Arts

Ancient stories get a modern twist at Northern Territory's Parrtjima Festival

Chantelle Mulladad has been painting since she was a teenager and gets inspirations from the country around where she lives. Source: Aneeta Bhole

The festival runs over 10 nights, across a two kilometre stretch of the West MacDonnell Ranges and features a 160,000-watt light display incorporating art from Arrernte, Luritja, Anmatyerre, Warlpiri and Pitjantjatjara nations.

Ancient stories once carved in rock and drawn in the sand are being given a modern twist through Australia's only Indigenous run and crafted light show, Parrtjima. 

The festival runs over 10 nights, across a two kilometre stretch of the West MacDonnell Ranges and features a 160,000-watt light display incorporating art from Arrernte, Luritja, Anmatyerre, Warlpiri and Pitjantjatjara nations.

Hidden in the red dunes of Eastern Arrernte Country, just over an hour south-east of Alice Springs, Keringke Arts was one of 40 art centres to be approached to be involved in the festival.

The centre, located in remote Santa Teresa or Ltyentye Apurte, gives artists a way to connect to their roots and put crafts taught to them by family and ancestors into practice.

"I feel so happy that I'm following in their footsteps," Chantelle Mulladad told SBS News.

Ms Mulladad ‘Crossroads’ has been featured in this year’s Parrtjima light festival, detailing her struggle to find the right path when entering adulthood.
Ms Mulladad ‘Crossroads’ has been featured in this year’s Parrtjima light festival, detailing her struggle to find the right path when entering adulthood.
Aneeta Bhole

"I get my inspiration from going out bush and seeing the colours of the land and hearing and talking stories."

Chantelle Mulladad has been painting since she was a teenager but has only been working at Keringke Arts for the past year.

Her work 'Crossroads' has been featured in this year's Parrtjima light festival, detailing her struggle to find the right path when entering adulthood.

"I'm so proud of myself and my family is feeling very proud as well," said Ms Mulladad.

Keringke Arts has been called the “beating heart” of Ltyentye Apurte by the centre’s manager Bryce Hartnett.
Keringke Arts has been called the “beating heart” of Ltyentye Apurte by the centre’s manager Bryce Hartnett.
Aneeta Bhole

"The painting was inspired by my younger days because I didn't know what to do then, I had to choose between the right path and the wrong path.

"I think I chose the right path which allowed me to do what I love, painting. It's good to paint and keep busy, better than doing nothing, and I find it so inspiring."

Keringke Arts has been called the "beating heart" of Ltyentye Apurte by the centre's manager Bryce Hartnett.

Established in 1987 with a nine-week fabric painting course, the centre has since evolved into what Mr Hartnett describes is a platform for the talented residents of the remote town of less than 600 people.

Keringke Arts is located in remote Santa Teresa or Ltyentye Apurte and gives artists a way to connect to their roots.
Keringke Arts is located in remote Santa Teresa or Ltyentye Apurte and gives artists a way to connect to their roots.
Aneeta Bhole

"The fact that their artwork can attract the attention of a festival like Parrtjima says it all," said Mr Hartnett.

"Also, for the ladies here, not only do they support themselves, but they support a huge family network, and the art centre allows them to do that."

This year, Parrtjima pushed the boundaries of what most people consider a conventional gallery - displaying Ms Mulladad's work on three carriages of Australia's transcontinental train, the Ghan.

Watching the train roll into Alice Springs, Ms Mulladad said she was "full of pride" and "so excited" to see her painting on the train.

Parrtjima pushed the boundaries of what most people consider a conventional gallery - displaying Ms Mulladad’s work on three carriages of the Ghan.
Parrtjima pushed the boundaries of what most people consider a conventional gallery - displaying Ms Mulladad’s work on three carriages of the Ghan.

But the Eastern Arrernte artist wasn't the only one impressed.

Tourists disembarking the 902m locomotive, that travels from Darwin to Adelaide, commented it was a welcome surprise to see the work.

"It gave the train a bit of colour," said one passenger.

"I think it's a great way to get to know what my new country is all about," said another passenger who'd recently moved from the United States to Australia.

Parrtjima runs over 10-nights, across a two-kilometre stretch of the West MacDonald Ranges and features a 160,000-watt light display.
Parrtjima runs over 10-nights, across a two-kilometre stretch of the West MacDonald Ranges and features a 160,000-watt light display.
Aneeta Bhole

And while the sun began to set over the West MacDonnell Ranges, thousands of visitors descended on Desert Park, in Alice Springs, to enjoy the start to the festival.

Parrtjima's curator Rhoda Roberts, who is a Widjabul woman of the Bundjalung nation, said the festival shows the "adaptability of the oldest living culture".

"We used to do the sand ceremonies here in the central desert, then we moved the stories onto canvas, and now in the 21st century we're moving it into light displays," Ms Roberts told SBS News.

"Having the light display in the desert will remind people that these stories were once told in a very different format."

The light display incorporates art from Arrernte, Luritja, Anmatyerre, Warlpiri and Pitjantjatjara nations.
The light display incorporates art from Arrernte, Luritja, Anmatyerre, Warlpiri and Pitjantjatjara nations.
Aneeta Bhole

Parrtjima went ahead last year during the pandemic, but this year has seen an influx of tourists looking for a way to learn about culture and country, said Ms Roberts.

She added that it also gives communities who shut their borders while coronavirus restrictions were in place a meeting spot to reconnect.

"Parrtjima isn't just about the lights, it's about meeting the artists and engage with the traditional custodians of this country," said Ms Roberts.

"We are a people who have always traded across country, we've always gathered, so this festival is an opportunity for our people to come together again."

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