Essay for Tropicàlia Capricornia exhibition catalogue


Tropicàlia Capricornia offers Darwin Festival audiences a snapshot of the Top End’s broad and burgeoning contemporary art scene. Not only that, it also acts as a prism for our political and cultural landscape, through which the things that matter to us may be discerned and discussed.

The Top End is a unique place. Cyclone Tracey, crocodile attacks, the Intervention, INPEX… Stories such as these reverberate in our collective consciousness, shaping our distinct identity as they rattle through our small and porous population cordoned off from the rest of the nation by lonely stretches of red desert and the Arafura and Timor Seas.

Just as our identity is unique, so too is our art. Emotions and states-of-being are defined by a certain ambience endemic to the Top End, incorporating an idiosyncratic cocktail of ingredients as contrary and outrageous as our bipolar seasons. The aforementioned dust-bound isolation is captured in glass artist Andrea McKey’s half-desiccated piece Distance, Dust and Hope; while in contrast bountiful life and love, Territory-style, is lauded in Linda Joy’s colourful and celebratory work Mindil. Meanwhile, Al Oldfield’s Dry Season Thunderstorm summons the excitement that accompanies cracking pre-monsoon storms. The plastic toy gun also brings to mind the Top End’s status as a strategic military resource. Camo and khaki filters out of the Australian Defence Force’s Larrakeyah and Robertson Barracks and stipples our public spaces; while American accents are heard increasingly in passing as the influx of US defence personnel grows, with up to 2,500 US marines to be stationed in Darwin within the next two years.

Political and environmental issues facing the Top End make strong focal points for local contemporary art. As the Federal Government recently unveiled its official plan to allocate billions to ‘Develop the North’, artistic activism works to counter the real and potential dangers of natural resource exploitation. In The Life, David Wickens muses on the disjunct between ancient untouched landscapes of the remote North and the single-mindedness of the Top End’s FIFO demographic, hi-vis both in attire and ecological impact. Thematic similarities may be perceived between Wickens’ work and Therese Ritchie’s Mine, Mine, Mine. For her part, Carmel Ryan puts a positive spin on sustainability. As upcycling permeates nearly every aspect of Ryan’s wearable art practice, Carmel’s Miranda was created out of at least 15 pre-loved garments, a work that dances with a light environmental footprint.

Aly de Groot is another artist to use fashion and textiles as tools for activism. She is also one of the first artists in the Top End to use ghost nets in her practice, weaving them into sculptures and wearable art using techniques she learnt from Aboriginal artists. The need for conservation efforts in the Top End is further highlighted by de Groot’s imposing hand-woven Green Sawfish, a work that nods to the seven-metre specimens that were once pulled out of our northern waters on a weekly basis. These days, a fully grown adult is a rare sight as the now critically endangered sawfish suffers as bycatch on fishing expeditions, or falls victim to the tens of thousands of deadly ghostnets drifting imperceptibly in the Arafura and Timor Seas.

Sexual politics in the Top End is also a topic regularly explored by local artists. In Eve’s Expulsion, Gaye Coyne invites her audience to consider women’s inequality. Coyne is critical of the way religion is used to bolster discrimination against women, and it is interesting to consider cases where the great serpent of Indigenous mythologies has been used by Christianity to enforce Christian taboos. On that note, discrimination against Indigenous women is a particularly pertinent topic for us in the Top End. While national statistics are already worrying in that they show that one woman dies every week from domestic violence alone in Australia, Indigenous Australian women are a staggering 45 times more likely to be victims of domestic violence than non-Indigenous women. With almost a third of the NT’s population identifying as Indigenous, the susceptibility of Aboriginal and Torres Strait women to violence and discrimination continues to stare us in the face.

Homegrown contemporary art from the Territory’s own slice of Capricornia is special. It is both different from art created anywhere else in the world, and important in signposting the events and experiences that define this place. Despite recent funding cuts to the arts, there’s no doubt that contemporary art in the Top End is putting its best grassroots foot forward. New dedicated platforms for local contemporary art in the form of galleries and festivals have sprung up in recent times, such as the community-driven projects Darwin Fringe Festival and the Darwin Art Trail which both celebrate their successful second year running this year. Initiatives from many local galleries to overcome cultural boundaries through creative means continue on a strong trajectory, bringing together non-Indigenous, Indigenous and neighbouring Asian artists. And in 2015 not-for-profit organisation Tactile Arts made history, sending local contemporary ceramicists and potters to help represent the Territory at the Australian Ceramics Triennale for the first time.

It is testament to the health and promise of the Top End’s contemporary art scene that here we have a show that features such a variety of original work from such a variety of perspectives – and that it barely scratches the surface of what the Top End has to offer.


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Artwork for Ali E’s new EP

Super stoked that my illustration is on Ali E’s new EP Creatures. Check it yo!

Ali E artwork

And have a listen to the first track released off this most excellent EP here

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Artwork for Green Stone Garden’s new single

My coconut palm illustration appears in the artwork for Darwin band Green Stone Garden’s new single ‘Burning Paradise’!

gsg burning paradise

Fun fact: this song has been nominated in the NT Song of the Year Awards! Listen here

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Sydney Artists Take On Darwin


What does Darwin look like through a Sydneysider’s eyes? Six artists from ‘Down South’ are behind a new exhibition that investigates that very question.

In June last year, six artists from Sydney made a trip up to Darwin to meet with local artists, arts organisations and curators. North is the exhibition inspired by the ideas that were ignited during the visit.

Exhibition co-producer and exhibiting artist Harriet Body instigated the project: “I grew up in Darwin and feel a really strong connection to my hometown,” she says. “Although I’ve lived in Sydney for the past 12 years, I still identify as a Darwinian. I wanted to see what would what would happen if I collided my Sydney world with my Darwin world.”

“The artists who came to Darwin last year work in varying media and each responded to their experience of Darwin very differently, so as a result we have a wide range artworks exhibited – from video, installation, painting and sound-based work,” Body says.

One of the artworks in North features recorded interviews with people who have moved up to Darwin, drawing out the reasons why these people chose to make the city home. Another artwork covers a ‘country rap’ song by local performer Mick Denigan (of Mick’s Whips fame).
The artist behind the Mick Denigan cover is Siân McIntyre, “When we visited Darwin last year I was lucky enough to catch one of Mick’s performances at Mindil Beach Markets. To me, Mick symbolised the archetypal Darwinian character and both the content of his songs and his performance inspired me to reinterpret his material in a context more familiar to me.”

North is part of the SYD/DRW Project, an ongoing venture which aims to foster creative collaborations between Sydney and Darwin-based organisations and artists.

North opens on Friday at the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art in Parap at 6pm.

AT: NCCA, Parap

WHEN: Fri 15 May, 6pm-8pm


Originally posted in Off The Leash

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Tea for a Territory Wildlife Tale

The Bunjiboo interactive story swag in progress

The Bunjiboo interactive story swag in progress

Locals are invited to be part of a new art project by sharing their stories about their experiences with the Top End environment and wildlife.

Frances Bunji Elcoate (of Bunjiboo renoun) is in the process of creating an interactive story swag. An interactive story swag is a swag that plays back the recordings of stories that Elcoate has gathered from interviews with a range of people, all based around the theme of relationships with Top End environment and wildlife.

Elcoate’s interactive story swag is largely inspired by the success of 2010’s 10 Swags Project. The 10 Swags Project was the result of a collaborative effort between Elcoate, Anna Weekes and Larrakia Nation which involved recording the stories of homeless Australians living in the long grass, and then installing these recordings in swags that audiences could lie – and listen – in. Now, with her current project, Elcoate is looking to explore the concept of the swag as a cultural vehicle even further.

“I realised from my work on the 10 Swags Project that the swag has all these layers of symbolism and meaning,” Elcoate explains. “Not only does it hearken back to bush culture and nomadic life in the bush – and act as a symbol for this history for lots of Australians – but it embodies some interesting contradictions as well. The swag is something that many Australians both identify with and don’t want to be associated with. During the 10 Swags Project we discovered that swags are actually banned from Parliament House in Canberra, even as they continue to feature as Australian icons, like in the song Waltzing Matilda.

“Furthermore a swag is a very indiscriminate vehicle for stories. It picks up parts of all the places that it’s taken to, the smell of a campfire or the stain of the red dirt underneath. My swags are made with bits and pieces of older swags and get lugged all over the place. They really retain traces of their journeys,” she laughs.

Elcoate hopes her swag will be an amalgamation of diverse stories: “The final artwork will be informed by the stories I hear,” she says. “This relates to the design of the swag too. The appearance of the swag will change and become more intricate following the stories I gather.

“I’ll use the stitching techniques I use to create shoes to help me create the swag,” she elaborates. “It’ll be a mixture of leather and canvas collage and stitchwork that will reflect things in the stories I hear, like the subtleties of the landscape. But at this stage this interactive story swag really is very much a work in progress. The final product won’t be ready until next year.”

Elcoate sees the swag as the perfect amplifier for people’s stories about their experiences with the Top End’s wild side. As a resident artist of the Territory Wildlife Park’s Artists-in-the-Park program, Elcoate has been busy interviewing Territory Wildlife Park staff members to gather information about many unique aspects of Top End environments and ecosystems, from the significance of responsible burning practices to the importance of aquifers.

“It has been great talking to Territory Wildlife Park staff,” she says. “They have so much knowledge about the environment and local wildlife, it’s been fantastic.”

Elcoate’s next step is to open up the storytelling opportunity to locals from the broader community. At Darwin Fringe Festival event Animale Carnivale, she will be inviting people to sit inside her work-in-progress story swag, offering a cuppa in return for a story about experiences with the unique Top End bush.

Elcoate is one of over 15 local artists, sculptors, dancers and performers appearing at Animale Carnivale. Anyone can contribute to Elcoate’s interactive story swag at Animale Carnivale, which will be held out at the Territory Wildlife Park on August 2.

What: ‘Tea for a Territory Tale’ is part of the Darwin Fringe Festival event ‘Animale Carnivale’

Where: Territory Wildlife Park

Cost: $10 per person, $25 family deal

Tickets and info:

First published on the Off The Leash homepage

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Darwin Art Trail

Kate Bussey and Gerald Clapham in their studio

Kate Bussey and Gerald Clapham in their studio

The Darwin Art Trail is the first of its kind in Darwin. Looking to showcase local original art, four studios will act as ‘ambassadors’ for four very different kinds of art practice happening around Darwin.

Anyone familiar with Darwin’s Open Garden scheme will be familiar with Jasmine Jan’s Artist’s Retreat. The rural block down the road from Humpty Doo has become increasingly popular with local garden aficionados, this year drawing record crowds of over 800 people. It’s not hard to see why. Apart from the luscious, labyrinthine haven of tropical plants backing onto a paperbark-studded billabong, there is something else that makes this garden stand out – Jasmine Jan’s Studio Gallery. Filled with top quality work by local artists and serving as a workspace for her own professional art practice, this studio set in rural oasis is just one of four art studios that together have been cultivating a new strategy to showcase original art from Darwin, joining forces to forge the brand new Darwin Art Trail.

“The garden was very deliberate,” Jan reveals. “It was always my intention that the space where the studio gallery is located has some sort of traction with visitors, because to get people to travel out of town you’ve got to make it about more than just exhibiting art.”

To attract bigger audiences to local art, offer up a greater experience than your typical gander at the finished products. This idea is at the heart of the Darwin Art Trail with all four participating studios preparing to open up free of charge to the public one Sunday a month. Inviting audiences into the studio will not only allow them to interact with the artists directly, it also provides an intimate, behind the scenes perspective on the workspace, craftsmanship and creative process behind the work of some of Darwin’s most skilled artists.

With each studio either purpose-built or retrofitted to accommodate the artists’ own practice, each is a unique place with plenty to explore.

“Because each studio is so different you really can go to all four studios and not see the same thing twice. We’re encouraging people to go on a ‘studio crawl’ and make a day of it,” Jan says.

It could be a whole day experience, or half-day experience. People can start at ceramists Kate (Bussey) and Gerald (Clapham)’s place in Darwin’s northern suburbs, maybe see them throw something on the wheel or crack open the kiln. Then they can head to glassmaker Andrea (McKey)’s place and see her behind the torch doing glasswork.

After that, they can drive a little way out of town to Peter (Jettner) and Troya (Bywaters)’s place and delve into their workshop, which is like an Aladdin’s Cave of antiques and industrial junk waiting to be welded together into sculptures. Finally there’s my place where I’ll be showing the process behind my paintings or my glasswork or mixed media pieces.

The Darwin Art Trail launch is part of the Darwin Fringe Festival. The Darwin Fringe Festival has been resurrected this year in response to calls for a festival that would maintain a primary focus on work coming out of the local art community. Jan is one artist that sees the need for such a festival.

“For the population size Darwin has an amazing diversity of artists working in really different art forms and to a very high standard, but they’re all underground,” says Jan. “Unless they’re in an exhibition you wouldn’t know they existed. They’re out on rural blocks and they’re in suburbia and they’re doing their thing and nobody outside the local art community knows about them.

“I actually think local art is one of the most undervalued areas of Top End culture. Indigenous art from the Top End is pretty well recognised interstate and overseas now, but the talent and diversity of non-Indigenous local artists is just not showcased to the degree it deserves.”

The Darwin Art Trail launches on Sunday 20 July. If you haven’t already picked up a brochure from tactileARTS you can view it here:

What: Darwin Art Trail

When: Launch Sunday 20 July, 10AM-4PM.

Where: Studios are located in Darwin’s northern suburbs and Humpty Doo. For maps and more info visit:

First published on the Off The Leash homepage

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ARPNet Dilly Bag in Ngukurr video released

ARPNet director Cherry Daniels filming for ARPNet Dilly Bag in Ngukurr

ARPNet director Cherry Daniels filming for ARPNet Dilly Bag in Ngukurr

“We are the eyes and ears of our own communities. We see how family suffers, and we see our family’s concerns about policy-making and decision-making from the government. They are worried about the changes happening across northern Australia, so we are there to get proper information so we can deliver something very important. Their voice needs to be heard.”

Dean Yibarbuk is one of the directors of the Aboriginal Research Practitioners’ Network (ARPNet) who speaks in the ARPNet Dilly Bag in Ngukurr video. ARPNet is a network of Indigenous research practitioners in Northern Australia.  Through ARPNet, Indigenous people in northern Australia are trained in participatory and other research and evaluation tools, primarily in the field of natural resource management and livelihoods. ARPNet also assists in connecting these research practitioners with relevant research projects. First founded in 2007, ARPNet has since developed into a research and evaluation group providing services to government and other clients who want in-depth research with rigorous data collection tools and nuanced understanding.

ARPNet Dilly Bag in Ngukurr was released on the RIEL Vimeo channel for public viewing only a month ago. The film itself, a 15-minute walk-through of Dilly Bag research tools, reflects ARPNet’s self-determination focus. An Aboriginal-owned and operated media company – the award-winning Carbon Media – filmed the video, while ARPNet retained control of the storyline and content.

“This video was made for a lot of reasons,” ARPNet coordinator Hmalan Hunter-Xenie says of the video.

“The ARPNet Dillybag in Ngukurr video was designed to be a training aid for ARPNet members, to complement (ARPNet Associate Director, Dilly Bag developer and trainer) Dr Bev Sithole’s practical field guide The ARPNet Dilly Bag,” Hmalan explains. “The film also highlights the philosophy of ARPNet  – doing research the Bininj way – it shows the research practitioners practising it.  It’s to show other Indigenous people around the Australia and the world the sort of participatory research tools that we are finding really useful in local communities.”

Hmalan adds that the video was also directed at those research leaders currently contracting – or considering contracting – the services of ARPNet researchers. ARPNet Dillybag in Ngukurr shows these research leaders what tools ARPNet research practitioners are capable of using when they are out on the ground in the communities doing work.

“This video also provides a clear direction of the steps and protocols research practitioners follow to ensure quality control and other checks in a project,” Hmalan says. “Because these skills among the Indigenous research practitioners are new, there remains a level of scepticism among some organisations and researchers that Indigenous people can do research even with limited numeracy and literacy. This video proves they can and are doing it.”

In-depth and insightful research done in a good way by “us mob doing it ourselves and working with our people” is one of the founding concepts behind ARPNet. ARPNet grew out of the wish of the members to have Indigenous people doing their own research on their own communities on their own land, and it is this ownership and control that is underscored in the way research is done.

“ARPNet is something indigenous people have initiated and have grown themselves,” Hmalan explains. “That’s why it’s doing as well as it is, because it’s their vision.”

As for initial feedback on the video, Hmalan says it has all been positive so far. “People who have viewed it have emailed us saying it’s amazing, and we’ve had more researchers get in touch who want to enlist ARPNet,” she nods. “I know the members thought it was pretty flash,” she laughs.

Check out the ARPNet Dilly Bag in Ngukurr video here:


First posted in RIEL Blog

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