The National Indigenous Art Fair will return to Gadigal Land at the Overseas Passenger Terminal in The Rocks for the first weekend in July.
This is the fourth annual National Indigenous Art Fair, which celebrates Indigenous art, culture and food, with a vibrant program of performances, tastings and live music. The fair includes stalls from the popular quarterly Blak Markets showcasing art, jewellery, gifts, homewares and Indigenous bush food and plants, as well as First Nations artists travelling from remote art centres in the far corners of Australia.
This is a rare and exciting opportunity for Sydneysiders and visitors to interact directly with artists working in these remote communities, and to buy their work in an ethical marketplace. All proceeds go back to the artists and their communities.
The event is presented by National Indigenous Art Fair founders, First Hand Solutions Aboriginal Corporation, directed by Peter Cooley in conjunction with Art Fair General Manager Sarah Martin. We spoke to Peter about the beginnings of the Fair, the importance of art centres in remote communities and respecting our Elders.
Opening image: 2022 NIAF. Image: Destination NSW.
How it all began
Peter grew up in the Aboriginal mission at La Perouse, watching skilled craftsmen and women create boomerangs, nulla nullas, clapsticks and shellwork, and sell them to visiting tourists. La Perouse was a popular spot for weekend travellers, who would come specifically to talk to local Aboriginal people and buy artwork from the artists.
While this brought income and opportunities to Aboriginal people in the area, over the years, this marketplace slowly disappeared. But Peter and Sarah were determined to see it brought back. With their organisation First Hand Solutions, they looked into craft and tourism projects, researching other Aboriginal businesses around the country. They took everything they learned to create the Blak Markets, which are now a quarterly event at Bare Island in La Perouse.
“You could call it an incubator hub,” says Peter. “We’re supporting local jobs, and the opportunity for people to come along and immerse themselves with local culture and be able to have genuine discussions with Aboriginal people. But most importantly, be able to buy authentic products, in many cases directly from the artists. I think that’s why it’s been so successful, and it’s lasted 10 years.”
Based on the success of the Blak Markets, he wanted to look at how he could open the event up to support Aboriginal people across the country. At the time, there were very few places you could go to purchase authentic Aboriginal art. He says, “basically, we created the National Indigenous Art Fair to fill that hole. Sydney didn’t have an Indigenous market at the time, so the opportunity was there. We invited remote artists from around Australia and ran the Blak Markets alongside it at Barangaroo Reserve. That was back in 2017.”
It was a hit. The National Indigenous Art Fair has seen 10,000+ visitors each year, and they are hoping for the same numbers again this year.
As Peter says, “We made it a cultural festival, where people could come along and immerse themselves in culture, but also browse the art fair and pick up some affordable pieces of artwork. And the beauty of the Art Fair is that it’s affordable. You can buy a $100 piece or you can buy a $5,000 piece. There’s something for everyone.”
Remote but not out of touch
Many of the artists attending are from some of the most remote communities in Australia, and will travel for two or even three days to reach Sydney. This includes Papunya Tjupi Arts, from the birthplace of the Western Desert painting movement; Warlukurlangu Artists, one of the longest running and most successful Aboriginal-owned art centres in Central Australia; and Anindilyakwa Arts, from Groote Eylandt and Bickerton Islands – and many more.
The art centres are important hubs in these communities: places to share culture, knowledge and language, as well as provide employment opportunities. For many, the only non-governmental source of income is through art sales, which makes the Fair an even more important place to showcase their work to a bigger audience and market.
“We want people to come along and have fun and learn about culture and really be a part of it. But we also want visitors who are going to put money into those businesses as a community,” Peter says.
Not only does the Art Fair itself generate important sales, but it also opens opportunities for commissions afterwards as well, which has an ongoing impact for communities.
He says they are on track to have 30 remote art centres attending this year. “That’s a fantastic outcome for us: 30 artists from all around Australia visiting our city and hopefully learning and earning from the marketplace. They can then take that back to the community and hopefully progress from there and develop new skills and knowledge.”
Peter also runs a two-day professional development program with the artists who attend the Fair, connecting them with important institutions like the Art Gallery of NSW and corporate buyers.
A diverse program
Everyone is welcome to look, listen, learn and join in the program of talks, demonstrations, tastings, workshops, weaving circles, live music and dance performances kicking off from 10am on the Saturday and Sunday with a smoking ceremony.
There will be music by Radical Son, renowned for his moving lyrics, original rhyme and spoken word, and Barayagal, an intercultural collective of singers that gathers to sing songs of culture and stories, directed by Nardi Simpson.
Throughout the day, you can enjoy dance performances by the Djiriba Waagura Dance Group and Mui Mui Bumer Gedlam Dance Group, and there will also be bush food cooking demonstrations, which will be sure to get your stomachs rumbling.
As Peter says, “There’s something for everyone.”
For Our Elders
The National Indigenous Art Fair coincides with the beginning of NAIDOC Week, where the theme this year is ‘For Our Elders.’ There will be a panel discussion on the theme at the Fair, as well as a smoking ceremony and Welcome to Country at the Overseas Passenger Terminal on Saturday and Bligh and Barney Park on Sunday.
Peter says the theme resonates strongly with the Fair: “I think it’s important because a lot of the artists that are painting in communities are Elders, and that in itself is supporting a lot of those Elders. But it’s also an opportunity for us to recognise and acknowledge the importance of our Elders: they really do hold communities together, they’re the glue in communities. The Art Fair is a great opportunity to acknowledge that and show that respect.”
There is a certain buzz in the air leading up to such a vibrant and exciting event. Peter is hugely proud of the work of his organisation and team in connecting so many people over art and culture.
“Our mission as an organisation is to improve the lives of our people, and I think what we do really does hit the nail on the head there,” he says. “I still pinch myself because we’re a tiny little organisation but our reach and our impact goes right across Australia into some of the most remote places. It makes me proud of our organisation and my team that we’re able to provide those opportunities here in Sydney.”
The National Indigenous Art Fair will be held at the Overseas Passenger Terminal, The Rocks 10am to 5pm Saturday July 1, and Sunday, July 2, 2023. Entry is by gold coin donation to support remote artists attending the event.
If you enjoyed this piece on the National Indigenous Art Fair, read about Gamilaraay artist Juanita McLauchlan’s first solo exhibition at the Wagga Wagga Art Gallery.