all sorts of curious visitors: businesspeople on weekdays, sports fans on their way to games at Bankwest Stadium on Saturdays, and churchgoers using the car park above the gallery on Sundays.

“It’s been really good, watching people slowly find out about it,” Dhir says. “Older people are coming and saying, ‘Oh my god, I wish we had this when we grew up.’ And we’ve got kids in art school from the area coming to volunteer.”

Pari fitout. Photograph: Supplied

While Pari is already being celebrated by locals, it may have to contend with some of the image issues Western Sydney has as a cultural centre. Despite the fact that this enormous region is home to almost 2.5 million people and many cultures and communities, art infrastructure tends to be built mainly in the more economically advantaged parts of inner Sydney. 

“Those ideas are fuelled by media representations of Western Sydney,” Gallo says. “And even using the term ‘Western Sydney’ is weird, because it’s not one region. It’s enormous and it’s a lot of discrete neighbourhoods and areas. It’s a weirdly homogenising term for the most diverse part of Australia.”

Dhir, who lives in Parramatta, says the truth about the west is far more complex than what people in the inner city might believe.

“If you’re a creative in the west right now, you know there’s something really special going on,” Dhir says. “I’m in the music world as well, and I’ve always said Western Sydney is the centre of hip hop, and it’s more true than ever.

“Sometimes I’ll chat to my friends who are architects and they’ll say people in their office were complaining about having to do a site visit in Parramatta. There’s still that image of the west, but I actually forget because I’m just so staunchly proud of it.”

Pari is open Wednesday to Sunday. See full details here.

Need more art in your life? Check out the best exhibitions across the city this month.