People usually visit Australia’s red centre for one of two reasons: to marvel at a place of extraordinary natural beauty, or to connect with the Indigenous cultures that have persisted for tens of thousands of years.
But when you arrive in Alice Springs, it becomes immediately clear that these two aims aren’t so easily separated. This place is home to the world’s oldest living culture, and their stories, lives and legacies have been shaped by the country. And you can’t really understand that country without understanding some of those stories.
That’s part of the purpose of Parrtjima, an annual festival of Aboriginal art and culture that lights up Alice Springs Desert Park with art installations and large-scale projections. At its centre is a massive light show that covers more than two kilometres of the Macdonnell Ranges for ten nights from April 5 to 14.
There are also projections that bring paintings to life, large communal spaces, and an inflatable artwork – which yes, children are invited to jump on – reflecting the dot painting pioneered in the central desert region.
This year’s festival coincides with United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages, and the light show will be narrated by Alice Springs-born actor Aaron Pedersen. There are shows from musicians Baker Boy and Mojo Juju and a talk from leading academic Bruce Pascoe, whose book Dark Emu challenged many of the myths we hold about Aboriginal people.
The dazzling displays are by the team that created and developed Vivid Sydney, and there’s a similar scale and visual flair. But what makes Parrtjima an essential cultural experience is the combination of cutting-edge technology with ancient art practices and stories of the Arrernte people of the local region.
Rhoda Roberts, the head of First Nations programming at Sydney Opera House, is the curator for the festival, and says bringing together the ancient and modern is a rewarding but sometimes challenging process. Roberts is a Bundjalung woman from northern New South Wales, and she works closely with a reference group of Arrernte elders who lead the festival’s artistic process.
“The festival is done literally through their eyes,” Roberts says. “I’ll present stuff to them, but they’ll tell me whether they like it or they don’t. They’re very honest.”
And it’s not just a matter of liking the work – the stories that are told through these artworks are sacred, and some have been kept secret for thousands of years. The elders are their custodians and take their responsibilities very seriously.
But unlike plenty of the places we now see the dot paintings and vivid patterns developed by Arrernte people – on mass-produced souvenirs that sometimes plagiarise these artists’ work – Parrtjima is led by Arrernte people. They’re also front and centre at the festival, and there are plenty of opportunities to meet the artists behind the work and gain a deeper understanding of their lives and practice.
“It’s to really bring people back to the place where those sand ceremonies were done and then transferred onto canvas,” Roberts says.
“These communities have given so much to the nation through their artwork, and indeed the economy. This is a way of refocusing and celebrating these incredible pioneers and their art.”
Parrtjima runs from April 5 to 14 2019.