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CIAF 2020: A BASTION OF CULTURAL MIGHT

 

WORDS: JACK WILKIE-JANS

 

The news of all things COVID-19 truly took precedence in 2020.

Understandably but so much so that what ought to have been an opportunity for our country to engage in a meaningful conversation about the origins of modern Australia, simply didn’t occur. Marking 250 years since the landing of Captain James Cook (then a Lieutenant) at Cooktown, Cape York Peninsula and his so-called discovery of Terra Australis (nearly a century after the Dutch first arrived), the Commonwealth Government had prepared to promote the theme of ‘Cook 2020’ this year; inclusive of a circumnavigation of the country’s coastline by a replica of Cook’s HMS Endeavour. Likewise, 2020 was supposed to be a year to celebrate Indigenous survival, growth and power. 2020 was potentially an opportunity to remind us all of the Extinction Efforts that are not just related to centuries past, but are within living memory and which, in many ways, exist still. But alas, 2020 had other ideas.

 

Events like the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF) had to cancel their physical programme and emerge as an online, digital art fair. This meant that the power of cultural custodianship and growth couldn’t be as fully experienced by our mob as preferred.

 

Due to the changed emphasis of 2020 there was no room in the 24 hour press cycle for much else than reports of disasters and health crises. There was no chance to look behind the veil of government control and order—nor behind the sociopolitical constructs that formed our present-day status quo. There was no chance to congregate and to share ideas, due to pandemic restrictions. This of course had a major negative impact on the hospitality and entertainment industries, with it no less painful for the arts. This year events like the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF) had to cancel their physical programme and emerge as an online, digital art fair. This meant that the power of cultural custodianship and growth couldn’t be as fully experienced by our mob as preferred. Nevertheless, our connection to our culture, history, land, lore, and to ourselves has never waned and did persevere—thanks to the platform of the internet. Via the internet CIAF was able to stream live performances by a wide variety of musicians, dancers and performance artists throughout their ten day series of virtual events; CIAF also streamed the annual fashion performance as a work of video artistry (forgoing the traditional catwalk, opting instead for on-country landscapes and elemental magnificence). So, folks at home were still treated to the full gamut of CIAF, including panel discussions and a symposium streamed via videolink. 

 

As always, the emphasis this year for CIAF was more than a commercial one, it was primarily about connecting, representing and giving voice to the contemporary Indigenous art sector of Tropical North Queensland and beyond. This isn’t to suggest that the utmost wasn’t done to achieve economic outcomes for participating artists. Quite the opposite. CIAF ultimately grossed $330,781 AUD in artwork sales—a massive achievement considering the trials the fair, the industry and the world was enduring at the time. But the spotlight which esteemed events like CIAF affords, in exalting Indigenous narratives, was CIAF’s crucial success this year. This was exemplified by CIAF’s key exhibition: Undercurrents – Cook 2020.

26 artists and made close to $50,000 AUD in sales.

Housed at the historic Tanks Art Centre, Undercurrents featured 26 artists and made close to $50,000 AUD in sales. The exhibition explored Cook’s arrival and subsequent colonisation of the continent, as well as how the artists view the past, present and future, and what Cook’s symbolism throughout the dominant culture means to them. It was a moving show, full of hard truths and a little humour, co-curated by the art fair’s Artistic Director, Janina Harding, and Indigenous art all-rounder, Hetti Perkins. It sought to affirm Indigenous narratives, to combat those of the mainstream on the past brutalisation of this land’s first peoples. It’s in this capacity that Undercurrents was and is alone on the national calendar, in terms of the usurped ‘Cook 2020’ theme. It was a sole bastion of overlooked honesty; its buttresses deliberate, prized and powerful works of contemporary art.

 

While the economic boon from CIAF 2020 is timely and beneficial for artists and their communities, the coming wilds of this recession has the potential to doom us all. But the success of CIAF this year continues to demonstrate that even in economic downturns, and a beleaguered age indeed, art is of value and is valued. In Australia today, art and the art of the descendants of the continent’s first peoples has never proven more important to reminding us of the true past, and, in forging a wholesome future.

 

For more information on the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair and to view new and previously aired content, be sure to visit their Facebook page and website, at: www.ciaf.com.au.

Written by Jules Steer

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